I went by the local library today here in Menlo Park, which is adjacent to a large park, the community rec center and the police station. In the center of it all, next to the parking lot is the bulletin board I snapped a picture of above. It's filled with notices of local events, businesses, services, festivals, etc. There's a similar one nearby in the local bookstore as well, which has probably even more notices tacked onto it.
What always strikes me about these boards is that there's *always* stuff on there that I didn't know about.
I'm on the computer every day, all day and yet I know almost nothing about what's happening in my local area. Not only is it basically impossible to stumble upon the information, like I can while walking back to my car from the library, but even actively searching for it is normally fruitless. I'm sure most of the items on that board have some sort of site out there, or information online - but where ever it is, it's not organized at all.
There's just all this information out there that's still completely "under the radar" of the web. Being a parent, I'm always searching for interesting things to do with my kid, and am always amazed at how much information still travels through word of mouth. Not being particularly social, and not being a "Mom" - as apparently there's an underground network for mothers-only it seems - I don't hear about a lot of it until it's too late.
I started thinking about this stuff around the Fourth of July - I tried to look up where the various fireworks displays were going to be and found almost nothing but outdated info - community calendars long out of date, news items from years past, etc. Happily the day before the holiday, the local newspaper published a list of displays online and I was able to find a show. Where they got all that info, however, is a mystery. It's indicative of most local event information - it's all out there, just not searchable online.
And speaking of papers - I was in the barbershop the other day flipping through the free local daily and it was filled with ads for shops I didn't know existed, all within walking distance of my home. I've written a bit about this before, but it still amazes me that all these businesses with money to spend on ads are still giving it to newspapers instead of the web. I'm sure that local shoe shop paid $200 or more for a 2x3 inch advertisement shoved in the corner of page 7 of the paper that I just happened to look at while waiting my turn in the chair. It seems like a lot of money for them to pay for that random chance encounter that the person who happened to see that ad also happened to need shoes *and* remember the name of the shop (I do, but sadly I don't).
This brings up the Yellow Pages. You'd think by now that the utility of the Yellow Pages - you know, the book of business listings they give you for free every year - would be something that is just as good if not better online. But I find that if I'm looking something up - say trying to find where an appliance repair place close by is - I get more and better results from flipping through a book made of dead trees, than using Yahoo! Local or searching on Google Maps. I saw some people complaining about them the other day, and I think they're nuts. Or maybe they just think they get everything they need online and don't even bother to look at a Yellow Pages any more. But go open one up right now and you'll be amazed, believe me.
I wonder why it is that we just can't get it together when it comes to Local stuff online. (Or is what I'm talking about "hyper local"?) Maybe this is just a problem for suburbia, where stuff is so compact, and so overlapping, that there aren't clear places to go to find all the information you need. I'm sure in the small town where I grew up and my parents still live, it's a lot easier to determine what the big events are every month. But it seems that for any decent sized city and the surroundings, there's just not enough info, or too much as well. Either what you're looking for is not available, or it's a needle in a haystack.
I guess this stuff is really a combination of two things - local information, and calendaring. But hey, I've tried to see Craigslist to find local event information, and it's really hit or miss. I've also tried to use Upcoming.org or Eventful as well, and there's tons of things missing. I've also tried subscribing to local news sources via Topix, and that doesn't seem to do it either.
Part of the problem is that their databases are incomplete, another is the restrictions of being displayed on the web. A huge wine festival in Mountain View and a weekly meeting of a knitters anonymous club both share the same font-size and weight in a list of hundreds of other similar items. It just doesn't have that same feel like the notice kiosk pictured above, does it? Big posters show bigger events like festivals or shows, and regular letter-paper printouts with pull off tabs cut at the bottom show less important things. There's a clear difference in importance just by size alone, but then older stuff gets pushed farther back as new items get tacked on top, and even older items get faded by the sun as well. And the more stuff going on, the more chaotic and colorful the board becomes, calling more attention to itself. There's a lot of usability on a simple kiosk that's just inherent in how it works, and yet nothing I've seen has duplicated it online. (The closest thing I can think of is the Million Dollar Homepage).
This brings me back to that notion of "stumbling" upon a notice like you can with a bulletin board, or by chatting with the other moms while dropping off your kid at school. There's stuff happening all the time in every community, and yet it's so easy to miss it all and one day (like last weekend) you'll turn a corner and discover that all of downtown Palo Alto is closed to traffic for a street fair. What the hell? I didn't hear about that!
I wonder what the solution to this is? I wonder how local information, businesses, updates, etc. can be better integrated into our daily web browsing? There's been services out there that can pinpoint your location by your IP address for years now, and yet it doesn't seem to matter much. Even if I explicitly ADD that information to an online profile, I don't get much for it. For example, I go to Facebook and I still see crazy-ass ads about getting dates tonight with unbelievably hot women that are at least a dozen years younger than I am, rather than an ad for a shoe store around the corner from me like in that local free daily newspaper. Why?
In terms of stumbling on new local info, I can't imagine that there will ever be a site that monopolizes that stuff, even Google only has a ~60% market share and they're considered pretty universal in terms of websites. Maybe there's a site out there that does everything I'm looking for, but I just don't know about it - and that's obviously part of the problem.
It just seems like there should be a simpler solution to this stuff. Sites have been trying to do local information since the 90s - CitySearch for example, which is still as useless now as it was then - with no success. I wonder if there's some key ingredient - like easily accessible location information - that's been missing, or if there's been too *much* effort put in and in fact, like Twitter, the key would be to remove complexity instead?
Here's an idea for a bulletin board online - how about a Million Dollar Homepage style page where anyone can take up a certain amount of space on the page for their flyer or pamphlet for free, editable like a Wiki for anyone to use. I have no idea how it'd be regulated, or how to keep out spammers (maybe no external links allowed?) but it'd be interesting to see if something like that could take off. I've seen "city wikis" before which are like open guidebooks, I wonder if there's anything like that for events and things? Well, even if there are things like that, I haven't used them yet, and most likely neither has my neighbors either.
Which is really the key, as they're the ones who knows what's going on as I sure don't.