Greg T. Spielberg

Rethinking “start local”

In Distribution, on facebook on March 26, 2010 at 11:00 am

The curveball
Since the bit economy makes digital delivery cheap and social media makes contact easy, starting locally is no longer the first distribution consideration. For Streetwater, that’s a big deal. Shipping sw to a friend in Brunei is as cost effective and relevant to him as reaching my neighbor in the Lower East Side. To reinforce this, I think about walking up to a girl on the sidewalk. If I started Sugar, an LES diner, I would say, “Hey, you look like a nice person, come check out Sugar on the corner of Houston and Allen.” Chances are she would come by because the diner is only a few blocks away. Saying, “Hey, you look like a nice person, come check out Streetwater on the Internets,” doesn’t have the same geographic pull. SW’s initial form is digital, so the Internet takes the local advantage away from me. It’s as easy to type in http://ix.lt/SWfb as it is to type http://usatoday.com.

As startups (I’ll pretend Sugar is a startup), Sugar and Streetwater lack a reputation to capture people’s imagination. There’s also no word of mouth yet. We lack defining names. What the hell is Sugar? They serve hamburgers, soup, bagels, cup cakes, orange juice and cheese sandwiches. Not exactly a tight product. What the hell is Streetwater? It’s an exploratory photo crew. Not exactly a tight product. The fall-back for Sugar is its geographically local position in the neighborhood. Streetwater’s fall-back is socially local friends and family who will promote the site in a cost-effective and timely fashion.

The playing field
I started Streetwater on March 5 using only the Facebook infrastructure. Enormous native traffic; established and visible social group; clean simple Web design; free. Interestingly, if we think of the Facebook page as a landscape, the socially local people are also geographically local. Friends and commenters run up and down the left and middle columns. The right column is furthest and reserved for socially distant advertisers and recommended friends. Technology companies help us out by bring socially local people closer — speed dial on phones, auto-finish for email addresses we frequently use.

I recommended Streetwater to all the “close” friends (those in the box beneath my profile). Obvious first step. Then, I asked  my younger brother, who lives 80 blocks north of me in New York, to recommend Streetwater to his friends. (I haven’t asked my older brother yet because he’s part of a staggering plan I’ll need to think about more.) Phil recommends Streetwater because of our social proximity. It’s nothing to click some buttons for your brother. That girl in the Lower East Side will come to Sugar to get coffee because it’s nothing to walk two blocks.

His rationale for helping me out is based on social proximity, not local proximity. If I still lived in Missouri, I would get the same result. It’s not like recommending fans for someone’s page is free. It takes roughly 7 minutes to click through 500 friends, a significant investment considering how much we hate electronic pauses. In a 2007 story about newbie Hulu, the anonymous marketingvox writer goes, “Eschewing the :30 dinosaur from the days of broadcast television…” In comparison, inviting friends is equal to six back-to-back dinosaurs that my brother has to run himself. Who would do that for less than a cup of coffee unless he is socially close? Who would check out a new diner unless she is geographically close?

(Priya Singh, creative head at Interactive Agency, just tweeted “Looking for a laugh? Have a short attention span? >> 5 second films)

After asking my brother, I tapped a high school friend who lives in Baltimore, and a college friend down in D.C. They both said sure. Phil lives near me, but Connor and Annie don’t, yet distribution wasn’t harder in proportion to geographic distance. I talk to all three frequently, so we’re socially local.

The strikeout
On the other hand — and here was a great failure lesson — I tried to cut corners with my ex-girlfriend’s former roommate. We’ve hung out a few times in Columbia MO and in Chicago where she now lives. But we don’t have a close relationship. We don’t talk or see each other, and the bridge that made us socially local — my ex-g — no longer bonds us. I was more attracted to her 1,871 friends and access to a Midwest market of new college grads. This is an outdated philosophy, anyway, breaking people down into “markets” and regions rather than communities of interest. I didn’t hear back and haven’t seen a crop of fresh-faced Midwesterners in the Streetwater crew. So, my guess is she passed. And why not? She’s not local. -G

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