Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Picking Up Where the Post-Gazette Leaves Off

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is well aware of its expatriate readership. However, the Burgh Diaspora deserves better and the newspaper cannot serve two masters. Local media sources can and should cater to residents. Meanwhile, an underserved dislocated demographic is waiting for a social information innovation:

When I enter "look at the news" mode I have two main desires. The first is to find out what is going on that I might care about. The second is to do this as efficiently as possible so I can get on with my life. There are some other more minor goals - entertainment, knowledge of about a specific topic - but I'll ignore those for now. So what do I do?

I can visit an aggregation system like Digg or Google News. This saves me a lot of trouble by bringing information to me under one roof. I can also visit a large media organization site which offers a similar service in a different way. The problem with these sites, as you might expect, is that they are tailored to a global audience and don't do a good job of handling niche interests like a specific physical community. I go to them anyway though, since I have been hearing about the "Global Community" all my life and I feel that I need to be at least somewhat aware of these wider issues. Plus it is easy enough to browse a few headlines.

If I want to read local news, I can visit a local paper's website or a hyper-local blog. This will tell me plenty about my back yard and fill some of the informational gaps from the existing aggregation and mainstream sites. Unfortunately, finding that kind of content takes time and prior knowledge about where to look. I'm sure some people have a list of sites they check for updates on local news or they are simply willing to spend time looking, but these sources are too spread out for my liking and local aggregation systems leave a lot to be desired. This means that I end up living with my global/partial picture and assume that someone will let me know if anything interesting happens nearby.

With this setup the global usually wins out while the local is underutilized, but that doesn't mean I don't care, it's just that that caring isn't all that counts. Even if I did decide to take the time to sniff out and read about the latest Pittsburgh news, what about my home town of Cheltenham where my family lives, or the cities of my friends from high school? Heck, I wouldn't have a chance at finding everything that matters even if I had all day; information overload at its best.

Dan Schultz, a student a Carnegie Mellon University, is the author of the above problem. You can follow his attempts to deal with too-much-news-but-not-enough-time here. I think Mr. Schultz and I, along with Jon Udell, are trying to crack the same code. As I understand Mr. Udell, he thinks we require a social innovation. On the other hand, Mr. Schultz is seeking the best tool or possibly the creation of a new piece of technology to enable us to more efficiently manage information/news.

I agree with Mr. Udell that we do NOT need better software. The media innovations (like the printing press or radio) necessary for a new form of community already exist. But Mr. Schultz reminds me that we haven't begun to think of our community in such novel terms. Well, that's not entirely true.

Diaspora information networks and transnational identities already collapse the global and local scales, the geographic divide confounding Mr. Schultz. These are local news sources for a global audience. Alumni newsletters and magazines provide a good example of the kind of information people scattered hither and yon are interested in reading. Former students don't need to know the changes in the holiday bus schedule.

The blind spot of social software is its archaic geographic orientation, using the landscape of older (and sometimes outdated) media. I look at Yelp and figure the creators of that social network don't understand translocal identities. Then again, Yelp does understand how our nomadic lifestyles erode important deep local knowledge. Or, take a look at Outside.In for my Burgh Diaspora blog. Perhaps best illustrating my point is the geographic restrictions of Pittsburgh Bloggers:

Second, the author of the blog must reside in southwestern Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh and the surrounding area) or spend an overwhelming majority of time in the Pittsburgh metro area. There currently is no hard and fast rule around what is acceptable, but (for example) State College would be too far. If someone is simply temporarily away but still has Pittsburgh as a residence would be OK. Ultimately, the maintainers of the website have final determination for listing/inclusion.

As someone who doesn't qualify but blogs obsessively about Pittsburgh, I could tease out the hyper-local blogs that best serve the interests of the Burgh Diaspora. I fully intend to do that, once IntoPittsburgh launches its website. To put the onus squarely on the shoulders of Doug Heuck, Pittsburgh Quarterly already serves the dislocated demographic of Pittsburgh. What is left to do is to offer the Burgh Diaspora more of the information it wants and needs. All of that and more in January of 2008...

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