Understanding Local Communication Needs

Internet solutions appear wherever finding, connecting, and sharing information with others is expensive or difficult. This is especially noticeable when individuals with similar interests but insufficient proximity are finally able to connect. Unsurprisingly, there are now sites bringing together global interest in speaking Klingon, knitting food, and collecting cookie fortunes.

But what about deploying internet technologies for people who are near one another? Certainly this technology isn’t just about bringing together far-flung hobbyists – there should be unresolved information needs that exist at a local level, as suggested by the buzz around hyperlocal news.

In determining these information needs, we must resist the temptation to focus on what media organizations proscribe or what is currently vanishing from existing news outlets. Instead, we should look at routine communication barriers that can be dismantled by internet-based solutions. This is surprisingly difficult to do, since we often don't see the barriers we face or recognize them as unnecessary. In order to determine where technology might be best deployed to address local needs, we must find situations where individual members of local communities are actively trying to find, connect, and share information with one another. Then we can look more closely at the difficulties, delays, and expenses that might be eliminated or reduced through more tailored use of online technology.

Looked at in this way, it becomes clear that finding and connecting with others nearby to exchange our stuff (craigslist.org), meet around shared interests (meetup.com), and initiate relationships (match.com) have all been remarkably successful. But what about sharing local news? Success with local news has been less pervasive and straightforward. Arguably, this is because existing solutions have not yet fully uncovered the true needs and barriers to sharing local news.

Another method for determining what these needs and barriers might be is to monitor online tools that excel at supporting a breadth of communications. Within these tools, we might find clusters of people who share geographic proximity and are actively communicating. Identifying patterns in communications or locations here will reveal which local needs may be benefiting most from the reduced friction of online communication.

Interestingly, most social networking tools provide little of this local communication. Both Linkedin and Facebook, for example, seem to excel at connecting out of touch and geographically disparate individuals. Things have started to shift, however, with the introduction of the short messaging system, Twitter. With Twitter, people are starting to connect with one another simply because they are nearby. Twitter seems different in this regard, and understanding how Twitter is different might just be the key to understanding where frictionless local communication holds the most promise.

Twitter saw its first big explosion in usage during the 2007 SXSW festival in Austin, TX. This was in large part due to the attendee’s unresolved need to connect with others at the conference. Ironic as this may seem, as you move around an event such as a conference, you become a mostly passive recipient of information, cut off from explicitly sharing the experience with others. Communication needs at large events like this range from broadcast heckles to simple queries around where your friends are, what events are attendance-worthy, and who to get to know. In my own experience, this proximity-effect of Twitter carries over into day-to-day situations as well - it becomes valuable to follow someone simply because they live near you. But why?

I believe one answer lies in the immediacy of the information that is shared. Specifically, it is surprisingly difficult to share information about what's going on right now amongst people near one other. As with SXSW, local twitter messages (tweets) are most valuable when they contain information about what is happening right now – often something that might affect me because of our relative proximity. For example, I might monitor the tweets from those I follow locally to know where they are or where they’re going so that I can (presumably) join them. It’s valuable to find out about something as it happens. I can always visit a traditional news source if I need to seek out a specific piece of information or learn of important happenings after the fact, but who’s going to let me know of something important going on right now? It's this active nature of twitter, filtered by real people, providing immediately sourced, proximal information that makes it so valuable. Nothing seems to match twitter for a real-time assessment of what I need to know about that’s going on near me.

Perhaps Twitter points to only one unresolved need – the need for immediate, proximal information, but I believe this need will blossom into a more significant source of local news and take different forms as it more seamlessly encourages useful sharing.