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For the past few years, bloggers have been living in a keyword-based world. When they write a blog post, they can tag the post by putting it into relevant topical categories. A post about the U.S. attorney general firing scandal might be tagged: “U.S. politics,” “Alberto Gonzales,” “attorney general firings.” But the missing element for bloggers has been a way to tag their posts according to geography — not only of the topic but of the place where the blogger is writing.

Sites such as Outside.in and Topix have made inroads into this problem by creating aggregated sites and search engines that bring you blog content, photos and news stories related to your neighborhood or town. But longtime blogger Lisa Williams, who runs both H2otown covering Watertown, Mass., and local-blog aggregator Placeblogger, wants to take that a step further by reaching out to local bloggers and news sources to create a universal geo-tagging system that would help place every story, every blog post onto a map.

And now she has some money to back up her idea, as Williams recently got a $220,000 two-year grant from the 21st Century News Challenge at the Knight Foundation.

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Lisa Williams

“The thing that’s missing [in local information] is a centralized place,” Williams told me. “You remember Weblogs.com [a running list of recently updated blogs]? There isn’t one for geography. A lot of interesting blogs got bootstrapped off of Weblogs.com because they were watching the traffic go by. A lot of people have tried the rocket science approach to geographical search, natural language search, and that hasn’t got us very far. If we want this to work, we need some help from the producers, and if we want their help, we have to be super-polite about requirements and make it super-easy and fun.”

If anyone can make this fun it’s Williams. The former software industry analyst launched the local H2otown site a few years ago because she was too busy with young kids to figure out the lay of the land in her new suburban home of Watertown, Mass. The community site not only has helped her decide on where to get her car inspected or have breakfast in town thanks to online polls, but it has been a nerve center for longtime residents to meet and discuss local issues with newer residents.

The following is an edited transcript of the phone conversation I had with the gregarious Williams, as she discussed her plans to boost Placeblogger with geo-tagging; the ups and downs of running H2otown; and her work helping the Boston Globe become a better aggregator of local blogs.

Tell me why you launched Placeblogger.

Lisa Williams: I started Placeblogger in part because I would get interviewed by people about the phenomenon of citizen journalism or online communities, and when I read what they had written there were a lot of assertions around how many of these sites there were. Before I did all these things, I used to be an industry analyst, so I knew something about sizing a market and forecasting. That’s kind of a forecasting problem. So I figured you don’t have to say, ‘Lisa Williams is really special and nobody else is going to do this, right?’ Or say, ‘The barbarians are at the gate and everybody’s going to do it and there won’t be any more newspapers!’ These are crazy extremes.

I thought, this is a knowable answer. I realized I didn’t know it either. So I sat down for lunch at BloggerCon IV in June 2006, and [NYU professor] Jay Rosen asked me, ‘How many of these sites are there?’ I bet him a buck that I could find 1,000 in the United States. I thought that wasn’t too many per state. When I kept dipping my net in the water, I was very surprised to find more and more of them. Now, if you just look at the Placeblogger directory — which is by no means exhaustive — there are over 2,000 placeblogs out of 20,000 named places in the U.S. They are not distributed equally across the population, so you’re getting toward 10%.

Have you seen trends in where placeblogs pop up geographically?

Williams: A lot of people said, ‘Oh this will happen out in the sticks where there’s no media and lots of volunteer firehouses.’ While there are some of those, that’s actually not the most common place they will be. I find more and more places that are either outer boroughs of major metro areas, or dense urban suburbs that share a border with metro areas. And Watertown is one of those areas, so I was being affected by that phenomenon too. When I looked at trying to cross that with the population, I found that almost 130 million Americans live in a place served by a placeblog whether they know that or not. That’s a big potential audience.

I originally thought that Placeblogger would be a U.S. project, because I figured I would do most of the data collection. Plus, I only speak two languages, so I can’t tell if a placeblog is really a placeblog in too many languages. So we opened with five countries when the site launched on Jan. 1, 2007. The site was linked to by BoingBoing that day, and by the end of the day, visitors had added placeblogs in 50 additional countries.

Tell me more about your work with Boston.com, the site for the Boston Globe.

Williams: I’m working [on contract] with Boston.com with their community stuff. My boss is Bob Kempf, who did a site called WickedLocal.com. It’s a very exciting thing for a big regional daily to try [aggregating local content]. Big regional dailies have big challenges when it comes to trying to serve big suburbs. They’ve had a hard time doing that. This is a way of serving that audience better without putting too many new feet on the ground. They can use technology to do a better job and do something that’s fiscally responsible. I’ve heard some sour ideas like, ‘Oh, they’re going to fire reporters because of it.’ But I haven’t heard that from anyone [at the Globe].

It’s fun. Normally I bore my friends to death talking about hyper-local and online communities and now I can talk about it all I want. Don’t tell them that I would do it for free. God knows I’ve done it for free enough.

