How the Local Web Is Helping Neighbors Connect and Build Community

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orrenTEDXThe following is an excerpt of a talk Mike Orren recently gave at TEDxPlano. You can find information on it and all the other talks at, and see a full video of the session at the bottom of the page.

I am here to sell you on an idea. And that idea is that this device and the networks it connects to were designed to make the world smaller– but their greatest use is to make your neighborhood closer; to make your local community bigger.

This is something I’ve been obsessed with for as long as I’ve been online. It something I and the people I’ve worked with in various companies have been on the bleeding edge of for some time.

And I’ve got good news: The future is almost here. But to understand that future, it helps to look a bit at the past.

For most of our history, it has been easier to get local information than national or international. Cave walls, town criers and even local presses are geared best for telling local stories.

But in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the game changed. “Mass media” meant that the best, most efficient use of tools like radios and televisions, and to a lesser degree, newspapers — was to talk to the masses. Save for the odd local human interest story that resonated widely, the most economically expeditious use of mass media was to talk to the biggest mass possible. It became more viable to tell millions about the latest in Washington than to tell those same millions about thousands of local meetings.

And that’s a shame. Because no matter how fun it might be to listen to the shouting pundits on either side of the political aisle; how hooked we may be on the lives of Hollywood celebs – nothing affects our lives like local.

Even today, nearly 90% of your money is spent within thirty miles of your home. Depending on the study you read, locally-owned businesses put 58-100% more into the economy than a chain. By and large, your life is much more directly impacted by local government decisions than national ones – your child’s school; your property taxes; your speed limit driving to work; the safety of your home – these all impact you daily.

But the paradox is that the layer of government that most directly touches you is the one you’re least likely to understand or even have even a basic level of awareness.

In 2014 with digital ubiquity, the volume and quality of local information – news, entertainment, government and commerce – is not much improved. How?

A lot of it has to do with what economists call “the last mile” problem. The term was coined to describe the difficulties in distributing data via telecom, cable and Internet – while the backbone that everybody uses is economically sustaining, getting wire or signal from that backbone to an individual home is costly and difficult. No less so with information.

When you’re talking about media, or distribution of information, the problem is twofold:

  • You’re dealing with lots of small audiences
  • Even if those small audiences roll up to a massive audience, odds are that the myriad institutions serving them, whether government or media don’t do anything alike. They’re a tower of Babel.

But we are at the cusp of being able to solve the last mile problem, largely because with mobile devices we are nearing 100% access and interoperability.

There are three key areas where we can make a big difference, right in our local community, with the types of information available to enrich our local lives: They are government; commerce and community.

First, let’s talk about government: In 2006, my local news startup, Pegasus News launched the only database in the country that contained complete campaign contribution data for every local official and candidate. Eight counties worth of school board and city council politicians, cross-referenced by donor, district and candidate. That data, and the conversation around it, changed the course of multiple elections and at least one court case.

Maybe we were on the bleeding edge (as we weren’t able to sustain it), but to this day, I’ve not seen anyone else pull it off — and how much has the tech improved in eight years? It’s the most basic accountability for the most important layer of government.  Even when information is online, it is only in mountains of PDF files that aren’t indexable and searchable. That’s true of most government documents.

Much has been made of the DATA act, which is on the fast track to make much more Federal information available and searchable. Statewide, organizations like The Texas Tribune are doing a great job. But where is the local data? How will we first challenge our local governments to put information online for utility and not as just complying with a checkbox?

Look, I know government data isn’t as sexy and fun as Yelp reviews. But if you don’t think it matters, look at what a key factor quality of schools was in bringing the new Toyota headquarters to Plano instead of Dallas, or one of any other major urban centers they might have chosen.

And if voter engagement is a sign of good government; and we trust all of our sensitive ID-info for banking and commerce to this ecosystem — why not our vote? What would the voting rate be if we made mobile voting a reality?

