Chapter 1

Introduction

In the midst of a world that prizes the global—the worldwide blockbuster, the multinational corporation, the transcontinental social networking site, the international superstar—there is a growing movement in favor of smallness. Among foodies, the “locavore” movement seeks sustenance from local farms. In the midst of the Great Recession, all consumers were urged to “buy local.” In 2010 E.F. Schumacher’s classic economics work Small Is Beautiful was republished.  And in the second decade of the twenty-first century, blogs focused on individual neighborhoods or even city blocks began to hit their stride. As globalization makes the world seem increasingly smaller and more interconnected, the next frontier in online media is not the global, but the hyperlocal. Many have focused on the ability of the Internet to blur geographic boundaries, often to the benefit of increased cross-cultural understanding but the detriment of once-thriving local societies or strong personal relationships. However, as new media come of age, applications of online technologies to problems facing local communities have proliferated.  Both mainstream media and citizen journalists have embraced hyperlocal media to meet the needs of local communities, and consequently, the Internet is becoming as prominent in facilitating interaction and information transfer at the local level as at the national or global levels.

In some ways, these developments may herald a new emphasis on the Internet’s still unfulfilled potential for fostering civic engagement. From its earliest days as a widespread technology, excitement has swirled around the Internet as a tool for fostering democratic discourse and political participation. While it has not become the utopian space envisioned by its earliest supporters, the Internet nonetheless offers many opportunities for political activity and communication that enhance civic life.  As digital media become more accessible to greater swathes of the U.S. population, more participatory, and more dynamic, the roles for new media in civic life have also become more flexible.

This thesis will observe the use of hyperlocal media in one neighborhood to see if the potential for increased community engagement has been realized at such a micro-level. By focusing on the Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Columbia Heights, the study will explore the relationship between community engagement and the varied forms of hyperlocal media that take the neighborhood as their subject, including blogs, list-servs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages. Focusing the study on one neighborhood will allow for a more specific and nuanced understanding of the ways in which multiple media operate in conjunction with one another within a media ecosystem, a holistic approach not undertaken. At the same time, expanding the definition of community engagement to include many ways of being involved in the neighborhood from traditional studies of civic engagement that focus on voting or a narrower set of political activities will allow for a broader understanding of how U.S. residents experience their communities in twenty-first century society. This simultaneous broadening of scope and concentration of focus will add a deeper understanding of issues that are often treated separately in studies of media and politics, while also offering insights that could be useful to urban studies and policy spheres.

In seeking to understand these issues, this study will address a number of research questions that incorporate an interdisciplinary approach across media studies, political science, and network theory. While the study is likely to raise a number of questions, I will focus on answering the following three:

RQ1: How are hyperlocal media used in Columbia Heights?

RQ2: Is there a correlation between community engagement and hyperlocal media use in Columbia Heights?

RQ3: To what extent do social media demonstrate online interaction among Columbia Heights’ users?

The study will thus include both qualitative and quantitative components and employ three primary methodologies. Because few have looked at hyperlocal media holistically—considering how multiple media complement one another within a bounded audience or community—the descriptive aspects of this study are a key first step. A content analysis of selected media will reveal the subjects and the kinds of conversations that hyperlocal media include. Once we understand what hyperlocal media are, we can begin to examine how they impact community engagement. The second methodology employed was a survey distributed to participants in the Columbia Heights community and its hyperlocal media, which asked about their use of hyperlocal media and their involvement in the neighborhood. These first two methodologies revealed differences in how each hyperlocal medium is used, so the third methodology applies social network analysis to Columbia Heights’ social media, specifically looking at the ties that bind a sample of the neighborhood’s Twitter users together.

In answering these research questions, this study will endeavor to show whether digital media—instead of driving users into isolated echo chambers, a fragmented public sphere, or an impersonal global environment—actually enhance public life within a given community. Throughout the study, I will define hyperlocal media as interactive online platforms that serve a niche audience with their narrow geographic scope and allow for the participation of the public, and community engagement as involvement in local government; community or civic associations; or social, business, cultural, religious, or artistic organizations. The genesis of these definitions will be explained in detail in Chapter 4. To gain a deep understanding of the relationship between these two key concepts, this study will test the following hypotheses:

H1: Columbia Heights’ hyperlocal media provide information on neighborhood politics more often than WashingtonPost.com.

H2: Columbia Heights’ hyperlocal media provide information on neighborhood crime more often than WashingtonPost.com

H3: Columbia Heights’ hyperlocal media provide information on neighborhood events more often than WashingtonPost.com.

