The ever present problem of hyperlocale and scale

I’m trying to close of a section of my literature review today, which led to me chasing up an old lead that purports to be the origin of the term ‘hyperlocal’ (or hyper-local as was). The reference leads to a business article in the Washington Post from 1991, which outlines a new cable TV news channel:

To give the channel what Hillis calls a “hyper-local” slant, Allnewsco will supplement its regular programming with three shorter news reports each day tailored specifically for viewers in suburban Maryland, Northern Virginia and the District. (Farhi, 1991: p. F25)

How much does this moment of coining offer to our understanding of hyperlocal web publishing? Very little.

I tend to take the central unit of hyperlocal activity as the placeblog (which may be independent or which may operate as part of a formal network of distribution, ownership and control), and placeblogs typically represent something in the order of a UK postcode district. Compare this with hyper-local as described in Farhi’s article: Allnewsco planned to offer three news feeds for three hyper-local patches within their total coverage area. Those areas – ‘suburban Maryland’, ‘Northern Virginia”, and ‘The Distrct’ – are probably meaningful terms to those who live in Washington, but mean little to me. But they sound pretty big, and much bigger than I’d accept as being hyperlocal in the sense we mean it now.

Digging a little deeper, I can see that the population of ‘The District’ (Washington DC) is said to be 617,000, whilst ‘Northern Virginia’ is a non-formal geographical description for part of the State of Virginia that can be said to account for 2,623,079 people. ‘Suburban Maryland’ (also not a formal conurbation) is quite hard to define (I even asked a Baltimorean who said she was unfamiliar with the phrase) – for now let’s take the state population less the population of the larger cities – that gets us to 4,802,293.

This is all very hard to pin down properly*. Lucky for me my Baltimorean just messaged me something that helps clarify this further: the area referred to in Farhi’s article as the ‘Washington area’ probably refers to ‘the Washington DC metropolitan area’, and there is a handy guide for researchers to define that area here which gives me a clear breakdown of those three hyperlocales:

Jurisdiction Population
District of Columbia 585,459
Northern Virginia 2,042,792
Suburban Maryland 2,030,492

This table draw on 2006 census data for districts within the three hyperlocales chosen by Allnewsco for their project – I suspect slightly higher than they were in 1991, certainly different, so bear that in mind as I draw this to a close.

So let’s now put this into the context of UK media, and current thinking about hyperlocal media. The population of Birmingham is estimated at just over 1,000,000 and we get the same estimate for the Black Country, making a combined population of around 2 million – or equivalent to just one of Allnewsco’s hyperlocales. To come at the figures another way, we might expect a placeblog to have a reach pushing at the maximum end to a postcode district which is a reach of 22,500. The areas of local focus we deal with in contemporary conversations about hyperlocal are about 1% the size of Allnewsco’s ‘original’ hyperlocal – they’re just quite simply different things.

Does this matter much? Yes and no. It illustrates some of the caution we need to take when comparing US examples of hyperlocal activity with UK ones (and perhaps from country to country). This is something of a running issue as you move through literature, for example I often find that American writers refer to hyperlocals that cover whole states (these large hyperlocals are in fact usually aggregated networks of many placeblogs that serve small hyperlocales, along the scale of postcode district). This early use of the phrase hyper-local was framed in part by its transmission technology (TV has historically operated at larger scales, so there was novelty in the level of local coverage offered here), and in part by its geographical context (things scale differently in the US, it seems), but also by media markets. We could argue that the use of the modifier ‘hyper’ was apt because it was delivering a granularity of service that was new, much as place blogs do now, and so there is something common between the use then and now. That seems reasonable to do, but what we mustn’t do is forget the vast differences in scale that apply when reading accounts of hyperlocal media.

But the question that I’m really struggling with is this: what happened between the early 90s and the mid/late 00s that meant that hyper-local (as a term) sat on a shelf? Blogging about places didn’t just start happening one day, but the term seems to get parachuted onto placeblogs, and then inspires new ones from around 2005. Is this a convergent evolution – did someone re-coin hyperlocal? – or is there really a continuum from Maryland in 1991 to WV11 in 2012?


* I kept my working out in this post despite Leland Strott sending me the right answer because I think it illustrates some of the difficulty in understanding the human geography / psychogeography / demography of reading a location from outside.

References:

FARHI, P. (1991) Taking Local Coverage to the Limit: 24-Hour Cable News, The Washington Post, 11/3/1991.  [Accessed 14/8/12].

 

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Jon Hickman

Hi, I'm Jon. I teach and research digital culture, social media and new media practice at Birmingham City University. Find out more about me with this lovely CV: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/jonhickman Find out about my work at the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research: http://interactivecultures.org