Introduction of research
Defining hyperlocal media
‘Hyperlocal media’ has been defined in the UK as ‘online news or content services pertaining to a town, village, single postcode or other small, geographically defined community’. Its arrival has prompted hopes in scholarly observation of a revival of civic life in cities (Metzgar et al., 2011), suggesting belief in a causal link between new networked communication technologies and socio-political organisation. A UK-wide survey this year identified 500 of these sites actively operating in the UK. Unsurprisingly, social media plays a crucial role; 91% of the 200 questioned in the survey use Twitter to communicate with their audiences, citing ‘active participation in local communities’ and ‘enabling interaction between people at a local level’ as two of the main reasons given for doing so (Williams et al., 2014). This paper asks whether the hyperlocal use of social media can indeed be thought of in these ways and in doing so discusses its relevance as a platform for neighbourhood civic life.
This paper is based on evidence available at the midpoint of a three-year study focusing on Brockley Central (http://brockleycentral.blogspot.co.uk/), a hyperlocal blog for the neighbourhood of Brockley in southeast London. This evidence however is not framed here as representative of the workings of all hyperlocal media sites. As Barnett and Townend (2014) have found, hyperlocal media are heterogeneous forms utilising a range of communication technologies including blogging sites, Facebook, Twitter and forums; they are individual rather than corporate or institutional undertakings; and finally they address a range of spatial scales from individual streets to whole cities. Empirical comparison therefore is extremely difficult and possibly irrelevant at this stage. The aim instead is a heuristic exploration of techniques for understanding individual hyperlocal networks and a basis for critical discussion of their implications for urban neighbourhood life. Nonetheless, we would argue, Brockley Central presents a valuable case for study and a good basis for open rather than conclusive discussion on the way social media intersects with urban locality. It is one of the longest-running hyperlocal blogs, operating since 2007, and has been held up as a key case study in both research on the subject (Flouch and Harris, 2010) and in the press (Hill, 2010). More importantly, as will be described below, it has been phenomenally popular in its neighbourhood. The part of the study presented here employs a multi-disciplinary methodology – including the analysis of network and geographical relationships between Brockley Central's Twitter followers along with interviews with its users – to build a more in-depth picture than has previously been attempted of the characteristics of Brockley Central's social media ‘community’.
Brockley is a largely residential neighbourhood in inner London, around 8 km southeast of the urban core at Charing Cross. A clear centre is at Brockley train station where a cluster of businesses is gathered at the northern end of a high street, Brockley Road, which runs south for around 1.5 km through the neighbouring sub-centre of Crofton Park. However, its delineation as an area, like most London neighbourhoods, is contested. For example, Brockley's postcode area SE4 (refer to London's gang ‘postcode wars’ for an understanding of their importance) marks out a different territory to the electoral ward named Brockley.
The blog describes itself as the ‘online home for all things Brockley (SE4), St John's, Ladywell, Nunhead and Telegraph Hill’ (Figure 1), meaning its self-defined spatial reach actually extends further. The map in
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