Why I’m giving up Birmingham: It’s Not Shit

At some point over the weekend, I decided to out the low level moving on campaign and put my most famous website up for sale on eBay.

I started the site back in the May of 2002, before there were really such things as blogs in the mainstream and the term ‘hyperlocal’ was not even a glint in an irritating theorist’s eye. Pretty much everything that’s ever been on it, and definitely everything technical was written or created by me, I’ve had a couple of ‘columnists’ for short whiles and a couple of bits of ‘holiday cover’ but that’s all. The site was flat, hand coded HTML until I learned of PHP and wrote a simple news updating section. Later I discovered that there wasn’t only a name for such things but software out there to do it more prettily and better.

And now it, or sites like it, are either the future of the media or a disappointment to those that thought they should be.

But, it didn’t start because the media was dying, it started because the media was crap: crap at explaining why people connected emotionally with a place that—when looked at objectively—was a bit shit. Crap at self awareness, crap at understanding real life. The media has changed a little, but mostly the contents have just shifted in transit.

I have always been proud of it being not only independent, but seen to be, so not taking advertising and clearly marking anything churned from a press release was always part of the plan. It was fun at times, maybe important and influential at others, but always fairly time consuming and costly. I’ve got lots of other stuff on now, and for the first time in years a regularly hour-ed job (that’s also in another city)—so it’s time to give up.

There’s also a way in which the landscape of ‘hyperlocal publishing’ has changed—the Corinthian spirit beaten down by encroachment of money or officialdom: from ad sales bullshitters to quango reports that do nothing but serve the interests of the establishment. I don’t have the energy to fight, but don’t want to lose that battle really. So the idea is to let someone with the energy try something else with the cultural cache that the site’s built up. There is a way forward for local content created by people that can reach an audience without aping what’s gone before, but just right now I don’t know what it is.

And I’d like to recoup some of the costs if possible, so I’m selling.

I’ll no doubt return to the themes, and the location, but for now time’s up.

(Here’s what I said just over two years ago about how it all started, I still think pretty much the same.)

24 hours of culture

Birmingham is currently bidding for the UK’s first City of Culture title (this is a dreadful out-of-date link, but DCMS don’t seem to be hot on explanation), we’re down to the final four and the bid has to be in very soon. I’ve done some consultancy on the bid’s web and digital presence, more of which perhaps when the results are in early in July, but one quite public and interesting piece of work was the ‘Big Culture Blog‘.

Birmingham Big Culture Blog - Birmingham City of Culture 2013
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It came about as an idea to make sure that culture from around the city, and from the grassroots, was showcased — we worked on the idea of helping people in the city create a cultural snapshot of whatever they were doing. Put simply, the idea was to allow people to blog about their activity within one 24-hour period (12noon 23rd April to 12noon 24th April).

I chose Posterous for the platform of the blog – it’s ability to  automatically convert images, video, audio and documents made it simple to offer one easy point of entry for the public. They were asked to email whatever they liked, and it was a technically easy job to moderate and publish – although it meant me being available for 24 hours straight to do that.

To make sure we had a good spread of content there were a team of social reporters engaged, with whom I did a short training session (as well as being in contact over the blogging period) — but in the end there was a huge wealth of content created from all sides of the city. Over 5,000 visitors to the site and around 350 different cultural experiences blogged and mapped made it a really successful exercise, showing — I think — that online engagement doesn’t have to be anything too complicated.

What does hyperlocal mean? And what does that mean for news?

Local is local for different people for different reasons — some to do with legislature, economics, transport, facilities, people, even “community” (another word with little definite meaning). Local in newsgathering has been based upon technologies (eg transmitter placement) or economies of scale (how many towns can a newspaper serve on the same staff?) — but with those areas no longer valid, how is news to be gathered and published.

Hyperlocal is the buzzword that being used to describe those new models — “The term “hyperlocal” is sometimes used to refer to news coverage of community-level events.” (Wikipedia). Community in this sense has no real definition — except that it’s assumed to be smaller than the “local” of the traditional news gatherer.

