How the worldwide web can work at community level

Attempts to make the web work at a local level are hostage to continuing supplies of enthusiasm and funding. But the efforts of community site builders have thrown up three potentially viable models – and some lessons for grassroots ‘communities’ wi

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Ever since the worldwide web was invented, people have been trying to make the local web work. In theory, we should all be able to go to a site where we can find everything we need to know about our community. In practice few of us can, for one simple reason: small scale means small profits, and most often none at all.
Why would we want to use a global medium for purely local communication? Because its other attributes make it attractive: a website is an easily-updatable noticeboard that can also be a discussion area, a marketplace and a tourist information centre. Its nearest rival is the local newspaper – of which more later – but it can do most things a paper can do, better and more cheaply.

Money no objective

There are plenty of sites that do not attempt to make money. In the US, where local government is so strong, every community with more than a few hundred people has an official site. In Europe local sites are more likely to be built by enthusiastic amateurs. The results are patchy, especially in villages or small towns. The official sites are often half-hearted: I picked Willard, Ohio, off the map and found a site that is low-budget, utilitarian and old-fashioned. Amateur sites have often been abandoned – enthusiasm has a habit of running out – and sit in a state of animation suspended two or three years ago. Or they may be brimming with enthusiasm but not much skill. Jonvelle, in eastern France, has a wonderfully over-the-top site produced by “Eric”. It has masses of information and pictures on it, but I have never seen so many flying words and unnecessary animations.
There are, of course, some terrific amateur sites. The UK has a handful of “village portals” that help you find them, and also provide support to local webmasters. They include Villages Online and UK Villages Online, which helpfully runs an award scheme to highlight the most impressive efforts. So it was that I found myself looking at the site for Wrenbury-cum-Frith in Cheshire – a model site that has neat design, up-to-date news, links to local information and a “Where are they now?” noticeboard. And also at West Farleigh in Kent, with its church services, a transport questionnaire and an archive of village newsletters.

Lack of discussion

Ambridge is the fictional location of The Archers, BBC Radio’s venerable rural soap. A recent storyline has centred on whether the village website should have a discussion board. One of the characters claimed they were very popular. She’s wrong – few of the individual village sites I looked at had discussions although UK Villages Online does host them for 40 or so communities. The traffic is mostly thin, but there is evidence that once a forum starts being used, it will get momentum. Cookham in Berkshire accounts for more than a quarter of all the UK postings, and is used by villagers to report bird sightings, show off a giant fish, ask where the best bed-and-breakfasts are. Proper community stuff.

In search of income

But busy and high quality sites are in a tiny minority, because they rely on the continuing energy of skilled people prepared to work for nothing. The only way most of us will get a good local community site is if it can make money., the UK site that received £12m of Rupert Murdoch’s cash in 1999, has just been saved from oblivion by a US company, Upmystreet was originally built as a bit of fun by a web design company, but quickly evolved into an all-singing, all-dancing local information and community site. Put in a postcode and find a raft of information, from house prices via the nearest locksmith to the fascinating Acorn demographic profile. Then compare your area with any other in the UK. The “Conversations” forum is well used, at least in my area. But the classified and display advertising, as well as deals to sell the technology, have clearly not been enough. I hope USwitch can make the numbers add up.
It seems to me that some form of aggregated model, like Upmystreet, must be the best bet for commercial success. I found three possible routes.

Three commercial models

  • Get funding from a large organisation that hopes to get spin-off benefits. In The Netherlands, has standardised, and sometimes shared, information about 20 communities, with a concentration on promoting products and telling you where you can buy them. It is run by Rabobank, and as it still going after six years, I reckon it must be seen as a success. Back in 1997 Rabobank told me that the point of Tref was to be “a relationship marketing tool for our local banks, so they can help business in a way that is not related to finance”.
  • Then there are sites that belong to local newspapers. My favourite is Kent Online, which has a section for every community in the county, fed by a network of local correspondents. Its online effort is integrated with the print papers, and aims to boost advertising and sales.
  • But the most intriguing model is, because it seems to be succeeding as a standalone operation. Unlike the other village sites it is not a portal: all the content is contained within it. Every village, town and city in the UK has its own ‘site’ sitting within a frame, with standardised links to information about shops, pubs etc.. But clicking around, it is clear that most of this material is bare bones stuff drawn from databases – the references are accompanied by invitations to villagers to add more if they can.
    In some cases, these invitations have been taken up, and the village site has become a proper community area. For the most part, though, UKvillages is a giant jigsaw waiting to be completed. Does that matter? I don’t think so. The site gets revenue from national and local advertisers who take space in the surrounding frame, and as long as that is enough to cover costs, UKvillages will slowly be transformed into a valuable resource. It is a route many long-gone dotcoms (and indeed Upmystreet) should have followed: create the framework, cover your costs, and be patient.
    Will this be the model that allows us all to have high quality local community information? It seems possible – though I hope it does not displace the successful amateur efforts, or even the not-so-great but not-to-be-missed ones like Eric’s in Jonvelle.

First published 18 June, 2003
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