The Net That Binds
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 community 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 is 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 associations, 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.