Cybersociology Magazine: Issue Five
SOME THOUGHTS ON THE FUTURE
OF ON-LINE COMMUNITY NETWORKS
by George Hunka
Even commercial BBSs like The Well in San Francisco and Echo in New York City have been hard-pressed to keep up with changing Net technology and business models. These BBSs, like non-commercial networks such as the Seattle Community Network, have found it difficult to sustain and cultivate a user base that is becoming more and more inclusive of socioeconomic groups formerly left on the fringes of these new technologies. In addition, in the absence of a profit-based financial model, these on-line community networks have yet to establish a structure though which the continuing fiscal health and stability of the networks can be assured.
These challenges have become more acute since these community networks deliberately identified themselves as a movement in the 1990s, with the landmark 1996 publication of Douglas Schuler's New Community Networks: Wired for Change and the establishment of organizations such as the Association for Community Networking. This self-definition has rallied various people, funding organizations and agencies around a set of shared values (public access to the Net; free e-mail accounts and bulletin board access for community members; integration of activist and government organizations into the community network structure). But the movement itself is still too young to be able to claim any broad-based, sustainable successes beyond anecdotal evidence of the networks' successes and failures in the communities they serve.
The future of community based on-line networks will be determined by the manner in which these networks are organized and by the selection of technical interfaces through which these networks will be accessed. These first steps will be crucial in convincing a community that such a network will be inclusive and useful. An overview of the first quarter-century of community-based on-line networking provides some discussion points concerning the future of this networking. This paper will list a few of these discussion points in the service of continuing debate on the implementation and integration of present and future community networks with their communities.
While on-line community networks are most often independent non-profit organizations, it's important to see where the impetus for these organizations originates. The Seattle Community Network grew out of the Seattle chapter of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility; the Cleveland Free-Net grew out of Case Western University; the Well grew out of the Whole Earth Catalog family of publications. In each of these instances, the network was the product of a previously existing institution or business, and could thereby claim some institutional validity. While other networks have been organized on an ad-hoc basis, those networks associated with an institution with long-standing presence in the community have been most successful and able to bear the risks of innovative, technically complex social ventures.
This is not to say that networks without the support of large pre-existing institutions have been unsuccessful. Many grass-roots organizations have established vibrant on-line communities without the original support of local institutions. However, these grass-roots organizations have had to contend with financial and organizational pressures that would have been less problematic otherwise. Institutions with significant history and funding sources provide an unparalleled support source for community networks.
Other more ambiguous issues can arise, however, when such an institution takes the lead in proposing an on-line community network. Large organizations like universities may have a history of conflict with the surrounding community, particularly when the university is located in an urban environment, where it may have considerable real estate holdings in its immediate neighborhood. The goals of the university, which is responsible for introducing a large population of transient students into the community, may differ from those of community activist or business groups, which see their functions and history in the community as more permanent and rooted.
This is why the organization of a community network must invite and attract a variety of participants in the earliest stages of the project. The institution which proposes the network must be content to be considered "first among equals" at best unless it wants to be seen as imposing the network on the surrounding neighborhood, potentially antagonizing and alienating important allies in the project and creating perhaps insurmountable obstacles at the outset. In a wide-based, grass-roots effort, an advisory board of interested parties must be invited to organizational sessions in the very first stages, and this board must then attempt to govern the process collaboratively.
Participants in these early stages should represent as many significant portions of the community as possible (as well as interested but unaffiliated individual residents of the community). These should include, but not necessarily be limited to:
* Business groups;
* Community activist groups;
* Community boards;
* Government bodies such as city councils;
* Information providers such as newspapers and electronic media;
* Institutions such as universities and libraries;
* Internet and technology organizations such as Internet service providers or pre-existing on-line communities.
This last group is essential. Experience has shown that, while other groups may be enthusiastic about joining a local community network, misunderstandings about social uses of technology and the potentials of networked computer technology frequently arise among those groups, which are not primarily technological organizations. The representatives of this last group provide an educational resource for the advisory board as well as technological support. While these representatives should be based in the community the network will serve, their function is so urgent and central to the organizational effort that individuals and agencies from outside the community should be approache d for support if appropriate.
For most new users and even some experienced users of the Internet, the Net i s the World Wide Web, a graphical hyperlinked interface that allows access to other Net protocols, such as e-mail and Usenet newsgroups. Despite the fact that the Web is only the newest protocol in a set of Internet tools that began with telnet and e-mail, this point-and-click interface appeals to users who may not be comfortable with a menu-based command-line interface. A Web interface is more "user-friendly" and intuitive; hence its popularity among recent and new Internet users.
Perhaps the most significant and problematic development in community networking technology is the popularity of the Web, and it appears that any community network that attempts to establish a presence will require a graphical user interface, in either Web or platform-independent Java-based form.
Until recently, this was not a self-evident idea. Most BBS systems and community networks built through the early 1990s were established with a menu-based, command-line, text-only interface. There were a number of reasons for this: the relatively low cost of this low-bandwidth interface; platform independence; ease of storage and maintenance, since most of the information could be stored in easily manipulated flat ASCII text files; and the use of older, less-powerful computers at public access points. In addition, the Web in its early years was not well integrated with other Internet technologies and so served more as an informational medium instead of a collaborative medium for synchronous and asynchronous communication.
