Posted by: William Perrin | October 22, 2008

How to define a place – train local people to help you do it with simple community websites and blogs

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.

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Responses

  1. Second that emotion William!

    Improving the profile for our area is one of the things we’ve been trying to do at Harringay Online (http://www.harringayonline.com). This was linked with doing a lot of work on Wikipedia to replace the single awful entry that existed last Spring. (Unfortunately, Haringey Council refuse to change their negative page on our area on their website).

    It does take a brave council to support a citizen-led approach to providing spaces for local voices. But the return on engagement, building local social capital and general well-being provides an excellent return on invetsment

  2. Great stuff, Will. More of this sort of thing is required over at http://www.digitalmentor.org – please do join in!

  3. Many thanks for your kind remarks about our Bishopthorpe site. Certainly it is encouraging to think that we hit the top of the Google rankings: having some links in helps of course (we updated the Wikipedia entry for example). Its still a struggle to convince people locally to give it a go, so we always plan to offer a variety of material on our site. This is why our Front Page is at http://www.bishopthorpe.net: your citation is to just one aspect of the site (and with a recent new design it needs a link back to the Front Page!)

  4. […] How to define a place – "The internet is the first port for new information these days – ask any encyclopedia salesman." Great stuff on hyperlocal news reporting and communities online from Will Perrin […]

  5. […] the surgeries started by Pete Ashton being duplicated elsewhere, and Ultra Local blogging expert William Perrin’s genius ideas for a UK-wide blogger-starter resource, which I don’t doubt will become a […]


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