ME and Ophelia

Friday, November 07, 2003

Micro communities of "personal journal" bloggers

This is a continuation of my previous post Something wrong in the blogosphere? I have worked on it all week and it has turned into an essay, too lengthy to post all in one go here. Today, I spent editing it into three parts. The first two parts are here, part three I hope to complete and post tomorrow.

Part One

Three years ago I moved to this small seaside town - after six years in a west country town - followed by nine years in central London and the rest of my time living in several different countries. I have experienced the "community" of many different neighbourhoods, languages and cultures.

This small seaside town where I now live is mainly inhabited by an ageing population of born and bred locals who are either related or attended school together. Generally, they are from large local families - ranging from great grandparents to scores of second cousins - that represent past generations of large local families. They are all intermingled in local affairs, events, activities and trade and are the hub of the town, bumping into each other here there and everywhere, within a fifty mile circumference, as they go about their daily business in person or over the telephone. An intricate mini network of people who are all connected through blood, marriage, education, work or trade and are, whether they like it or not, looking out for each other and their own interests.

In today's local newspaper the front page headline reports on how nothing is sacred these days: a crucifix was stolen from the altar of the local church. It is the latest in a long list of valuables that have been taken from the church in recent years, despite installation of an internal CCTV system. The church, which dates from Saxon times, is open to visitors from first thing in the morning until late afternoon on most days. Now, there is talk of locking the church when it's empty. "It's very sad. In the old days churches were safe from this sort of thing. People seemed to have some respect and left us alone," said the Warden.

Other local 'bad news' stories concern petty crime and vandalism committed by young people. Letters of complaint to the Editor are mostly written by self serving members of the community who are not overly supportive of younger members needs or noisy things like discos, beach activities, speed boats, skateboarding facilities and sports fields. Not all residents are known for their generosity of spirit towards the youth of the town. Many youngsters have to visit youth facilities in nearby towns or hang around the streets. Drinking and driving (even on a bike) laws are strict. Public transport is not very good. Everyone "needs" a car (or two). Traffic congestion and shortage of parking spaces causes grief for most residents, businesses and holidaymakers.

When I first arrived here, I knew no-one, which was no big problem because I was, and still am, too ill to socialise or receive many callers. My main aim was to get well. I hoped that the quiet environment and fresh sea air would aid my recovery. As I am rarely able to go out, I have only gotten to know the trades people in town through my telephone calls to them for delivery of goods or services. I have contributed towards local fundraising events, church and charity activities but when all is said and done, people mind their own business around here. No-one ever calls unless they have business here. People keep themselves to themselves.

Living on a small side street and hill overlooking the sea, I am closely surrounded by 14 other properties all of which are "second-homes" occupied during holiday periods a few months a year. The rest of the year they sit empty and devoid of life. When I moved here, it never occurred to me that I could end up as the only full-time resident of this "idyllic" neighbourhood.

Yesterday I spoke to a friend in Dorchester who was born and bred in a small English village, and explained the story I was posting here. She's also lived in cities and towns and agrees that village life has changed drastically over the past fifty years. Families have broken up and people are scattered all over now. Young people and families have moved away to large towns and cities for education, employment, housing and or financial reasons and increasing numbers of village properties are purchased by "outsiders".

Most of the "outsiders" are either retired or actually resident in their main homes elsewhere. Countryside properties, a two or three hour drive away from urban areas, are highly sought after as "second-homes" for holiday visitors. Demand is greater than supply which pushes up property prices beyond the reach of locals, young families and first time buyers.

Divorce is on the increase. Families are breaking up and scattering everywhere. Single parent families are becoming the norm. A Google search on "rural communities" reveals similar problems all over the world - especially in Australia. There are significant levels of poverty and exclusion and high rates of suicide - particularly in the farming "community". In Britain three statistics which are worse in rural authorities than urban authorities:

proportion of young adults committing suicide
proportion of older people who receive help from social services to live at home
proportion of non-drivers who believe that public transport needs improving.

Villages can be more isolating than any town or city. Unless you are part of close family, gone are the days when "a village was a community, a place where isolation in adversity is simply not permitted, a place where a cry for help is answered by neighbours with open hearts......"

Part Two

Years ago, I watched a TV documentary on the history of English villages. Villages evolved over hundreds of years and were built around a church. The church was at the heart of the village and the soul of the community. Villages expanded into towns and grew into cities.

The documentary explained how the village of Milton Keynes was turned into the largest new town in England.

Milton Keynes is the name of one of the villages that were in the original designated area of the new 'city' of Milton Keynes. One of the first written references to Milton Keynes village is in the Domesday book of 1086. All Saints Church dates from the 12th century and is the only stone building within the village of Milton Keynes.

On the 13th of June 1966 a map was drawn up which showed the site for the future New Town of Milton Keynes. Shortly after, on the 23rd of January 1967, Milton Keynes was designated under the New Towns Act, in order to provide a 'spill over' for crowding in London and the south-east. The plans for the town encompassed Bletchley, Wolverton, New Bradwell and Stony Stratford, as well as thirteen villages within the proposed boundaries. The city was expected, by the year 2000, to be able to house a quarter of a million people. Construction work began in 1970, and by 1974 60,000 people were already resident.

It was to be the perfect town and a very exciting place to be. But instead of building a church at the heart of the new town, they built a huge shopping mall. The cathedral like mall became the heart of Milton Keynes, where people flocked and gathered as if worshipping consumerism.

Milton Keynes became known as one of the unhappiest places to live in England and the dream paradise of a modern happy community was never realised as envisioned.

There was no real heart at the center - it had no "soul".
_ _ _

Approx 213,000 people live in Milton Keynes Borough today.

31 million people shop at Milton Keynes Shopping Centre each year. The shopping Centre has become one of Europe's largest with the opening of the new £180 million Midsummer Place extension in September 2000. Much improvement, effort and investment has been made over the past three decades to resolve the problems of Milton Keynes, trying to turn it into a thriving community and economic success.
_ _ _

Part Three

Chapter 1

Jim O'Connoll, in his recent post Writing to groups of five believes that what works best for blogs is when you get the feeling that you are part of an audience of perhaps five people, whether that number is actual or perceived. Initimate.

He gives a good example of Japan expat bloggers as being some of the best in the world because they are familiar with this style of writing: "They're used to writing emails describing daily life, as a stranger in a strange land, to small groups of five or ten relatives and friends "back home". A trip to the market becomes something to write home about. Add photos to this dialogue. A digital camera and a bit of web space makes it public. Some blogging software makes it interactive.

These blogs are conversations. They address a very limited audience and tend to be on a first name basis. They talk about trivial, often uninteresting (to an outsider) topics. Blogs that are widely read does not mean that they must be the best . It's that original bit of writing that is the heart, not the technology. Not the number of readers, not your rankings on the blog popularity charts. It's the writing.

The blogs that speak to their readers in groups of five are the true successes, no matter how many readers they actually have. Maybe that's ultimately where blogs will make the biggest difference - microscale audiences. Personal conversations, not pronouncements."

Jim thinks it's the little blogs, the ones with an audience of just a few people, that are going to define this medium.

Here's why I think he is right.

[To be continued tomorrow]

# posted by Ingrid J. Jones @ 11/07/2003
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