Chapter 4

Literature Review

At the time of this writing, “hyperlocal” is a buzzword in the media world. Although the term was unheard of twenty years prior and may be forgotten twenty years hence, the mission of hyperlocal media is no mere flash in the pan. Instead, their role fits into a context that has both historical depth and disciplinary breadth. Understanding how hyperlocal media work, therefore, requires a macro, not micro, perspective, so this study benefits from an interdisciplinary approach. Rather than focus solely on the relationship between media effects and voting, this study will look at uses and gratifications theory that incorporates non-political uses, as well. Hyperlocal media stand out for their ability to zero in on the very specific to reflect the concerns of a narrow population in a way that other media cannot, but part of comprehending this unique asset requires knowledge of all the gratifications hyperlocal media satisfy, not just those confined to the political realm. Instead of trying to meet the Habermasian ideals of a public sphere, this study will consider the many modern phenomena at work on public spheres both virtual and face-to-face. It will expand the definition of civic engagement to one that embraces multiple ways of participating in the public life of a community. In addition, scholarship on informed communities and knowledge cities will give a context for hyperlocal media that expands their role as conveyors of news to one that plays a part in the longer-term development of a knowledge-based society. Finally, the interactive potential of hyperlocal media will be situated within the lens of social network analysis, in recognition of the fact that local news is just one part of a broader communicative context in a community.

Why Study Hyperlocal Media?

Research at the local level is not a new trend in political communication scholarship. In 1940, Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet (1944) tracked a group of subjects in Erie County, Ohio, in the months leading up to the presidential election to determine how they made their electoral decisions. Their findings led to the development of the two-step flow model of public opinion, in which local opinion leaders serve as intermediaries between the press and the general public in determining how opinion will form in response to news. Even though their study looked at a matter of national significance, the patterns they saw demonstrated the effects of the press on the public at the local level.

A similar study fifty years later by Mondak (1995) demonstrated the relevance of local newspapers to electoral participation in his comparative study of the 1992 Presidential, Senate, and U.S. House elections in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. During Mondak’s study, Pittsburgh was in the midst of an eight-month newspaper strike, leaving the city without a daily paper. While radio, television, and suburban newspapers in the Pittsburgh area tried to increase their news coverage, the study concluded that they did not fill the gaps left by the newspapers after comparing Pittsburgh with Cleveland, which had its full complement of news media in the run-up to the election. While the subjects of Mondak’s study in Cleveland used local television and newspapers as complementary sources of election information, Pittsburgh residents turned to a variety of national news sources for information about the national election. For their state Senate election, Pittsburgh voters turned to their social networks. It is the latter point that is especially of interest to this study. Given the gaps in coverage of local politics in Washington in the city’s mainstream media (eg, Gloria and Hadge 2010), Mondak’s study of newsgathering in the absence of newspapers is useful. Furthermore, since this study looks at new media platforms that inherently allow more active participation and discussion among audiences, a finding on the strength of social networks in sharing local news is especially applicable. Hyperlocal media have the potential to expand one individual’s local social network to tap into those of the entire community.

While it is easy to track an interest in local news, pinpointing the definition of “hyperlocal” media is somewhat more ambiguous. As a news medium, it is difficult to define hyperlocal coverage. This is in part because hyperlocal media are created and disseminated through multiple digital platforms and can include a range of news, narratives with less immediate news value, communication forums, and other information resources. However, defining “hyperlocal” compared with local is also complicated because it tends to be relative to a particular news market.

Defining “Hyperlocal”

In reaching a definition for hyperlocal media, there are a few attributes to consider. First, hyperlocal is narrower than local news to the extent that it fills a niche need in the community. Hyperlocal sources cover news of interest to a select audience, such as “the stories and minutiae of a particular neighborhood, ZIP code or interest group within a certain geographic area” (Shaw 2007, 55). In this study, and within the context of the District of Columbia as a city-state divided into dozens of neighborhoods, hyperlocal will refer to one neighborhood within one of eight city wards. Often, though, hyperlocal news sources could be those that cover a town with limited media coverage from other outlets.

Second, most successful hyperlocal outlets employ a multimedia platform that encourages interactivity. This interactivity can span from discussion to actual content production, and it is an inherent aspect of media that are oriented towards a niche community. Rutigliano (2007) demonstrates the salience of interactive, participatory media in his definition of community blogs as “websites that invite participation from residents of a particular geographic area and allow the public to assume responsibility for media production” (229). Public responsibility for production, though, can come in the form of readers contributing to a site’s production or sole production of a site (or other digital medium) by someone who does not consider him- or herself a professional journalist. Rutigliano (2007) sees three categories of production: controlled, in which one writer is responsible for all content; hybrid, in which a small staff contributes content and moderates that contributed by the public; and open, in which there is very little intervention by a blog’s administrator or advisers with the content published (230). The tone and mission of the specific medium in question largely determine the extent of public control over its content.

