I was surprised to notice recently that the majority of my internet usage is now local. In the mid-90s, the great promise of the net was that it could bring together like-minded people from all over the globe. But now I find that most of the people I want to hear from are in Cleveland. Why? Because there are some things that just have to be done face-to-face.
Back in the heady days when every September came with a fresh crop of net newbies, all you had to do to find something cool was click links at random. Remember "surfing"? I used to log a couple hours a day on Salon's TableTalk forum with users scattered all over the world. Even now I have a moment of cognitive dissonance when somebody on The WELL asks if anybody knows a good plumber. (The WELL has been online since 1985, but its membership is still concentrated around San Francisco.)
Today, locally, I use six networks: meetup.com, the local blogs (including mine), Cleveland Social Media Club, Local Food Cleveland, DailyCleveland, and Midtown Brews. Each of these solves some kind of problem for me. In some cases, it's as simple as getting out and having a good time. Others help me eat better or contribute to the community. When spring comes and I want to find people to go biking with, who am I going to ask? Salon - or Cleveland?
There are a couple of things at work here. First, creating face-to-face social networks takes effort. The local internet can help, but the global internet can hurt - by taking your attention away from the connections you need to make. All that cool stuff encourages people to spectate rather than get involved.
That's the second point: involvement. When you wake up and realize you've read every newspaper and watched every YouTube video, you still have to cook dinner. The local net is pure involvement - it is all user-generated, and nobody thinks their content is so hot that they can charge a subscription fee for it. There's involvement on the global net too: Maker sites, recipe sites, etc., but they have the same second-tier status that home improvement channels do on cable television compared to the big networks.
The internet is a tool--a highly flexible one. People are using it to make their hands-on lives better, not just as a second television.