We know it for the rhyme ‘Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross’. It is a strong and wealthy community set in the rural south midlands.
Like all communities, its companies, community institutions, the local council, clubs and societies are all represented on the Internet. Individual citizens have their own Web sites, the local paper, the Banbury Guardian is seen in Cyberspace too. The 20 or so commercial sites are more than matched with personal and community sites among the 30,000 households and 12,000 netzines. The town, once famous for its cattle market, now has a virtual auction in the newspaper’s site. Its folk chat to each other and talk about visits to the local Morrisons Supermarket and the wider world in newsgroups as divers as competition communities to ferret racing (yes this is a rural community).
Friends of the Earth identify a local factory as being on its list of companies with emissions of Carbon Monoxide and other gasses.
Local issues are debated hotly and activists attempt to bring netzines from all over the world to their aid seeking expertise to support their arguments and provide helpful information ( the big topic was railways when I last took a virtual visit). Virtual Banbury buzzes. Just like all neighbourhoods.
It follows that a local company needs a local presence and effective community affairs would create a transparent view of company and community for Internet visitors. This entails hyperlinks between the company sites and the local neighbourhood sites to ensure there is a noticeable link with its physical environs.
Influencing the local community without taking into consideration the virtual community would seem to be risk ridden.
For companies that participate in local events, employ local people or which have issues of interest, a Web presence would be a helpful aid. Community relations managers will have ready made Web (micro) sites that can be put up at short notice to handle local, industrial or commercial issues as part of their commitment to the local and virtual communities.
There is a caveat to this form of involvement. It is easy for companies to become very excited by what is expressed in Internet discussion. In particular, companies are sensitive to criticism. The key elements to note are that these criticisms are a manifestation of opinion, often only minority opinion. That it should be in public may be of less consequence than a conversation in the local pub but with the potential of a global audience (should that audience be interested in the first place). The second is
that such discussions are an indicator of opinion, need to be taken into account, but not necessarily a matter leading to a corporate driver.
There is another good reason for sustaining a local presence. Maintaining a link with local communities through local stakeholders is a very helpful means of enhancing virtual presence. If the local retailer can enhance its presence through services provided by your company, there is the dual advantage of closer links with the means of distribution and its consumer base. The BBC announced that it will develop a local community ‘gateways’ and was exploring how this can be done as this book went to press. It is a gallant idea. It will by no means replace existing or future local contributions, discussion lists or local involvement in local issues or sites.
It will be important and will compete with local newspapers and other local gateways for people who want to talk to each other using the Internet. The relevance of these local communities and the local gateways is the element of trust. As people become
more used to using the Internet, they seek evermore trustworthy partners for Internet interaction. In so far as the BBC or the local newspaper are trustworthy in the eyes of the user, they have a prior claim.
But there are communities even closer to home.