I ran a workshop today on 'Local online' for Simon Grice's mashup* event - not exactly designed as I only got the call to facilitate a couple of days beforehand. In fact what was more of a challenge was being slightly unfamiliar with the language and issues that the system builders, content providers and media companies represented around the room are working with on a daily basis.
But I took along my local-social-interaction credentials, flashed a few pictures to stimulate some thinking about communication at local level, and away we went. William Perrin kindly stepped up with some thought-provoking slides about the King's Cross Environment site, and we started to get some buzz.
In terms of getting a neighbourhood information site going, he offered this as a key lesson:
'You've got to find the activists who have the burning need to communicate. It's hard but it's not that hard.'
In discussion it was immediately striking that although they thought they hadn't come to discuss this, people had lots to say about 'community'.
I'm interested in this theme because (as mentioned a couple weeks ago) I see a contrast between two groups looking at the unrealised potential of local online.
There are the systems folk who are waiting for whatever 'local' is to break out at commercially-rewarding levels. Plenty of ambitious investment going on there. Then there are the policymakers, sociologists, thinktankers and practitioners who've been waiting for the apparent potential of neighbourhood online networks to contribute to community cohesion and social capital. They're watching the same door, but they might not both recognise whatever eventually walks through it.
Simon and I busked a workshop exercise to surface the issues. There were about 50 participants and they thought the key issues were these:
- definitions of local
- ownership of systems
- moderation of discussion and content
- local trade
- news and broadcast media
- engagement, awareness and audience.
Then it got interesting, because no-one, all afternoon, went to the table designated for discussion of 'moderation' (where issues of trust had also been assigned). And only with some persuasive effort did I manage to get anyone to talk about ownership. Geographical scale, understandably, popped up as an issue in several groups. 'Monetisation' (which as I understand it is not to be confused with the conversion of lilyponds to expensive impressionist artworks), marketing, media, and engagement of users were the best-sellers. Well of course, that's what folk came for.
But at the end of it I found it hard to believe that any of the companies represented, large or small, has a commercial model that will deliver sustainable local online communication with an acceptable framework of ownership, in sufficient density to help compensate for the current inadequacy of communication channels at local level.
I won't mind being proved wrong, but I begin to suspect we will not be able to crank this up to the next level without engaging the public sector (local government and the housing sector).