There are mixed views towards the use of citizen journalism. Professional journalists and established news organizations tend to be more skeptical about making citizen-produced journalism a significant portion of their news production. Writing in the American Journalism Review, Shaw (2007) observes that incorporating user-generated content “can help journalists build stronger relationships with readers…[b]ut it also has the potential to trivialize a media organization’s brand” (55). Shaw cites the vice president of strategic planning at Gannett, which she praised for its expansion into hyperlocal coverage, as one who supports growth into hyperlocal coverage but still relies upon professional journalists for reporting because they possess necessary training the public lacks (56). Dan Silverman of the D.C. blog Prince of Petworth himself argued that reporting is a “skill set” and professionally trained journalists are still vital for investigative projects because they have the time and unique expertise to do so (“Digital District” 2010).

In summary, then, this study 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. This broad definition allows us to consider media other than blogs and online news sites, which have garnered the majority of attention in the buzz surrounding “hyperlocal.” Other online media (such as list-servs, Twitter, and Facebook) also meet these criteria and may, therefore, also meet the media needs of the community.

While hyperlocal media appear to hold great potential, studies measuring their nascent impact show that online media have not yet filled the gaps left by mainstream media, which have cut back on local coverage in recent years. A study of Chicago’s media landscape by the Community Media Workshop (Mayer and Clark 2009) found that the gaps left by declining local news coverage have not yet been filled by online hyperlocal news publications. Gloria and Hadge (2010) determined that hyperlocal online media covered more topics specific to particular neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., but lacked the journalistic clout and financial sustainability of mainstream media. Similarly, in Seattle, Washington, where hyperlocal online start-ups have proliferated in recent years, scarce financial resources present a challenge to providing long-term alternatives to local coverage cuts in traditional media. Consequently, some of the more successful experiments in local news have been collaborations between legacy media and hyperlocal online start-ups (Durkin, Glaisyer, and Hadge 2010). In addition to financial constraints, Hendrickson (2007) also acknowledges the limited protections bloggers receive compared with the established press, but argues that it is time for bloggers to be integrated into the broader institution of the press. Traditional news outlets, she explains, still hold “much of the natural advantage in newsgathering” due to their “large budgets, highly skilled staffs and built-in checking mechanisms” (200). As collaborations between hyperlocal start-ups and established legacy media become more common, some of these distinctions may begin to change, and hyperlocal media may have a better chance at financial sustainability.

The Public and the Media: Uses and Gratifications Theory

In a media environment in which mainstream local broadcast and print news reporting have been crippled by financial woes, local online news start-ups and other hyperlocal new media provide an opportunity to re-examine what it is the public seeks from local news sources. Often, hyperlocal media efforts emerge out of the passion of an individual and a desire to serve the public interest, not profit motives. These motives are complemented by platforms that allow for immediate user feedback through online commenting or social media. For this reason, embracing a uses and gratifications approach to studying hyperlocal media seems very relevant. The theoretical framework laid out by Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch (1973) is still applicable in assessing the value-added provided by today’s media. Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch (1973) build upon Lasswell’s (1948) understanding of media gratifications of “surveillance, correlation, entertainment, and cultural transmission (or socialization)” (Katz, Blumler, and Gurevitch, 1973, 512) by acknowledging that the structural characteristics of different media can meet varied needs. Kaye and Johnson (2002) update the uses and gratifications model by observing that online media “require audience members to be active users” (56), not merely passive consumers seeking the fulfillment of specific needs. However, Kaye and Johnson associate the “guidance” and “information seeking/surveillance” gratifications exclusively with political information (Kaye and Johnson 2002, 61). Because media can and do impact non-political aspects of public life, as well, a broad variety of media gratifications should be taken into account when trying to understand the relationship between media and civic engagement. Thus, this study incorporates a broad selection of hyperlocal media that use different platforms to determine how each medium meets the needs of its users, while also asking what gratifications the public seeks from hyperlocal media in general.

In addition to acknowledging the breadth of the public’s media needs, it is also important to characterize media effects in the context of a broad spectrum. Lawrence and Bennett (2000) observe that there have traditionally been three ways of understanding the public in political communication scholarship:

as active deliberators engaging in serious, rational discourse about substantial matters of public policy; as passive spectators responding acquiescently to contrived “media spectacles”; or as cognitive misers responding heuristically to elite and media “cues.” (378)

Instead of existing in such stark contrast to one another, Lawrence and Bennett (2000) argue, publics now display civic engagement through their response to “big stories” in the “gray areas” of these categories (378). I would go one step further to say that publics vary their responses to media depending on the importance to them of the subject being covered, as well as the medium through which the message is transmitted. Different media can inspire different degrees of attention and participation, and in today’s saturated, interactive media environment, it seems likely that the public will respond only to certain characteristics of content and medium, based on their personal preferences and media needs.

