Lisa Williams – H2OTown, Placeblogger

Posted on 27. Sep, 2007 by in Citizen Network, Hyperlocal, Social Networking

Introduction and Narrative: In February of 2005 Lisa Willaims started H2OTown (www.h2otown.info). She had recently left her job and wanted to get to know Watertown Massachusetts better, but decided to do her learning process in public. H2OTown also allowed others in the area to blog, creating a townhall atmosphere. It is what Williams calls a “placeblog,” which focus on the lived experiences in that geographic area. “And if we are lucky, most lived experience is news,” says Williams. A placebloger doesn’t “report” the news, they share news that happens in their lives.

Placeblogger.com is the largest index of placeblogs which can help anyone find local bloggers in their community. It was motivated by a desire to find out just how many placeblogs there really are. At BloggerCon IV a bet between Williams, Dan Gillmor and Jay Rosen broke out about this very topic. Rosen wondered how many placeblogs like H2OTown existed, to which Williams guessed 1,000.

Within the first day after its launch, January 2007, Placebloger.com was indexing placeblogs from 55 different countries. To date Placeblogger.com has indexed 3,500 placeblogs. Williams won the bet three times over.

Main Goal(s):

H2OTown: “To make Watertown a less boring place to live.” The blog network is not journalistic in nature. Civic participation and being a conduit of newsworthy information is a byproduct, not the motivating factor, of H2OTown. The real goal of H2OTown is to highlight the aspects of the community that make it unique but are hidden from people, says Williams.

“Placebloggers have a rock and hammer and are breaking through that and sharing that information in a group activity.”

Placeblogger: To find and index as many placeblogs as possible, so they can connect and learn from each other.

Notable Achievements:

H2OTown: “That the blog is still around,” says Williams. Sixty-six percent of all blogs are abandoned in the first month. Today, people feel a sense of ownership over the site, which has a life of its own, and that’s the hard part for a hyperlocal site.

Placeblogger: Placeblogger has been successful, incorporating a larger global community than expected spanning 55 countries and 3,500 blogs. Recently Placeblogger won a Knight News Challenge grant and will expand from there.

A Surprising Realization: The statistics from Placeblogger.com. There were more placeblogs than Williams expected. Comparing census data alongside that Williams found that almost a third of the U.S. lives in a town with a placeblog.

In terms of placeblogs, Williams is astounded by how complex and different they all are from each other. They haven’t settled on a convention, there is no common theme or vocabulary, “yet the format and overarching idea is pretty much the same — they are going to cover the mayors office, elections, school budgets, etc.,” says Williams. Despite similarities, to date there is no community for placebloggers.

Biggest Practical Lesson/Mistake: The assumption that a community will pop out of thin air instantly because you’ve started a website. One has to be ready to commit six months to a year before they can expect results. “You can’t speed up the process of creating an organic community,” says Williams. If participation is not instant, one shouldn’t feel as if they failed.

“But I don’t think of any experiment as a failure — they all produce data — “this doesn’t work” is a useful piece of data. My strategy has been to experiment a lot and keep the cost low.”

Money: H2OTown pays for itself, mostly because it’s insanely cheap. Jan Shafer from J-Lab did a survey of people doing sites like H2OTown and found that most don’t make any significant money — they pay for themselves because they cost around $40 a month.

Future Goals: One of the things that placeblogger.com tries to remedy is that these local sites have low search engine results. The goal is to expand the key word based world from one based solely on “what” based questions on Google to a “where” based search world. To be able to find everything on the web within 20 blocks of an address.

For H2OTown: Williams intends to add social networking features, like buddy lists, to the current site. When you read the news now, you don’t know that anybody else is there. Does the news experience change if that element is added? “What happens when your newspaper is a social networking site,” asked Williams.

What do you hope to get from people attending this conference?

“I hope we don’t get in a ditch about the whole blog versus journalism thing. We could go on about that values conflict forever. It’s a conflict that never goes anywhere, you never change anybody’s mind and don’t get any new information. We are in a good time and place for change.

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