Caption on Flickr (bit.ly/94gqYs): "W. Oakland is the new Emeryville. I see white people."
In Oakland, a community member is telling his peer group that Oakland Local is going to "gentrify the web" - that is, take traffic away from his web site and the other local grassroots sites that have existed for the past four years.
This person talks about conspiracy theories and Big Brother; still, the question he raised - can you gentrify the local web? - is interesting. So I did a little research, and want to share what I found. ..
First, let's get clear on the territory we're exploring.
Definitions of gentrification vary somewhat on the details, but it basically means this: Local people who live in an area, and who have have roots there, get pushed out as wealthier outsiders move in, improve buildings, and raise the cost (and economic value) of housing.
This classic pattern of displacement that happens all too often in cities. Usually, the new residents (gentrifiers) are white, and the displaced residents are people of color.
In Oakland, as in many cities, when neighborhoods are disrupted due to development, gentrification is a big controversy.
The "local web" comprises web sites about a community or city that are created by local residents and that address local issues, culture, news, and views - primarily for a local online audience. Sometimes these sites are supported by advertising, sponsorships, grants, and other revenue models. Sometimes they are volunteer efforts.
So: Can gentrification happen on the local web?
Or, to explore the specific accusations levied at Oakland Local: Does Oakland Local, merely by existing and gaining visibility, inherently harm older local sites (particularly those few run by people of color) by diminishing their audience and attention?
In October 2009 when Oakland Local launched, there were already many local web sites and blogs serving Oakland, California - over 1500, in fact. (See the Oakland blog directory we built for more details.)
From the start, Oakland Local's mission has been to serve as a portal (or community hub). We feature and drive traffic to our content and community partners, as well as to myriad other local sites. In addition, we feature original writing and multimedia.
In a short time we have enjoyed a fair amount of success. In fact, just yesterday we crossed the 3,000-fan milestone on our Facebook page. We're grateful to the community for such strong support.
To test whether Oakland Local, and other recently launched media sites in Oakland - are indeed diminishing traffic to older local sites (particularly those run by/for people of color), we need to look at the numbers; specifically, trends in web traffic.
We did a little experiment with metrics.
First, we identified a set of local sites to test with:
Research methodology: First, we looked at the free, public Alexa data for each of these sites, to gauge their traffic levels and trends (especially whether their traffic rose or declined) over the past three months. (NOTE: For some reason, Alexa appears to display the same data in different ways for different web browsers. The figures we discussed below are visible via the Safari browser on a Mac.)
Next, we searched Google, using custom date ranges and the URL of each site, to gauge whether the number of inbound ("referring") links to those sites (a way to measure influence) increased or decreased over the past 11 months.
To do this, we specified two date ranges:
Note that we did not attempt to gauge quality, frequency of updating, relevance, or any other factors that often attract site visitors. This was a straightforward traffic comparison.
RESULTS: For each of the three Oakland sites, their discernable traffic, as well as their numbers of new inbound links, rose substantially - typically by 30-60%.
These number show that our critic's site, Block Report Radio, has gained traffic and influence after the launch of Oakland Local. So did the other two local sites.
This exercise suggests that the local web probably is NOT like a city block, or a local neighborhood - at least in terms of gentrification risk. The phenomenon of displacement (web users tending to abandoning one local web site in favor of another) is not supported by this data.
Block Report Radio: According to Alexa.com statistics, traffic to this site grew 90% in traffic over the past three months - and 300% in the past month.
The Black Hour : This college-run site, which offers terrific coverage for African American students at Laney College, one of the Peralta Community Colleges in Oakland. Their coverage is also of keen interest to the broader community in Oakland. (Disclosure: The Black Hour has been an active partner with Oakland Local. We have published and co-published much content with its editor, Reginald James.)
Google links show that from June-2009-Oct 1, 2009, the site had 4 links; from Nov-May 1, 2010, there were 10 links
Oakland Rising : Oakland Rising is a slightly different kind of site than the previous two, because it belongs to a non-profit project; but since it is both local and community-action focused, it seemed like a good choice to research (Note: they are also an OL partner)
According to Alexa, Oakland Rising took a dip in the past month of 50%, but in the past 3 month, their traffic rose 150%. From October 2009-May 2010, OR received 13 Google links; from June to September, they received 14 links. So, that's pretty much a wash.
SF Bayview: Athough it is outside of Oakland, and has a very different focus than Oakland Local, we also looked at stats for the SF Bayview - a historically Black web site in San Francisco - since our accuser said we were harming them. Was that true?
According to Alexa, traffic for SF Bayview was down 20% in the past month, but up 30% over the past 3 months.
Google links for SF Bayview were 607 for June-October 2009; and for November 2009-May 2010 links were 11,600(!!!) (Clearly, I am not the only person who thinks this site is providing great news and value).
It doesn't seem right to go through this exercise without also sharing Oakland Local's stats, which I ran as a comparison.
Here's that data: Alexa says that our traffic has gone up 40% in the past month; 22% overall. Google links reports that Oakland Local was not alive before October 19, 2009, so we don't have site results to report. However, from October 2009-May 2010, we have 14,500 references in Google.
Conclusion: Local web gentrification appears unlikely
The hypothesis of local web gentrification appears unlikely -- at least based on this small data sample and in the case of Oakland. Of course, this subject is probably worth further and more extensive investigation.
Rather, it seems likely that link-sharing does more to drive traffic to local sites. And it also seems likely that internet users who are interested in local matters want to visit more than one local site.
Note: For any local web site managers or bloggers who would like to learn how to do this type of analysis, Oakland Local staff is happy to share what we know, and to learn about your areas of expertise. E-mail email@example.com for training opportunities.