Backfence Shuts Down

Backfence announced June 29 that it is shuttering its 13 community sites, which were in the DC area, Illinois and northern California. The ambitious site raised an initial round of $3 million, but never had high penetration in its communities, or sold enough Yellow Pages listings or banner ads to be optimistic about its future.

In recent months, company co-founder Mark Potts has been seeking strategic partners for the site to bring it into the Web 2.0 wave of widget-centered community that it just missed. There is no apparent activity in that direction. But it could still happen.

Backfence joins several predecessors in the community graveyard. Yet other companies continue to plow the path, with different models (SmallTownCitySquaresAmerican Town Networks and now, FatDoor). Community-centric blogs have also sprung up everywhere, along with community blog aggregators (Placeblogger and Outside.in.)

Ultimately, Backfence’s real legacy may be that it was a laboratory that helped pave the way for newspapers to seriously pursue hyper-local solutions that, notably, are not centered around local news (which it turns out, is not always very compelling). In the past several months, a number of useful, imaginative and fun newspaper hyperlocal sites have sprung up. Check out what The Washington Post is doing.

Here’s the note that Backfence composed for its communities.

“We are sorry to announce that Backfence (Name of community) will be ceasing operations within the next few days. We have been honored to have been members of this vibrant local community over the past several months. Your postings and discussions on Backfence have been been a reflection of the strength and interests of the members of the community. We hope we have provided you with a valuable local forum. Unfortunately, business issues are forcing us to close our doors and shut down the site.

The people behind Backfence still believe strongly in the need for community information services, and we hope to apply all that we’ve learned from our experience here to new endeavors in the future. Thank you for your interest and participation in Backfence. Hopefully, we’ll see you around the neighborhood. “

Let me add a personal postscript. It seems to me that people have been less critical of Backfence than other sites, in part because of goodwill for Mark Potts and Susan DeFife, and some of the great people they brought into their company. For sure, anybody would want to be friends with these people. But what we saw was that bloggers, journalists and even money people suspended their critical facilities, and basically became a rooting section. I may be a little guilty of that also. I hope none of us sentimental types are chosen to cover the presidential campaign!