We’ve Seen the Past — And It Is ‘The Neighborhood’

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You can talk to 10 digital insiders and hear 10 different recollections of “new dawns” breaking the digital horizon over the past 30 years. Most are short-sighted or wrong, owing largely to a lack of digital knowledge prior to the Clinton era. Others, like mine, are shaped by experiences from the inside looking out and therefore, too, are open to question. So consider that when I take note of the “renewed” trend toward neighborhood and the attempts at digital grouping based on location.

When you think of neighborhood sites these days, AOL’s Patch experiment jumps out as a prime current example of a major media current media company trying to capture this idea of audience. But Patch is just the latest (or not even really the latest) of a number of sites and services rediscovering that in order earn an audience you need to establish relationships built on more than the hub-and-spokes of editor/site owner and consumers. To find that, you may need to go back to The Well.

The Well (The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) is an online community begun in 1985 as an electronic bulletin board by Stewart Brand and, interestingly, was just this week sold to a group of its members.

According to Wiki, The Well was a gathering place for many notable digital heads, hackers and writers:

Notable items in WELL history include being the forum through which John Perry BarlowJohn Gilmore, and Mitch Kapor, the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, met. Howard Rheingold, an early and very active member, was inspired to write his book The Virtual Community by his experience on the WELL. The WELL was a major online meeting place for fans of the Grateful Dead, especially those who followed the band from concert to concert, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This matters only as a marker, as one of the first places people collected in the aether to communicate on a variety of topics. And because people at the time were so high on the idea that communication could happen in realtime with virtual presence at great distances, the whole notion of local was not yet really relevant or even possible — penetration of users was tiny. One can almost hear Marshall McLuhan’s “Global Village” being touted from the keyboards of Tandy computers. I suppose global was their local.

Then things changed. Quickly BBSs (electronic bulletin boards) sprouted throughout the U.S., town by town. Soon people meeting in online chats were discovering their partner was just around the corner. More came aboard and it wasn’t long before message threads on some BBSs were focused on happenings around the neighborhood.

Fast forward a few years and Yahoo! (among others, like Usenet before) were consumerizing the art of online community. Message boards abounded on almost every topic including local subjects. Users could and did create their own threads to discuss a local issue or push a cause. Yahoo! Groups were going gangbusters with conversation, several of them lively local hubs.

But this was true grassroots without organization or structure… That’s where CitySearch and Digital City and Sidewalk came along.

These guys backed by major operations tried to corral people into communication pens (message boards and chat rooms for instance) in the hope that conversation would spontaneously ensue. In some cases it did — when there was a spark of controversy or a snowstorm to drive up the importance of talking to neighbors — but in most cases the local conversation was off topic or simply sparse.

If you build it they might come, but they won’t necessarily stay.

Late in the 1990s, AOL went forward with a “Tiny Cities” initiative, which aimed to plant fertilized templates of micro city sites in hundreds of towns across the U.S. And while people could freely post garage sale notices and bake sales, as well as argue about the local zoning law changes, for the most part they didn’t. If you build it they might come, but they won’t necessarily stay.

In the intervening years several have gone on to make similar mistakes in and effort to capture local voices. The thought was that with so many more people online surely the old models will now work. Those with the most promise to prove this out today are the newspapers, and they have largely failed to connect. And that connection is what makes the difference between a buzzing hyperlocal site and a silent one.

That brings us back to the neighborhood. For the past few years, social startups have been spiraling inward toward a smaller and smaller target: your neighborhood, your block. Some have tried with group messaging and others with exposing the Facebook social graph. And now Patch is going all in by lighting up that tried and true(?) model of leveraging the community through communities of interest.

I talked to Warren Webster, Patch president and co-founder, and reiterated the observation that neighborhoods seems to be all the rage lately, with many startups going after them like prospectors. Does the new Patch help get at neighborhoods better?

“From its inception, Patch’s goal has been to be the leader in content, commerce and conversation.  In terms of content, we’ve done a good job bringing a new model for local Journalism to 800+ neighborhoods across the country,” Webster said. “We are doing some smart things to approach commerce in our communities, and will have some new commerce-related developments to announce down the road.  Our new design puts a major focus on conversation, bringing residents into the site and giving them tools to interact with each other and the community at large, as well as consuming the professional Journalism and commercial information that is key to our offering.”

And not surprisingly, mobile fits in big with the neighborhoods, as well as more email products and a “360-degree approach to distribution.”

But platforms and stages and tools and frameworks — mobile or fixed or nomadic — when plopped in front of people who are without motivation, are essentially digital art. Yes, it’s fairly clear the “high touch” model of many editors and chat hosts and “groups” tenders trying to foster community is a losing proposition these days. (Ask Facebook how many online mediators they employ.)

Still there is something important to be learned from organic local online communities of the past. Maybe it’s simply that the neighborhood needs to be the source of the platform and then the conversation. Nothing can be forced on the neighborhood unless it’s forced out from within. Perhaps acolytes for the cause need to spread the word street by street, getting people online and on board and engaged, and not just when there’s a hot local controversy.

But maybe neighborhoods are an artificial construct, with borders that mean little even to those they bind. If that’s the case, we need to rethink a lot more than design and tools and lessons of the past. That’s what I’ll be doing with this column going forward: rethinking hyperlocal within the context of the exciting changes building on the past but happening today.

Rick Robinson’s Turf Talk column, on hiatus since December, will now appear again regularly on Street Fight. Follow him at @wideopensea.

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