One new Web site is bringing the power of social networking back home.

An often-overlooked neighborhood finds a voice online
Comes with video / Traversed and bounded by some of Honolulu’s busiest thoroughfares, including Kapiolani Boulevard, King and Beretania Streets and University Avenue, Moiliili is one of Oahu’s most tightly packed areas, with an average density more than five times the city’s average. Despite being sometimes overshadowed in political conversations by Waikiki, Makiki and Manoa, the neighborhood has all the elements of a thriving urban community, with restaurants, a range of retail and grocery stores and nightlife opportunities.

All that’s missing, says Derek Kauanoe, is a little bit of neighborly good cheer. “We have all these neighbors, but not many opportunities to get to know one another,” Kauanoe says. “Like a lot of people, I frequent Glazer’s, Kit N Kitchen and other businesses in the area. You see people but you don’t really know who your neighbors are.”

Kauanoe, who has deep family roots in Moiliili and has lived there himself for seven years, could be talking about any of a dozen suburban neighborhoods on Oahu. Residents of Hawaii Kai and Mililani don’t necessarily know one another’s names when they pass at Foodland, either. The difference is that Moiliili isn’t a suburb. It’s one of Oahu’s few pedestrian-friendly, “walking” neighborhoods. This is the kind of district where one expects to find strong bonds. In some ways, they are here. The Moiliili Community Association has long been a gathering place for neighborhood residents, and the Neighborhood Board is a hotspot of issues and activities, while promotion of the area’s commercial interests takes place under the auspices of the Old Town Moiliili Business Association.

Yet as the area gets younger–more residents are in their early-to-mid-20s than in any other age group–some of the established community groups are unable to reach a new and growing population.

Kauanoe, who works in community outreach for Ka Huli Ao, the Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law at the University of Hawaii, is a member of an online community called []. That popular Web site brings together members of Hawaii’s diverse technology sector through discussion groups, shared links and other familiar tools. What if, Kauanoe wondered earlier this year, there were an online community built around an actual, physical community?

Enter []. With a user interface comfortable for anyone who’s ever spent a few moments on the social networking site Facebook, Moiliili Matters strikes what seems like a unique balance between citizen activism and good old fashioned getting-to-know you, social networking style. Users sign up, answer (or leave blank) a few questions about their relationships to the neighborhood, and then are placed in the site’s “Neighbors” menu, complete with a welcome message on the main page. Launched in late May, the site is nearing 100 users, and many of them appear to be actively engaged on issues of community concern.

“Right away, I began meeting people I would have never met otherwise,” Kauanoe says. He points to a conversation with Susan Todani, Moiliili development director for Kamehameha Schools, one of the neighborhood’s largest landowners. Todani is charged with developing the Schools’ assets for both economic and community gain.

“Ron Lockwood [president of the Moiliili Neighborhood Board] told me about the site. What I thought was neat was that it made the area feel more like a neighborhood. I logged on when it wasn’t even fully up yet, and there were maybe 15 people, now there are already around 75, and from many different perspectives. It’s surprising how many, actually–and it’s not all the young people, either. There are some of us older folks too.”

Kauanoe points to the connection as an example of the site’s possibilities. “I had never met Susan Todani and may never have met her otherwise. We started a conversation on Moiliili Matters and eventually she invited me to present the site to the Old Town Moiliili Business Association, which was an important way to get the word out. They were very receptive.”

Many online startups simply turn the server on, send out a few emails and pray things will go viral. Moiliili Matters took a different approach, as Kauanoe sought out community and political leaders to help spread the word about the new site. He looked for advice from Dan Leuck, the founder of []. “What I learned from him is that you can’t just make the social network and expect it to work out,” says Kauanoe. “You have to be more strategic. That means approaching not just people with high profiles, but people with a record of working in the community and an interest in connecting with the community.”

Kauanoe’s launch may have been top-down, but the site today seems deeply rooted in neighborhood concerns. Over the past several weeks, active discussions have arisen over topics as varied as illegal dumping in the area, the controversial potential sale of ‘Iolani School property near the intersection of Date and Laau streets, the renovation of the fire station and, in a particularly lively example, the community’s response to an Urban808 mural memorializing Michael Jackson on the Kokua Market wall (apparent consensus on the mural: thumbs down).

Alyssa Murphy, who is active on the site, says it makes conversing about shared interests easy. She says she’s already gotten gardening tips and enjoyed getting the scoop on the mural. “I think as more neighbors find out about and use this site, the more value we will all be able to get.”

Ron Lockwood, chair of the McCully-Moiliili Neighborhood Board, says he notices a disctinction between the conversations taking place at Moiliili Matters and those that occur in other environments. “I’ve noticed a level of civility in these discussions on Moiliili Matters, that is not seen in responses to Honolulu Advertiser and Star-Bulletin online stories. This is deeply appreciated, people staying on topic without slurs, or worse.”

The site has also worked to sidestep an unexpected early wrinkle–Kauanoe is serving as campaign manager for District 5 City Council candidate Nathaniel Kinney. That race took shape after Duke Bainum’s death in June, and Kauanoe says he’s confident that Moiliili Matters and the Kinney campaign can remain distinct.

“Nathaniel may not win, and besides, I wouldn’t want to discourage the other candidates from participating. We want this site to grow for a long time…the goal is to bring the community together, not to advance a particular candidate.” He says that for obvious reasons, the site won’t be wading into political endorsements this election, but sees possibilities for the future. “I would like to do something like using voting on the site as a way to endorse candidates at some point.”

Moiliili Matters embeds a video of a recent Neighborhood Board debate among District 5 candidates and plans to host video of the upcoming debate on July 16.

In the end, Kauanoe says, itʻs about building relationships. “Even now, if you pass by someone in the store, you still may not know their name at first. But at least it might be a familiar face. And I think there is a growing interest in taking care of some of the issues that face us.”

Bon Dance – Moiiliili Hongwanji