I think I’ve been thinking about hyperlocal the wrong way. Like most everyone else chasing this golden fleece, I’ve defined it as content, news, a product, listings, data, software, sites, ads. It’s not. Local is people: who knows what, who knows whom, who’s doing what (and, yes, who’s doing whom). The question should be — in Mark Zuckerberg’s famous-if-I-have-anything-to-do-about-it phrase — how we bring them elegant organization. They already are a community, already doing what they want to do, already knowing stuff. How can we help them do that better?
Local is people. Our job is not to deliver content or a product. Our job is to help them make connections with information and each other.
In truth, that was, long ago, the job newspapers saw for themselves. That’s why they lived to get as many names in the paper as possible. They knew: Local is people. Newspapers gave us news that mattered to us and would be trivial to anyone else. Newspapers were small and local and served their communities — and their advertisers — better. This is very close to the real mission of a newspaper, a mission we have lost as they got bigger and more egotistical and more powerful, as they become one-size-fits-all monopolies. Except today we have new tools (and new competitors). No one can or should do it all anymore. We need to help people do it themselves. Yes, themselves.
I’m not suggesting that hyperlocal is just a social networking tool. Or just a forum. Or just a bunch of blogs. Or just a listings tool. Or just a search engine. Or just a news site. It needs to end up being all those things and more. And as I said the other day, this will not happen in one place, on one site, but will be distributed across wherever people are being people and communities communities, locally. The trick, once more, is to organize it all. Elegantly.
And this will not happen all on its own. It needs investment, motivation, leadership, shared and distributed ownership.
What exactly does this look like? I’m not sure yet. I’m working on that. But I’m getting a better idea, I think, by working from a new starting point: People, not content. People, not data. People, not software. Long ago, when I launched the GoSkokie project at Northwestern’s Medill, I told the students that towns know things I wanted them to figure out how to tap that keg of knowledge. They got partway there with (which was a model for Backfence, by the way), but that was only partway.
I now believe that he who figures out how to help people organize themselves — letting them connect with each other and with what they all know — will end up with news, listings, reviews, data, gossip, and more as byproducts.
Thoughts from the beach. Stay tuned.