It’s understood that online news sources (those that are extensions of the off-web mechanisms) are struggling in part because people don’t read every page on their website — only the stories that interest them. The phrase in the US is “print dollars become online dimes” (or somesuch) — the same content (and a potentially wider audience for each piece) doesn’t generate the same revenues. This is because it’s possible to split, target and assess those eyeballs and click-throughs.

Extend that into the “local arena” and there’s less room for the niche — it’s not feasible at all to suggest that advertising can pay to generate  truly niche content. A stark contrast with niche but non-geographic interests, which can find a audience online that outstrips any a conventionally distributed source can provide.

A quick and dirty example: It’s no good saying that an announcement of (say) a new ukulele group in a suburb is of interest to all in that suburb — it isn’t — and as filtering gets better that information will only reach those that care enough and are local enough. At that level even a specialist shop won’t pay enough to gather than information.

It wouldn’t work in a current (read historical) “local” news source — unless as a little bit of human interest filler, and it wasn’t that item that was attracting the advertisers — it was a place in the whole “package”, which soon will no longer exist.

But there are people and companies that still want to do the local news gathering — why? There are a few competing (or complimentary) models emerging — here’s one way I think we can divide them:

  • the very local, volunteer run (one or two people) blog (often no ads, or a trickle of Google ad money — but no real desire to make money)
  • the local blog that runs (sort of) like a small newspaper (ads are often sold direct to local business in the same way as a newspaper)
  • the network — where sub-sites for areas are created (the ads are sold centrally, the object is to keep the overall site running rather than the sub-sites)
  • the aggregator — where content is electronically pulled from various social (or news) spaces — (ads sold by the aggregator for the aggregator)

All but the volunteer-led source are facing the exact same problem as the “traditional operators” — a fight between scale of operation and potential income. The local blog “newspaper” has more flexibility and less costs than the traditional operator and can work on much tighter margins, but it still has to balance between area covered and effort expended. What the two “ground-up” models have as an advantage is that they can feel the size of the area for themselves from experience, they are covering an area that makes sense to them. This might not be at a level that can attract enough advertisements (Philip John is encouraged by the take-up on The Lichfield Blog, but it can’t be paying for much above server costs — will it eventually? I have no idea). What the networks and the aggregators seem to be doing is picking a size that they can sell advertisements too and making that the area on which they focus.

I did a very quick, small and unscientific survey on Twitter asking people what sort of area felt “local” to them — with these results. People had very different ideas of “local” — a road with 35 people, to a country with 4,500,000. Even those picking the same definition (eg my suburb) had wide ideas of what size that was. This isn’t surprising — and many people (rightly) said things to the effect that “my local airport is further away than my local shop” and “it depends”.

Without some system of “soviets” — a network of ultra local sites, each feeding upwards and having new input at each level of scale — there’s no way that one news source (or type of news source) can cover all of the news needs of each people. What’s happened in the past is that the “distribution” scale featured it’s own level and a pick’n’mix of that below — people understandably felt that wasn’t serving them well and have started to create outlets at different scale. These so far have worked in tandem with existing outlets — so aren’t really equipped to replace them.

The worrying (for some) is that the “distribution” scale corresponded roughly with that of legislature (although not a good fit always) — so that’s a gap that is less obviously well filled. Pits’n’Pots – for example – does a great job at the level of Stoke’s Council, but what independent outlet is operating at the scale of regional development agency? Is there anyone that can hold AWM to account (although one might argue that few do anyway)?

It’s my contention that different types of sites will plug these gaps — I could see a “what are they up to” site run for most legislative bodies or quangos, or different sites sharing resources to hold bodies to account. Support networks, collaboration will be what’s needed. There are some businesses there (tech support, local ad sales perhaps), but it’s not huge profits — and there aren’t certainly for content creators.

It’s lucky, therefore, that most content creators are doing it out of duty or love.

We’re in a period of transition — we know that no-one source is enough, but the don’t yet have the methods to pick the bits from separate sources. Aggregation tools as they stand aren’t the answer, and it’s difficult for people to be brave enough to “trust the network” as we have to.

