4 minutes reading time (713 words)

Make Twitter hyperlocal again

Make Twitter hyperlocal again

I'd like to ask you to do something for me. Open the Twitter app on your phone, and click the magnifying glass at the bottom. Up pops a page which offers a search box, followed by a list of Twitter's most popular topics at the moment.

It's likely that you have given Twitter at least a general understanding of where you are: "UK", "Oxford", or wherever, and perhaps also turned on location sharing. If so, then Twitter will want to serve topics which are local to you.

How many of them actually are local to you? One? Three, perhaps? Are there any which are largely meaningless to you? Something about a celebrity, maybe, or someone's tweet from far away that happens to have caught mass attention? Maybe there's some news in there which means nothing to you unless you live in the US? There's probably at least one of these examples in there.

Once you have done that, search Twitter for your town's name. There should be at least a few interesting tweets in there. However, my bet is that none of those interesting tweets have made it to Twitter's hot topics page. Some of them in fact may be from your local newspaper, which is desperate for attention in an era when that is exactly the sort of currency that delivers revenue.

Local newspapers used to have a captive audience. They would be weighty, 80-page weekly tomes covering everything from the progress of Sunday league pub football teams, to classified ads, to a huge array of estate agency ads in the middle. All of these areas are now either replaced, or are being replaced (I won't say dis*****d) by digital communications technology. Waiting for a Wednesday or Thursday paper to browse houses or classifieds are irrelevant, when Rightmove/Zoopla and eBay do that at any time. In reality, the only thing left for local newspapers is to try to work out a way to fund local journalism, which in itself is practically dead.

"Hyperlocal" was due to be the revolution that addressed many of these problems. Hundreds, if not thousands, of small-batch websites were to spring up across the country, run by people who genuinely wanted to reflect their community's news and events. There were hyperlocal events and discussion groups all over the place. It was one of the themes which came out of Jeremy Hunt's Local TV initiative.

Fast-forward ten years and the picture is of a entity struggling to survive - like the local newspapers which they aimed to compliment but really wanted to replace. The Guardian totemically killed off its hyperlocal experiments in cities like Leeds early on, which took the bottom out of the sector. Local TV has been nothing more than an afterthought for audiences and regulators, and has basically been an expensive disaster. The remaining hyperlocal sites are run as more of a third-sector endeavour - rather like David Cameron's idea for the Big Society, where volunteers would club together to run things for a shared, local, mutual benefit (which turned out to be a strategic way to explain a more tactical, and considerable reduction, in the funding of social facilities).

In my mind, there is a nexus between the death of hyperlocal and the absence of local coverage by Twitter. Reach plc, publisher of many local newspapers in the UK, is worth £273m. Twitter is worth around 13 times that.

Twitter's news curation, matching localised interests to users, is frankly dire. Its centralised view of the world doesn't help users seeking diversity of thought, or indeed helps the brand in becoming something stronger than "a popular place to share stuff". It could be an extraordinary place for local news curation, with editors and journalists forming stories and threads from news that people actually on-the-ground are reporting all of the time. In fact, the journalists could be from the local newspapers themselves, providing a sustainable model for supporting journalism while giving Twitter a free platform for publishers to develop new propositions. It will be the "local TV" that the aforementioned initiative could have been, at a fraction of the start-up and running costs.

If Twitter does this, then it would seize a massive opportunity. If it doesn't, then someone else should.

​Paul Squires is the publisher of Imperica.

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