The Local Revolution Could Start on Your Computer

Brad Fredricks is facilitating a revolution of sorts on Facebook. No, he's not trying to make a hashtag go viral or encouraging you to call your senator; he's helping residents in towns across the world take back local power.

Picture this: You're going out of town and you need someone to water your plants and feed your cats while you're traveling. You don't know your neighbors well and your friends are allergic to cats. What do you do? Run an ad on craigslist maybe? How about logging onto Facebook and posting a quick request on a local group page:

Out of town February 18-20. Need someone to water plants and feed cats 2x per day. Will pay $20 a day or exchange services (able to clean your home or do yard work).

Within hours, you've found someone who's able to care for your plants and pets, plus you've met a new neighbor. 

This simple practice of using Facebook groups to encourage hyper-local connections and commerce is taking off in dozens of cities around the world. And it's about far more than pet-sitting.

The Beacon Experiment

Fredricks started the first part of his experiment is his town—Beacon, NY—with a Buy/Sell/Trade Facebook group. It has now blossomed into nine Beacon-based groups including Beacon Works! (help wanted/services offered), Beacon, NY Food Exchange (for sharing, trading, giving away and selling of food), and Beacon, NY Votes (for community discussions on civic actions, legislation and process), to name a few. Fredricks estimates, "approximately 33% of the city utilizes these social services to trade with neighbors, find work, share food, volunteer, loan tools and even as a more direct conduit of communication with their local government representatives." And now he's traveling the world to share the idea with other towns and cities.

Approximately 33% of the city utilizes these social services to trade with neighbors, find work, share food, volunteer, loan tools and even as a more direct conduit of communication with their local government representatives.

The Beacon Experiment is a project in what Fredricks calls, "hyper-local disintermediation." "Centralized systems that aren’t local are telling us what to do and how to live," he said in an interview. The Experiment is "a reimagining of communities running themselves."

Fredricks stresses that this is not a new idea; communities have been self-organizing for employment, commerce and decision-making for centuries.

After starting the Facebook groups in several US cities, he has now branched out to European locations. His first stop overseas was Greece. "I came over to Athens a couple years ago to teach refugees how to do this," he explains. "They were already doing stuff like this, they just needed a structure. I brought a structure." 

That has worked all over the world because, "people are already using Facebook. It’s hard to create new habits but easy to hijack an existing habit," says Fredricks.

Group Tactics

Over time, Fredricks and his local friends have developed some basic guidelines that govern their Facebook groups:

  • No spamming or soliciting of personal funds.
  • Local residents are the only people allowed in the group.
  • Your real identity must be clear through your Facebook page (no bots or people hiding behind fake photos).
  • And of course, no illegal activity.

"People opt into these groups and use them as they need to," says Fredricks. In some communities, many Facebook groups form and in others, only a few feel vital for that town. It has been most successful in communities of under 30,000 people.

Cover image from the Beacon, NY Food Exchange page

Cover image from the Beacon, NY Food Exchange page

Fredricks' background in marketing influenced his strategy for expanding the experiment to new cities. He uses search engine optimization to his advantage. For example, "In Tulsa, OK I set up this group using keyword optimization. It’s called Tulsa, Oklahoma Job Listings." That simple name enables locals to easily find the group and participate. The project has been piloted in 20 cities and counting.

Here are some examples of posts on local groups (I was invited into a couple as an observer). A recent post on the Beacon Works! page:

Snow is coming and its coming heavy. I'm off for the rest of the week and I'm looking to make extra cash clearing driveways and sidewalks. I live on main street so I can manage to get where you are. Comment below and I will forward my phone number.

Within a day, the poster had several responses (not to mention several related posts with others offering to shovel or requesting help with shoveling). Here's another post from a couple weeks ago on the Beacon, NY Food Exchange page:

Learn how to make salsa verde, fire roasted tomato salsa, and black bean, corn tomato salsa, We will also be teaching students how to make homemade tortilla chips!! $25 per person, 4 students per class!

These may seem like small things, but the power of these local groups should not be understated. Fredricks sees them enabling communities to come together, learn from one another and bridge divides. He wrote in a blog post:

No matter where in the world we go we find that despite language, religions, race, culture and creeds, commerce has the ability to bring people together and align their goals. Commerce conducted by local people who must share proximity encourages both parties to conduct themselves in a kinder and more personal manner. Because commerce is an easy introduction to strangers interacting it makes for a simple way for strangers and neighbors to become acquainted and more likely to be kind.

Simply put, when both parties have something the other wants and forced to have a real identity interaction, they are forced to align their goals and behaviors to create a more favorable outcome.

Interested in getting a local Facebook group going in your town? First, do a search to see if one already exists. Many of these groups have already been created by residents of towns across the country (or by Fredricks) and are active on a daily basis. If a group exists, join and participate. If not, go ahead and start it. Be strategic about the keywords you choose for your title and make sure you choose a specific focus for the group. Then invite your local friends and let the local power grow.

(Top photo by Avi Richards)

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