is there a danger of #hyperlocal becoming hyper-elitist?

I’ve been working on (more here from the project blog) since late January 2015.  It’s been a fascinating exploration of new tech, new communication dynamics – and possibly false starts.

I’ve realised a number of things (some of which I knew already – things which, as with giving birth in almost any context, time after time will be forgotten in the haze of yet another excitable project-initiation …).  Here are a few, in no particular order:

  • it’s much easier to build a website which defines an existing offline space than to build an offline space out of a website which wishes to define
  • people are suspicious when you want to devolve access to the many
  • people are happy to accept you if you show eagerness to form part of existing clubs
  • the models of #hyperlocal para-journalism and communication that seem to be fleshing out may be acquiring analogous structures of power – and its exertion – which the real world they occupy, and interface with, tend to exhibit

I suggest before we continue that you read Dan Hind’s recent piece on the public, and how we might divine its public interest – a process of self-instruction that may take place quite despite the fact that the media we have reserves the right to conceptualise and edit severely the reality in question.

As he suggests, the fragmentation of industry models and pieces (or lack of them) of financial cake, all of which have been causing the newspaper sector so much strife over the past decade or so, has led to a public perception quite outside what you’d expect.  He mentions the following data:

A YouGov poll for the Media Reform Coalition in the UK has found that there is majority support for a fund to support investigative and local journalism, raised from “a levy on the UK profits of the largest media companies (including search engines, social media and Pay TV companies).”

A full 25% of those polled were neutral about the idea. Another 15% said that they didn’t know. Nevertheless, 51% either strongly supported or tended to support it. Only 9% opposed it.

There is something remarkable about this. Politicians, to the extent that they have spoken about the media and its power post-Leveson, have tended to focus on the issue of newspaper regulation. Journalists and broadcasters have also been noticeably reluctant to discuss the full range of possibilities for media reform.

But even in the absence of a serious debate in the mainstream, the public already support the idea of a journalism fund. […]

This is all well and good – even as there are considerably vested interests ranged against any such ideas.  What Hind makes manifest, however, and where I’d like to focus the rest of this post, is how the power of the media to edit that aforementioned reality is falling away rather dramatically as far as its ability to define the public’s beliefs around what public interest should really entail.

It’s fascinating that, despite everything, the public should appear to be becoming so wayward.

I think that’s positive.

And I have wondered if #hyperlocal mightn’t be part of a more global solution to the current lack of democratic and institutional scrutiny which our media is currently demonstrating.  From evermore under-resourced mainstream local media to an overwhelmingly celebrity and selfie culture (whether this be in a political context or a wider infotainment sense), proper examination and follow-up of what the powerful are doing hardly seems – in truth – to be focussing on what the powerful really do.

Reverting to #hyperlocal, then: my view is that it should explicitly broaden direct and unmediated access as much as possible (which is partly why I am so in favour of using wiki tech).

If truth be told, were it to simply reproduce the broadcast approach which combines controlled content with socially-networked frills, it would end up acquiring the same elitist structures that define – and have led to – the decline of mainstream media.

But is there a danger of #hyperlocal becoming hyper-elitist – of, maybe, the structures which are losing their grip over public discourse reattaching themselves to a new business and democratic model?

Of course there is.  Of course there must be.  And my experience over the past few months would seem to indicate that this might very well be happening.

The tech is cheap to run; the generally non-party politics of the game play into the hands of those who are interested in using – and have the time and inclination to employ – such politics to already fashion our wider lives; and those who know from previous experiences quite a bit about moving the masses are happy to move their radius of action to something, which just like the Internet all those years ago, promises real renewal … and yet, ultimately, simply allows a repeat and re-establishment of everything that went before.

Even so, I’m still hopeful.

But that doesn’t mean I’m optimistic.

What I do say, however, as a thought for the near future, is if we believe that #hyperlocal might become a politicised tool in the hands of those who wish to maintain an elitist view of democratic engagement, maybe it’s time we seriously considered making our #hyperlocal more political too.

Not party political, though – I don’t mean that.  That’s been done to a very sorry death.  It’s still necessary, mind; but there’s plenty of stuff out there which serves it well.  Or if not well, at least slavishly.

No.  Something more campaigning, and unifying.  What I’m now trying to engineer here perhaps?

A #hyperlocal which connects the dots between itself and a progressive national (where this can still be found) – and, by so doing, helps to network the better sides of humanity with an intelligent approach we locate firmly in a wider society …


Further reading: this piece, from Jennifer Jones, provides excellent conceptualisation and informed debate about the issues around #hyperlocal platforms reproducing legacy behaviours – issues which I raise, a little sadly, today.  Well worth your time; a brilliant read.


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