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Finding the Somerville blog scene

Posted by Joe Allen-Black  July 23, 2010 10:22 AM

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I don't know if you've heard this, but blogs were supposed to kill newspapers. "Citizen journalism," it was called — devoted amateurs who somehow found time to cover their small patch of land with more dedication, depth and attitude than any major media organization could.

And yet, when we went to organize influentials to launch the Your Town site nearly one year ago, the list of bloggers was surprisingly short.

Danielle Dreilinger, Globe Correspondent

Left to right: Joe Beckmann, Courtney O'Keefe, Seth Woodworth and Lisa Brukilacchio discuss ways to reach Somerville families at the July 22 OneVille meeting.

There was Winter Hill Reborn, who posted maybe a half-dozen times per month on events and changes affecting that neighborhood. There were a few organizations who had what was once quaintly called "a web presence," such as East Somerville Main Streets, posting about member businesses and events. There were the two local weekly newspapers' sites. There was the colorful Davis Square LiveJournal, a collective place to post apartment ads, event updates, "what happened there?" and "where do I go for X" questions, and its sober counterpart Somerville Voices, which focused on civic information citywide.

But still, there really wasn't the archetypal single-person blog like H20town, where some passionate blogger devotes him or herself to covering a place. The Somerville Flickr group currently has a mere 197 members and the Davis Square group 301 — nothing compared to the thousands of literate geeks who cycle in and out of the Diesel Cafe each day. A Google blog search for "Somerville" makes one rue the existence of luxe skincare, and New Jersey.

I started thinking again about this question after getting word of a meeting of media-makers to be held July 22 by OneVille, a project that aims to improve communication to and among Somerville youth and their parents. The 20 or so participants focused on the difficulties, from the lack of places to post flyers to the many incomplete events calendars. Shouldn't a place like Somerville have more blogs dedicated to the city?

Adam Griffin Gaffin, founder of the site Universal Hub, which collects community news from countless local people, thought I might be looking in the wrong place. Tools have changed. "Three or four years ago blogs were it," he said. But now "people are a lot more spread out," using tools like Twitter and Facebook.

"Blogs are going downhill," agreed OneVille organizer Seth Woodworth after the meeting. "Content is becoming very atomic."

Information probably comes in "shorter, quicker nuggets" now, said OneVille social medial consultant Susan Kaup. Back when she started in 2001, blogging was a real project. Imagine, you had to sit down at your computer. Now she can snap a photo from her phone of the weird guy who brought a full-sized grill on to the 96 bus and upload it to her Tumblr site, which cross-posts to Twitter and Facebook — and get replies within minutes.

Twitter showed its power in Somerville during the July 10 flood, when tweets from Union Square warned of the rising floodwaters, with photos and videos. (Unfortunately neither Google Update Search nor appear to go back two weeks.)

Which may mean there's more information out there. Certainly it's easier to post occasional links on your Facebook page, or to tweet "3 cruisers on Medford St. huh?" than it is to commit to the ongoing effort of a blog.

The OneVille meeting attendees agreed that plenty of information is exchanged in far-flung places, such as a listserv for parents of students in the Healey School's Choice program.

In the age of Twitter, finding information that matters — whether it be school updates or flood pics -- requires more sophisticated filtering strategies. (During the OneVille meeting, one attendee's friend posted on Facebook that she had just unsubscribed from a bunch of lists to reduce her information overload.)

So far, the technology doesn't seem to have caught up with the signal versus noise ratio. Sites like Twellow can locate Twitter users in Somerville, but you may be interested in only 15 percent of what each person has to say. (Yours truly appears to have been somewhat obsessed with popsicles recently.)

Woodworth is working on a solution: He's creating a set of Twitter analytics called with the Web Ecology Project. Currently the site is confusing to the non-specialist.

One attendee, however, hadn't gotten the e-memo about the dwindling of blogs. After disengaging from a neighborhood association, Courtney O'Keefe, 29, realized "a lot of people didn't know what was going on but they wanted to," she said after the OneVille meeting. To find anything at all about their neighborhood, they had to check five different websites. In November 2009, O'Keefe started Ward 5 Online.

O'Keefe's level of commitment goes beyond local reporter into the realm of policy wonk. For every Board of Aldermen meeting, she combs through the agenda to find items submitted by ward 5 alderman Sean O'Donovan. Moreover, she follows up on them afterwards. On July 20, she posted, genuinely disappointed, that the board had canceled two meetings. She recently added a Google Translate widget to become more accommodating to non-English speakers, and maintains a Twitter account and yes, yet another online calendar.

Still, though she's gotten her share of criticism, O'Keefe finds blogging about her neighborhood immensely satisfying. "I have people who are physically unable to go to city meetings" who rely on her coverage, she said. People ask to circulate information in order to reach the neighborhood's constituency. "To have that respect is mindblowing for me."

And Somerville Voices is expanding its own efforts in this realm with its new Beat Reporter project, which promises to put at least one warm, blogging body in more city and state meetings. They are looking for volunteers.

For the time being, we at YourTown/Somerville are trying to build online community, too.

We gather up the city's blogs in one spot and also provide fresh coverage from our Your Town correspondents, Globe writers and me. We have a Facebook "Like" function in the upper right hand corner of our site, so you can get a feed of news sent to your FB account. And we tweet several times at day @ Somervilleinfo.

If you tweet in or about Somerville, send your info to @somervilleinfo or to get on our new list.

We're always collecting links to blogs throughout Somerville to present to you in one place. Let us know if you'd like to be added.

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