Drop in on the virtual neighbours

Forget the global village - many of us wish to know what's happening in our local town or community. A surge of new websites can supply the answers, says Dianne See Morrison
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The Independent Online

Surf the internet and you'll find every conceivable virtual community out there. You can bond with fellow Jack Russell terrier owners, talk about equipment with fly-fishing enthusiasts, or find out where to track down the right stones for your Japanese garden. But trying to find websites or online communities that revolve around your own neighbourhood appears almost impossible.

While some sites want to bring people from far-flung places to meet in cyber- space, three UK sites are trying to bring people together in their physical neighbourhoods: Myvillage.com, Localtoday. co.uk and Ukvillages.co.uk. What's more, all three rely primarily on advertising, that great money-making promise of the internet that now seems like a revenue model dreamed up by someone from a B-list business school.

But have these local sites stumbled on something that had been mistakenly sidestepped in the internet's headier days? In the past, no one bothered with local sites. Why create a site that would have limited appeal when you could create a subject-orientated site that could bring in eyeballs and customers from Singapore to Cape Town, from London to Vancouver, if you "executed" correctly?

However, according to a retail statistic that is often overlooked, most people spend up to 80 per cent of their disposable income within a few hundred metres of where they live.

By focusing on local businesses, and by building sites relevant to neighbourhoods and villages, the three sites are hoping to make a new case for internet advertising.

Take Myvillage.com. Instead of covering the whole of London with one website, Myvillage.com breaks it down into the actual "villages" in which people live: Mynottinghill.com, Mychelsea.com and Mykensington.com, for a start. Roifield Brown, the founder of Myvillage.com, never really intended to start a network of sites. Initially, he'd only intended to build a site for Notting Hill, his neighbourhood. But the success of Mynottinghill.com, which he launched in October 1999, has prompted him to raise money to launch 17 more Myvillage sites.

Brown says the site's success stems from Notting Hill as a physical community. "We're not talking about cyber-communities or virtual communities, where people only share one area of their lives in common. It's not 'fishingreel.com'," says Brown. "These are real communities that people have very strong allegiances to, neighbourhoods that people feel passionate about.

"Take Notting Hill. Of the 40,000 people who live there, 10,000 may be very interested in restaurants, another 10,000 may be interested in fashion, and another 10,000 in going out. But they all have one thing in common and that's Notting Hill."

Indeed, the Mynottinghill.com message boards are well-populated, with posts on everything from traffic problems caused by a local gym and finding a roofing contractor, to a warning to others about an attempted mugging at Holland Park Tube station. With such a local audience, Myvillage has been able to convince local businesses to sponsor advertorials and to take out ads on the site.

Like Myvillage, Ukvillages.co.uk is trying to tap into the local advertising market. But while Myvillage.com has a dedicated editorial team that concentrates on writing up the latest Notting Hill gossip, Rupert Dick, the founder of Ukvillages.co.uk, is hoping that self-regulated message boards will do the trick.

Dick, who lives in the village of Harston in Cambridgeshire, came up with the idea after helping to organise Millennium events for his village. As he began to plan for the big night, he wondered how he could avoid clashing with events from a neighbouring village.

A few weeks later, Dick, a former technical director at an IT firm, had written a program for his and nine other villages, where they could post information. But the nine other villages wanted to know how they could organise events with their neighbours. "It just kept growing and growing," says Dick. "Before long we had some 27,500 villages listed."

For Localtoday.co.uk, the emphasis is on physical events that will bring people to the villages. Clare Whatley, founder of Local today.co.uk, originally thought up the idea when she was an events organiser, trying to advertise in her local papers.

But having spent several months working for an internet site, she was convinced there was a better way, one that wouldn't limit her to the boundaries of the local paper.

"It was a simple idea, really. We were trying to help events organisers to widen their reach. They may have been advertising local events, but with the internet it meant we didn't have access to just a local market, we had access to a national one," says Whatley. Localtoday.co.uk lets people search for events under specific categories, such as cars or gardening, or for events specifically aimed at children. Listing events is free, but the site charges for "premium listings".

Whatley adds that for the people she knows, typically pensioners and mothers at home with their children, the internet can be an intimidating place. By offering a site where a familiar physical place is a point of reference, Whatley believes it is more accessible to them. "For the people I know who are using the Web, the Web has to be about making life easier. These people are not going to sit at their computer for hours," she adds. "They want to know what's going on that is relevant to them and their immediate lives."

Whatley herself is a "silver surfer" and says she first learned about computers through her three sons. "I remember when we got our first computer. I was fascinated with trying to help the boys figure out how to program it to make one of those little figures that jumped up and down," says Whatley.

Whatley is especially proud of the role Localtoday.co.uk played during the foot-and- mouth crisis. For each event that was listed, the site was able to let users know exactly how to avoid closed areas, if the event was postponed and where to get more information.

"It was very nice to feel we were actually helping rural communities, especially in Devon and Cumbria," says Whatley. "Foot-and-mouth was devastating for them, and no one knew what was going on, but we were able to keep the situation updated on our site.

"Even MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) started referring people to us."