Older community networks have found it difficult to integrate this new Web technology into their existing BBS software, even though it's clear that the continued health of these networks and BBSs depends on their ability to offer a graphical interface. Given the ubiquity of the Web as an Internet protocol, new and recent users of the Internet (which will include all those individuals community networks hope to serve) will not want devote the time to the steep learning curve that some command-line interfaces demand.
Luckily, more powerful computers that have the speed and resources to run large applications like Web browsers and Java applications have become far more inexpensive and affordable over the last five years. Community networks, which rely in large part on equipment donations to provide public access points in the community, will benefit as these new computers enter the pool of available hardware. The challenge for existing networks is far more difficult, since new community networks can debut as Web-based services and need not leverage an existing database to a new technology.
Until recently, an Internet user with a Web browser required various software packages for various protocols. For example, in text-based Unix systems, e-mail was accessed via the Pine or Elm programs and Usenet newsgroups required the use of the tin or nn newsreaders. Similarly, users connecting to the Net via a SLIP/PPP protocol required differing programs such as Eudora for e-mail, Agent for Usenet and Mosaic for the Web. Because Web technology has reached the point at which most existing Internet protocols, such as electronic mail, file transfer protocol and Usenet newsgroups, have been absorbed into its graphical interface, a Web or Java-based interface can now provide services previously requiring different application software.
This means that community networks can offer a variety of services at start-up via the graphical interface. The basic requirements for a community network that serves as an information and communications medium remain the same as they have in the past, but only recently has Web technology met these requirements. These include:
* Provision of local (not necessarily Internet) e-mail accounts for one-to-one communications;
* Provision of a bulletin-board service (frequently called "forums" ;) for many-to-many communications;
* Provision of basic community information for one-to-many communications.
A more problematic Internet protocol, real-time chat for synchronous communication between members of the community, has not yet been well-integrated into Web browser software. Most Web chat software requires the download of a Java application which runs independent of the browser itself, requiring the user to negotiate screen layout in a non-intuitive manner. In addition, many of these real-time chats must be directed through a third-party server, such as Talk City, which detracts from the overall identity of the community network as a full communications entity. Until chat is more fully integrated into the Web, a GUI-based community network interface will not be as flexible and robust a system as a command-line interface. If past experience is any indication, however, technology will be available soon enough to fully integrate chat into a Web experience.
REAL-WORLD COMMUNITIES AND THE ON-LINE NETWORK
It is a truism that the Internet, for all its potential, will not by itself make people smarter or the world a better place. Similarly, an on-line computer network introduced into an existing real-world community will not serve as a panacea for that community's ills. At best, the on-line community computer network is a tool, an ar ena for on-going community discussion, debate and problem-solving, and, as with most tools, it will only be valuable if the tool is used wisely and safely.
The real work of civil and community government and interaction continues to take place in the real-world environment of face-to-face meetings and discussions. For this, the on-line community network has no substitute. The proof of this is in the social consequences of existing "virtual communities," a phrase I've avoided mentioning because its usefulness as a metaphor for computer communication is problematic at best, false at worst. Existing grass-roots community computer networks have instituted a variety of face-to-face, real-world interactions among their members, in the form of social get-togethers, more politically-directed meetings and educational services such as Internet training. Even those broader-based computer community networks that seek to reach beyond the confines of a specific geographical community generate ad hoc real-world gatherings. The Well sponsors picnics; participants on Echo, who style themselves "Echoids," meet frequently for fiction and poetry readings, lunches, dinners, film showings, drinking parties, even poker games open to all participants on the network. The newest significant on-line community, Brainstorms, boasts a membership that deliberately reaches a round the world, but Brainstorms members in close proximity to each other have begun to meet regularly for social events. Even those members who travel from country to country frequently find time to meet each other in real life, their original contact having begun on the network.
The significance of these social effects for local community networks is clear. The organization and maintenance of the network require a high degree of in-person communication, both to integrate the network into the existing community and to make sure that the network remains a productive and useful part of the community. Regular meetings about the network itself should be a part of its day-to-day activities, social activities encouraged, Internet education offered. The public, human face of the network's staff must become familiar to the community to engender trust and confidence in the viability of the computer network.
On-line computer networks rooted in geographical communities have yet to reach their full potential, but existing networks have provided a great deal of experience by which future networks can be steere d. This includes questions of on-line civility, commercial presences on non-commercial networks and network security. Each of these must be approached individually, and community computer networks are still learning from their successes and mistakes in these areas. However, these lessons provide a useful resource for the future, and organizers of proposed networks will do well to consider these as they contemplate the place of new technology in healthy, thriving real-world neighborhoods.
George Hunka is the Communications Coordinator for The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City. His book on advanced Web design, Late Night Netscape Communicator, was published by Ziff-Davis Press in 1997, and he has written essays on politics and literature for The American Enterprise, Liberty and Menckeniana. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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