H4: Columbia Heights’ hyperlocal media provide information on neighborhood real estate more often than WashingtonPost.com.

H5: Columbia Heights’ hyperlocal media include more online conversation than WashingtonPost.com.

H6: Contributors to hyperlocal media are more likely to exhibit a high degree of community engagement in Columbia Heights than those who do not contribute.

H7: People who live in Columbia Heights follow that neighborhood’s hyperlocal media more closely than people who live in other parts of the city.

H8: People who are long-term residents of Columbia Heights are more likely to exhibit a high degree of community engagement than are people who have not yet lived in Columbia Heights on a long-term basis.

H9: Increased use of hyperlocal media is positively correlated with increased community engagement.

H10: The Columbia Heights’ Twitter network is connected by relationships of attention more often than relationships of communication.

H11: Twitter feeds associated with other forms of community engagement (offline or through online counterparts in other media) are more likely to occupy an influential position in the network than those associated with businesses.

The first four hypotheses will provide insight into the subject matter of hyperlocal media, while H5, H10, and H11 will address the interactivity of these media. Hypotheses 6 and 9, meanwhile, will test the study’s larger questions about the relationship between hyperlocal media and community engagement. Hypotheses 7 and 8 test the neighborhood specificity of hyperlocal media and community engagement.

In defining the terms employed in testing these hypotheses, this thesis will build upon the developing body of scholarship on uses of new media in civic life. While literature on hyperlocal media itself is still limited, related fields offer a theoretical basis in which to ground this research. Literature on civic engagement and social capital, the information needs of communities, citizen journalism and the public sphere, and communicative ecologies provide a framework from which to begin. From another perspective, scholarship on knowledge cities adds insights from knowledge management, a field more often applied to business than civic life, but very relevant in this case, as well. By integrating these fields, this thesis will take an interdisciplinary approach to interpreting the data gathered within the broader context in which it operates.

More specifically, this study will build upon previous work on the relationship between new media and social capital. Robert Putnam (2000) argued in Bowling Alone that the Internet, along with television, provided enough entertainment choices so as to be deleterious to civic engagement. Putnam blamed these new media in part for drawing Americans away from public activities that previously fostered the kind of participation in one’s community that led to increased social capital. In a follow-up article, Putnam and Sander (2010) suggest that online social media facilitate civic participation among the “9/11 Generation”—those who were at an impressionable age at the time of the 2001 terrorist attacks. This study will seek to refute Putnam’s arguments about negative or limited media effects, instead looking to expand upon Pippa Norris’ (2000) view that attention to the news reinforces civic engagement, and vice versa.

Within the context of communication in the neighborhood, this study will build upon the recommendations of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy (Mayer et al. 2009). The Commission’s report sets forth basic expectations for the types of information necessary at the local level to further democracy and allow residents to participate in the life of the community. While the Commission found that residents need pertinent and reliable sources of information and the ability and opportunity to engage with and employ that information, it did not specify how these needs are or are not already being met. The report’s generous definition of information to include government and public information will predispose this study to also take a broad view in defining hyperlocal media and evaluating the content it transmits.

In addition to evaluating the content of the information shared through local media, existing literature has also attempted to understand the structures through which this information is disseminated. Lou Rutigliano (2007) argues that emergent communication networks have the greatest potential for advancing civic journalism and broadening participation in the public sphere. His study classified community blogs according to the level of community participation they invite. Angela Button and Helen Partridge (2007) added another layer in their content analysis of 12 neighborhood websites that spanned news, community networking, business and other functions. Button and Partridge employed a multilayered theoretical framework: a social layer that focuses on the groups of people who participate; a discursive layer that pertains to the content discussed; and a technological layer consisting of the devices and media through which communication takes place. My study will take all of these layers into account with a particular focus, often missing in other literature, on the social layer. Similarly, Marcus Foth and Greg Hearn (2007) studied the “communicative ecology” of three inner-city apartment buildings in Australia. Using the same three theoretical layers as Button and Partridge (2007), they found that residents move comfortably between online and offline communication, and local communication and interaction take precedence over global communication. By expanding, Foth and Hearn’s approach, this thesis will take a neighborhood for a case study to look at communication patterns in a more complex system.

