Hyperlocal – Backfence vs 101

I have always been interested in the idea that the web can be a platform for user generated news and information about local communities.

Back in 1996 we spent some time with Frank Daniels and his company Koz which was building a platform to transform local community news.  The idea that moms and dads could create better and more timely information about the kids’ soccer game (and much more) was and is a very powerful idea.

Koz was too early and the enterprise software model wasn’t right either.  But the vision was spot on and it is going to happen someday.

Fast forward ten years and we have the second wave in full bloom.  I have spent time looking at two interesting projects, Greensboro101 in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Backfence in Northern Virginia.  I am sure there are other similar projects and I’d love to hear from you all about them.

Both of these projects are live in multiple cities.  101 is in Charlotte and Nashville in addition to Greensboro, where it started.

Backfence, which launched this week, is live in Reston and McLean Virginia.

I want to congratulate both Mark and Susan from Backfence and Roch Smith from 101 for getting these projects off the ground. They are doing important work and I am sure that I am not the only one paying attention. 

With the collapse of newspaper classifieds and their movement online, there is a real possibility that local community papers will not survive in their current incarnation. I wrote a bit about this in my whither newspapers post from last month.

So if the local newspaper folds, where will people go to get their information?  I suspect its going to be something like 101 or Backfence.  A low cost community driven news and information service.  Think about it?  Would you rather have some guy getting paid to write restaurant reviews or would you rather read the best bloggers in town’s reviews of them with user supplied ratings ala Zagat?  Would you rather get the local paper’s view of the new high school cost overruns or hear everyone in town’s opinions and be able to debate them?

Some will say the Citysearch and other local web services are already doing this. I don’t think so. Citysearch and most of the local web is about listings.  There isn’t any community and there isn’t any news.  So they don’t offer a replacement experience for the local newspaper and that is what is going to be needed in many communities around the country.

This is not going to happen overnight.  It requires a behavior change that is pretty fundamental.  And it requires a revenue stream.  For that we have Google local and Yahoo! local to hope for.  They are almost certainly going to take their contextual ad networks local and if they don’t, others will.  I think the revenue piece of this puzzle will solve itself fairly early in the development of this market.

The product is more complicated. And that is why I am watching Backfence and 101 so closely.  Each brings something to the mix that I like.  But neither is exactly what I want.

Backfence is pretty close to the look and feel that I would expect and want from a local news and information resource.  It feels right to me.  It’s got color and pictures and an editorial driven layout that makes sense.

101 is more automated and the look and feel is less pleasing.  But 101 does something that I think is absolutely critical.  It aggregates its content from people who are already blogging on their own.  It grabs that content and aggregates it and features it.  It does not require that people come to 101 to post their content.  I think that is the right model for a truly scaleable local platform.

So I don’t think either Backfence or 101 has got it right yet.  But that’s fine. The essence of starting a business is to create something, get it into customers hands, and evolve the product.  That’s what both of these groups will do.  And of course, there are others who are either doing this already (again, send me the links), or will do it soon.

Is this a venture fundable opportunity?  In time, certainly.  Is it too early right now?  Probably.  But this is an area worth watching closely and I will be doing that.

And if I were in North Carolina, Tenesee, or Northern Virginia, I’d be reading these sites daily and contributing pictures and words and lots of other stuff too.