Towns are hyperlocal social networks with data (people that is)

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.

  • http://shootingbynumbers.com Peter Ralph

    I hesitate to blow my own trumpet. But what makes anyone imagine that we (community members) need you (professional media mavens) to show us how to interact with one another?

    Look at all the successful communities from FaceBook to baristanet – what do they have in common? They were all built from the inside by community members looking to meet the needs of the group they were already part of.

    All useful tools from the axe through YouTube were built by people who wanted to use them.

    Not by tool manufacturers wanting to keep their production lines busy.

    It’s a thought anyway.

  • http://www.paradox1x.org Karl

    “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.”

    A big bingo :) That’s long been a core part of my belief system.

  • http://www.rickwaghorn.co.uk Rick Waghorn

    What you’re trying to build, in a way, is a new village hall; a town square; a civic precinct; somewhere for a local community to congregate; then on the walls of that ‘village hall’ you stick up posters from local advertisers; little business people and firms that they recognise – not of out-of-towners. For your advertisers are, ideally, just as much woven into that community as the familiar faces that walk through the doors of your ‘village hall’. The trick is to find the passion that inspires them to meet; why they come to congregate in your ‘precinct’ in the first place. And that will come down to trust – because there’s someone there that they trust to impart local, community news. And that person they trust will, to my mind, be a trained, local journalist. Someone they deem to be one of their own.

  • http://www.fatdoor.com Chandu Thota

    Jeff, did you check out what we are doing at fatdoor.com? http://www.fatdoor.com

  • http://laeven.wordpress.com Arno Laeven

    Do you really think that people in a hyperlocal community need a tool or platform to communicate? They have enough opportunity to communicate: when at the grocery store, when bringing their kids to school, when walking the dog, etc.
    What is interesting is to find people from your locality when you are on a platform of bigger scale. Example: who in my town is on Facebook? who in my town posts pictures on Flickr? and so on. So, I agree that (hyper)local is interesting, but paradoxically only when you are out in the big world.

  • http://woip.blogspot.com Patrizia Broghammer

    I guess a journalist is the wrong person to do that.
    Google and many others give space and bandwidth and software to do it.
    And many people found out they like to do it, and they also found out there is a way to get money out of it.
    Not a salary, but new ways to earn, just like the newspapers of the past.
    Space for advertising, space for services, space for comments, your comments in exchange of your interest.
    The terrible thing is that a fifty years old journalist will have to compete with a fifteen years old guy who is writing news for a teens’ audience.
    And the drama is that he will very likely loose…

  • http://dcblogs.com kob

    Of course it’s people over content.

    And of course there needs to be an elegant (your word) to connect them.

    The is happening all over the U.S. — it’s invisible to you because you’re looking in the wrong places.

    If you want a map, look at my site. (This isn’t a shameless plug. I don’t need it.)

  • http://www.rickwaghorn.co.uk Rick Waghorn

    So a local community will ‘entrust’ a 15-year-old to attend a parish council meeting, speak to the mayor, gather the names at a funeral, speak to the manager of the local sports club, etc, etc…

    Mmm.

    When it’s a case of ‘fetching’ local news out of such ‘closed’ news events as local council meetings, police briefings, dressing room interviews, etc, – anything that needs an element of trust/recognition to get beyond the parish clerk, police station desk sergeant, etc, etc manning the door – you’re going to need more than a 15-year-old to get in there.

    Or are the villagers going to take it in turns being the local court reporter?

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  • Pro who lovs the web

    “What makes anyone imagine that we (community members) need you (professional media mavens) to show us how to interact with one another?”

    Because we’ve attended community meetings and know just how mind bogglingly boring they are.

    And because everyone does not want to attend these meetings. And listen to all the long boring speeches.

    That’s where the pros come in.

