Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Blogger Unification

I follow a number of blogs, a few regularly. The ones I read are grouped in the link section of popular urbanist blogs like Ecology of Absence. I think a big reason blogs are popular in some circles is because you can find information about things you're interested in written by people with an active interest in the same issues.

In the case of the urbanists blogs, the writers tend to be our neighbors, working in their daily lives on the issues they write about in their blogs. So there's a sense of involvement, community activism, and common interest.

With the growing use of online communications, what if the bloggers tried to focus on a few key issues? Would they be able to have a bigger impact? Or are bloggers just too independent a group to develop a set of shared priorities? If they did identify some priority issues, what would they be?

Historic preservation gets a lot of attention in the blogs, as does the idea of "form based zoning". Cycling and transportation planning are other areas often written about. All of these topics are part of the realm dealt with by government and community process. How would bloggers influence these arenas?

When attending neighborhood meetings, the impression I get is that most average citizens do not read blogs. So they wouldn't be aware of a unified blogger voice. Meanwhile, a good way to get a cold shoulder is to arrive at a neighborhood meeting, unknown to neighborhood regulars, coming from another part of town, pushing an issue or agenda. It seems for bloggers to have a bigger impact, there needs to be wider use of electronic communications by average residents and a wider sense of community beyond individual neighborhoods.

Maybe that's an issue blogger unification might address? Building a wider sense of community across neighborhood boundaries? How might that happen? Maybe it takes years since it is going against the grain of St. Louis tradition.

19 comments:

Jenniferwhatnot said...

In essence, that process tends to happen organically via the blogroll. The local-focused bloggers, once they find each other, tend to link each other and comment on what the others are writing and thinking about, which draws them into content (neighborhoods) they may not normally think & write about. When bloggers befriend each other, meetups get arranged and then organization just happens.

The missing ingredient here is one or two big guys on the block - blogs that tend to be a stop for everyone, which then refer people out to blogs they may not have noticed otherwise. Those blogs become the common portal to that particular online community and father to a thousand interactive relationships. It will happen, but yes, it will probably be a slow process.

john w. said...

Alex Inhen, of "Saint Louis Urban Workshop" has talked about just such a common portal for the allied urbanism blogs. I think of it as a 'hub', and also believe that the cross-pollenation that occurs by linking other blogs to each author's own tends to grow the network, or blogroll exponentially. How to make the topics, level of conversational vocabulary and access, and immediate relevance to the non-bloggers visible is a challenge indeed. Even if the choir that is preached to tends to be the current limit of growth of the blogroll, the growth itself is encouraging.

tobyweiss.com said...

I've long thought STL needs a Huffington Post style site for all the built environment fans and practitioners. All the bloggers are on newsfeed, there's guest articles on timely issues, list of events and causes and a forum open to everyone for unrestricted chatting. It would become a one-stop for everything built environment... So yeah, great post, Rick!

john w. said...

That's exactly the analogy that Alex had used... There would be editorials written and such...

Matt M. said...

I wanted to branch out of the pure "bricks and mortar" blogging to get to the heart of St. Louis's myriad problems: civic disconnectedness. So I created http://stlcando.ning.com .

It's not yet taken off, but I see it as a one-stop shop for learning about or participating in civic events, pride, and action.

john w. said...

a bulletin board.

LisaS said...

alternately, the new stlbloggers model--set up a ping service that send titles of new posts directly a twitter account--might entail less maintenance.

Adam said...

Hi, wow, it's great to see people suggesting such interesting ideas. I have come to many of the same conclusions, although not from a strictly "urbanist" perspective, but rather because I think St. Louis is suffering from a media vacuum. I wrote about the topic recently here: http://stlactivisthub.blogspot.com/2009/04/going-post-post-dispatch-media-vacuum.html .

I especially like the idea of a "Huffington Post" type group. I'd like to see such a site with a central group of featured articles, along with categories such as "Urbanism," "the Environment," "City Politics," "St. Louisans on State Politics," "St. Louisans on National Politics," etc. I've been contacted by a couple members of progressive organizations after writing the post who are interested in pursuing the idea.

Anyway, a couple of ideas that I think are relevant:

Organization:

Rather than having a newsfeed that lists *all* of the articles from particular blogs, you can use things like bloglines or google reader to *star* articles that you think should be in the feed. That way, you can have a group of trusted editors who pick both the articles that can be in the central feed, and also can have editors who pick which items go under different categories. This way, not everything written by every blog user has to be something that appeals to the broadest audience (and let's be honest: not everything does).

