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  • Randall Benton / rbenton@sacbee.com

    MaryJayne Zemer, co-founding volunteer of the Sacramento Hashtag Project, stands near the Sacramento River in West Sacramento. The Sacramento Hashtag Project is a grassroots initiative to boost engagement in the area’s neighborhoods.

  • This screen grab shows how the hashtags are being used.

Sacramento Hashtag Project merges virtual and real-world communities

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014 - 10:53 am

The days of hitting the pavement with photocopied flyers and combing your neighborhood for a lost pet could soon be coming to an end.

If MaryJayne Zemer and her team have their way, you’ll be combing your Twitter feed instead.

Zemer is the organizer behind the Sacramento Hashtag Project, a community initiative designed to help Sacramentans connect online as a way to enhance neighborly engagement offline. The project centers on the use of hashtags, social media search tools that consist of a word or phrase preceded by the pound symbol.

“It’s a huge benefit to the community if people have a sense of pride for where they live,” Zemer said. “You start to see neighborhood vitality bubble up when you can create engagement. (The project) is a tiny piece of the puzzle.”

The seeds for the Sacramento Hashtag Project were planted roughly a year ago at a CivicMeet Sacramento, a recurring local meet-up that brings public- and private-sector thinkers together to discuss issues and propose solutions.

“The goal was to use online mediums to help people connect better offline, whether you’re trying to find a lost dog or starting a community garden,” said Zemer, 27, a partner with brand firm BlackDog.

After the meeting, Zemer, along with a team of community activists, began reaching out to residents via social media to create a list of neighborhood hashtags (#MidtownSac, for example) to help connect residents and organize information. They gathered picture frames, painting them and adding chalkboards with a particular hashtag before handing them out to businesses to place in windows or on counters. The idea was to inform patrons of neighborhood parameters.

“You can’t use the hashtags online unless you know which one is yours or where you are at,” Zemer said recently over coffee at downtown’s Shine cafe.

By summer, with momentum building, Zemer volunteered to formalize and spearhead the project.

“I was really impressed by Sacramento as a city with a culture that really appreciates local businesses and that has an understanding of how our dollars – spending them on local coffee, clothes or whatever it may be – impacts the community,” said Zemer, who left New York about a year ago for the capital city. “I stepped up to lead the project because it was symbolic of everything that made me want to live in Sacramento in the first place.”

The project held two community forums last fall. Zemer’s team brought maps and asked residents for feedback on specific hashtags and worked on ironing out kinks. (For example, #OakPark applies to a neighborhood in Illinois, but #OakParkSac is geographically unique.)

In September, Zemer was one of four local leaders selected to deliver an “action pitch” about a community project for TEDxSacramento’s City 2.0 – the local iteration of the national event geared toward urban revitalization and community building.

Emma Fletcher of Code for Sacramento, a group of Web-active civic engagement volunteers, was in the audience. Inspired by Zemer’s pitch, she got together with fellow developers Kaleb Clark and Andy Axton to create a website for the project.

“I think technology is a great tool to engage with your local community,” Fletcher said. “Using my programming skills to help Sacramento is important to me. When I heard MaryJayne pitch, I instantly thought ‘I could help make that idea ever more awesome.’ 

Fletcher later sent Zemer an email inviting her to check out a website that would map hashtag use in Sacramento. The two groups decided to partner, and on Dec. 11 the Sacramento Hashtag Project officially launched.

Zemer’s next step was to put together a Kickstarter fundraising campaign. The online campaign ran from Dec. 24 to Jan. 24 and successfully raised $2,600.

The project now tracks – via its website www.sachashtagproject.com – Twitter hashtag use in four neighborhoods: midtown (#MidtownSac), east Sacramento (#EastSac), downtown (#DowntownSac) and West Sacramento (#WestSac). The result resembles a real-time digital bulletin board about each location (the hashtags can also be searched via Twitter).

Zemer said her team chose those hashtags in part because they already had limited traction on Twitter. The Kickstarter funds will help bring additional neighborhoods into the project.

For the Sacramento Hashtag Project, the mission is both medium and message. Data provided by Fletcher shows that use of these four hashtags has increased by more than 400 percent since the first week of December. On average, the neighborhood hashtags are popping up 135 times per week – compared to 25 times the week before the website officially launched, Fletcher said.

An early February search of #MidtownSac listed news about a new business (Block Butcher Bar), a way for techies to spend a Wednesday night (Hack Night at the Hacker Lab) and a call to action for eco-conscious residents (Greenwise Joint Venture).

“This project is only worthwhile if people actually use the hashtags,” Zemer said. “When we started, people just weren’t using them.”

To help spread the word, the Sacramento Hashtag Project uses neighborhood ambassadors – residents who volunteer to visit businesses and engage in community outreach. The ambassadors also keep an eye on their Twitter feeds, retweeting users who include the hashtags in their tweets.

Zemer said small businesses have been eager to join in on the tweeting. She credits independently owned coffee shops, organizations like the Downtown Partnership and the local chambers of commerce as early adopters who see the value of communicating beyond existing followers or friends.

Neighborhood residents have been less active in using the hashtags. But according to Zemer, once individuals come on board, they stay. “Citizens have been trickling in a bit more slowly, but once they’re in they’ve been incredibly loyal and enthusiastic,” she said.

Neighborhood associations have been more difficult to connect with via hashtag use. Though email invites were sent out to a number of community groups, no association representatives attended the fall hashtag events, Zemer said.

President of East Sacramento Preservation, Ellen Cochrane, 52, said she was not aware of the Sacramento Hashtag Project until recently, though hers is one of the few local neighborhood associations with a Twitter account. That account, however, has sat idle for the past two years.

Cochrane said she created it because she saw Twitter as “one in the trifecta of social media” that also includes Facebook and a website. However, she said she found Twitter’s 140-character limit problematic. In addition, most of the association’s members, many of them retirees, were not familiar with the platform. And the engagement she found on Twitter came from news organizations and realtors – not residents interested in neighborhood activism.

For Cochrane, whose organization remains tightly focused on neighborhood issues, something like the Sacramento Hashtag Project – with its participation from businesses – falls outside her mission. She worries, for instance, about “the muddling of an important neighborhood issue with someone who is having a sale.”

But Cochrane said her membership has embraced other online media. Facebook and email blasts have proved successful in mobilizing residents around important issues. “I am all for using technology to bring people together,” she said. “It’s kind of the Wild West out there right now, so I think any effort is good.”

It’s a sentiment that Zemer, ambassador for her home turf of West Sacramento, echoes. She recently organized a bike lane cleanup for the area. Six people showed up and “followed the trash” from Capitol Avenue to Fifth Street and over the I Street Bridge.

Not all volunteers heard about the cleanup via the hashtag use, Zemer said. Nevertheless, the project helped in addressing this community problem – one that’s now on the radar with city officials. For her, it’s all part of creating engagement in a neighborhood – whether it’s to fix a street lamp or let neighbors know that a coffee shop hosts live jazz on Thursdays.

According to Zemer, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know one’s neighbors, but hashtags can help connect people. The project is about more than community problem-solving or promoting local businesses. It’s about creating a lasting sense – and value – of place.

“The things that make our neighborhoods worth living in, and curious and worth visiting, are the things that are quirky and distinct,” she said. “You have to cultivate neighborhood vitality. I don’t know that it happens without a little bit of effort anymore.”

Read more articles by Allison Joy



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