Fractures in the Public Sphere

While uses and gratifications theory implies that the public personalizes their level of interaction with the media according to their own preferences, segmentation and globalization alternately aid and hinder their ability to do so. Meyrowitz (2005) observes that “we now increasingly share information with and about people who live in localities different from our own” and “more frequently intercept experiences and messages originally shaped for, and limited to, people in other places” (23). With media serving as “mental ‘global positions systems’” (Meyrowitz 2005, 24), we have a better sense of our place within the public sphere. However, access to global media allows the public to neglect or ignore local media and media outlets to prioritize news stories that will be of interest to a broader audience. Bringing the global to local audiences—Meyrowitz’s idea of “glocality” as the blurring of geographical boundaries—changes our sense of place. Although this expands public access to information about far-flung locales, it also can create a sense of detachment, and as Meyrowitz observes, “we can come to live in places without ever fully integrating into the place-defined community” (27). With so many media options to choose from, the public has an expanded sense of space both in terms of geography and the public sphere. At the same time, the proliferation of increasingly specialized news outlets leads to media segmentation, in which the public can seek out preferred media sources exclusively and shared media experiences become rare. This bodes ill for Katz (1996), whose ideal setting for participatory democracy includes a “central space” in which to set the agenda for public discourse and “dispersed spaces” in which to debate these points before returning to the central space for decision-making purposes (23).[1] Of course, segmentation is not the worst outcome if it allows people to better meet their media needs, but without a way of centralizing conversation at some point, the public sphere becomes ineffective.

Putnam (2000) sees the negative effects of these phenomena on local communities in his lament that civic engagement is decreasing and the Internet is at least partly to blame. Putnam’s (2000) two main critiques of the Internet stem from its effects on news consumption. First, he notes that those for whom the Internet is the primary source of news tend to be “generalists” in the news they consume (221); presumably, this means they do not focus on specific, local issues in their news consumption. Second, he observes that those who rely primarily on the Internet for news also tend to have lower levels of civic participation (221). Similarly, he criticizes mass media and technology for turning entertainment into a private activity, rather than a shared one (216). While he had personal electronics and television in mind, had he been writing ten years later it seems likely he would find the Internet guilty of the same fault. One of the main thrusts of this study is to see if, with the rise of hyperlocal media, the Internet might actually foster or coincide with community engagement in the absence of membership in community associations, rather than stifle it.

This pessimism towards the Internet’s impact on civic life verges on technological determinism, the idea that technology drives the development of culture and society. Why should adoption of new technologies necessarily disengage people from face-to-face interaction in their communities? The effects of the Internet on community engagement are more nuanced than Putnam’s (2000) initial argument. At the same time Putnam was discounting the Internet as something to beware of, Norris (2000) praised its potential for improving civic life. In a representative democracy, she argued, news media can serve “as a civic forum encouraging pluralistic debate about public affairs, as a watchdog against the abuse of power, and as a mobilizing agent encouraging public learning and participation in the political process” (Norris 2000, 12; italics sic). Particularly through the third role, contemporary news media actually stimulate political participation among those who are already engaged, a phenomenon Norris (2000) termed “the virtuous circle.” While Norris’s argument did not center specifically upon the Internet, it was interested in the effects of the mass media. Since the Internet and digital technologies have greatly magnified the omnipresence of mass media since 2000, it only makes sense to imagine that the media effects of the turn of the century have intensified in the ensuing years through the rise of communication technology.

Defining Community Engagement

Although Putnam’s views on technology are at odds with my own, his understanding of civic engagement does inform this study’s choice to use the term “community engagement” as a more inclusive measure of individuals’ involvement in the public life of their communities. Putnam understood civic engagement to mean “people’s connections with the life of their communities, not merely with politics” (Putnam 1995, 665). This was the source of his displeasure that membership in community groups and other voluntary organizations has declined, but membership in groups based on nationality and hobbies increased during the last three decades of the twentieth century (Putnam 1995, 666). For Putnam, these local connections were tied to political participation and legacy media, as he found that “[o]lder people belong to more organizations than young people,…vote more often and read newspapers more frequently” (673). But just because younger generations do not exhibit these tried and true patterns does not necessarily mean they are disengaged from their communities. In fact, Americans are, in a way, more rooted to their locations, as we move house less often than our forebears did a generation ago (669). This raises several questions: What makes people feel connected to a local community? What makes them participate in the public life of that community? And to what extent will hyperlocal media assume the one-time role of newspapers in stimulating community engagement? By adapting Putnam’s definition of participation to a more contemporary context, this study will identify community engagement by the following characteristics:

  • Involvement in local government, including attendance at government meetings and voting
  • Attendance at community or civic association meetings
  • Participation in social, business, cultural, religious, or artistic organizations

The first of these comes from a long tradition of studies of civic behavior based on voter participation, and the second criterion is influenced by Putnam (1995, 2000). The third criterion, however, is in response to Putnam’s finding that younger generations today simply do not belong to the kinds of associations, organizations, or group-oriented social activities as they once did. Dalton (2006) also recognized that there are at least two ways of categorizing civic participation: as “citizen duty,” such as reporting a crime or voting; and through “engaged citizenship,” such as “being active in civil society groups and general political activity” (3). Together, these offer many opportunities for communities be considered “engaged.” Yes, Americans are bowling alone, but that does not necessarily mean they are disengaged from their communities. The use of hyperlocal media for the purposes of surveillance, information-seeking, or anticipatory socialization will be studied in tandem with these behaviors as a way of looking at engagement within mediated spaces as an alternate means of engaging with an individual’s community.

