The internet is the first port for new information these days – ask any encyclopedia salesman. The internet can define how places appear to the world. For cities Google turns up loads of web pages – many of them commerical. But in the UK search engines turn up very little content by local people for small communities and even large towns. So good local websites, firmly about a place, frequently updated by volunteers stand out and often do well in Google. The less well known a place is the more a good local community site can rise to the top of popular search engines and define the place online.
A great example is the little village of Bishopthorpe (pop. 3,000) just south of York (map). Kevin Harris linked to a marvellous community site there run by volunteers. Bishopthorpe is a small village, and the site is only updated a few times a month. But it is the only substantial online presence for the village and site rises effortlessly to the top of search engines. And it plays a strong role in how Bishopthorpe is presented to the world.
Across the UK development agencies and councils spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on brochures and ad campaigns to raise awareness of their area or regeneration towns. Ads featuring actors and actress strolling hand in hand through meadows strewn with poppies or heritage buildings often do little more than scream ‘Look we exist! And we aren’t as grim as you think’. Once the campaign is over and the money spent you normally can’t find this promotional stuff on the web at all – the money is spent and gone in a puff.
Spending a tiny slice of that promotional money to train local volunteers, campaigners, activists, community organisers to self publish online would create a long lasting and vibrant impact on the web, visible around the world. There are some great examples out there I’ve referred to before – Digbeth is Good, Saltaire, Brookmans Park, Parwich. If you were an ad agency this sort of positive, genuine, grass roots voice endorsing your product would be gold dust.
The positives far outweigh any disagreement with the authorities over say a planning campaign. It’s far better to get a generally positive and occasionally critical voice out there than some of the things people will do if they only want to express their negative energies about a place. Birmingham City Council has got the hang of this – the Digital Birmingham campaign funded Pete Ashton to run some community blogging workshops. Would be good to see more of this as cities prepare for a post industrial digital future.