It’ll come, it’s coming — but we’re not there yet — exciting isn’t it?

Hyperstokal – Hyperlocal Blog Wire improvements using Stoke on Trent

I’ve just cloned the Birmingham Hyperlocal blog wire and created a version for Stoke on Trent. Clare White suggested the sources from this list and this delicious tag. Pulling the sources together reiterated to me that for this to work well the source list has to be maintained by someone with a good deal of knowledge of the local area and blogging scenes — you need to find them — and also it helps to have this experience make the decision of which blogs are merely local (based in the area) and those that are hyperlocal (in this sense about the area).

The Stoke blogs gave a chance to try out a couple more of the “tag adding” inputs (Stoke having a couple of art blogs and one that focuses on music):

(Remember these add contextual information to all of the posts from particular feeds.)

A new thing was to take a blog that uses good metadata (in this case D’log) and use that to filter before adding to the pipe. D’log has a “Stoke on Trent” category and as it’s using WordPress it’s possible to get an RSS feed just for this. Consistent metadata (categories or tagging) is unfortunately quite rare, but if a site uses it and runs on a decent platform then you can filter at this level.

Unfortunately D’log doesn’t allow Yahoo Pipes to fetch information from it — this may be because it was creating heavy traffic in the past — using it produces a (408 User-agent timeout (select)) error. To solve this you can route the feed through Feedburner – which will handle the requests.

This time I also experimented with adding a forum feed to the pipe — it may produce too much noise so we will need to add a filter to that, we’ll have to see.

Try out the Hyperstokal pipe here.

Life in Lozells, another good local blog

I spent an enjoyable hour with Kate Foley late last week, Kate is Neighbourhood Manager in Lozells Birmingham and runs the Life in Lozells blog. The site has been running since March 2007, and is an invaluable resource for local info — but Kate is interested in building more of a community around it, generating and hosting conversation as well as collecting information.

> life in lozells: true stories from lozells neighbourhood, birmingham, england
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I suggested that an injection of opinion in to the blog might help that, which is something that it’s difficult for Kate to do in her official capacity — two possible solutions came to mind:

  • invite some other people to contribute, either on subjects that they are “expert” on (they may only be tangentially related to the area), or
  • make use of links, so that Kate is flagging up and pointing to opinion rather than directly offering it herself.

The first relies on use of Kate’s real-world network, pulling voices in to contribute, the second can be done in a more online way but will rely on Kate becoming confident in using search and RSS and building her online connectivity.

Those of you with local blogs, how do you work to build up the conversation?

The Big City Plan – Part 3 – How

After sounding out interested parties, mainly via twitter, a number of us met up at December’s Birmingham Social Media Café — at this point the clock was already on us, we’d only been able to see the Council’s online shortcomings once the official consultation period (legally pegged at eight weeks) had started.

It quickly became clear that we would need to produce a site that was independent from any current web presence — to counteract any fears of us attempting to unduly influence the process. I had already quickly produced a WordPress site to use — intending that “we” (whoever was interested) would use it to produce a translated version.

Big City Plan Talk
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My partner Julia, has done a lot of work using “plain English”  and she convinced me that it was a suitable framework for us to use — she even spent a long evening translating part of the “work in progress” document as an example. The plain English campaign also offer advice and guidance via their website that would prove useful.

I chose WordPress not only because I am very confident with producing sites with it, but because its back-end interface was well known to many of the potential bloggers/translators — there wasn’t time to train people in new skills. There were other options (including CommentPress, a forked version of WP just for online document commenting), but we also had the problem of attempting to show both the original document and the plain English Version alongside each other — something that I wasn’t confident of achieving quickly with a (to me) untried system. It quickly became obvious that WordPress was the only choice in the short term.