Promotion (especially in light of Rick's suggestion of getting new people involved in blogging):

I've been experimenting with promoting my new blog using my facebook and twitter accounts. Basically, whenever a new post is up, I update my facebook profile and twitter account with an announcement and a link. I'm new to blogging so don't really know what good numbers are, but on certain posts this has resulted in 150-200 page views. This is aided by the fact that I have over 3,000 facebook friends who potentially can see my updates.

Furthermore, I haven't really broken out the big guns of facebook. My blog is not up to the quality level yet for it to be worth it, and probably no site every would be without a large group effort in collaboration with a lot of already established bloggers and other journalists. But if we really could get something like a "Huffington Post" of St. Louis that provided people with a broad range of news, then I could use messages from the facebook group "St. Louis Activist Hub" which has over 2,000 members, to promote the group. That would ensure (unlike profile or twitter updates) that a message was being sent to all of the people. Furthermore, I think we could run a facebook campaign that encourages people to make the new site their homepage.

Finally, some of the people who contacted me after my media vacuum piece are members of large local progressive organizations. If a site was created that was a genuine source of alternative news and information that is of interest to members of these groups, then I think we could count on them to use their large email lists to promote the site as well. I realize that not all urbanists are "progressive;" however, I think that most of the ideas promoted by urbanists are things that are in line with the values and goals of most progressive people. Thus, I would encourage you to not limit the site to urbanism but to include it under a broader range of topics, because this would be the best bet of bringing new people to your blogs.

Rick Bonasch said...

It would be very good if we could identify progressive organizations/blogs based outside of the city to broaden the message/reach.

Does anyone know of some good progressive blogs based outside of St. Louis city?

Maplewood? Clayton? Webster? Ferguson? St. Charles? Illinois?

It would be a good first step to connect with progressive people througout the region.

Often, it feels like the progressive blogosphere is too city-weighted and preaching to the choir.

If there was a broader reach, I think we might be surprised at the positive response.

Adam said...

Rick,

From my perspective, it seems like a lot of the really interesting posts are pretty St. Louis-specific, so I guess I'd be interested in hearing more why you think targeting people outside the region is an important objective.

I personally think that there is a rather large, untapped group of people in the city (or greater metropolitan area) that could easily be sucked into this blog ring given the great amount of talent you have. I, for example, had never heard of "urbanism" before moving to St. Louis 4 years ago, but stumbled across a couple great posts at Urban Review and EcoAbsence that drew me in. And then I started noticing that there were incredibly intelligent and thoughtful posts across a wide group of blogs. I think there are a lot of people who would really dig the content if there just was a way of putting them in contact with it a few times.

Rick Bonasch said...

Adam-

I wasn't referring to people outside of the region, although I think there is a growing national interest in more city-centered, sustainable communities. I was referring to people in the region.

In his inaugural speech, Mayor Slay announced that one of the prirorities for our region should be for the City to reenter St. Louis County.

For something like this to happen, the people in St. Louis County hold the key. City residents may agree, but if County residents oppose the idea, it will never happen.

Aligning with progressive voices in the region would be a way to move this idea forward.

The city may be the biggest base of blog voices now, but building a progressive community network across the region can help build momentum to move regional strategies forward on faster timeline.

Communications are becoming instantaneous. Why should positive change take generations?

Some of us want to live long enough to see some of these things become reality.

I'm guessing the same applies whether you live in U City or Fountain Park.

Adam said...

OK, I see what you're saying now, and that makes a lot of sense. In general, I think the membership of a lot of St. Louis progressive organizations (environmental groups, peace groups, unions, etc.) already extends into the surrounding region. If you could convince them that sending out information about some particular issue or site is in their interest, you would probably reach a lot of people outside the region. As one example, all of the events on the St. Louis Instead of War calendar get sent out to a list of I think around 4,000 people from around the region in a weekly email.

Rick Bonasch said...

Adam -

Your comment illustrates one of the interesting distinctions we're facing. The associations you mentioned tend to be issue-based, whereas much of the St. Louis urbanist blog realm tends to be place-based.

Environmental concerns, peace groups, etc, can join their message across the country, while much of what the St. Louis blog community addresses is specific to St. Louis city and region.

