/Local: ‘Slashing’ the Local Web Into Tiny Nearby Slices

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How does a guy go from talking to Martha Stewart about the complex Federal spending data-viz he created to launching an endeavor that entirely rethinks local in the digital realm? Silos.

Designer Jess Bachman recently found himself working at home (a well-known, self-taught designer with a past at Mint and Visual.ly where his work was widely recognized) and had no good way to find other like minds — solo creatives with kids — in the area.

“…which meant I rarely left the house to meet anyone,” Bachman said. “I lived in a town of 250,000, so statistically there had to be other graphic designers who worked from home and had a family. People I could relate to that I could grab a beer with. They were just impossible to find.”

Bachman’s existing social networks would seem a natural way to find friends nearby, but they only revealed people he already knew — and were less likely to connect him with locals.

“This wasn’t an issue that was burning a hole in my soul, personally — but the more I looked around, the more I saw how siloed and disconnected we were from our places, and the people in them. It was like the digital revolution we all lauded for connecting the world just forgot to connect our cities and backyards. This isn’t a problem that hasn’t been tackled before, but it’s a problem that hasn’t been solved. ”

Enter Localweb.is — this is what Bachman is calling his soon-to-launch attempt to break down those silos, and a whole lot more. He’s working on the startup with partners Dave Domm, Chris Zamierowski and Marcos Góis.

slasherThe conceit here is that the users run the service, with very small barriers to getting started. The structure is similar to the concept of Subreddits, where anyone can create an extension with a topic, and do it with their chosen identity. But the key difference is dynamic location — both literally and thematically. We’ve seen several attempts over the years in a similar vein, and several recent apps allow users to leave comments about things based on location — for others with that app to see — but Localweb.is feels like a looser and much more open approach.

I talked to Bachman about it recently and what follows is his positioning. For clarity we’ll use “the Local Web” to refer to “Localweb.is” in most cases.

So what exactly is Localweb.is intended to be? What problem is it solving?
The Local Web is a platform for place. It’s not intended to solve one problem, it is designed to solve many problems, most of which we are unaware of. It’s 2016, and everyone is connected to the information superhighway, and yet our towns, cities and locations are largely still dark and unsearchable. The Local Web is the off-ramp for the Web. The problems it will solve are as varied as the people using it. There are 238 problems solved using the local web here: http://1000ways.org/.  By developing the use cases on 1000ways.org, I came to understand how the Local Web is much more than a social network or a place to find good Italian food. Our locations and the people in them represent a giant reservoir of untapped value, and I want to set that free and see what happens.

Is this based on any past, similar ideas?
The Local Web is based on two concepts. The first is “what not to do” based on all the other failed attempts at local that have come before. I was excited to think that Foursquare would be the local platform to connect us back in 2009, but that didn’t happen. And local attempts by the dominant social networks have been contrived at best. I have learned a lot of lessons from these failures and from every new location-based app to reach the app store, only to fade away.

The other influence is the Web itself. The Web is open, flexible and free. I knew if the the Local Web were to be as impactful, it needed to share many of the same values and structure. If you have a Web browser on your phone, then you already have an “app” for the local web.

How do you imagine users getting value from the product? Describe some use cases and how the slashes work?
The Local Web is broad in its applications, which is a very different strategy than most new tech entrants… We often find ourselves saying “there is an app for that” when we read about the latest niche problem some app is trying to solve. Apps require teams and developers to make work, and slashes require only agreement between users on how to use it. There are hundreds of examples at 1000ways.org but I’ll give one example which should demonstrate the flexibility of the Localweb.is.

Let’s say there is a stray cat “Stormy” that hangs around the neighborhood. Often many people in the neighborhood will feed him or pet him, he’s quite friendly. One person puts a collar on Stormy with a tag, but it doesn’t include a phone number, it includes a local Web URL Localweb.is/u/stormycat. The /u/ makes the slash unlisted from the front page, so only those who see the URL, those that read his collar, know about it. People then post messages about Stormy to the URL. When he was fed and what he ate. Some people take photos with Stormy and post them to the slash as well. Only those with the URL and within range (about 2 miles) can read these messages.

Stormy becomes this conduit to connect the neighborhood around his care, and anything else people talk about at /u/Stormycat. If Stormy hops a train to a different city, the URL remains the same, but conversation is different because Stormy is in a new area with new people. All this is done by putting a URL on a cat collar and people agreeing that this is how they are going to use the slash. There are no apps, developers, beacons, or other such nonsense involved.

So the conversations or announcements under the slashes are based on a geographic radius — from how far can this geo-centric conversation be seen?
In general you can see content people have posted within about two miles. In places where the Local Web sees a lot of usage, this can be quite noisy, especially in dense urban environments, so users can filter the conversations down to half a mile or even 300 feet.

The front page of Localweb.is is a list that shows you which slashes are popular and trending in your area. If you live in NYC, two miles is millions of people, and what’s trending on the Local Web there generally applies to the whole city. But if you filter that down to 300 feet, then you can see which slashes are trending for your city block, maybe even your apartment building. That’s a resolution that twitter hashtags could only hope to reach.

We do have a mechanism where conversations from outside your range can be brought into your range if people in your range reply to them. Conversations on the local Web are very fluid and elastic. We don’t want a situation where something important is going down in Manhattan but you can’t see it because you are in Brooklyn, or due to some other artificial boundary. The most important conversations will actually spread virally, in a geographic sense. It will be pretty interesting. What happens in Vegas might not stay in Vegas, but it won’t get too far into the desert either.

As noted, there is virtually no barrier to entry… still, gaining adoption is tough — especially in a world of established conversational destinations like Twitter and Snapchat and the anonymous social apps. How do you intend to get traction?
We have quite a few ingredients in our secret sauce that will allow for faster adoption than what has come before. You will have to wait until the Local Web is launched to experience those.

At the same time, we believe that the established destinations are fundamentally not serving peoples’ needs. Or rather, they are serving only a subset of needs to a subset of people. There are large swathes of the human experience that have been unmet, or under-met by our current social networks. This is even more true when it comes to local, which has been a fragmented wasteland of failed solutions for most of the decade.

Are you going to provide moderation of any kind?
Moderation is tricky, because a slash is composed of different people in every location. However we recognize that people need to feel safe and respected — which is especially important when other users are within walking distance of you. So we have developed a moderation system that functions both on the individual level and on the group level. I won’t go into the details, as it’s not something people have seen before but it’s well-suited to serve such an elastic community.

Obviously advertisers might be interested in the hyper-targeting possibilities. Is that on the road map?
It’s absolutely on the road map. Local business is one of the major groups who have their needs unmet, or under-met by the current solutions. If you don’t believe me, just ask any local business: it’s a horror show. That said, advertising on the web and in other platforms is also a fundamentally broken experience for the viewer. We have come up with something which will solve both of these problems.

Launch date?
We are running our first major test of the local web at the PAX East conference in Boston in April.

RickRRick Robinson is SVP of Product for on-demand roadside assistance startup Urgent.ly. He is also an advisor to Street Fight. Follow him at @itsrickrobinson