With the H2otown site, what stood out for you as far as accomplishments or things you didn’t expect to happen there?

Williams: When I started the site, I wanted other people to be able to participate with me as peers. I wanted people to get on the front page along with me. My original thought was that it was a nice utopian idea but nobody would ever do it. Many more people have participated in that way than I thought they would. It’s been an interesting mix of people. I thought the audience of the site would be like me, relative newcomers to Watertown who hadn’t been born there, who don’t subscribe to the newspaper, and maybe they weren’t tapped into local politics. If they saw the local ballot, they were like, ‘Who is this person?’ The first audience I connected with were local politics junkies, total Watertown people.

One of the nicest parts of the site is the crossover and interplay of Old Watertown with New Watertown in interesting and useful ways. It’s been useful to me, because I didn’t start H2otown because I was a booster about it. I started it because I was an idiot about Watertown…What I lacked was the time to discover and think, so this was my method for getting connected to the place.

I was gonna do it in public so that people who have even less time than I have (because I was home with small kids) could ride my informational coattails. And in that way it has been a big success. If you look at the front page you’ll see what I frequently do is ask them to tell me what to do. ‘Tell me where to have breakfast.’ Now they’re telling me where to get my car inspected. I just have a poll and do whatever they tell me to do.

What does the term ‘placeblog’ mean to you and how does that relate to traditional journalism?

Williams: Placeblogs are about the lived experience of a place. Only a tiny fraction of that is news. If you took out the part about pizza crusts or personality then nobody would go to the site, you’d kill it. If H2otown was wrapped around a newspaper site, H2otown would be the conversation readers would be having while they’re reading the newspaper, which isn’t always about news.

News is a conversation starter, but they drift back and forth in a way that is a bit alarming to newspaper companies who say, ‘What is this other stuff they want to talk about?’ And they’re right that the things folks want to talk about wouldn’t pass editorial muster unless you had an interesting spin on it. But the civic space for those types of conversations has shrunk.

My mother is the kind of newspaper reader that every newspaper wishes was the norm still. She reads the Boston Herald and Boston Globe front to back including the classified ads and sports. She reads the sports section, although she doesn’t follow sports, every single day. I asked her, ‘Why do you read the sports section every day when you don’t care about sports?’ She used to sell technical weather instruments to laboratories. ‘All those guys cared about sports so I wanted something to talk to them about,’ she said. ‘If it was Monday and I was doing a call I wanted to know how the Patriots did.’

If you ask why people read the newspaper they might say, ‘to be informed.’ But to be informed for what? I think the answer is to be informed to connect with other people. But those places to connect have shrunk. No one joins the Elks Club, they don’t have time to go to meetings. My neighborhood in the wintertime, I saw people going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark. It’s not that they didn’t want to have those conversations anymore, it’s just that they didn’t have [a way to] fit those into their lives. H2otown is low impact and it allows people to have those conversations at the times that they can do it. That’s why this kind of community could be important to newspapers. It provides the civic conversations.

How do you moderate a community site like H2otown?

Williams: I think the newspapers’ fear is that [an online community] would be a screaming horde of people, but my experience is that it isn’t really true. And I wondered about that when I started the site, ‘What if someone says something mean or racist and I have to pay the hosting bill for that?’ I live here and I don’t want to make this a worse place to live. But in the first couple years, I’ve had to take down a couple dozen comments. People are nicer than I expected, probably because they have to live with each other. Plus, the volume has something to do with it. Once you get a site with a certain volume, you get a certain volume of trolls that you have to actively manage. Watertown has a population of 32,000 and [the site’s] traffic is 3,000 hits per day; it’s just not big enough.

My reaction to [unruly folks] is that those are the people I really want because they really care. I write to the people who write mean things, ‘I really want you to participate but I’m trying to make this like a public park, which means if kids are drinking beer in the back and being loud then the people with kids won’t come.’ You want to have the least restrictive thing that lets the most people participate.

What about making money with these sites? The recent J-Lab survey showed that most people doing these hyper-local sites don’t care about making money. When a newspaper starts doing this won’t they be more concerned about making money with it?

Williams: I don’t think I should generalize. The folks I have talked to at newspapers definitely want to think about ways to make a sustainable business out of it. I think they have a better shot at making a business out of it than the independents for the simple reason that they have a sales force. It’s more fun to blog than to beat the pavement looking for advertisers. Most of the independent sites that are doing well at this have intact downtowns with a lot of mom-and-pop stores because big companies don’t even know that these sites exist. Baristanet [in New Jersey] is doing pretty well, and that’s based on the downtown of Glen Ridge and Montclair and they have a lot of businesses to tap.