Second: Let’s look at commerce– specifically local marketing. We’ve seen myriad attempts at solving this problem at national scale fail. Recently, AOL made another attempt with a news and advertising site called Patch, and failed like many other solutions because of another paradox of local:

Those who try to drive local commerce from the ground-up at the local level tend to create solutions that work, but don’t easily scale. At Pegasus News we created a hyperlocal targeting engine that could customize to the level of reaching bluegrass fans within two miles of a venue on the day of a concert with unsold tickets – but it only worked on our single site.

At the other end of the spectrum, though, nationals like AOL that seek to scale from the start tend to fail because they don’t provide enough content value at the local level. Like the radio and TV players of old, it’s best to do only that which can be replicated nationally if you want to keep expenses in line, not getting snared in the last mile problem.

Trouble is that if you don’t serve the last mile, those who live in that mile aren’t going to do business with you.

I don’t know that we need to use our iPhones to figure out where the neighborhood Wal-Mart is. But how could that technology and data be leveraged to help our local businesses?

In 2010, Apple released iAds, with a focus on big brands advertising inside apps. It’s been a failure.

The day they released it, I emailed Steve Jobs to tell him they’d gotten it wrong, beginning a conversation in which I told him to ditch the big brands and use location data and the millions of credit cards registered in iTunes to make it as easy to buy at the local pizzeria on a slow day as to buy the latest Angry Birds game or Black Eyed Peas single.

To my surprise, he responded, and although he didn’t take me up on the plan or offer me the job I was dreaming of, just this Spring news broke that Apple was hiring a team to do something along these lines.

What can we do to help local businesses now? One thing is to participate as digital citizens in making sure that we review and provide data to our favorite services for local businesses, ensuring that the easy, commodity chain info doesn’t drown out our neighbor businesses. Another is, as local merchants, to leverage shared white-label solutions like Belly and SpotOn to provide loyalty and discount services to our customers and compete on a level playing field with the big boys.

Ultimately, it’s about demanding last-mile service from the national providers like those who sell or provide service to these little devices on which we spend so much time and money. If you don’t think local ads matter, again think of this device. Top media analyst Mary Meeker came out last month with a report indicating that while most media get more advertising spend than warranted from the consumer attention paid them– there is a $30 billion gap– or opportunity in advertising vs attention on mobile devices. You can bet most of that is local, driven by gps-aware marketing.

Finally, and most importantly, there’s the question of using these devices to build community. Walking up to a stranger, even one who is a neighbor has a high time cost and high risk. Less so online.

My neighborhood is a transitional neighborhood that has labored mightily to build community in service of stopping crime and encouraging business. In the 11 years I’ve lived there, there’s even been a federally funded Weed n’ Seed dedicated to the purpose, served by dozens of energetic volunteers.

Yet nothing has built community more than a simple app called NextDoor. It is a well-designed discussion board with one twist: You can only participate in your geographic community and can only do so after proving (in analog fashion) that you really live there. You are required to participate under your real name.

And while I was skeptical of an un-curated, un-seeded community taking off, I’ve seen people plan cookouts; catch criminals; build micro-libraries; find lost pets; and generally behave as a true community. Last month, we hired a local artisan to do a mosaic based on a neighbor recommendation. Currently, 29% of our households are participating. That may sound low, but it’s a penetration that any newspaper would kill to have — and how many of us can say we really know a third of the people in our neighborhood? Since joining, I’ve met more of my neighbors in a year than I had in a decade.

The point is this: I think we all know that building true community is difficult. Maybe more difficult than building good government and commerce, but those are the chicken to the egg of community.

And the simplest act possible is just to start by liking, friending, following online those in our neighborhoods – maybe even go so far as starting a conversation with them. In a safe, digital environment, there is little risk in testing the waters –– but untold benefits in building that bridge to a tangible, real world relationship.

Mike Orren is the president of Speakeasy, a content marketing and social media firm that is a joint venture between Slingshot and The Dallas Morning News (who is also a client). He is the founder of Pegasus News, which he sold to Fisher Communications (who resold it to what is now Townsquare Media, who resold it to The Dallas Morning News). He has served in senior leadership roles at American Lawyer Media and D Magazine and has consulted for many local media companies, including, CBS Local, and SourceMedia.

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