This post is an attempt to come up with a robust definition of what we mean when we use the term hyperlocal – I realise that other people may have different definitions so would appreciate comments on this.

When I try and describe my research area I tend to say that I am looking at both describing and then measuring informal civic behaviours within hyperlocal communities and then more specifically looking at what the online civic spaces will look like if we want to connect them to formal democratic processes. Assuming the poor soul hasn’t shuffled off towards the buffet table in the hopes of never meeting me again I then tend to get one of three types of reaction (I don’t count the ones who just think I’m mad for trying to do a PHD….):

  1. I don’t really use this social networking stuff (i.e. I am secretly hoping it will all go away)
  2. Surely not enough communities are online to make this viable – and anyway – we already have a representative democracy
  3. Why do we need the formal democratic processes when shiny new online ones will do this all much better

I think all three of these reactions deserve a proper response but that’s not what this post is about. Its about the fourth type of reaction – the academic reaction – which is basically a huge shout to Frame The Question. What do I mean by hyperlocal? What do I mean by informal civic behaviour and am I sure I have a good definition of formal democratic process? I have looked at these last two in a previous post so now on to try and describe hyperlocal….

Now – anyone who is using this term on a regular basis may find this a little tedious – but tight definitions is what the academic stuff is about – without those you can’t form the watertight questions that you need before you can even start to get some answers….and anyway I did marry a pedant.

Practitioner uses of the term hyperlocal

Hyperlocal is passing into practitioner use in the UK fairly seamlessly with groups such as Talk about Local, Podnosh and Networked Neighbourhoods using it to describe grassroot communities which organise online while being focused on a defined geographically area. The key points are community and the link to an actual place as well as the underlying sense of civic purpose. The ‘hyper’ in the local comes from the fact that these communities tend to be formed around areas which are considerably smaller than any democratic decision making unit – the exception being the parish level. There is no technological commonality across these sites. They use different tools and different platforms and vary between bulletin boards, to blogs to sites using more social tools. There are even people who are still hand coding their HTML and loving it. The unifying themes are location and the idea of civic purpose and community.

The excellent Openly Local site is starting to give you an overview of the hyperlocal activity which is springing up – as well as having the really useful ambition to pull together Local Government data as it is made open – worth keeping an eye on this one if you don’t already know about it has they are doing great stuff.

If we take practitioner to mean ‘people who make hyperlocal the focus of their work’ we are currently talking about 3 main groups of people.

  • Talk about Local describe their mission as “…..a project to give people in their communities a powerful online voice.  We want to help people communicate and campaign more effectively to influence events in the places in which they live, work or play. “
  • The folks at Networked Neighbourhoods talk about their visions as being “……to foster digital society at the local level to increase neighbourhood social capital, grow democratic engagement and build the capacity of communities to work as more active agents in partnership with local councils.”
  • The Podnosh team want to “….change the way the public and the public sector talk to each other.” and they do this with a programme of social media surgeries which you can can find out more about here.

Notice the difference between “influencing events” , “active agents in partnerships” and “change the way that public and private sector talk to each other” – these phrases show a different stance on the same activity.  I am not attempting to describe these differences as I don’t think there is enough separation to give this much meaning at this stage – though it will be an interesting thing to keep an eye on.  Whatever the vision as to why they are doing it what we do have is a growing number of people that believe it is a very good thing to give communities the tools they need to use new technologies to help themselves – and I must say that I am one of them. While I am actively not commenting on the Big Society concept (where to start!) it seems obvious to me that any attempt to strengthen local community civic engagement must to some extent make use of these new technologies – if nothing else in order to provide an infrastructure that the state can meaningfully interact with. But that is definitely different post altogether.

Before moving on – its worth noting that this usage of hyperlocal is specific to the UK – in the US hyperlocal refers to media coverage (as you can see from the wikipedia definition) which is perhaps a reflection of the very different media situations in the two countries. I have not looked into other usages but will be checking out Sweden and Spain at least and will update accordingly when I have done so.

But is there any research?

I have been hunting and the only substantive research project I can find around hyperlocal communities in the UK is the London’s Digital Neighbourhood’s study which is being run by Networked Neighbourhoods and funded by London Council’s (I’m on the steering group for it so that I can torment them with annoying questions). This is really a pilot study but is already starting to show some interesting results. I will post more when they publish findings but you can keep an eye on it from their website here.

Apart from the ‘teach a man to fish’ approaches that are described above there are a couple of other organised projects that I know of:

  • The study from De Montfort called “Amplified Leicester”which has now turned into a community website. This project is rather different and took a deeper look at what technology could do for a community rather than looking at ways in which the community uses technology to organise itself.
  • The work that the folks at Cambridgeshire County Council have been doing with the Fenland Social Media project which provides a different approach altogether which you can read about through Michelle Ide Smith‘s research.

Apart from these the focus has been on communities of interest or practice, perhaps based around specific groups like this one around virtual worlds which is closer in nature to some of Danah Boyd‘s work.  If anyone knows of other more relevant research then I would be very grateful to be pointed at it at this point….

Putting the local into Hyperlocal

But this all gives us a working practitioner definition of hyperlocal – I have described what it does rather than what it is. To do that we need to look a little deeper. Firstly lets deal with the hyper bit. To me this is really all in the usage in this context – its about drilling down below the local into the smallest area we can describe. It has a pleasingly techno feel as a word and I really think that’s about it though the sense of hyper as referring to many dimensions is also relevant when we get on to a more detailed description of place. However the relative newness of the term means that there is not a lot of complexity to its application and the real issue is in how we describe the term ‘local’.