The Virtual Public Sphere

Analyzing online media as forums for local community engagement requires an understanding of the “virtual” public sphere and how it differs from and enhances attributes of the public sphere as it has been traditionally conceived. Much has been made of the potential of the Internet for increased civic engagement, but what value does it actually add to the existing public sphere? Polletta, Chen, and Anderson (2009) looked to link-posting in online forums to assess the potential benefit of enhancing deliberation with additional information in a way unique to online media. They found that most people who posted links in online forums did so not to prove their opinions or provide an argument that shared their own biases, but rather to augment the amount of information available to the discussion and “contribute to an accurate picture of the choice situation” (9). To put it slightly differently, “they used information to clarify the choice situation and to expand it more than to adjudicate among options already on the table” (14). This view of the unique value of online deliberation, of course, relies upon the availability of quality information on the topic of discussion. When discussions are occurring at the hyperlocal level, individuals in the community who may very well have firsthand information have a means of sharing it without going through traditional news organizations that might not have the capacity or interest to cover a story of interest to a highly specific audience.

The relevance of digital media to community engagement is only as strong as the virtual communities that form in relation to their geographic counterparts. For example, a virtual community that arises from a list-serv devoted to an area of several city blocks may differ in character from the community exhibited on the street among these same residents. What, then, makes a virtual community? Song (2009) defines virtual communities as “all groups or networks that enable individuals to communicate with each other on the internet” (1). Song (2009) also notes that the emergence of virtual communities was concurrent with increasing political disillusionment among the American public (5), while Fraser (1992) earlier prescribed the flourishing of alternative public spheres to invite participation from those shut out of what she saw as an elite, white, male primary public sphere in U.S. democratic society. Thus, it appears that virtual communities fill a void in the traditional public sphere. Song (2009) agrees that “many virtual communities have become havens for individuals who share identities that historically have been socially or politically marginalized” and help build the civic goods of “trust, intimacy, and efficacy” (123). Taken together, these two scholars’ views suggest that the virtual public spheres enabled through digital media provide an outlet for people who are somehow disenfranchised. One could say that the virtual public sphere fulfills a complementary role to the traditional public sphere, or compensates for its weaknesses. However, the idea of a completely democratic, inclusive virtual public sphere is as unrealistic as the idealized Habermasian conception of the traditional public sphere. Even to the extent that it could be a more democratic space, the virtual public sphere is not necessarily the most productive space for exercising one’s role in a democracy.

First, reliance on virtual public spheres as alternatives to participating the broader public sphere makes no guarantee that public discourse will lead to change at the policy-making level. Tarde’s (1901) early conception of the public sphere in European democratic society emphasized a progression of discourse from revelation of issues through the press to conversation among the public to the formation of public opinion and finally, to action. While virtual public spheres may help with the functions of the press, expand conversation, and influence the formation of opinion, if the groups conversing online are there because they lack power in the political process, there is no guarantee that they will be able to bring about action within the political process. In addition to the disenfranchised, we also have to consider the political cynics who seek to participate on the fringes of the public sphere because they lack confidence in the democratic process; political action might not even factor into their motives for discussion. Song (2009) acknowledges that the facilitation of civic participation through online communities may be best suited to those who are “already politically active and committed,” not those who harbor doubts about the political process (126). Of course, there are ways to harness the potential of alternate virtual public spheres. Polletta, Chen, and Anderson (2009) argue that facilitators can play a role in enhancing the quality of online deliberation through “technical help and social encouragement [that] may mitigate inequalities in participants’ ability to use the Internet effectively” (15). Hyperlocal digital media can fill the gaps left by the traditional press and stir conversation and the formation of opinions, and with facilitation and interest, they could also move the public to action in the community.

Second, one cannot guarantee diverse participation in online communities. Song (2009) admits that virtual communities are often implicitly organized to surround participants by others similar to themselves (124-125); such communities “are not linked together like neighborhoods or street blocks that require you to drive through, or even be cognizant of the existence of, an impoverished or wealthy part of town,” she writes (125). Columbia Heights, of course, is an interesting exception to this rule, as the neighborhood already harbors great diversity—socioeconomic, racial, cultural, educational, and otherwise—within individual blocks. In this case, virtual communities could serve to facilitate discourse with neighbors whose concerns might otherwise be overlooked. But is Columbia Heights’ diversity reflected in the demographics of its online population?

