The Net That Binds
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 themselves.
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 are 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.