I wonder if the progressive issue blogs dealing with national issues in our region would channel their energies to St. Louis issues? It's one thing to apply energy to peace and not war, but what about getting that Ladue progressive to push for City/County unification?

Are there place-based blogs stemming from suburban locations in our region? The only one I can think of is the "Mayor of Affton" site.

I wonder what would happen if we could link up with regional or other placed based blogs focused on the St. Louis area?

Adam said...

Yeah, I personally don't know of many regional or place-based blogs in the surrounding areas.

But I think the Huffington Post model could perhaps achieve a lot of the same objectives. People from the greater St. Louis region would be drawn to the site for a variety of reasons (their interest in peace, environmental issues, social justice issues, state & local politics, etc), but on the main page and in the central news feed, there would frequently be posts about urban issues. Certain posts about urban issues (such as connecting the city to the riverfront, or some of the Urban Workshop posts comparing the price of building an intersection with funding the Metro for two years) have very broad appeal, and people would gradually become more and more familiar with the issues. Furthermore, I think the urbanist network in St. Louis has provided the best local model to date of the power of blogs to generate really interesting ideas and an online community, and so could serve as something of a model for the other categories. Since blogs are, at least in an ideal sense, far more of a meritocracy than other current media outlets, I think the good ideas produced by urbanist blogs would inevitable gain an even larger following. So I think people might be drawn to the site for a variety of reasons, but then would have a chance to read all of the strong arguments for city-county unification once they get there.

And lest it sound like I'm doing too much urbanist butt-kissing, I think this idea applies to other categories as well. People who are drawn to the site because they are interested in St. Louisans' opinions on the war in Afghanistan would also be exposed to posts about environmental issues like CWIP, or to state issues like cuts to children's health care.

DNLee said...

I concur with the author. Many people of the generalpublic do not read blogs. I've been struggling with that too - how to get non-bloggers to read blogs (of obvious interest to them), make comments and build an online community.

Building online and real-world communities and action plans can happen. A perfect example was one created during the Jena 6 controversy among black blogs. The blogs had a unified voice and made call to actions.

Having a real-life presence, like going to meetings, writing op-eds for the paper, etc is also good. Steven Smith hosts many public events at his place, the Royale. He leverages both his blogging weight, social networking weight (to reach non-blogging people) to get folks in one room to talk about important stuff.

I host another blog (about social stuff in St. Louis) and it's listed on the STLBlogs. I'm glad I participate.

Perhaps a meet up is also a nice idea.

GMichaud said...

Good Discussion, I personally agree with the idea of a Huffington Post type of unification of ideas. Certainly broad transformation is needed in society and the mechanism is not there to allow this to happen.
A stronger collective voice would get the attention of a larger public even those who don't currently blog. Certainly the physical events, meetings, tours, lectures etc all contribute and would only support those efforts.

I'm not sure I agree with the notion that the city needs the county to succeed.
The organizing and planning framework of the city is sustainable. Except for pockets the county is not organized in this way.
There is a major philosophical division between the city and county.
A focus on achieving the sustainability of the city will demonstrate the wisdom of the approach.
It could be the county, to protect its base, would not support such efforts.

Jenniferwhatnot said...

Surely there is technology out there to help accomplish this, something along the lines of Digg? If all the interested blogs joined the network and rated each other's posts, the most popular ones would get featured and linked on the portal site and people would know what's going on in the region.

tobyweiss.com said...

Personally, I cover buildings in the Greater St.Louis area. Statistically, I just may have more St. Louis County coverage than city. Then there's Illinois and national coverage as well, in smaller percentage.

I bring this up only to illustrate that getting hyper-focused on STL City Only Or All of StL and MO tends to create a log jam before the log started rolling. Know what I'm saying?

GMichaud said...

I agree there is much in the region, rural and urban that is interesting. I think the problem is that up to now the city is already operating as as a suburb of the county with its policies.
The danger is a city unification with the county could entail even deeper forays in suburban style policies.
This despite the fact what is truly needed are policies that are much more sustainable; from walkable neighborhoods to a healthy mass transit system and proper density and public spaces to support both.

It is not really a question of being hyper-focused on the City of St. Louis as much as it is deploying the already existing infrastructure in a practical and meaningful way without the dilution of the suburban mindset.

In fact the general idea of the larger the better has been thoroughly discredited recently by America's too big to fail banks. Claiming greater efficiency as a result has proven to be a big lie also.

Personally I think there is already a huge log jamb in St. Louis and throughout the country.