Online hyperlocal: power shifts coming

At the conference of Dutch-speaking investigative journalists a few days ago I listened to a presentation by Vadim Lavrusik of the social media advice portal mashable.com and I began to see what a profound change the new hyperlocal news sites might, in time, effect.

Lavrusik namechecked a series of sites in the US doing effective accountability journalism by mobilising communities. He mentioned the Talking Points Memo Muckraker section (slogan: “they have the muck; we have the rakes”), a survey of condom outlets in Colorado, tbd.com and the “stink map” for Columbia, South Carolina. Tbd.com, which covers parts of Washington DC and northern Virginia had appealed for information on escalators that weren’t working in the metro system and they accelerated repairs by generating public pressure.

Local online journalism isn’t quite as developed in Britain as in the US, but there’s no doubt that it’s growing (example here). In all the places where local printed news is losing money or prominence, we’re at the start of what will come to be a big shift in the way local politics works.

As you can see if you look a few of Vadim Lavrusik’s examples, the first thing that happens is that power starts to flow towards people who are adept at using the new sources of power. In this case that means groups or individuals who are smart with new media and social media, who can mobilise campaigns which use information in new and agile ways. Local authorities, not usually famed for their nimbleness, are sitting targets for this new style of Twitter and Facebook activism.

That might be the first phase; the next stage may be more complicated. Suppose that the authority running the metro system in Washington DC had reckoned on repairing the escalators but had not made it the first priority and put it behind something it considered more urgent still. Who has right on their side here? The group armed with the glamour of new media and new means of mobilisation? Or the publicly appointed officials weighing the public interest?

Those using new media may well be able to say that they are giving voice to information which could not have been assembled or seen as a pattern before they came along. That clearly seems to have been the case with the defective escalators. But the fact that complainants can map their criticisms or gather evidence with Twitter doesn’t axiomatically mean that they can jump the queue for scarce public resources.

In other words, elected power, journalism and information are adjusting their relationship again because the rules have been changed by the arrival of new technology. Some of the most interesting debates around this are going to be very local. Power is moving.

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3 comments

  1. What you’re touching on here is digital inclusion of course. Whilst users of new & social media can appear to affect change or response, are they doing so to the detriment of those who don’t, can’t or won’t use the tools. I.e. politicians respond to whoever has the biggest voice.

    • Quite right, but inclusion is only one aspect. There is certainly potential unfairness to those who don’t have or don’t do digital. But there are other angles. What happens on social media, or on new media of any kind, can be useful and illuminating but it isn’t the same as voting. Many have argued that opinions on Facebook and Twitter aren’t very reflective. How do we know whether people grouping on social media are representative – or even authentic? I’d guess that the ways of estimating the answers to these questions will improve very fast in the near future. But they will still deserve to be compared to the established processes of democracy.

  2. On the other hand – traditional participatory democracy (the stuff that happens between voting cycles) tends to happen at public meetings – and yet these are often poorly attended, and could easily be said to be unrepresentative too.

    The way I see it, is that used correctly, digital tools enable more people (esp time poor, busy people, or people with mobility problems, or people who feel uncomfortable expressing a view at public meetings for a whole host of reasons) to participate in local democracy more easily, and at a time and place of their choosing.

    That’s probably a good thing. But it does certainly present challenges to existing decision making structures.