The Northwest Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Columbia Heights is a prime site for a case study of hyperlocal media for several reasons. First, as a residential neighborhood in Washington, its local news is often overshadowed by coverage of national politics that attracts the attention of so many journalists in the city at the expense of local reporting (Gloria and Hadge 2010). Second, it is a neighborhood with distinct but permeable boundaries and a diverse population. Columbia Heights spans two Advisory Neighborhood  Commissions (ANC 1A and ANC 1B), which also include other neighborhoods.  Within Columbia Heights, the population of 32,006 is 26.5% white (non-Hispanic), 27.7% white (Hispanic/Latino), 4.3% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 40.6% Black/African-American[1]. Third, as will be discussed below, the neighborhood has a history of engaged residents. Finally, Columbia Heights is served by multiple forms of hyperlocal media and is home to a number of civic, social, and artistic community organizations.

Bounded by Spring Road NW to the north, Florida Avenue NW to the south, 16th Street NW to the west, and Georgia Avenue NW to the east, Columbia Heights has always had an engaged, diverse community and has often been an early adopter of new technologies. Its high elevation at the outskirts of the parts of D.C. that were developed earliest and service by multiple modes of transportation (beginning with streetcars in the nineteenth century) made Columbia Heights an attractive area to Washington’s upper class (Kraft 2010, 245). The Columbia Heights Citizens’ Association was first founded in 1904 to attract residents by publicizing the neighborhood’s best features, but many other community organizations have evolved since then. Among those included in this study will be forms of city government (spanning ANC 1A and 1B) and several neighborhood community and civic associations. In addition to established non-profit organizations and those affiliated with government, the neighborhood is often home to other institutions and individuals that take an interest in social activism, which will be described in greater detail in Chapters 2 and 3.

While Columbia Heights has always been at the vanguard technologically, its adoption of digital media is a more complicated situation. As mentioned earlier, the neighborhood is currently served by multiple hyperlocal media. However, these media are not universally accessible to residents of the neighborhood because of discrepancies in broadband adoption across socioeconomic strata (Leach 2011). Nevertheless, some residents have become savvy users of these new technologies. Columbia Heights first began to garner attention at the citywide level for its use of hyperlocal media when the Washington City Paper alternative weekly newspaper published a story about discussions of the neighborhood’s gentrification and growing pains on its list-serv (Cherkis 2005). Today, those who are plugged in to Columbia Heights’ hyperlocal media follow news and engage in conversation through three hyperlocal blogs and multiple list-servs and Facebook groups. The city of Washington, in general, has a thriving hyperlocal blogosphere at present, but the blog that started the trend towards these neighborhood dispatches, Prince of Petworth, was first inspired by its author’s wanderings through the developing neighborhoods of Columbia Heights and adjacent Petworth (Hadge 2010b).

The development of Columbia Heights’ history and media environment will be chronicled in the following chapters, in addition to empirical analyses of the current media ecosystem. The outline of this work is structured roughly by Lasswell’s (1948) model of the communication process: “Who says what to whom in what channel with what effect?” Chapter 2 will provide a history of the neighborhood chosen for this case study, highlighting the development of community organizations and the ongoing gentrification that continues to be a topic of debate among residents. Chapter 3 offers a broad overview of hyperlocal media in Washington, D.C., in general, and Columbia Heights, specifically. Chapter 4 will set this study in the context of previous literature and provide a theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between hyperlocal media and community engagement in Columbia Heights, with a discussion spanning studies in political communication, new media, information ecosystems, and the knowledge city. Chapters 5 through 7 outline the three methodologies employed in this study and their findings. Chapter 5 begins with the content analysis of Columbia Heights’ hyperlocal media, and Chapter 6 uses survey data to test hypotheses about the relationship between hyperlocal media use and community engagement. Chapter 7 applies social network analysis to a sample of Twitter accounts tied to Columbia Heights individuals or organizations. Finally, Chapter 8 concludes by considering the context of this study’s findings within the broader media environment, as well as the study’s implications for democracy, the knowledge city, and future research. Throughout the work, the review of related literature and the methods used in this study will illuminate paths forward for understanding the economic, social, and civic benefits of hyperlocal media, but let us begin by shining a spotlight on the neighborhood that serves as our case study: Columbia Heights.


[1]All of these demographic figures were calculated using 2010 data from the 8 census tracts that made up Columbia Heights in 2000. Data were used from tract 28.1, tract 28.2, tract 29, tract 30, tract 31, tract 35, tract 36, and tract 37 as indicated on the website NeighborhoodInfoDC (http://www.neighborhoodinfodc.org/censustract/census.html, accessed 2 April 2011).

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