For newspapers, they have a decent chance of doing well simply because they feel fairly confident about finding major sponsors for an entire section. Plus, they’re thinking about new ways of doing online advertising. Small businesses don’t like doing keyword advertising, so having a decent venue for them is important. Being able to be the place where people go [online for local information] is going to be very important, and it’s a defensive move.

Isn’t there something to be said about having the sites independent and outside the control of the media companies? Doesn’t it allow them to be more independent editorially, and they can criticize the local press and businesses?

Williams: One of the freedoms they have is the freedom to be a little sassy. I think tone is the biggest freedom that you get, and humor. A lot of the independent sites that work are really funny and fun to read. And they poke fun at people without being mean. The question is, isn’t it hard for the newspaper — big or small — to do that? They have a position of authority that they built over so many years.

I don’t think the independents are going away. If we think that everyone will cut up an existing pie online, then why would we spend any money on it at all? The only reason to spend money online is that it is growing. What I’ve found at H2otown is that when new people join up, we’re growing the pie. The local paper in Watertown does have a blog, and it’s very active. When they launched the blog I wondered what would happen. But the traffic [at H2otown] went up because they were bringing new readers — people who probably weren’t blog readers — into the fold. I’m very very happy to return the favor and point back to them.

What about the franchise idea like Backfence, taking one model and replicating it for other communities? Do you think that’s possible or that each community needs its own independent way of looking at it?

Williams: There’s a bigger problem here. It’s very hard to make sites with user-contributed content work. And by work I mean have enough fresh content on a daily basis to attract more participants. Even if you have the content of a newspaper, and you combine that plus volunteer content, and you try to get that down to a local level, it’s still not cooking. Whether it’s Backfence or whether it’s a newspaper or some other thing, being interested in aggregation is really important. Because there are already so many people writing about places online, so it’s not that wise to expect people to find your site and volunteer their time to write for it.

You have to have a three-legged stool if you’re a newspaper: content from the newspaper, content contributed to the site, and content that other people are writing about that topic already online that you have an automated way of finding and presenting to people.

What do you think about Outside.in?

Williams: I think it’s very interesting. I like the technology and like what they’ve done. I wonder what would happen if you could add Outside.in to a newspaper site. I think there are a lot of good individual pieces but no one has put them all together yet. They’re a lot better together.

One of the things we’re still working out is, ‘What is the logical footprint of a local site and what does it contain?’ If you don’t have everything it’s like having a car without all the wheels. It doesn’t work too well. I don’t think anyone, including me, knows what will work. We’re trying to work out what’s effective for readers and what’s economic for advertisers.

What’s your goal with Placeblogger and what would you like to improve with it?

Williams: My initial feeling was that this was a total garage project, that I was doing it for ‘sell my possessions on eBay money.’ I didn’t have the cash to really do it and Outside.in came out while I was doing it. What I launched with was to have all these local blogs, and you could just go up and watch the stream go by. I thought, ‘This is modestly useful, it doesn’t cost anything to run.’ Somebody said I should apply [for the Knight funding]. I looked at it as a lottery ticket and was just as shocked when I won. It’s easy for us to find things at the blog level but harder for us to find things at the [blog] post level.

There’s an increasing amount of geo-tagged data, but it’s not super-easy for bloggers to have on their platform. So if they can’t tag it, then I can’t find it. For example, I subscribe to a lot of feeds related to searches on ‘Watertown.’ But there are a lot of Watertowns in the world. I get wonderful pictures from somewhere in China of these cities built on piers, that look somewhat like Venice, that people are tagging ‘Watertown.’ Occasionally I’ll publish them. Now I know way more about Watertown, South Dakota, than I ought to.

The thing that’s missing is a centralized place. You remember Weblogs.com? There isn’t one for geography. A lot of interesting blogs got bootstrapped off of Weblogs.com because they were watching the traffic go by. A lot of people have tried the rocket science approach to geographical search, natural language, and that hasn’t got us very far. If we want this to work, we need some help from the producers, and if we want their help, we have to be super-polite about requirements and make it super-easy and fun. Since we have funding, I’m writing up a [technical specification], circulating it to a small number of people.

So it will take more of your time?

Williams: I hope I don’t stop working for newspapers entirely because one of the things that’s so important is getting it into the hands of local publications. They should be able to play the game too. They’ve been kind of shut out technologically because they have these big legacy investments. Part of the reason to do this geo-stuff is to have viable sources for local information. A keyword-based world favors a weblog like Engadget, but it doesn’t favor local publications. The Google ads on H2otown are terrible. They’re all real estate ads. If you have a big set of geo-tagged information, I would bet advertising will follow, the same way they followed keyword advertising. That would level the playing field between topic-based, keyword-based media and locally based, geographically based media.

*****

What do you think about geo-tagging and the idea of placeblogs and aggregating local information in better ways? Do you write a placeblog or read them regularly? What are your favorite ones? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo of Lisa Williams by Scott Beale.