You may have heard of the so-called “last mile problem” It refers to the difficulty in delivering connectivity from a communications provider (Internet, telephone, cable) to individual homes. It’s easy to get cables and wires to a street, but to “fan out” to every house is an expensive physical challenge.
I think the Internet also has a “first mile problem”. It’s conceptually similar to the last mile problem but it has nothing to do with cables, wires, and other physical infrastructure. It has to do with the way we use the Internet to connect with each other.
I’ll put it in simple terms: The Internet — more specifically, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace — are great for connecting with friends and meeting people across the world. With Facebook, it’s easy for me to keep up with my friend Burton, who lives 1000 miles away. I can log in any time to view recent pictures, read about his travels, and even see what movies he’s rented recently. But Facebook and its competitors are terrible at connecting me with my neighbors — the people that live within a mile (or even a few dozen yards) of my home.
Think about it. Of all the people living on your street, how many do you communicate with via email or the Web? How many have you even met?
I suspect that most people know only a handful of their neighbors and are real friends with maybe one or two. I’m not sure we’d want it any different.
But by virtue of our proximity, we do have shared interests with our neighbors. We’re all interested in property values, crime, schools, and more. Plus there’s a natural curiosity about what your neighbors are up to (a.k.a. gossip).
Wouldn’t you be interested in keeping up with street-level news if it didn’t require curbside smalltalk? Imagine if you could visit a web site or receive an email newsletter each week that contained headlines like this:
Female black lab found on Arundel Street
Meet your new neigbors at 3860 South Hills
Susie Baker is headed to Harvard!
Friday is movie night at the Buckeys, 3900 Shelby Court
We’re back! Pics from the Johnsons’ vacation in Greece
Recent home sales in Westcliff — Prices up 9%
Who wouldn’t be at least somewhat interested in this stuff? Some of this sort of “hyperlocal” news is already out there on personal blogs (after all, blogs ARE hyperlocal citizen journalism), but it’s certainly not well organized.
What got me thinking about this whole topic was a recent post by Fred Wilson on Reinventing the Local Paper. I think the whole notion of hyperlocal media is a big business opportunity and I’m surprised that more strides haven’t been made in this area.
I checked out half a dozen sites that bill themselves as “local social networks” and I think they’ve all missed the mark. They fail to recognize that the neighbor relationship is fundamentally different from a friend relationship. Plus, as I mentioned above, most people don’t have their neighbors’ email addresses, which makes it hard for the concept to spread virally. As always, I’ve got some ideas of my own. I’ll just mark it down as business idea #10,765 ;-)