Here's a new book about the intersection of Community, Cyberspace and
FWIW, I am a particular fan of Chapter 3, where I put together my deep
thoughts on the subect.
Barry Wellman Professor of Sociology NetLab Director
[log in to unmask] http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~wellman
Centre for Urban & Community Studies University of Toronto
455 Spadina Avenue Toronto Canada M5S 2G8 fax:+1-416-978-7162
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Date: Tue, 8 Jan 2002 23:19:55 -0800
From: Phil Agre <[log in to unmask]>
To: Red Rock Eater News Service <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: [RRE]Community Informatics
[Heavily reformatted; apologies for any formatting problems.]
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Date: Thu, 3 Jan 2002 11:56:22 -0000
From: "Loader, Brian" <[log in to unmask]>
Shaping Computer-Mediated Social Relations
Edited by Leigh Keeble & Brian D. Loader
ISBN 0415231116 (hardcover), 0415231124 (paperback)
Will the Internet destroy community life or be the catalyst for its
Community groups, social support networks, voluntary agencies and
government organisations are all actively exploring the potential of
the new information and communications technologies (ICTs) to bring
about democratic development and renewal. A rich variety of social
experiments in what has become known as Community Informatics is now
beginning to provide useful research findings and exciting examples
of innovative applications. This book sets down some of the defining
features of a Community Informatics approach and some of the common
themes which are emerging. In particular it considers the following
* Community management
* Public service provision
* Partnerships of stakeholders
* Local learning
* Social support and networks
This edited collection brings together leading exponents of Community
Informatics from around the world and critically evaluates their
Notes on Contributors
Preface by Howard Rheingold
1. Community Informatics: themes & issues
Leigh Keeble & Brian Loader
2. Staten Island Stories - handing over the tools of video
Part 1 -- