WATPA: FW: The Net That Binds

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From: Norman J. Jacknis (njacknis@ix.netcom.com)
Date: Mon Jun 21 1999 - 21:54:05 EDT

This rather lengthy piece, to be published in the Nation magazine, seems to
be getting widespread attention among those around the country who have
been involved with "community technology." I thought those in WATPA might
also be interested. Anyone have any comments on it?



> June 21, 1999
> See below for background and related information.
> One of the curious things about living through a time of
whirlwind change is that it is often difficult to understand exactly
what is changing. In recent years, new technology has given us the
ability to transform basic aspects of our lives: the way we converse and
learn; the way we work, play and shop; even the way we participate in
political and social life. Dissidents around the world use the Internet
to evade censorship and get their message out. Cyber-gossips send
dispatches to thousands via e-mail. Musicians bypass record companies
and put their songs on the Web for fans to download directly. Day
traders roil the stock market, buying securities online with the click
of a mouse and selling minutes later when the price jumps.
> There is a common thread underlying such developments. It is not
just a change in how we compute or communicate. Rather, it is a
potentially radical shift in who is in control--of information,
experience and resources. The Internet is allowing individuals to make
decisions that once were made by goveernments, corporations and the
media. To an unprec-edented degree, we can decide what news and
entertainment we're exposed to and whom we socialize with. We can earn a
living in new ways; we can take more control of how goods are
distributed; and we can even exercise a new degree of political power.
The potential for personal growth and social progress seems limitless.
Yet what makes this shift in power--this control revolution--so much
more authentic than those revolutions described by techno-utopian
futurists is its volatility and lack of preordained outcome.
> Contrary to the claims of cyber-romantics, democratic empowerment
via technology is not inevitable. Institutional forces are resisting,
and will continue to resist, giving up control to individuals. And some
people may wield their new power carelessly, denying themselves its
benefits and imperiling democratic values. Nowhere are the mixed
blessings of the new individual control more evident than in the
relationship of the Internet to communities--not just "virtual
communities" of dispersed individuals interacting online but real,
geographically based communities.
> Masters of Our Own Domains
> The Internet's impact on community has everything to do with a
digital phenomenon known as personalization, which is simply the ability
to shape one's experience more precisely--whether it's social
encounters, news, work or learning. Traditionally, friendships and
acquaintances have been structured byy physical proximity; we meet
people because they are our neighbors, classmates, co-workers or
colleagues in some local organization. Much of our information
intake--newspapers and radio, for example--also reflects locality, and
we share these media experiences and others (like national television)
with those who live around us. The global reach and interactivity of the
Internet, however, is challenging this. Individuals can spend more time
communicating and sharing experiences with others regardless of where
they live. As Internet pioneer J.C.R. Licklider wrote back in the
sixties, "Life will be happier for the on-line individual because the
people with whom one interacts most
> strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and
goals than by accidents of proximity."
> Virtual communities are perfect for hobbyists and others with
quirky or specialized interests--whether they're fans of swing music,
chemistry professors or asthma sufferers. Indeed, these associations
suggest the possibbility of whole new forms of social life and
participation. Because individuals are judged online by what they say,
virtual communities would appear to soften social barriers erected by
age, race, gender and other fixed characteristics. They can be
particularly valuable for people who might be reticent about
face-to-face social interaction, like gay and lesbian teenagers,
political dissidents and the disabled. ("Long live the Internet," one
autistic wrote in an online discussion, where "people can see the real
me, not just how I interact superficially with other people.")
> The Internet also gives individuals a new ability to personalize
their news, entertainment and other information. And studies of Internet
use show that users are doing so. Rather than having editors and
producers choose what they read, hear and watch--as with newspapers or
television--they are using the interactivity of the Net to gather just
the material they find interestting. This may, among other things, be a
winning strategy for dealing with the torrent of information that is
increasingly pushed at us.
> There is, in fact, plenty to like about personalization. But if
we're not careful, customizing our lives to the hilt could undermine the
strength and cohesion of local communities, many of which are already
woefully weak. For all the uncertainty about what "community" really
means and what makes one work, shared experience is an indisputably
essential ingredient; without it there can be no chance for mutual
understanding, empathy and social cohesion. And this is precisely what
personalization threatens to delete. A lack of common information would
deprive individuals of a starting point for democratic dialogue, or even
fodder for the proverbial water-cooler talk. For many decades, TV and
radio have been fairly criticized for drawing us away from direct
interaction in our communities. Yet despite this shortcoming (and many
others), these mass media at least provide "a kind of social glue, a
common cultural reference point in our polyglot, increasingly
> society," as media critic David Shaw puts it.
> Online experiences rarely provide this glue. Yes, we can share
good times with others online who enjoy the same passions as we do. We
can educate ourselves and even organize for political change. But
ultimately, online associations tend to splinter into narrower and
narrower factions. They also don't have the sticking power of physical
communities. One important reason for this is the absence of
consequences for offensive behavior online; another is the ease of exit
for those who are offended. In physical communities, people are
inextricably bound by the simple difficulty of picking up and leaving.
On the Net, it's always "where do you want to go today?" Are you bored?
Ticked off? Then move on! For many, this makes the virtual life an
attractive alternative to the hard and often tiresome work of local
community building.
> Some might think that the weakness of online affiliations would
prevent them from posing any real challenge to physical communities. But
the ability to meander from one virtual gathering to the next, exploring
and changing habitats on a whim, is exactly the problem. The fluidity of
these social networks means that we may form weak bonds with others
faraway at the expense of strong ties with those who live near us.
> Few people, of course, intend to use the Internet in ways that
will cause them to be distracted from local commitments. But technology
always has unintended consequences, and social science research is
beginning to show how this may be true for the Internet. Researchers who
conducted one of the first longitudinal studies of the Internet's social
impact, the HomeNet study, were surprised when their data suggested that
Internet use increases feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression.
Contrary to their starting hypotheses, they observed that regular users
communicated less with family members, experienced a decline in their
contacts with nearby social acquaintances and felt more stress. Although
the authors noted the limitations of their findings, the study's
methodology has been widely criticized. Until more conclusive results
are available, however, what's important is that we take seriously the
hazards outlined in the HomeNet study and attempt to prevent them from
> becoming worse or taking root in the first place.
> And how should we do that? Neo-Luddites would likely recommend
rejecting technology and returning to our bucolic roots. A more balanced
and realistic response, however, calls for a reconciling of personal
desire and communal obligations in a digital world. On the one hand,
this means acknowledging the sometimes exhilarating adventure of
indulging oneself online. No one can deny the value of being able to
form relationships with far-flung others based solely on common
interests. At the same time, it means not having illusions about the
durability of those bonds or their ability to satisfy fully our deepest
> We must recognize, for selfish and societal reasons alike, the
importance of focusing on the local. This is where we will find a true
sense of belonging; shared experience, even if not ideal, creates a
sense of commitment. This is where democracy and social justice must
first be achieved; getting our own house in order is always the first
priority. The Net must therefore be a vehicle not just for occasional
escapism but for enhanced local engagement--online and off.
> Community Networks
> Efforts to employ technology to strengthen local communities are
not new. They have been tried since the dawn of cable television in the
seventies and, for more than sixty years, via community radio
programming. Those technologies, though, are one-to-many. What makes the
Net so promising as a tool of localism is its capacity for
interactivity, as well as its nearly unlimited capacity.
> Many early Internet enthusiasts have been strong supporters of
"community networking," an approach that encourages locally based online
communication, often at no charge to users. Community networking has its
origins in services such as the Free-Nets, which emerged in the eighties
and early nineties to offer online access, sometimes along with local
news and information. Most Free-Nets were noncommercial, with no
advertising and no subscription charges. Often, they were text-based
bulletin board systems run voluntarily by computer enthusiasts. And
often they were not easy for novices to use.
> A good share of these early services, in addition, were not so
much about local affairs as they were a way for residents to get online
for free. As a result, Free-Nets and other community networks suffered
as America Online and other inexpensive (and more alluring) gateways to
the Net became available. By the late nineties, many had gone out of
business, as did the National Public Telecommunications Network, an
umbrella group of Free-Nets that was founded in 1986. Still, more than a
hundred Internet-based community networks in the United States have
continued to thrive, such as Charlotte's Web in Charlotte, North
Carolina; Liberty Net in Philadelphia; the Seattle Community Network;
and Blacksburg Electronic Village in Blacksburg, Virginia.
> Arising from a project that began in 1984, Blacksburg Electronic
Village appears to be one of the more successful of these endeavors. It
counts a majority of Blacksburg's 36,000 residents as participants.
Senior citizens chat with their neighbors online. Parents keep abreast
of what their kids are doing in school and exchange e-mail with
teachers. Citizens use Web-based surveys to communicate with their
municipal government about spending priorities. A key feature of
successful community networks, in fact, is the opportunity they provide
citizens to talk--with civic leaders and one another. Users don't just
want information fed to them; they want to generate conversation
> In a community network in Amsterdam, for example, citizens talk
about keeping the city's largest park in shape, they argue about
Amsterdam's proposed transformation from city to province and they
bombard politicians with questions about Holland's abstruse tax laws.
