Neighborhood Watch

Posted by Alissa Walker



A woman in Philadelphia hypes an upcoming public knitting day. In Minneapolis, a pundit bemoans Al Franken's just-launched senate bid. A man in Karachi, Pakistan, laments power outages that have become the norm for the frustrated residents there. And a concerned citizen in Bangalore, India, critiques racy advertising that recently went up in the city. These posts-aggregated at Metblogs, the largest city-specific blog network in the world-provide little glimpses of life in cities around the world. "People think the great thing about the internet is that you can connect with the world," says 33-year-old Sean Bonner, one of the founders of Metblogs. "But I want to connect with the guy down the street. I want to know what my neighbor thinks is the best sandwich in town. Or a secret shortcut to get home at night."

Bonner, along with fellow web conspirator Jason DeFillippo, hit upon the Metblogs concept five years ago, when the two men made the startling discovery that the internet offered hardly any useful local information about their hometown, Los Angeles. There was nothing to be found about the best restaurants, stores, or late-breaking local news. "The alt-weeklies and local papers were full of syndicated content," says Bonner. "Even if it was local, there was not an actual opinion."

Seeing an opportunity, Bonner and DeFillippo roughed out a concept for a multiple-author blog that would focus exclusively on life in their home city. Tech whiz DeFillippo handled programming, and after the two recruited a few contributors, Blogging.la was launched in November, 2003. Within a few months, the site expanded to include New York, San Francisco, London, and Chicago. After a year, more than 30 cities were in the network, and the site came to be called Metblogs (it has since grown to include 56 cities). The key to its success was getting reliable local information. Bonner wasn't interested in reviews or listings or even conventional news; he wanted real people, relating stories about the places where they lived. "We don't have 500 people working out of some office. We value the individual voice," says Bonner. It's this focus that sets Metblogs apart from successful local-news sites like Gothamist (a New York–based site that launched about the same time), or collective review sites like Yelp.

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I want to know what my neighbor thinks is the best sandwich in town.
The way it works is simple: There's no office or overhead, and the bloggers-Metblogs looks for six to 10 in a given city before launching the site-don't get paid. The modest sum Metblogs makes on advertising goes toward hosting and administrative costs, after which the remainder is used to pay salaries for the two founders and the three employees who do various jobs for the site. "Obviously, I wouldn't object to it making money," says Bonner. "But our focus has always been on building a cool site." (He declines to give numbers, but says that traffic has been increasing steadily since the day the site was launched.)

Although Bonner hesitates to label the Metblogs experiment with the trendy phrase "citizen journalism," he knows that the deeply personal firsthand accounts of his bloggers have become invaluable sources of information at a time when traditional news bureaus are shutting their doors due to budget cuts. In 2005, the year of the London terrorist bombings and the devastating earthquake in Pakistan, Metbloggers contributed valuable real-time reporting to both events. And during the 2006 coup in Thailand, the government shut down the BBC and CNN's live feeds, but Metblogs's Thai contributors freely walked the streets, posting photos six hours before the first mainstream coverage began to reach the United States.


Now, Metblogs's high profile has those big internet companies calling. Bonner has consulted for people like Yahoo, Shopzilla, and Obey Giant, and is currently an advisor at a Los Angeles branding firm. "Of course there are people who want to know how we did
it," he says. "But I don't want to sit in an office talking to people about what we're doing. I just want to do it."