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Review: RNA Web Site and Notice Boards

by America Masaros

I recently stopped by the new Riverwest Neighborhood Association web site (at http://www.riverwestneighborhood.org/). This is an excellent neighborhood resource, offering free local classified ads, local news in real time, and tools to communicate with your neighbors. If you haven’t been by, check it out!

When I first visited the page, I was a little disturbed by the amount of “eye candy” and the complex layout. These features are often used as a disguise by web sites with little to offer. It soon became apparent that the RNA web site is not such a site; rather, it uses its layout and visual elements to ease navigation of its useful content. Further, the graphics and design elements are carefully optimized to be both efficient and widely compatible.

I found site navigation to be very intuitive, though some features took a little getting used to. For users less familiar with sites of this kind, the member area offers a very helpful User Guide, which is also included in the Welcome email.

Guest features

Most of the site content is available to nonmembers. There’s a community calendar, classified ads, neighborhood news, and contact info for local organizations. A page of links to other community sites is available, though at the time of this review the only one listed is the Riverwest Currents.

The community calendar is well organized, though at present its listings are somewhat sparse. It can be viewed in a number of different formats, and the page knows what day it is and is generated dynamically. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell it to cull past events, so be sure to check the date before you start making plans.

The current organization scheme for the news, where information is posted in the order received (most recent first), will work well as long as the volume of information is relatively small. However, there’s no convenient way to find news in a specific category, or to search the news archives. It’s a good way to keep up-to-date on what’s happening in the neighborhood, but if you’ll want to refer back to something, you’re better off saving it to your own computer.

Navigating the Classified Ad feature isn’t totally intuitive, because it takes advantage of the differences between Internet and print publication in its organization. Empty categories aren’t listed, so it looks odd when the content is sparse (as it is at this viewing). The broad categories (goods, services, pets, real estate, etc.) have sub-categories of: for sale, for rent, wanted, wanted to rent, etc. There is no restriction of the matching of broad categories and sub-categories… so one could theoretically list Pets Wanted to Rent, for example. Of course, listing is moderated, so an incorrectly listed ad can be corrected or rejected. Once you get used to it, it’s easy to find exactly what you’re looking for. If you have goods or services you’re interested in selling locally, this is an excellent place to market them, as well as an excellent place to look for rental properties offered by people who live in the neighborhood.

Registration

The registration process is fairly standard. The form presented is convenient, with nice little mouse-hover features to view username and password restrictions. You aren’t given options of what information to display in your profile, however – your real name always is, your address always isn’t. The terms of service are also fairly standard – basically, what they amount to is this. (1) What you post, as well as the results to you of posting it, is your responsibility, (2) you agree not to misrepresent yourself (i.e. not to claim you’re someone you aren’t) and (3) you won’t sue for copyright infringement because the web site displays or archives your post.

The first unusual thing in the registration process is that it requires human intervention. After you confirm your email, you’ll need to wait to be approved by a moderator. This is because only neighborhood residents are allowed to register, as this site is a function of the Riverwest Neighborhood Association. However, I registered after 5 pm on a Friday, and was approved within the hour! Of all the things I’ve observed about the web site, this efficiency impresses me the most.

Member features

Once you’ve registered, you’ll have access to the members-only features. The two most prominent are the “Caution in Riverwest” board and the RNAmail archives. Also included are discussion forums, a member directory, and the ability to submit news items and classified ads.

“Caution in Riverwest” is a news board with the latest crime updates. Like the general news board, it is organized with the most recent items first. This is a good place to go if you want to know what to watch out for.

The discussion forums are remarkably civil, if sparsely populated. I think this is in part due to the fact that people aren’t as inclined to be rude when their real name is posted, but I also suspect that they’re heavily moderated. This is probably a Good Thing.

The member directory is very complete. You can attach a photograph or “icon” to your profile, of course… but it also includes space for a photo gallery (only about a floppy disk’s worth of memory, so nothing too significant). If not for the fact that the blogging feature is disabled, this part of the forums could devolve into a sort of mini neighborhood MySpace. Thank goodness blogging is disabled.

Submissions for news items, crime updates, and classified ads are moderated, but if the turnover time is similar to that for registrations, this is again a Good Thing. It gives the news a certain integrity, and ensures that classified ads are properly categorized. For news items (but not classifieds), you can’t cancel a submission just by leaving the page – you must either cancel or submit your entry. However, this is as much a convenience as an annoyance; it prevents accidentally leaving the page and needing to start over.

Compatibility issues

When web sites are viewed on different systems, strange things sometimes happen. Happily, the RNA web site has remarkably wide compatibility.

I accessed the site on a wide variety of computers and Internet connections. In all the browsers I tried (Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Netscape), the site loaded fully and efficiently, and looked more-or-less the same. The only issue I found that is likely to affect most home access is that the site’s width is formatted for a 600 × 800 pixel screen. If your resolution is less than 600 × 800, or you browse with your window only occupying part of the screen, you’ll have to scroll horizontally to access the right-hand toolbar. If your resolution is larger than 600 × 800, you’re wasting a lot of horizontal real estate.

When I accessed the site through the Internet computers at the public library, there were a few compatibility problems. First, most of the graphical navigation icons failed to load. However, there were text replacements, which functioned so smoothly that it took me a moment to notice their absence. More significant is the fact that, for some reason, the content loaded at the bottom of the page, with a large white space between the two navigation bars, instead of the content loading between them as usual. While this didn’t make the site more difficult to use, it certainly made it ugly.

Summary

The RNA web site is an excellent resource for communicating neighborhood information. It does a remarkable job of combining functionality, visual interest, efficiency and compatibility. If you’re a neighborhood resident who uses the Web regularly in your day-to-day life, you’ll definitely want to bookmark this site. Even if you aren’t a Web aficionado, you may want to stop in at your local library and check it out.

Riverwest Currents online edition – August, 2006