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The Net That Binds | The Nation

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The Net That Binds

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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.

This article is adapted from Andrew L. Shapiro's book about the politics of the Internet, The Control Revolution (PublicAffairs/Century Foundation). For more information visit www.controlrevolution.com.

About the Author

Andrew L. Shapiro
Andrew L. Shapiro (andrewshapiro.info), a Nation contributing editor, is a journalist and entrepreneur.

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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 governments, 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 by 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 possibility 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 interesting. 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 multicultural 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 needs.

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 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.

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 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.

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