But before talking about local I think I need to back track slightly and point out that one of my original starting points for the research was around the idea of online community. Online communities have been an area of interest of mine for around 15 years and I would still cite books like Howard Rheingold‘s “The Virtual Community:  Homesteading on the Virtual Frontier” as being seminal in describing the reality and impact of those social spaces for people who did not necessarily ever meet each other in person. This work has developed into communities of practice or communities of interest and is still enormously relevant. Look at the ways that online communities are formed to support suffers of a particular condition or to connect carers together in ways that would have been impractical before. Look at the success and reach of Mumsnet.

However hyperlocal communities are different – they come together with a shared purpose initially rather than shared values (Castells) and are firmly rooted in the idea of place. It is the reality of space and the fact that is has this messy unbounded quality that means that these hyperlocal communities need to be considered as different to the often more cerebral online communities of interest.

Its impossible to talk about what local means without coming up with some thoughts about place and space. Local is as much a state of mind and of narrative as it a geographical descriptor. But before local come the ideas of space and place.

Space and Place

I have been reading the amazing “For Space” by Doreen Massey which is a meditation on the nature of space and what it means to define a specific place within it.

“In a context of a world which is, indeed, increasingly interconnected the notion of place (usually evoked as ‘local place’) has come to have totemic resonance.” (P.5).

The effect of modernity (as discussed by Giddens) means that space can no longer be the preserve of geographers and spatial descriptions of place – we need to also include temporal and narrative descriptions as well. As Massey says

“Multiplicity is fundamental….Space is more than distance. It is the sphere of openended configurations within multiplicities. Given that, the really serious question which is raised by speed-up, by ‘the communications revolution’ and by cyberspace, is not whether space will be annihilated but what kinds of multiplicities (patternings of uniqueness) and relations will be co-constructed with these new kinds of spatial configurations.” (P.91).

You see – I said that vaguely sci-fi ‘hyper’ reference would make sense at some point.

“Space and place emerge through active material practices. Moreover, this movement of yours in not just spatial, it is also temporal.” (Massey).

Place is defined by the narrative of the space that is described over time – in Massey’s words ‘place’ is a ‘space’ which has been given meaning. This is easier to absorb if you accept that space, and therefore space, cannot be considered to be bounded – once you accept that the story and the relationship within a place are as essential to it as the geographical location then you can see that no place exists in isolation and we can absorb a much more holistic view of what a place actually is. This is going to make place based budgeting all the more difficult but makes a lot more sense than a visualisation of the world which is divided into neat little adjacent chunks.

What’s more, the relationships and social morays of a community also become embedded in the description of a place, along with the history and temporal narrative and the coevalness of these elements is what Massey talks of when she describes what place means.

What about local? How do we describe a local place? In the absence of any meaningful bounding of space Massey really leaves the definition of local to the people who describe it. Therefore the distinction between place and local place is in the narrative of the people who consider themselves to be local to that place.

Hyperlocal, with the unspoken assumption that there is an online element contains the possibility of people ‘opting in’ to a shared description of local which has hitherto eluded us. This makes it both an opportunity to define community at the same time as a potential battleground for different communities over the same geographical space – what do we do if two communities cite their locality claims over the space area? Its when we reach these kinds of questions that my interest in connecting these informal civic communities to the formal democratic processes becomes acute – our democratic process exists in order to manage and reconcile this kind of conflict.

This description of place as a multiplicity which intrinsically involves its participants and can co-exist with its virtual self is very different from the way in which the fairly sterile way in which many writers have described the overlay of technology over the way in which we live. It may be the more recent impacts of more social technologies or it may be the fact that so many network society thinkers are rather infected with an age of enlightenment view of the world as an inherently rational place but I find Massey’s writing far more compelling than the way in which William Mitchell, for example talking about a future of closed and gated communities facilitated by online networks or Negroponte’s techno-utopian views of a world where we have sanitised so many of our interactions through technological mediation.

Localism has to some extent started to gain ground back from the globalism which has overwhelmed us for some time with the dazzling prospect of seamless connection with any point of the globe at the same time as social relationships are regaining stature against a more commoditised set of relationships that we see when we look at the history of the boom and web 1.0.

I have for some time been trying to finish “The Production of Space” by Henri Lefebvre which is a different attempt to reconcile ideas of mental and physical space and having read the Massey I am going to take another stab at it. I believe the difference between the two approaches to essential the same issue is around the viserality that Massey is able to bring with her geographical background rather than Lefebvre’s more abstract approach. However they both address the philosophical question of the nature of space which needs to be talked about before you can drill down into ‘lace’ and then further to the idea of ‘local’.

What does this all mean then?

We have no idea at present whether the current growth of hyperlocal communities is a short term effect or something that will last into the long term. However the current political climate and the need for greater self-sufficiency from communities along with the compatibility of this kind of behaviour with internet culture means that it is sensible to speculate ongoing growth of hyperlocal communities could mean. We need to consider governance models, plans for sustainability, we need to think about policing these communities and we need to do all of this against a backdrop of the constant knowledge that state intervention in these social constructs may well do more harm than good.

In deepening our understanding of this phenomena it is therefore important to note that the term hyperlocal then has a richer meaning that the practitioner use might initially give it. It refers to Massey’s multiplicity with the narrative of place and the intrinsic involvement of the community relationships which it holds. However its unbounded nature, in common with any space, brings with it conflicts of competing interests and competing definitions of local that will at some point need to be reconciled if we are to be able to managed to co-existence of many hyperlocal communities living alongside each other.