In 2003, as a grad student at NYU, I created a site called Neighbornode, which was a series of bulletin boards for local neighborhood residents to log on to and talk to each other in cities. The site was very simple, and to be totally honest a bit of a hack (I was never a fabulous coder). But the idea alone was enough to attract a good amount of attention and interest from people around the world. Just the notion of the web being overlaid on top of physical space, at such an ultra-local level was at that time newsworthy. The New York Times commented “If these do-it-yourself nodes catch on, a new form of urban communication may emerge.”
Skipping forward six years, Neighbornode is long gone (it was just a school project), but an entire class of web content, dubbed “hyperlocal”, has emerged around the notion of location-based news, information and discussion. And this week, Everyblock, one of the preeminent hyperlocal web sites, was acquired by MSNBC.
What does this merger, of a relatively small site built on aggregated geolocated data, and a news media mega-giant signify? Lots of things, to be sure. But mainly it signifies that the formerly niche concept of hyperlocal – that location matters as a component of online data, particularly in relation to where you, the reader, happen to be right now – has been accepted, validated, maybe even co-opted by the mainstream media.
The significance here is symbolic, more than anything else – the change has been happening for a long while now. News has been increasingly hyperlocal for the past two years. Outside.in, the website I co-founded in 2006 with Steven Johnson and Cory Forsyth, serves up millions of hyperlocal blog stories per month to readers all around the country, on its home site as well as on a wide variety of partner websites. News companies, once leery of anything written by anyone without a journalism degree, are now embracing local bloggers (though sometimes reluctantly) as a bona fide part of their future. And it’s not just the news that has gone local. Social networks have gone local (take a look at Foursquare). Politics online is local (look at the gov2.0 groups springing up in towns everywhere bent on reinventing local politics online). Most importantly, perhaps, advertising online is going local, allowing all of this localization of content to be supported with local ad dollars. So this local wave has been building for a long time.
But with the acquisition of Everyblock, that wave has now started to crest. And with that, I think it’s time we ditched the term “hyperlocal” and got beyond the idea that localized content is somehow niche, a tiny subset of the online experience, able to be regarded or disregarded at the whim of the user. Instead, as this wave breaks, we’re arriving at a place where everything is local, or is location-aware, and no special attention needs to be called to it. It is part of the makeup of the web, woven into it, seamlessly, fully expected by everyone. In the era of geolocative smart phones, geolocative browsers that know exactly where you are when you load a webpage, and geotagged data, calling anything hyperlocal begins to sound redundant, like vinyl records from the 60s that announced that they were “stereophonic”. Of course it’s hyperlocal – it knows where you are, it knows where it is, and knows exactly what the distance is between those two places. It can tell you everything that anyone has said about the place you’re standing right now, it can tell you where the nearest subway stop is, it can recommend the five best pizza places within half a mile of you, and it can tell you the name of the representative for that district and how he/she voted.
Just like every record is now stereo and that fact is taken for granted by all, the future of the web is fully local, and that local-ness will be taken for granted as well. The more noteworthy case becomes the site that is not location-aware. And in that scenario, why do we need the term ‘hyperlocal’ at all? We don’t, and the term will go away, to be replaced by the term “the web”.
That’s fine with me – let’s get on with it. The web of the future, local and all, is going to be great.
As with all review and opinion pieces posted on Urban Omnibus, the views expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.
John Geraci writes, consults and speaks on how to make cities more efficient, effective and livable with web technology. He started DIYcity, a site that invites people everywhere to personally reinvent the spaces around them using common web applications. Previously, he co-founded and served as Head of Product for Outside.in, a leading hyperlocal news site that lets people experience the news right around them in real time.