Why something truly local can’t be a scalable business model

Yesterday, I attended a couple of hours of a day-long gathering of 600+ people, primarily from Nashville and drivable distances away.

While the event was labeled “Podcamp,” it didn’t resemble what those early geek-camp things called “barcamps” were like — nor, frankly, does that matter.

Far more important than what it was labeled or what its format or funding or even its content was, is this: There were hundreds of people gathered who have realized that their businesses, churches, schools, causes, concerns, passions, families, neighborhoods and everything else they care about or touch, are being profoundly changed by the ways in which we can now use internet-enabled platforms, tools and ideas to connect, communicate, collaborate and do countless other stuff that may not as easily alliterate.

In Nashville yesterday, Podcamp was not merely a gathering of geeks (people who develop technology were definitely there) nor even a gathering of people who may, in some cases, care that much about technology, in and of itself. It was, in my opinion, a gathering of people who have personal passions and who want to use technology to accomplish things they believe are important. And some of the most important things they want to use technology to improve are real communities: the offline communities where they live, work, raise their kids, worship, create art, save stuff, help people, have fun, etc.

While my online community days go back to managing listservs and Compuserve forums and creation of precursors to what we now call “social networks,” when it comes to eureka moments where I realized “online community” and “offline community” appear easily on the same Venn diagram, I can note two: October, 10, 2004, when I was listed as “Best Local Blogger” by the Nashville Scene (My first reaction was, “What’s a local blogger?”). The second (and most profound) was on February 12, 2005, a Saturday morning when this photo of a group of local bloggers was shot. By that time, I had already attended gatherings of bloggers away from Nashville, like the first two BloggerCons, but the geographically local impact of what we today call “social media” had not yet sunk in for me.

As the 12 regular readers of this blog know, only a small percentage of what I blog about (or, for that matter, tweet about) is about Nashville. However, as I explained when I was the shocked recipient of the Nashville Technology Council’s first “blogger/social media” award, I blog about my passions, and, of course, the community in which I live certainly ranks high among those — so Nashville shows up in this blog regularly, and by intent. I love living in Nashville for reasons that have nothing to do with those things Nashville is famous for, the world over. But I also love living in a place that has something the world-over knows it for.

Yesterday, as I spent time looking around one of the presentation rooms at a lot of others who call Nashville home (instead of, say, “Music City”), I pondered what led many of them who, other than using Twitter and Facebook, aren’t tech-developer or hardcore-user geeks, to attend something called PodCamp.

Three alliterative things popped into my mind: people, proximity and passions. The people and passion parts of those three can be easily “virtualized” online, but there’s something about “local” that requires “proximity” that can’t be automated or replicated by technology. It can be enabled and encouraged by technology, but not replicated, no matter how much (to be up-to-the-moment) group texting or group photographing one has.

I see vast investments (frankly, at this point, bets) that are being made in support of the notion that technology platforms and business models can turn something called “hyperlocal” into something that is –scalable — a vast network of hyperlocal websites, for example.

But I think what matters most about local is proximity, not technology.

Perhaps plug-and-play, pre-fab, or “your-city-name-here” online couponing sites or “hyperlocal” user-generated-content-sharing media sites may work, but I’m not as convinced as I might be if I didn’t live in a place like Nashville, where people who aren’t really geeks are passionate about ways to use geek-toys for offline purposes.

Living in a place like Nashville (compared to, say, Silicon Valley) is perhaps why I believe “local” is more than a platform. “Local” community is what we belong to and care about. I know that authentic community exists online. But “local” community must have more than “virtuality” (if such a word exists) to be authentic.

“Hyperlocal,” I’ve decided, is a term that only makes sense in the context of a business or academic discussion. No one in real life ever uses the term. We use words like “my neighborhood” or “my hometown” or “my school” or “my church.”

But local is more dependent on people and their passions and the reality of proximity.

In other words, non-scalable things.

Like hanging out at Podcamp Nashville.