In the meeting we decided that:

  • we had to break the document down into as small a chunks as was possible
  • the plain English version had to be absolutely free from any opinion
  • the version we produced had to match the original document structurally, so comments could be easily sorted
  • both versions needed to be viewed simultaneously
  • our version needed to be as searchable as possible, utilizing tags, metadata and whatever tools we had
  • we would collect links to information not stored within the original document, and invite further explanation from users
  • comments would not be held in moderation, and only offensive comments would be removed (in the event none had to be)
  • comments would be threaded – to facilitate debate amongst commenters
  • and it had to be done as soon as possible.

At this point we didn’t worry too much about how to feed the comments back into the official process — the opinion that we would “print them out individually and post them if necessary” was voiced. Time, with the Christmas break upon us, was the main factor.

Micheal Grimes and myself volunteered to take time over the holidays to break the consultation document down into manageable chunks and pull it into the blog structure — in the end this was more difficult to do that we anticipated due to inconsistent numbering styles and the sheer size of the piece. It also took a fair bit of WordPress hackery to get the document to sit properly in order.

Stefan Lewandowski had been part of a group of people consulted at a much earlier stage about the Big City Plan, and his contacts would be useful in smoothing the way as we were all concerned that, whatever our personal views, there was no sense in antagonising the powers that be. In fact there was tacit agreement not to talk about the plan in anything but glowing terms until the site was finished.

The Translation

The Birmingham social media community is wide, and contains a lot of talents, but for differing reasons (personal or work commitments, conflicts of interest) — while there was a lot of support and advice available to us — the number of people available to take on the translation was more limited. In the end myself, Nick Booth, Nicky Getgood, Julia Gilbert and Michael Grimes were the ones that took on the task.

Each will tell you that the job was not easy, that it was not a simple job of changing long words for shorter. I heard the Big City Plan being referred to as having been written in “regeneration-speak” and that’s what it was. Full of passive sentences (which are bad for readability), as well as unexplained acronyms and references to unexplained policies and documents. I would estimate that the team spent around 5-6 hours each an evening for three weeks working on it, which is on top of the work done on the website itself.

Testing and release

As soon as the translation was complete (and in fact just before) we released the site to a few people to test — and to comment, aware that there’s nothing as intimidating to a commenter as a blank “page”. From this we gained a lot of valuable feedback (especially from Mathew Sommerville and Tom Martin) and a good sense that the site we’d produced would be easy enough to use.

Once tweaks were made, and people blogged about it there wasn’t much turning back — we hadn’t explicitly told the council what we were doing, nor had much idea of how they’d react. Personally, I know I was worried about how it would be received — Birmingham is still quite a small town as far as personalities go. There was (still is?) a chance that it could have damaged our reputations.

Feeding comments into the consultation

At first we were pleased with the “official reaction” to the Big City Talk site (we gained links from both the offcial site and the council-run Facebook group), but attempting to organise how to feed the comments being generated into the consultation proved more problematic.

The site quickly and steadily gained a lot of intelligent comments, that it was possible to see were building on each other — in a way that the official process (online at least) didn’t facilitate. We were aware that submitting a large volume of comments needed special handling, and so tried to make it as easy as possible for the consultation workers.

It seemed that despite direct contact that there wasn’t a lot of will in the BCP team (those eventually to deal with the comments)  to work with anything that that they hadn’t already planned for. We repeatedly offered to format and deliver comments from the Big City Talk site in any way that could be done, but we received no guidance. This was disappointing, but the instructions for submitting comments formally were very clear — we were able to submit the comments on paper and also by email. While this was not as convenient as it could or should have been, all the comments were delivered in a manner that ensured they were part of the consultation. Help from the Council’s Communication Team was valuable at this point.

But, has it had a worthwhile effect?

See Also:

The Big City Plan – Part 1 – Constructive Activism

Birmingham is getting a real reputation for being a place where social media doesn’t only happen, it organises and does things that are intended to create social good. From the Social Media Surgeries (developed from a concept used by Pete Ashton by Nick Booth to something almost the whole of the blogging community takes part in) to specially created social enterprises like We Share Stuff (which aims to use social media to help with digital inclusion) there seems to be a collective aim to use the technologies to help as many people as possible. The reputation has spread wide enough for Swedish journalist Axel Andén to come here just to see what we get up to and our motivations.

