I recently took another look at Organic City, a project launched in 2006 to provide residents of Oakland, California with a place to listen to and share stories about happenings in their respective neighborhoods or to take audio and video tours of the city – all created by locals. The stories are tagged to specific locations in the city via a Google map, and the site also offers a special mobile version allowing stories to be uploaded and downloaded via a cell phone or other mobile device.
Organic City is one of thousands of locative media projects created over the last several years as participatory media and location-based technologies collide in new and interesting ways. Organic City is certainly not exceptional in its use of locative media or the selected technology, but its community storytelling approach is indeed something special – the underlying assumption being that stories by and for local people are important and worth hearing and sharing. It is a slightly different assumption that drives projects like Story Corps, which rely on shared experiences and universal emotional connections as opposed to geographic proximity.
Another apparent assumption (or a presumption on my part) around Web and mobile-enabled hyperlocal storytelling projects is that people actually want to hear the local stories of friends and strangers. And that once a locative story sharing service is made available it is only a matter of time before it will catch on and “earballs” build in the form of increasing participation and audience. It is this second assumption that I wonder about. In other words are people listening (locally) and do they care about what other people in their neighborhood want to share in the way of personal stories and anecdotes? Another more crass way of putting it… is there marketplace enough to justify more efforts aimed at local storytelling?
I ask this question because Organic City, for example, does not appear to have taken off. The site has been around a couple of years and has apparently not seen much new activity since the spring of 2007. (Note: this may be because not enough people know about the site or because it is no longer being actively managed.) I wonder if other geographically relevant “man on the street” storytelling and tour sites have gotten any traction. And I don’t mean local news aggregators, citizen journalism, or professional tourism projects. I mean people who are sharing and swapping stories as if they were sitting around a campfire or leaning over a neighbor’s fence – not engaging in intentional journalism. Think of a kind of informal digital storytelling to place.
At the end of the day, despite the fact that we all love stories and participatory media is hot, does hyperlocal sharing go beyond local news, the classifieds, Google maps, and advertising?
Maybe I am asking the wrong questions? Perhaps the local aggregation and sharing of stories should not be viewed as a buy and sell commodity that is measurable and gains value by appearing high up on a Digg ranking. Maybe the fact that we can more easily share stories is good enough in and of itself, without needing to assess click through rates and business model potential.
But that still doesn’t resolve the central question of whether there is an appetite for local storytelling. And it doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of an important and related question: Can an online or mobile medium do word-of-mouth storytelling justice? Can it help to create community? Can it (or should it) offer us something of value that we don’t already have?