No (digital) place like home?

Over the last few years I have had several very interesting conversations with Simon Baldwin about the role of digital and social media in the development and maintenance of places, towns and BIDs. In response to my last post on “Making Things Happen in Towns” Simon and myself had a short exchange about the nature of place and how people describe themselves. This has particular resonance in the modern digital era and the ways in which we relate to a multitude of places, and the ways in which places and towns are searching for connectivity with “their” customers.

Anyhow the outcome was an invitation to put those thoughts down in a guest blog – and Simon was kind enough to agree. So what follows is Simon Baldwin thinking about place in the modern world.

“People have often asked: “Where are you from?” I am sure ‘Enry ‘Iggins would have been able to place me, but few others seem able to guess. The ‘place’ where we all anchor ourselves is intriguing. Some folk still look to the place of their birth as a fixed point but, with ever-increasing mobility, I’d suggest that is less frequent than in previous generations.

‘There is no place like home’ is a phrase that has resonated through the years: I recall a sampler featuring those words created by a great-something aunt whilst she was a child at school in the 18th century. ‘Home is where the heart is’ is another well coined phrase and provides a clue as to how the majority of us consider ‘places’. Where we live. We associate ourselves with our home – but the location and scale of ‘home’ varies depending on our circumstance and audience.

I moved from England to Scotland in 2008 and, initially, was puzzled when people asked: “Where do you stay?” I thought they believed I was just passing through – and explained I actually live here. It soon became obvious that the questioners were asking ‘where I live’. The meaning of ‘to stay’ is to remain in the same place: and so the association with ‘place’ seems more relevant in Scotland.

The language used in day to day chat is as old as the hills. But the relevance and importance of ‘place’ is mirrored in the digital chat that governs the communication and lives of so many. ‘Place’ is what all the social media channels are keen to establish. Take Facebook’s profile questions: I am requested to highlight where I live, where I am from, where I work, where I went to school, college or university. And their Messages app wants to know my location right now – wherever that geo-tagged ‘place’ may be.

But, as explained, our own interpretation of ‘place’ differs. Friends who live in Islington would say Islington is their home and would never say to anyone in their ‘place’ that they live in London. But they spend 50% of their time in New Zealand and, when there, would always tell people they are from London.

So our ‘place’ is more governed by our vision, our audience – and whether we believe a wider reference point is needed. A colleague has recently moved from Surrey to Colinton. He assumed I wouldn’t know the village he had left ‘down south’ – but he did assume I’d know the place he has chosen to stay north o’ the border.

The meaning of ‘place’ led me to change my work. A journalist for more than 30 years, I have always understood the importance of ‘place’. The ‘where’ in any story is crucial to the reader’s understanding. In 2009, when working in communication for shopping destinations, I recognised the shift created by early adopters of social comms. The customer wanted information to find them – in their place – wherever that might be.

In 2011, I created a service (Mall-to-Mobile) that enabled shops to disseminate rapidly changing content to an audience via digital channels – in the customer’s chosen place. In 2013, seeing the benefits such communication was delivering to all, I created another (SOCIALiSTREET) enabling businesses in a given town, city or Business Improvement District to better engage with an audience, again via digital and social channels.

Two years on, and the customer – once again – is driving change. Until the mobile revolution and, more precisely, the social media revolution, most online content was ‘pulled’; customers would seek out a website and pull down information they needed. Wind the clocks back, and this was no different from pulling books off a library shelf.

Today, ‘pull’ has been replaced by ‘push’. The customer has signed up to an array of channels that they have chosen to like and follow. As a result, companies and organisations who ‘get it’ can now push relevant and engaging content to their customers … not via the channels they choose (as in the good old days) but through the channels their customers dictate. And – most importantly – to the ‘places’ where they live, work and play.

Place is all-important. The work in which I am now engaged – true social engagement for destinations – is all about ‘place’ and how very varied audiences engage with each other: from businesses and organisations to the customers, be they resident or visiting.

Where am I from? The place of my birth – although written on a certificate to help future archive trawlers – is irrelevant. Where am I now? I am in a great place: one where, as customers, we are more in control than ever before to demand and receive the best this digital and social world has to offer.”

Simon can be contacted by email ( or twitter @destination66 or via

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
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