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  • http://laeven.wordpress.com Arno Laeven

    Samir Husni (mrmagazine.wordpress.com) has an interesting view which actually says it all: local news and local magazines are interesting because it is “refrigerator journalism”. To quote Samir Husni: “You know as in all community newspapers our job is to reflect and record all what is happening in town. Your son scores a soccer goal; we take his picture and put it in the paper. You buy the paper, cut the picture out and put it on the fridge for all to see…”
    And maybe here’s the problem why it doesn’t work online untill now: a print-out of the article just doesn’t look that good on your fridge ;-)

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  • http://www.emerson.typepad.com Dale Conour

    I think the question shouldn’t be about the “role” of local media as much as it should be about its “mission”: to get people involved in their communities, and city government, again. To combat the “Bowling Alone” syndrome.

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  • http://lotusmedia.org Ruby Sinreich

    Pardon the shameless self-promotion, but I think you can see a lot of what you talk about happening here: http://OrangePolitics.org

    Our site is lacking a lot of the explicit networking tools, but that just a software problem.

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  • Brian

    Could VOIS.com become another Facebook?

    Since the advent of social networking sites in 1997, the phenomenon has taken the world by storm. Once called a passing fad social networking is now a thriving business, in 2006, alone it garnered over $6.5 billion in revenue, while the three biggest players, connected over 280 million subscribers in a way never known before to society. This form of connection has drawn the globe closer together than anyone ever predicted.

    Just a few years ago, MySpace.com, solely dominated the social networking site market with almost 80% of the social networking site market but now websites like Facebook entered the social networking site race becoming the 8th most viewed website in the U.S. according to web measuring traffic site Alexa.com. Facebook.com which originally started at Harvard University , later extended to Boston area schools and beyond has mystified many naysayer’s with its explosive growth over the last three years and an astounding asking price of $10-$15 billion dollars for the company. But who will be next?

    Who will carry the torch into the future?

    With the rapid growth of the likes of MySpace and Facebook the burning question on everyone’s tongue is who is next? As with any burgeoning field many newcomers will and go but only the strong and unique will survive. Already many in the field have stumbled, as indicated by their traffic rankings, including heavily funded Eons.com with its former Monster.com founder at the helm, Hooverspot.com and Boomj.com with its ridiculous Web 3.0 slogan. There are many possibilities but it is a dark horse coming fast into view and taking hold in the social networking site market at the global level that has us interested the website – Vois.com. Less than a year ago, this newest contender directed at 25 to 50 years olds graced the absolute bottom of the list with its website ranked at a dismal 5,000,000. With not so much as a squeak this rising star has come from the depths of anonymity growing an eye-popping 10,000% in less than one year to make itself known worldwide now sporting a recent web traffic ranking in the 5,000 range.

    Understanding the Market

    When people in the United States hear about Facebook and other services such as MySpace the widely held belief is that these websites are globally used and are as synonymous as Google or Yahoo in regards to having a global market presence. This idea is completely misguided. Now it is true that both of these social networking giants are geared to service the western industrialized cultures but when it comes to the markets of the future, the emerging markets, they have virtually no presence. The sites themselves are heavily Anglicized, and Facebook in particular has an extremely complicated web interface that eludes even those familiar with the language, making them virtually inaccessible in other parts of the world even where English is the main language.

    Our interest in Vois is global and geopolitical. Simply, Vois understands this lack of market service and is building its provision model on a global research concept developed by Goldman Sachs a few years ago. The concept is basically predicated on the belief that beginning now using current economic models and continuing those models over the next few decades will lead to a major paradigm shift in the world regarding nations who are current economic leaders like those being the USA and the other members of the G-7 and those who will become dominant in the world economy mainly the BRICs. In the Goldman research report Goldman highlights the fastest growing nations and has dubbed them with the two acronyms BRIC’s and N-11. BRIC standing for ( Brazil, R ussia, India and China) representing the fastest growing economies and N-11 or what are being called the Next-11 representing the next 11 countries to emerge as future important economies such as Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Turkey and Vietnam. This approach has already been implemented with some success with companies like Orkut, who has over 80% of the market share in Brazil and large holdings in India and Eastern Europe . Other providers such as Hi5 have the world as their focus and are making great strides in global market share while Facebook builds itself into a niche provider wholly unready to take on the world.

