A few weeks ago, I subscribed to a service called EveryBlock.
About EveryBlock

EveryBlock filters an assortment of local news by location so you can keep track of what’s happening on your block, in your neighborhood and all over your city.

“What’s happening in my neighborhood?”

For a long time, that’s been a tough question to answer. In dense, bustling cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco, the number of daily media reports, government proceedings and local Internet conversations is staggering. Every day, a wealth of local information is created — officials inspect restaurants, journalists cover fires and Web users post photographs — but who has time to sort through all of that?

Our mission at EveryBlock is to solve that problem. We aim to collect all of the news and civic goings-on that have happened recently in your city, and make it simple for you to keep track of news in particular areas. We’re a geographic filter — a “news feed” for your neighborhood, or, yes, even your block.

The concept of a local news aggregator (with RSS feed) has a metaphorical backward compatibility about it, at least in the task of (re)connecting people to their offline communities in and amongst all the online networking consuming our time. I like the idea behind connecting with a specific place - particularly one we call home - while at the same time embracing the task of ordering the chaos inherent in today's socio-digital placelessness. In this way, EveryBlock is like a streamlined, editor's-choice Craigslist (one of the sources of its content, actually). On another tangent, the potential to recall real-world spaces, community membership, and artifacts with which we seek a tangible connection, presents possible future integration with an emerging Internet of Things to include places, landmarks, and service points as well as objects.

EveryBlock initially caught my attention because it complements some of my own research on the importance of locality in understanding Internet use, pervasive computing and ubiquitous technologies (including location-aware mobile services). Still, now that I think about it, I've been living abroad for quite some time. Perhaps I hoped that an updated feed of local events from where I grew up would somehow make me feel "closer to home" (whatever that means).

I subscribed to EveryBlock and searched for my zipcode so that I could pull up my old neighborhood. Its focus on pure urbanity meant that I reluctantly settled for one digit away from my block, a symbolic reminder that cities have borders, too.

I don't know what I expected to receive when I subscribed to my neighborhood feed, other than that comforting flicker of recognition of names and places, yet more evidence of a fading habitus. I'd forgotten about the service pretty rapidly, as it was a week before any news arrived. It was strange to recall the street names, locations and other hallmarks of my distant memory (such as an excess of textured aluminum siding visible in real estate listings), and amusing to browse few quirky, geotagged Flickr photos. The content is generally pretty sparse for my block, nestled in the veritable hinterland of urban space; a product of suburban sprawl. In the end, not much reminiscing was inspired, but I still like the idea behind EveryBlock and I keep it in my list of feeds.

I have, however, started to notice some disturbing patterns. EveryBlock markets itself as a useful tool because it mines the web to provide local "news"; important things people need to know about where they live, such as civic information, police reports, mentions of local politicians in the popular press, and miscellaneous fun. For my feed that mostly means (scary) crime reports, (horrific) restaurant inspections, and (feline?) photos.

Exhibit A: Yikes

Exhibit B: Gulp

Exhibit C: Meow?

Some things just take the charm right out of the old neighborhood, not that it had much to begin with. If I ever make it back, I'll be sure to never eat out, insure my belongings regardless of cost, and be more aware of the heightened numbers of creepy cat people living nearby.

In seriousness, my overall review: I think EveryBlock has a good thing going. At first I thought it was missing something because of the conspicuous absence of user interaction, but my Web 2.0 hypersensitivity was causing me to miss the point. It's useful because it mines third party information and gives geographically relevant news, without the added build-up of additional comments, comments and more comments, which one can find in the source material. Not all of the news appeals to me (liquor licenses in particular), but I like the public service information (graffiti cleanup and street condition reports) and flags for place name mentions in the media. Another fun aspect is exploring parts of the city you haven't been to, all in the form of daily news bites. It's obviously better and more informative for densely populated urban areas, where there are newsworthy events and community activities that large groups of people would like to have syndicated (cultural events, for instance). That enhances the personal, communal feel to it all. And, well, it's doubtlessly more useful if you are actually living in the area you're syndicating, not just spying on it like a bored anthropologist.

Having said that, I can see the appeal for urban anthropologists - myself included - trying to sketch a wireframe of the amorphous urban space into which they wish to venture. Cities are more often than not made up of mini-cities, or neighborhoods, which in turn are made up of mini-neighborhoods, that is, streets/blocks. I'm not advocating relying on web crawling news aggregators to supply ethnographic data, just suggesting that all perspectives on salient features of urban space are helpful aids.

In other news, my posts are becoming fewer and farther between as I get stuck in the quicksand that is my developing PhD thesis. You may have noticed some changes in the appearance of this blog. At this stage in reviewing my research, I am feeling a bit torn in my analysis of technology, newness, redefined methods of communication, and the other digital trademarks of that ever-elusive concept of "modernity". I guess the refined sleekness of brushed aluminum against rustic wooden boards captures the uneasy dichotomy produced (in my mind at least) by synchronic snapshots of technology. What's more, I'm still trying to decide if, at this moment in time, I'm a brushed metal or a knotted lumber.


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