- Charlotte Zemmel
The magic of local community WhatsApp groups
In a national period clouded by uncertainty and financial downturn, many local communities across the country are using online groups on platforms such as Whatsapp, Nextdoor and Facebook in novel and exciting ways to support and uplift one another. From sharing household appliances, to making local clubs and support groups more accessible, to informing the local government about residents’ diverse perspectives, these groups have a variety of creative purposes. Unlike social media’s other uses, these local groups do not follow the familiar trend in which our social lives are being increasingly ‘digitised’ and moved away from face-to-face experiences. Rather, these groups stimulate, catalyse and support in-person interactions between local residents; they are used to organise pub nights, resident-council meetings, sports games and so much more. For this reason, these platforms are a fascinating example of how digital spaces can enhance community life, building closer, more supportive, and more resilient communities.
We wanted to test our hypotheses about these groups and explore the role they play in fostering connection and belonging in a local area, as well as discover the benefits and any potential challenges that participants in these groups experience. We were also conscious of the fact that, like all aspects of community life, some people are more at-risk of being excluded from these platforms than others. We sought to discover who is currently not part of these groups, why they aren’t, and to develop some ideas on how we can make these groups more inclusive.
What we did and what we found
To do this, we partnered with WhatsApp and implemented a mixed-methods analysis of three kinds of local community WhatsApp groups across the UK. These groups included:
We interviewed members of each group and integrated findings with data from a large, nationally representative survey of 1,600 group users and 4,000 non-group users. Here are 5 key insights we observed:
1. The main uses of neighbourhood groups relate to support and information, connection and belonging, sharing and saving, and community action. Our survey showed that the most common way that people interact with their neighbourhood group is to either receive or offer help to their neighbours. One resident from Manchester recalled how, during COVID-19, her neighbours routinely helped one another find vaccine pop-up sites and collect shopping on their WhatsApp group. Keeping informed about local issues is the most common benefit that people cited. Another respondent from Birmingham told us about one member of his group who he calls the ‘local guru’ – this member always shares updates on local issues like roadworks, council events, bin collections etc.
2. While most people were motivated to join their neighbourhood group for practical reasons, such as to feel safer and to stay up to date with local information, we saw how these groups offer participants immense social benefits as well. The resident from Birmingham we interviewed shared that although his group started to keep neighbours informed about several break-ins that had occurred, it soon flourished into a social group, where monthly pub trips and dinner parties were organised. This helps to explain why an impressive 70% of participants feel more connected to their neighbours since joining the group and the overwhelming majority of participants have met between 4 and 15 new neighbours in-person as a result of the group. One of the most stand-out quotes from our qualitative research was shared by this resident from Birmingham:
“I’ve lived in this neighbourhood for 15 years and have met more of my neighbours since joining the group two years ago than I had in all the previous years combined”.
3. Like neighbourhood groups, although people are motivated to join local organisation groups for practical reasons, they soon find that the group has numerous social benefits too. For 15% of participants, the informal chatter, banter and planned social gatherings are the most valuable elements of these groups. A member of a local basketball club in Glasgow notes how members of the group have rallied around another member going through a tricky divorce, uplifting him and making sure he doesn’t feel lonely. This helps to explain why a staggering 71% of respondents think that their local organisation group has a positive impact on their local area.
4. In terms of sharing and saving, Local Organisation WhatsApp groups make it easy for participants to help one another out and coordinate ways to support those who may be worse off. ¼ of respondents benefitted from being offered services and favours (e.g. lifts) from other members of the group, while 37% agreed that they had saved money as a result of the group. One member of a local London tennis club noted how the group enables players who can’t afford membership to the club to participate; participants with membership will offer to bring those who can’t afford as guests so they still get to enjoy their sport. Respondents also routinely use their neighbourhood groups to either receive or offer help, services and advice to their neighbours; giving away unwanted items to others was the second most common activity to occur on people’s groups, while more than 50% of people say they have saved money as a result of their group. These stats help to demonstrate just how important these groups are as examples of support networks.
5. Many federated charity organisations have found that WhatsApp groups create entirely new ways of supporting both their clients and volunteers. For example, a mental health charity we spoke to told us how groups help volunteers to offer more targeted and round-the-clock support to particularly vulnerable clients. As one volunteer put it:
“These WhatsApp groups allow us to provide critical crisis support in the moment and when face to face support just isn't available, or if the client doesn’t feel comfortable enough yet to meet in person.”
Information is shared quickly to many volunteers in a secure way. Clients going through similar struggles are able to offer one another peer-to-peer support through WhatsApp groups, which we observed in a charity which focuses on supporting people who have recently left prison.
Here are just a few of our project case studies to give you a deeper insight into the role these groups play in local communities:
Where we want to go next
Despite these groups’ multifarious values and benefits, their prevalence is still low and there are some challenges that hold some potential users back. Only 12% of the 6,123 people who began our survey were in a neighbourhood group, 23% were in a local organisation group, while 74% were in neither. Participation in these groups is not evenly distributed across factors such as age, gender and income level. This is shown in the two tables below. The ‘overall’ column shows how many people in each age group or income responded to the survey in total, while the column to the right shows how some age groups are over- or under-represented in each type of WhatsApp group.
Given the many financial benefits that are realised in these groups, it’s concerning that those with lower incomes are underrepresented. Additionally, since these groups are routinely used to inform local councils of residents’ perspectives, the fact that these groups are not entirely inclusive means that some residents have more power than others to get their voice heard.
When attempting to engage federated organisations/charities we encountered several organisations who were choosing not to use WhatsApp, due to:
GDPR concerns with numbers being shared
Perceived greater security on other platforms like Microsoft Teams
The ease of sharing and storing documents on other platforms like Facebook or Teams
Some of these challenges, such as concerns about sharing personal information with people they didn’t know, held people back from joining local organisation or neighbourhood groups too.
Despite these challenges, it’s encouraging to see that the main barrier holding people back from joining a group is that there simply isn’t one set up yet for them.
This suggests that focusing on new ways to get these groups off the ground could lead to an explosion of the huge variety of benefits that they bring about.
Through trialling different approaches, gathering more insight and working with more partners, we are working towards spreading these groups and increasing their benefits across the country. From local government to national charities, sports clubs to streets and estates, this work has the potential to empower and support all.
We look forward to continuing our partnership with WhatsApp during this work, and reaching out to new partners as well. For more details about our research or information about the data gathered, please reach out to either Grainne (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Charlotte (email@example.com).