    A Growing Presence

    As Vois breaks new ground in the world market pursuing previously ignored demographics, they afford themselves the opportunity of tremendous growth unfettered by the giants such as Facebook and MySpace. While cultivating this new user base, Vois will also be able to monopolize on their business revenue strategies, creating an area of commerce that will make their site increasingly attractive to business and users the world over. This concept, dubbed sCommerce, allows the subscriber to promote themselves in both personal and a professional fashion while giving them the option of setting up shop on the site. This approach will allow business owners to target their market in a way never before allowing them to focus on interested groups of individuals while providing follow-up without having to commit to wasteful blanket campaigns that are typically the order of the day. This newfound border will allow Vois to explore new revenue models while provide a tremendous service for both their regular subscribers and business subscribers alike. With all this going on, rapid traffic growth to the site, we pose the question – is Vois the next Facebook, it sure looks like it but only time will tell….

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  • http://www.lymington.com Jan Simmonds

    I’m not sure where I saw it, but when I read these articles relating to social networking and community, I immediately have a vision of loads of insects flying towards a UV light as if it is some beautiful paradise, with Toy Story voice overs to accompany the naivety of the soon to be dead cartoon characters. In my humble opinion, the social networking and indeed search engine portal phenomenon as it is currently structured is that UV light for the advertising industry.

    As a side business, I run a handful of local community websites where I live, and generate several hundred thousand dollars in ad revenue on each one annually. They aren’t perfect by any means, but they are at least relevant. Our uniqueness and IPR is our format and our local understanding of the community and the refreshing abscence of any nationalised advertising. Personally it irritates the hell out of me if I visit a so called local or personal website when I see Google syndicated or similar ad boxes within it, as in my experience the ads are irrelevant 90% of the time, whatever the agencies are feeding their Clients and I can’t believe many people who are now more accustomed to the internet would continue being tempted to click aimlessly on those ads like they used to on thier virgin forays.

    I’ve looked long and hard at how I can roll out what we do on a global basis whilst maintaining the ‘personalisation’ we achieve of our community and have come to the conclusion, that instead of trying to own and control the advertising medium, for hyperlocal relevance and decent sensible revenues, the trick is to focus on local user-generated advertising NOT user generated content and create a platform for hundreds and thousands of local businesses like mine to work within collectively. I have other business interests though so am not in any hurry, (and I suspect that Google and the like are far to busy on world domination to be taking any notice of my ramblings), so am confident I have plenty of time to put something together at some point which could take everyone by surprise. In any event, if nothing else, I bet none of the mentioned new or old directory sites generate the revenues we do as a proportion of audience. I suspect all of them will just keep on diluting their ad value to oblivion and in the meantime I’ll just keep watching their journey towards the light with amusement! http://www.lymington.com

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  • http://www.nospinpr.com Ruth Seeley

    At the networking meetings I attend in my community (New Westminster, BC), EVERYONE is trying to piece together information on what’s happening – news, events, changes in ownership of landmark buildings, restaurant openings and closings, construction impacting routing – so yes, I do think there’s a need for community news – I think it’s probably the most pressing need for information we’ve got right now.

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  • http://indianbee.com Social networking

    Now, I don’t have the context for this quote, but apart from the somewhat dubious suggestion that older users inherently demand higher quality content (I won’t go there) what stuck out for me was the idea of ‘content’ in Facebook.

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  • http://Bigmoneyspeaker.com Josh

    I just saw you ask a question while watching a Gary Vaynerchuk keynote and I had to come check out your blog. Well done. They were right to be impressed by you humbly asking a question. Next time, plug the book harder. =)

    Josh

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