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Does the Internet encourage personal contact or simply distance people from the outside world? One MIT professor believes the former and has built a website to prove it. Keith Hampton, assistant professor in the department of urban studies, created I-neighbors to serve as both a free Web service for local communities and a research tool for studying how communities use the Internet. The service, launched last August, allows users from anywhere in the United States or Canada to set up websites for their own small sections of their towns. Residents can use the sites and the accompanying e-mail lists to share restaurant reviews, find car pools, or discuss local politics.

The website grew from a project Hampton led three years ago that offered the services of I-neighbors to three neighborhoods in the Boston area. After two years, about half of the participants reported that the websites increased their sense of community and ability to react to local problems. Hampton also found that increased online contact led to increased face-to-face contact. In one neighborhood, the average user met nine new neighbors in person during the two-year project. In a similar community that was not offered the Web services, residents met on average less than one new neighbor.

The apparent benefits of the sites led Hampton to expand the project and make it public. Those interested can sign up and create or join a neighborhood site at

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