The digital divide—that is, the distinction between individuals who have the education, infrastructural, and financial resources to use the Internet and those who do not (eg, OECD 2006)—remains a persistent challenge to the ideal of the Internet as a leveling public sphere. Access to the Internet and other information and communication technologies varies across populations, whether by country or geographic context, socioeconomic status, education, or other factors. Even among those who have Internet access, there are gaps in the norms of how different populations use it. For example, Polletta, Chen, and Anderson (2009) found that men were twice as likely as women to post links to provide additional information during deliberation in an online forum, and those with Internet experience were more likely to do the same than those without (11). Thus, even when diverse groups can access the Internet, they have different inclinations and capacities for engaging with the information and discussion available online.

Even within the virtual public sphere, virtual communities serve different purposes. Song (2009) characterizes virtual communities within four different categories grounded in their function, culture, and interface. First, “lifestyle service” communities offer spaces for discussion specific to one’s “life status” or situation in categories such as health, politics, entertainment, religion, travel, finance, and relationships (Song 2009, 103). “Visionary communal” communities are “alternative online social entities bound by a thick culture,” spaces with well-developed cultural norms (105). Aspects of these two types of communities are present in the hyperlocal blogs included in this study and play a role in creating a space that brings in readers who are not only interested in local news or politics. For example, the Prince of Petworth blog combines elements of each with the lifestyle information provided in posts by the site’s author and facilitated by the blogger to lead to further discussion among commenters.

Song’s third category is the “information clearinghouse,” a virtual community that acts as an “information resource or communication hub for activities or causes” and “function[s] much like organizational newsletters” (107). The other blogs included in this study, New Columbia Heights and The Heights Life, may fall more readily into this category, as they provide news specific to Columbia Heights and tend to prompt (possibly just by virtue of lower readership) fewer comments on their posts, as do the varied list-servs that circulate information from residents, organizations, and government officials in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. Like the “visionary communal” category, “information clearinghouses” can spill over from online to offline engagement.

Song’s fourth category is the “technical interface” virtual community, comprised of “digital platforms that enable individuals to participate in discussion forums, chat rooms, online journaling, and other social networking capacities” (108). She points to Yahoo! Groups as an example, a platform utilized almost ubiquitously by all the list-servs included in this study. However, rather than view “technical interface” as its own community, I would argue that the technical interfaces utilized by each medium included in this study all contribute to the formation of the other three kinds of communities. Important to Song’s distinctions among categories is the idea that online communities can have highly permeable boundaries separating them from offline communities, so categorizations of hyperlocal virtual communities can also differentiate between their offline counterparts, if such exist.

For all of Putnam’s (2000) concerns about the disconnectedness of American society, most research shows digital media as a supplement to, not replacement for, more traditional means of communication. Song (2009) observes that Americans have not given up phone and face-to-face communication, but rather “the majority of Americans are engaged in media multiplicity—using several different methods to stay in touch, connect, and live their lives” (2). Of course, not everyone distributes their communication across all digital media evenly: As of 2000, 49 percent of Americans used e-mail, while only 3 and 4 percent used online support groups and discussion groups, respectively (Song 2009, 4). Even as this study examines the role hyperlocal media can play, it is always with an eye to the impact of the virtual community on the physical one.

Informed Communities

To have an informed community in today’s new media age requires more than information alone. The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy (2009) evaluated the impact of the digital age on citizens’ ability to be engaged in public life and developed three objectives for strengthening democratic life:

  • Maximizing the availability of relevant and credible information to communities…
  • Strengthening the capacity of individuals to engage with information…
  • Promoting individual engagement with information and the public life of the community. (xiii; italics and bullets sic)

The first of these requirements has traditionally been met through news media, but the Knight Commission’s understanding of what is needed to have “relevant and credible information” is more comprehensive than what is often covered in local news (see, eg, Hadge 2010a). The Knight Commission (2010) lists among necessary information the following subjects: health, education resources, employment, social services, public transit, emergency services, and arts and entertainment (74). These are listed as one item in an appendix checklist for “healthy information communities” in the Knight Commission’s report. Separate from these subjects are the criteria of quality journalism and government transparency measures, which presumably work in concert to provide political information. That the other information needs are listed separately suggests that they need not come from traditional journalistic sources, and in fact, this study will show that hyperlocal media are better situated to meet certain information needs than the mainstream media. Equally crucial are the second and third objectives, which reflect the need for media and digital literacy training. In the course of this study, several interviewees who are involved in the neighborhood’s civic associations observed that older residents in Columbia Heights who continued to rely on non-digital sources for information would eventually be left out as government and organizations moved their communications to the online realm, a point that Chapter 8 will discuss further. As Norris (2000) observes, “[a] citizenry that is better informed and more highly educated, with higher cognitive skills and more sources of information” has the most potential for becoming civically engaged and constructively critical of government. The goals of the Knight Commission correspond with this idea of an active, news-consuming public.