Similar results were apparent even in a short-term case study involving
a group of London neighbors. Microsoft gave them computers, Internet
access and a way to communicate with one another online. Participants
used the technology to exchange information about local services. Kids
asked questions about homework. There was a debate about a proposed
change in local parking rules, and some members even organized to do
something about disruptive vibrations from a nearby railroad. The
dialogue, moreover, appeared to translate into stronger ties among
neighbors. "I used to know maybe five or six people in the street; now I
know at least forty of them quite well, and some very closely," one
participant said.
> Even some early online services that didn't start as community
networks appear to have succeeded precisely because members were located
mostly in one geographic area. The Well, a pioneering online community
based in San Francisco (and recently bought by Salon, the
Internet-magazine-turned-portal), was never intended to be about the Bay
Area or just for people from there, yet its founders knew from the start
that a sense of local culture would be an important component of the
online community. Most interestingly, perhaps, they recognized the value
that regular face-to-face contact would have for members. Monthly Well
parties were therefore instituted in the San Francisco area and became
an important element of the online community's identity. Similarly,
Echo, a prominent New York-based online community, offers regular events
such as readings, a film series, bar gatherings and softball games. As
Echo's mission statement says, "We know that the best online communities
> never strictly virtual." Contrary to the utopian notion that the
Internet will lift us above the confines of geography, then, the history
of online communities suggests that people want to convene with their
geographic neighbors, both online and in person.
> Local Gateways
> Given this fact and the success of some community networks, it
might seem that little needs to be done to achieve balance between our
desire to surf globally and our need to network locally. Yet as the
Internet presents the possibility of a more alluring universe of
distractions and greater social isolation, emphasis on localism must
become stronger and more explicit. We need to build high-quality,
Web-based local networks that are ubiquitous, accessible and interesting
enough so that all Internet users will want to use them, at least some
of the time. This would insure a degree of involvement with community
issues and engagement with actual neighbors. These networks should not
be final destinations, though. Instead, reflecting a local/global
balance, they should be thought of as local gateways to the global
Net--and to offline interaction, as well.
> Like entry ramps, these gateways should allow users to go
anywhere. Yet, learning from the successes and failures of predecessors,
they must provide stimulating content about local issues and an
opportunity for users to talk with one another. There should be
resources and discussion about issues that people really care about:
recreation and entertainment, sports teams, politics, schools, shopping
and consumer assistance, and crime and safety. This alone should entice
people to visit. And as local gateways facilitate dialogue among
community members, eventually empathy, interdependence and cooperative
action will follow.
> For users without Internet access, the local gateway could be the
service they call to get online--for free. (The goals of universal
access and localism could therefore be intertwined.) Following the lead
of existing communnity networks, Internet terminals could be put in
schools and libraries, churches, public housing projects and recreation
centers. For those who already have online access, the local gateway
could be used as a portal site on the Web.
> The architecture of the local gateway is crucial. Its blueprint
should be influenced not just by a local/global balance but by other
democratic values. For example, citizens should be able to speak freely
and be heard (even if they can't pay for prominent positioning on the
site), privacy should be protected and public-interest resources should
be readily available and easy to use. This online "commons" must be a
worthy complement to the physical public commons--not a substitute, but
an extension. It should thus have all the quirks and flavor of the
geographic community for which it iis a digital annex, and it should be
accountable to the members of that community.
> In terms of content and design, there are two models for the kind
of local gateway I am proposing. One is existing community networks,
which are generally superb examples because they emphasize localism and
citizen dialogue. Sometimes, though, community networks are an end in
themselves, instead of an entrance to the whole Net. To draw a larger
audience, the gateway format is better, because it becomes a routine
starting place for users, while not confining them. The opposition by
some community networks to partnering with business may also be
counterproductive. Blacksburg Electronic Village, for one, claims to
have benefited greatly from the fact that it began as a partnership
among government (the town of Blacksburg), academia (Virginia Tech,
which provided most of the funding) and industry (Bell Atlantic, the
local phone company, which recently pulled out after four and a half
years). More than two-thirds of local businesses are on the Blacksburg
network, which makes it
> convenient for users. It also gives a boost to local vendors who
might otherwise lose substantial business to huge Internet companies
based outside the community--a trend that technology critic Richard
Sclove aptly calls the "cybernetic Wal-Mart effect."
> At the same time, local gateways should not be overly
commercialized. In particular, citizens should shun attempts by
corporations to fabricate communities just so they can use members as a
target audience for sales and advertising. It's a practice that has been
tried on the Web, though fortunately with little success so far.
