Hard data shatters hyperlocal dream

Crystal Palace transmitter by Lancey (Flickr)

Report by Alex Klaushofer.

When hyperlocal publisher Chris Thomas was casting about for a topic for his postgraduate research, he decided to investigate some of the claims about the rise of hyperlocalism, and come up with some hard data about who is using them, and why.

‘There’s a lot of hype about hyperlocals, but there’s very scant research,’ says Thomas, who has just completed an MA in e-commerce at the University of Wales Trinity St David. For his dissertation, he decided to take a close look at how far such websites have succeeded in replacing more traditional local media, and the profile of their keenest users.

The London suburb he chose for his case study – which happens to be the much-loved habitat of your correspondent – was a rich source of material. Known for its strong community spirit and villlagey feel, Crystal Palace has a healthy range of hyperlocal media, from long-established community website Virtual Norwood to the celebratory local lifestyle mag the Transmitter. Thomas himself runs the online edition of its predecessor the palacemag

He first conducted a survey, leaving paper forms in the local library and cafes and inviting online responses via his website. Almost two hundred people responded, and the findings were then supplemented by a longitudinal study, conducted in February this year, of the ways in which people use Virtual Norwood and the community website for the neighbouring area Sydenham Town.

The key findings suggest that people see hyperlocal media as one small part of the information sources available to them about what is going on locally. ‘Users interact wtih hyperlocal media primarily for their information needs – they’re not looking for entertainment, or community interaction,’ says Thomas.

And it seems that digital media lags behind good old-fashioned word of mouth communication. Person-to-person communication ranked top of the list of thirteen channels delivering local news and information, with social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter coming in the bottom five.

Other results are somewhat disappointing for those who hail hyperlocals as the means for a new wave of citizen-based community activism. Just 3.8% of the members of the community websites were responsible for all contributions to debates, a finding which rather debunks the idea that the web is bringing about a new form of participatory democracy.

Meanwhile, the demographic of those taking part is narrow, with the under-twenties notable in their absence. The standard of users’ education was unusually high – more than double that of the 2001 census data and 22% higher than the average person in the research sample.

‘Hyperlocal websites are affected by an extremely narrow social demographic, middle class, middle aged and highly educated,’ says Thomas. ‘This is far higher than is seen in general web use and much higher than in general society. This lack of diversity could mean that similar opinions are being made by similar voices.’

Shrewdly, Thomas also uncovered some hard data to evidence the dynamics of local politics by asking whether fear of negative reaction put people off contributing to discussions: some 61% of respondents said they had hesitated in posting something due to fear of criticism.

The anecdotal responses that emerged en route were particularly revealing. ‘Some members of the forum complained of pettiness, and people hiding behind their avatars,’ he reports. Other respondents suggested that some posters used multiple screen names to launch attacks on people with opposing views.

‘It seems that participation inequality is higher in hyperlocal websites than in forums in general,’ says Thomas. ‘This could be because people are more passionate about their own locale, as what happens there affects them directly. This is particularly the case in areas such as planning, crime, shops and services. When key local campaigners get involved in postings they will have their own agenda and try to influence others as much as they can.’

So what should media-watchers conclude from these findings? At this early stage in the digital revolution, such research is as valuable as it is rare. But rather than throw out the baby with the hyperlocal bathwater, we should perhaps use it as a reality check, a reminder that the claim that new media alone is capable of opening up a brave new world, should be treated with caution. It’s still the old world, with all its human failings, and a bit of new technology thrown in.