However, Polletta, Chen, and Anderson’s (2009) findings suggest that the quality of deliberation is as important as the ability to reach conclusions. Given the use of link-sharing in their study to entertain alternative options, rather than force a viewpoint, virtual public spheres may offer an opportunity to reclaim the role of conversation for conversation’s sake in democratic society. Habermas viewed as vital the coffee-house debate in bourgeois 18th-century European society because of its opportunities for inclusive discussion that favored rational argument over social status and took into consideration topics ignored by the church and state (Calhoun 1993). However, the United States does not have (and, I would argue, never did) the cafe, pub, or salon culture of European society that provides a local spot to unwind and engage neighbors in conversation. Oldenburg (1991) lamented the decline of what he called the “third place” — understood to refer to the “public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work” (16). One of the failings of contemporary urban life, he argued, is its inability “to provide…convenient and open-ended socializing—places where individuals can go without aim or arrangement” (61). While third places serve as a respite or escape from the life’s quotidian obligations, they also serve an important role in democratic society by providing a level, neutral sphere for conversation in which class and other signifiers of status have no place, only the quality of one’s argument (Oldenburg 1991). Prior to the advent of mass media, Oldenburg notes, “What the tavern offered…was a source of news along with the opportunity to question, protest, sound out, supplement, and form opinion locally and collectively” (70). Do hyperlocal virtual public spheres replace the physical third place as a level playing field for conversation about the issues of the day? They may at least approximate this role: While the potential for discussion varies based on the medium, many digital media offer anonymity to create a level playing field, the ability to share and consume news, and forums for discussing that news.

The Roles of the Urban Neighborhood and the Knowledge City in a Hyperlocal Context

Jacobs (1961) scoffed at ascribing any sentimental value to the city neighborhood, but I would argue that emotional sentiment plays a key role in creating a sense of place and, consequently, attachment between residents and their communities. “Neighborhood is a word that has come to sound like a Valentine,” wrote Jacobs, before continuing to argue that “[s]entimentality plays with sweet intentions in place of good sense” (112). Instead, she characterized city neighborhoods as “mundane organs of self-government” (114), which brought order to city streets through public surveillance and the development of trust among small networks (119). Her point that nostalgia distracts city planners from more concrete issues is a valid one, but it does not mean that public life can subsist without some degree of sentimental attachment. In fact, the Knight Soul of the Community 2010 report found positive correlations between attachment to one’s community and both civic involvement and economic growth (John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Gallup 2010).

Perhaps at some level cognizant of this, hyperlocal bloggers do sometimes tap into a well of nostalgia to aid urban development by improving public perception of a neighborhood. Had hyperlocal blogs existed when Jacobs was writing in the 1960s, perhaps she would have reconsidered her comments about sentimentality. Her own examination of Boston’s North End revealed the deleterious potential of a divergence between the public opinion of a neighborhood and reality. The North End was perceived by many Bostonians in the 1950s as an immigrant slum, making it difficult for businesses and residents to secure loans in the neighborhood. However, it was in actuality a healthy, safe place, due in great part to its residents’ investment in it (Jacobs 1961, 8-11). In Washington, D.C., hyperlocal bloggers are able to bridge the gap between public perception and reality by highlighting the positive aspects of neighborhoods that people tend to avoid, such as those east of the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington.

There is also a sociological argument to be made in favor of the individual urban dweller narrowing his or her attention to hyperlocal media. In the urban environment, constant environmental stimuli abound, and today’s media environment is just as saturated. As Simmel (1964) observed, modern metropolitan life engenders the “intensification of nervous stimulation [italics sic]” and “heightened awareness” in its residents (410). In the face of this overstimulation, he argued, the preservation of the individual’s identity becomes a paramount concern, and he or she adopts a blase attitude towards most other aspects of the city (409, 413). Even as the individual closes himself off to the city, the metropolis’ “inner life overflows by waves” (419) beyond its physical boundaries, pervading the regional, national, and international psyche. This disengagement from the urban milieu creates a tension with civic participation. If the urban individual turns his focus ever-inward, where will he find the incentive to become involved in the public life of the community? Is such an expectation too overwhelming? Clearly, it must not be, because urban residents do participate in the politics and public sphere of their cities. However, as more people migrate into cities and the ubiquity of technology heightens urban stimulation even further, it is necessary to reconcile the tension between the preservation of individuality and civic participation in the 21st-century city. Hyperlocal media aid this reconciliation through their ability to give boundaries to the vast, “overflowing” urban environment while also providing structures for processing that local knowledge that is relevant to one’s own experience in the community.