Businesses would be better off working in cooperation with community
groups and local governments. And citizens should welcome their
participation, so long as they have a local presence and maintain a
civic-minded spirit. In fact, the cybernetic Wal-Mart effect could be
offset, to a degree, by the ability of community members to patronize
online versions of their favorite neighborhood stores, thus supporting
their community's tax base, employment and conviviality.
> An unlikely boost for local gateways might also come from
city-oriented commercial Web services such as those provided by
CitySearch, Yahoo, Microsoft's Sidewalk and AOL's Digital Cities. Some
American cities have as many as a half-dozen of these sites competing
for the public's attention. With their collection of local news, weather
and services such as free e-mail, these sites provide a second model for
local gateways. Community networking activists have traditionally seen
them as the enemy because of their commercialism and the fact that they
attract individuals away from nonprofit sites. Yet under the right
circumstances, these sites could help anchor individuals in their
communities. They could become partners in the formation of local
gateways. (Austin Free-Net, for example, has worked closely with the
for-profit Austin CitySearch.)
> For this to happen, citizens need to leverage the power that
interactive technology gives them. We need to organize and tell these
city-based portals that to win our attention they must give something
back to our communities. They must, for example, donate substantial
online resources--such as free Web site hosting and design, chat forums,
dial-up access and hardware--to tenant groups, parent-teacher
associaations, charitable entities, activist groups and other
community-based organizations. They must offer Internet authoring tools
that anyone can use to create a dialogue forum. And they must find
people to lead moderated discussions and otherwise work to strengthen
communal conversation. (If city-based portals are unresponsive to
citizen action, activists should investigate the possibility of
government regulation to achieve at least some of these aims.)
> Finally, local gateways should not be seen as a panacea for
community activism. They must instead be part of a larger strategy of
face-to-face local engagement--which may nonetheless be more effective
and more enjoyable thanks to local online interaction, as for example in
the London experiment.
> Steam and rail gave us the opportunity to flee far from our
places of birth; telegraph and telephone allowed us to conduct our
business and social lives from a distance; television insulated us
further even as it sometimes gave us common experiences. The goal of the
Internet revolution, if it can be said to have one, should not be to
replicate the world we know, but to improve it. As we explore the
farthest reaches of our new World Wide Web, we must also use technology
to fortify the local webs in which we dwell.
> Andrew L. Shapiro, a Nation contributing editor, is a fellow at
the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School and
director of the Aspen Institute Internet Policy Project. This article is
adapted from his new book about the politics of the Internet, The
Control Revolution (PublicAffairs/Century Foundation). For more
information visit www.controlrevolution.com and www.thenation.com.
> Background and Related Information
> American Psychological Association
> American Psychologist published the "HomeNet study" on
Internet use (September 1998), titled "Internet Paradox: A Social
Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological
> http://www.apa.org/journals/amp/amp5391017.html
> Salon Magazine
> Salon published a critique of the HomeNet study by Scott
Rosenberg (September 3, 1998).
> Association for Community Networking
> ACN has links to many local community networks.
> http://bcn.boulder.co.us/afcn
> Center for Civic Networking
> CCN is a non-profit organization dedicated to applying
information infrastructure to the broad public good--particularly by
improving access to information that people need to function as informed
> http://civic.net/ccn.html
> Neighborhoods Online
> Neighborhoods Online is a resource center for people working
to build strong communities throughout the United States. It aims to
provide fast access to information and ideas covering all aspects of
neighborhood revitalization, as well as to create a national network of
activists working on problems that affect us where we live.
> http://www.libertynet.org/nol/natl.html
> Blacksburg Electronic Village
> This is an Internet community open to anyone online who
lives or works in Blacksburg or Montgomery County, Virginia.
> http://www.bev.net
> The WELL
> The WELL is "an online gathering place like no
other--remarkably uninhibited, intelligent, and iconoclastic," "a
literate watering hole for thinkers from all walks of life, be thhey
artists, journalists, programmers, educators or activists."
> http://www.well.com
> Communications of the ACM
> Features a piece by Douglas Schuler titled "Community
Networks: Building a New Participatory Medium" (January 1994).
> Send your letter to the editor to letters@thenation.com.
> Copyright ?1999 The Nation Company, L.P. All rights reserved.
Unauthorized redistribution is prohibited.
> Please attach this notice in its entirety when copying or
redistributing material from The Nation. For further information
regarding reprinting and syndication, please call The Nation at (212)
209-5426 or e-mail dveith@thenation.com.

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