Visiting the United States is always salutory. Their economy may not be in a much better condition than ours but the attitudes are very different. Americans never accept they are not in control of their own ultimate destiny and are quick to take responsibility for both success and failure. The contrast with the U.K. is significant, even with the current Olympic euphoria. The ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ mentality isn’t necessarily entirely healthy one as it makes for a tendency to ignore big problems and assume that someone else is going to sort them out.
The trip was for proper paid work but I did get a chance to meet up with some people in the US interested in hyperlocal who I had been in correspondence with and share a few beers. When I asked one of them who had decades of experience in local media in the US what he thought about UK hyperlocal his answer was, “I think it would be a good idea.”
The discussion turned to the subject of why hyperlocal seems to be so far ahead in the States compared to the UK. The consensus was that American communities generally were much better suited to the development of this kind of site than the UK.
American towns tend to work concentrically with the suburbs being mainly dormitary areas and most peoples’ work and social life revolving around a central commercial area as opposed to the UK where, event within cities, a smaller village sized urban area was the focus for a community. These clusters were thought to be too small to support an economically viable community web site.
The lack of interest in community sports was also seen as an important factor. American High School sports, let alone the College and professional varieties, gain huge attention in local media and coverage is correspondingly detailed. The local teams provide a focus for a community that rarely exists in the UK.
Church attendance was also seen as critical. Churches remained a central part of American community life whereas in the UK outside immigrant communities only a small proportion of people turn up regularly to services.
Britain is also seen as a more socially divided society. Wealth differentials may be wider in the US but class distinction remains a much more divise factor in the UK. Britain was described by one person as ‘the spiritual home of the grammar nazi’. This discourages participation by people with lower educational attainment.
The tendency of a large number of UK undergraduates to attend a university away from their home town makes the educated elite more deracinated and have less affinity with the place they currently live in.
Multi-culturalism was also seen as a problem. America is a multi-ethnic society whereas Britain, within her larger cities, has developed a number of communities with little in common even though they live in the same area.
Lack of entrepreneurialsim in the UK was seen as critical. It was felt that most hyperlocal sites in the UK were developed with the intention of getting some sort of public funding and therefore they became dull and worthy with their intention to tick the boxes necessary to get grants from local or central Government. It wasn’t their primary intention to appeal to the community they were supposed to serve so they didn’t. It was noted that the UK probably has more sites per capita than the US but very few of them deserve to be taken into account in any assessment of the industry.
These aren’t the views of redneck American nationalists but experienced local media people who have spent time in the UK and have a good feel for how the country works. I don’t necessarily endorse every point but they were all thought provoking and some of them undeniably correct. However, having had a few beers and despite my own rather gloomy views about UK hyperlocal I did feel the need to defend my country particularly as we were ahead of the US at that point in the Olympic Medals table (ex-swimming). Unfortunately, as it was three to one and I was slightly jet lagged I was useless at making my case.
Here is what I would have said had I been more sober and better prepared:
The UK hyperlocal sector is clearly behind the US in general but there are pockets of excellence which compare well with anything in the States. Whereas in the US, sites like the West Seattle Blog and Barista.net are launded and constantly raised as examples the more successful sites in the UK seem to get the cold shoulder from the nation’s network of hyperlocalistas. Success in the UK appears to be seen more as a threat than an opportunity.
The East Dulwich forum based in South East London disproves categorically that England’s urban villages are too small to support active hyperlocal sites. This site is impressive precisely because it is so basic and it would be easy to set up equivalents. It is built by some minimal tweaks to off-the-shelf forum software and appears to have become the country’s largest and most active discussion board for a hyperlocal area. The Sheffield forum is the largest in the UK as far as I can see but covers a catchment area way beyond what would be considered hyperlocal. The big question about the East Dulwich forum is why there are so few equivalents. It is rarely mentioned in discussions about hyperlocal and this may partly be explained by the site owners appearing to want to adapt a low profile, but the reasons for the site’s success and the failure of so many other similar discussion boards for other areas really needs to be properly analysed and the East Dulwich formuala for success isolated and bottled.
ChiswickW4.com, a local community site for an area of West London, recently announced that it has gained over 20,000 membership registrations. This is for an area with a population of around 45,000. The site in terms of quality of news coverage compares well with the top US sites and the revenue achieved by the group to which it belongs may even exceed most of the US hyperlocal independents. It also has successfully used its design as a template – other sites in its network rank as some of the busiest in the UK. ChiswickW4.com is probably the largest in the UK in terms of traffic, revenue and membership. If you follow discussion of the industry you would probably be unaware this site existed because it never gets mentioned which is bizarre given that it has got to a place where must of the others would like to get to.
Not strictly hyperlocal but soglos.om an events site for the county of Gloucester puts out the UK’s largest distribution newsletter for a single area. Once again the concept is very simple and well executed. Events are an area of online news that very few sites handle particularly well but soglos.com. Big change in this sector appears likely with Time Out going to free distribution in London. Once again this site and its achievements never seems to be acknowledged.
These three sites have managed things that would have been exceptional even if they were based in the US but another thing they have in common is that they are widely ignored by the inner circle of the UK’s hyperlocal community. Sometimes I wonder if there are other fantastic sites out there that are simply unknown outside their own area. Quite what these sites have done to become ‘non-sites’ in the view of their industry peers is something of a mystery but commercial success probably has something to do with it. The trio show that if you have audience you will have revenue. This in turn shows the uncomfortable truth that if you don’t have revenue you probably don’t have audience which is the case for 90% of UK hyperlocal sites. The bizarre mindset of some of the people in this area was shown by an exchange I had recently with quite a well known hyperlocalista who was upbraiding me about one of my blog posts. She insisted that the definition of independent sites should exclude those funded by advertising. The basic difference between the US and the UK is that such views would be incomprehensible to everyone in the States whereas it would only be a majority in the UK. A worryingly large proportion of the minority seem to be involved in hyperlocal.
Ultimately, I think our American cousins are getting this more right than we are and the surprising reason seems to be that in this industry they behave more collaboratively. They recognise that if they aren’t operating in the same geographic area then the success of a fellow hyperlocal site is something that it is their interest to applaud, promote and imitate. The UK seems more prone to petty jealousies and to be clique dominated. One possibility is that this is paradoxically due to central Government in the UK taking an interest in the sector. Independently successful sites undermine the argument that public money is needed to catalyse local digital media therefore success is ignored. The UK’s focus on quantity rather than quality compared to the US seems to be predicated that at some point down the line public money will be available therefore the last thing you want to do is actually generate revenue from your site.