Hyperlocal media are proliferating in all kinds of communities, whether urban, suburban, or even rural. However, studying their role in urban communities is especially interesting at this particular moment in history. As contemporary society experiments with the constantly growing assortment of technological tools at our fingertips, we also face the intersection of the “century of knowledge” (Taichi Sakaiya in Carrillo 2006, xi) and the “century of cities” (Charles Landry in Carrillo 2006, xii). It is here where the “knowledge city” emerges. Following the rise of knowledge management (KM) in the business world, through which approach organizations view knowledge as a strategic asset to be leveraged in their favor, international organizations such as the World Bank and the European Commission began applying KM perspectives to their development work; from this arose the field of knowledge-based development (Ergazakis, Metaxiotis, and Psarras 2006, 3). Ergazakis, Metaxiotis, and Psarras (2006) note several advantages to knowledge-based developments, including economic and social innovation, enhanced educational opportunities, citizen involvement in urban development, a sustainable economy, and a catholic attitude towards diversity among residents, all of which promote “digital inclusion” (as opposed to a digital divide) when residents have access to technology (5). While this argument suggests that knowledge-based development in turn leads to democratic participation through technology, there is no reason that it cannot work in the opposite direction, as well: that is, the availability of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to residents can promote knowledge-based development. Through its survey of subjects’ information sources and participation in online conversation, this study takes a broad look at the ways in which communication and knowledge-sharing among local networks can impact a neighborhood.

Because the interdisciplinary field of the knowledge city is still emerging, the exact criteria that comprise a knowledge city are still undecided. However, attempts to describe the emergence of the knowledge city have observed several characteristics that are present across case studies of cities across the world. Ergazakis, Metaxiotis, and Psarras’ (2004) definition of a knowledge city alludes to the comprehensiveness of this interdisciplinary approach:

“A knowledge city is a city that aims at a knowledge-based development, by encouraging the continuous creation, sharing, evaluation, renewal and update of knowledge. This can be achieved through the continuous interaction between its citizens themselves and at the same time between them and other cities’ citizens. The citizens’ knowledge-sharing culture as well as the city’s appropriate design, IT networks and infrastructures support these interactions.” (quoted in Ergazakis, Metaxiotis, and Psarras 2006, 4).

Key to this definition are the ability to share knowledge with both neighbors and those outside one’s community, development that encourages knowledge-processing, and physical and infrastructural design that supports this flow. Alternative terms have also been used to refer to the knowledge city, including “technopolis” (focused on implementation of technology policy), the “intelligent city” (geared toward economic growth), the “knowledge society” (interested in continual social and individual growth), and the “learning city” (oriented around education) (S. D. Martinez 2006, 19). All of these concepts require a comprehensive understanding of knowledge dissemination throughout a community’s social networks, but the variety of terms used to describe what is essentially one phenomenon underscores the relevance of a knowledge-centered approach in understanding contemporary society. While knowledge city scholarship uses the city as its unit of analysis, these same principles can be applied to a neighborhood setting in evaluating the extent to which the neighborhood can provide its residents with the ability to engage with one another. As Chapter 2 reveals, there are a number of characteristics in Columbia Heights that lend the neighborhood to knowledge-based development, ranging from the use of contemporary technology to public spaces that were developed a century ago.

Literature on the knowledge city is most relevant to a study of media and community engagement when it revolves around the knowledge citizen. First, knowledge citizens require “access to new communication technologies…as instruments to acquire knowledge and facilitate interaction and innovation” and the capability to seek out and evaluate different sources of information (A. Martinez 2006, 235). America Martinez (2006, 235) also stresses the importance of opportunities for citizens to collaborate with government, business, and educational institutions in order to participate in the community. While these two competencies are named separately in the literature, in reality they must develop in a way that is closely intertwined if they are to be effective. Communities that provide opportunities to participate in government digitally, for example, must first ensure that all its citizens have the access and ability to use those digital technologies if they want to ensure broad participation.

Knowledge-based development advocates also look to ICTs to meet the needs of communities. Ergazakis, Metaxiotis, and Psarras (2006) specifically call for metropolitan websites that bring multiple municipal agencies together in a single portal to offer e-government services, as well as online spaces for dialogue among citizens (12). Furthermore, they name “urban innovation engines” that combine “people, relationships, values, processes, tools, and technological, physical, and financial infrastructure” (12) as key to development. From this perspective, systems and societies that encourage knowledge-sharing are seen as key to the economic advancement of a community. In combination with the view of the Knight Commission report (2009) referenced above regarding political participation through knowledge-sharing, the availability of and access to local information become foundational requirements for civic life.

Social Networks and Communicative Ecologies

Building upon the previous discussions of informed communities and the virtual public sphere, this study will also consider the unique way that social networks impact the spread of news and information through hyperlocal media and the conversation that occurs in these channels. The most relevant advancement network theory makes to the field of political communication involves the sourcing of information. While traditional models of political communication through the press have been elite-driven, with information originating with government officials and reaching the public through the legacy media, the networked public sphere as Benkler (2006) first envisioned it adds a level to this communication through elites: Anyone can express a view in the networked public sphere, regardless of status, and if it catches the public’s interest, its reach will be distributed more widely. Kelly (2008) succinctly describes the networked public sphere as a place where:

[o]nline clusters form around issues of shared concern, information is collected and collated, dots are connected, attitudes are discussed and revised, local expertise is recognized, and in general a network of ‘social knowing’ is knit together, comprised of both people and the hyperlinked texts they co-create. (4)

This “network of ‘social knowing’” challenges the two-step flow model of public opinion formation. From such an approach, emergent social networks could come to replace the traditional conception of the individual as opinion leader in the two-step flow model of public opinion formation. Additionally, Rutigliano (2007) looks to network theory as a key to unlocking the potential of civic media to revitalize democracy. Specifically, he argues that a blogosphere that arises from emergent or “bottom-up” systems has the potential to “accommodate mass participation and remain open and competitive, thereby providing the more democratic public sphere that civic journalists and blog enthusiasts desire” (228). For all of these reasons, it is useful to find a way to conceptualize the hyperlocal media environment within the context of a social network.

