new media influencers

by joey marchy
Metro Jacksonville ( began as an internet forum for discussing downtown and urban development issues. Today, four central members have created one of the largest independent media organizations in the city. Its influence sways over local pundits, architects, planners, city council members and even the Mayor’s staff.
Steve Congro and Stephen Dare sit at the end of the table in Springfield’s Hola restaurant discussing something, but I’m not really paying attention. I can’t hear too well as the other four people at the table plus the table behind me are talking at once. I’m aiming my chip for the salsa when Dan Herbin walks in. Ennis Davis is setting next to me. I’m surrounded by Jacksonville’s best source for urban and downtown development news and discussion.
Once a week Metro Jacksonville holds a public meeting where readers, forum users and politicians can interact and discuss the issues of the day. Things have settled down, volume-wise, by the time I start my second beer. I move to the end of the table with Dan Herbin, the “technical guy”. He built the Metro Jacksonville website and photographs many of the photo essays you see on the site.
Dan tells me everyone writes blog posts and contributes to the forum. When I ask Steve Congro how often he posts, he eludes the question a bit. He tells me he posts here and there, mostly in the forum. My observations tell me Stephen Dare is the most active in the forum. A local lightning rod, Stephen has a knack for knowing something about almost anything and anyone in Jacksonville. His trademark forum responses are long and packed with interesting nuggets. Stephen and Ennis Davis are absolute masters at creating an engaging experience in the forums.
Ennis is a local planner and, in my estimation, one of the smartest our city has to offer. Ennis tours the country gathering intelligence on other cities he can use in his “Elements of Urbanism” features. In these pieces he compares and contrasts Jacksonville to other cities like Baltimore, Lexington and Nashville. By the end of my third beer (I was the only one drinking tonight) the Metro Jacksonville table was so loud I reminded everyone they were sitting right across from each other. Dan tells me this happens every week.
It’s this passion, for the city and the principles of New Urbanism, that drive the conversation to such an excited pitch. At some point in the night, Stephen mentions that Metro Jacksonville was founded based on the principles of New Urbanism. He begins by asking me if I’m familiar with the term, as he traditionally does to gauge my knowledge on a topic before diving into an explanation. I couldn’t offer a decent definition so, I just nodded and acknowledged I was familiar with the term.
According to their wikipedia entry, New Urbanists “advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.”
Metro Jacksonville cultivates this New Urbanism movement locally by hosting one of the most active discussion forums in the city. At any time of day you can find tens to hundreds of people discussing the latest news, development trends or the most recent Metro Jacksonville blog post. (There are currently 69 active users on Tuesday at 10 pm.) The forum is where Metro Jacksonville shines and builds it’s strongest following. Most discussion threads have at least a single page of discussion, about 15-20 responses varying in length, while some discussion topics number in the hundreds of responses going on for pages.
Online forum dynamics are similar to those of a vegetable garden. If you tend and nourish the garden, you will have a good harvest. If you ignore the garden, well, the garden ignores you, dying off and never returning. Metro Jacksonville provides a great case study for using new media to build audiences and credibility in the city. They do this not only with the forum, but also through the use of Facebook, Twitter and their blog. A recent invitation to meet with the Mayor’s staff to discuss the budget crisis is case in point of their spreading influence.
To further illustrate, I can point to digital parking meters downtown, JTA’s reconsideration of a Bus Rapid Transit system, or a plan to improve the Laura Street corridor as a sign of Metro Jacksonville’s influence and hard work. I think it’s best to experience it for yourself what some are doing to remake our city. I encourage you to visit the site and join the conversation.