Hyperlocal blogs are growing, every postcode has one and local politicians and businessmen are zelously courting their writer's favour. But who are the pen pushers behind hyperlocal and why are they bothering to push the their virtual pens?
For anyone who has ever been to a local council meeting the discourse when it comes to hyperlocal blogs will be nothing new. Talking to hyperlocal bloggers I found many different opinions on what makes a good/bad blog, why they're vital for communities and what is needed for them to spread to new postcodes.
The fault lines of opinion are many, but there is one major divide which interests me and seems to represent an effect that happens often when technology and techies enter a market which is already established and well developed. As Eileen Conn from Peckham Vision puts it 'one side is looking at how communities can benefit from technology and the other is looking at how technology can benefit communities'. On the surface a slight nuance, but in practice a difference in motivation which can have a noticeable effect on the final product.
In the local blog world these two groups are largely represented by people who have for a long time been part of their community (on the whole non-techies) and those who have not had previously had involvement with their community and see technology as a way of gaining this (techies). Again opinions/experiences in community matters are never black and white so although broadly true there are exceptions.
The Tech Crowd
For many hyperlocal bloggers, technology is an integral part of their life, either they work in roles that involve web content production or they grew up using technology. For this group the most logical way of connecting with their local community is through technology. That's how they connect both at work and socially. So why not in the local environment? For many of these bloggers, the creation of their hyperlocal blog is the first major interaction they have with their local community.
For instance Helen Osman, of N21 Online (one of the sleeker hyperlocal blogs you will see), has lots of relevant professional experience. For Helen, hyperlocal was as much about supporting her community as it was an investigation into "the sheer power of the internet". It has for Helen however gone on to become more than just an online experiment, with her going from someone who had very little involvement in her community to becoming it's most networked member. Helen's professional experience means she has put together a website which looks highly professional and focuses heavily on 'content production' a marketing technique usually exploited by tech startups not local community groups. She also provides support services for local businesses wanting to connect with local customers.
Like Helen, Paul from Hamptons People Network has experience of working in relevant sectors and his motivation was also a simple intrigue, wanting to know "how you get these things off the ground?". Setting off on his own it has been a challenge to get to where he is now, with other people contributing to the blog. It seems that although people do like these blogs and the content they produce they are not always so interested in being involved with the actual building. A symptom seen across community matters. However, after much work Paul has created a site which is actively engaged with by local people, with great tips for old and new residents.
This tech experience also stretches to other brilliant blogs that were pushed through by people who have lots of tech experience but are working on campaigns or within institutions that haven't previously embraced technology. For this group the benefits of using technology are very clear, whether it is be about increasing engagement numbers or ensuring a campaign message gets out to a wider group. Hugh from Harringay Online, and the producer of one of the seminal pieces on hyperlocal content, was encouraged to join the ranks of hyperlocal bloggers as a tool for increasing engagement with a local campaign he was involved in running. Since then his site has gone on to become one of the more popular hyperlocal blogs and has even spawned the creation of offline community groups like a local garden scheme and local Women's Institute group.
Although not exactly luddites, our second group are not coming to hyperlocal blog content because they want to test this new technology. They're heading to the technology because they have been heavily involved in producing community content or campaigning on community matters for years, and they know tech can help.
Like many others, Linus Rees the Assistant Editor at Fitzrovia News believes that although "the technology has changed he is still doing the same thing". For 40 years Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association, the group to which Linus and Fitzrovia News belong, has been producing regular content for its community. In fact they still produce 5,000 copies of their newsletter, which goes out every quarter and is read by many more thousands of people. For Linus, the blog is a great addition and helps expats keep in touch with the goings on of the community but is still secondary to their printed effort. Interestingly, unlike the tech backed blogs, Fitzrovia News is managed by a group of volunteers with a wide range of contributors.
One of the most outspoken advocates for more community focused and less tech centric approaches is Eileen Conn, the driving force behind Peckham Vision. For Eileen, local blogs are a platform for disseminating information about the local community beyond the regular attendees of council meetings. She sees technology as a wonderful aid for communicating this work but not a replacement for the valuable work that community groups complete. In Eileen's view, she too often she sees resources being poured into tech tools instead of actual, offline, community work
This isn't to say tech doesn't have an important role to play, Eileen is all for social media and is still the driving force behind one of the more successful hyperlocal blogs. But she sees a need for more consultation between groups representing the needs of the community and the those looking at the capabilities of the technology.
Someone who has done this very well is Sandra Vogel who because of a passion for ensuring local heritage for future generations became involved in Mitcham Cricket Green Community & Heritage civic society group. Very quickly Sandra saw that in order to achieve it's goal of engaging with local people, building an online brand would be crucial. Here Sandra comes in as a strong voice for the power of technology with her day role as a technology writer. Initially Sandra saw some "scepticism about the value of having a website" from the group. Her answer to this has been to introduce technology at a slower rate and implement tools that the organisation actually needs, consulting with other members. She has also used other technologies to test tools that might not be central to the organisation's goals rather than wasting resources building them herself. For instance the charity's board felt a forum was likely to be unnecessary, so she is setting up a Facebook group to test whether locals want to comment/debate the issues they cover.
This kind of coordination between community groups and tech people, gives for great community results. However which approach is best really depends on the target of the site, with many of the tech driven blogs producing valuable content that see comparably high readerships numbers.