The study of communicative ecologies has analyzed the impact of social networks on communication patterns within a defined community. Foth and Hearn (2007) define a “communicative ecology” as a framework for looking at three dimensions communication within social networks: online and offline, global and local, and collective and networked. Hampton and Wellman (2003) pioneered this approach, though not under that label, with their study of “Netville,” a real estate development in a suburb of Toronto in which residents were offered two years of Internet access to participate in a study of their communication patterns. The researchers found that residents of Netville used the Internet to facilitate and complement their offline relationships and activities; online and offline social networks thus intertwined. While Hampton and Wellman were focusing explicitly on social relationships, Button and Partridge (2007) employed a multilayered theoretical framework in their study of 12 local news sites: a social layer to analyze the groups of people who participate; a discursive layer to parse the content discussed; and a technological layer to consider the devices and media through which communication takes place. Similarly, Foth and Hearn (2007) looked at the three theoretical layers employed in Button and Partridge’s (2007) study to find that residents of three inner-city apartment buildings in Australia move comfortably between online and offline communication, with local communication and interaction taking precedence over global communication. These three studies all present an argument for looking at social networks and their role in communication from multiple angles, as this study sets out to do.

There are several concepts within social network analysis that I will bring to bear on this study’s findings. Common terminology refers to people, organizations, or other social entities in a network as “nodes” or “vertices,” and the connections that bind them to one another as “ties” or “edges.” Sociologist Mark Granovetter first introduced the concept of tie strength in 1973, when he argued that weak ties (or less close relationships) gave an individual greater access to populations to which they lacked direct connections than strong ties (or more intimate relationships). As Kelly (2008) points out, blogs and other online media can be an example of weak-tie networks that exist offline, such as those formed around shared interests or concerns (4). When “bloggers…share common interests and preferred sources of information” (Kelly 2008, 5), they form attentive clusters. Clusters are defined as “pockets of densely connected vertices that are only sparsely connected to other pockets” (Hansen, Shneiderman, and Smith 2011, 93). In looking for a correlation between online and offline community engagement in Columbia Heights, this study seeks to determine whether clusters exist within the neighborhood’s information community.

Weak-tie networks play a certain role in informed communities because users’ personal relationships, Internet consumption and production patterns determine what information they are exposed to and what information they share. In addition to being consumers of network benefits, though, the public also actively contributes to them. As Kelly (2008) argues, the hypertext network of the blogosphere creates a “flow map” of attention while also creating “a text authored by emergent collectives: public, persistent, universally interlinked yet locally clustered, and representative of myriad social actors at all levels of scale” (4). This model of a collectively-authored text introduces ways of understanding knowledge-sharing through online social networks as a means of community engagement, participation in a crucial part of the public life of the community that ensures the dissemination of information.

However, not all relationships within these social networks exist on an equal plane. The measure of Eigenvector centrality assigns prominence in a network to nodes that are well-connected; that is, those nodes that have the most social ties will have the highest eigenvector centrality. This concept helps distinguish between hyperlocal media based on audience; those with a higher Eigenvector centrality have a farther reach within the community. Related to this is the theory of preferential attachment, which argues that “newly arriving nodes [in a network] will tend to connect to already well-connected nodes rather than poorly connected nodes” (Barabasi and Albert 1999, cited in Watts 2004, 251). Kelly (2008) applies the idea of preferential attachment to the blogosphere through an analysis of the outlinking habits of blogs to other (usually larger, legacy media) websites. These measures will be applied to an analysis of some of Columbia Heights’ Twitter feeds to uncover the extent to which the neighborhood’s media, community organizations, and businesses are interconnected with one another through social media.

As illustrated above, there are a number of theoretical frameworks that play a role in revealing a comprehensive picture of the relationship between hyperlocal media and community engagement. Too often, frameworks for civic participation focus exclusively on technologically-facilitated participation or more traditional face-to-face communication. By integrating social network analysis, the knowledge city, and the communicative ecology with some of the other political science and communications frameworks outlined above in this chapter, we can begin to approach a more realistic understanding of how urban residents engage with their communities. In the next chapter, I begin the discussion of this study’s specific methodologies and findings with a content analysis of hyperlocal media serving Columbia Heights.


[1] This paragraph modified from Hadge 2009.

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