One of the largest projects has been our volunteer-created online consultation for Birmingham City Council’s Big City Plan — the work which Axel called “constructive activism”.

Birmingham Big City Plan
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The Big City Plan is one part of a larger plan by the council for the future of Birmingham, but it has been heavily promoted as being about “the next twenty years” of the City Centre (and by extension has an impact on the rest of the city). Over Christmas and stretching into early February 2009 the official consultation period on the draft plan (referred to by the council as the “Work In Progress Document”) happened — there were high profile events, advertising hoardings, taxi advertising and even (which I can’t really understand) awards awarded to a draft plan.

Yet there wasn’t really an online version that worked in a good and social way — which lead myself and a group of bloggers to spend huge amounts of our once free time creating a comment-able version of the document that also used plain English.

The Big City Talk site (still live although comments are closed) collected comments and passed them through the official channels, and managed to work without unduly antagonising the Council — whose work it tried to help (although by its existence was perhaps implicitly criticising).

Big City Plan Talk
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I think that the exercise was a success, it has been well received online, perhaps as expected, but also been mentioned in the Cabinet Office’s Power of Information report.

Since the creation, process and reasoning are perhaps interesting for differing reasons I’ve decided to blog about the whole thing in a series of posts:

      Which I’ll post in order as I write them.

      Blog Action Day – Free Social Media Advice for Community & Voluntary Orgs in Birmingham

      Blog Action Day is a call for as much of the blogosphere as possible to write about a specific issue on the same day – October the 15th – coming at the topic from your own blog’s angle. Last year’s topic was the environment, this year it’s poverty.

      Birmingham-based bloggers have decided to hold a free drop-in “social media surgery” for any charities or voluntary organisations that would like to know more about social media in general – or ask specific questions.

      Unfortunately, after helping a little to organise it I discover I’m double booked and not able to be there. It should be invaluable to anyone thinking of dipping their toe into the social media space.

      Here are the full details:

      Continue reading Blog Action Day – Free Social Media Advice for Community & Voluntary Orgs in Birmingham

      MPs and the blogosphere

      I was invited along with a group of other local bloggers to the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham this week. It’s part of the party’s plan to do more in the social media space — including the launch of a blogging platform ‘Blue Blogs‘ on their site. Head of New Media, the very affable, Rishi Saha sorted out passes and security clearance and I met him on Monday for a brief chat about what they were doing.

      Apart from wandering around the Conference itself — think The Ideal Home Exhibition with less, but odder, stands and more press — I attended a number of fringe events about the Internet. The most interesting was run by The Freedom Association and was intended to be about “Freedom and The Internet”, it was really a good chance to see and hear the most famous right-wing bloggers talk amongst themselves. The panel was chaired by Iain Dale, and featured Guido Fawkes, Dizzy, Devils Kitchen and MP Nadine Dorries.

      While all of the other bloggers on stage blog in what I would consider a conventional way — it’s their opinion, on their own chosen subjects, they handle comments, link to others and form part of a community — Nadine doesn’t.

      Part of this comes from what I perceived as her lack of interest, she admitted not to reading other blogs “don’t have the time”  and also doesn’t have comments on her blog — again in part due to lack of time. The other issue is what I would think a lot of other politicians suffer from, a lack of understanding.

      Nadine’s blog is useful to her because of the speed and unmediated way it can get her opinion to those that matter — in her case journalists. That is a blog’s great strength on a “narrowcasting” level, although (in this instance at least) the same could be achieved by emailing the text to the people that are interested.

      It was intimated that Nadine’s blog got her “in trouble with the Chief Whip” — something that she interpreted as her “honesty” being incompatible with high office. Her blog was even cited (in another panel session) as a reason more MPs don’t blog.

      She’s “thinking of giving it up” — it isn’t proving worth the effort she’s spending on it (which considering she emails her “blogs” to someone to put them up for her isn’t too much).

      So. Why don’t MPs blog?

      Continue reading MPs and the blogosphere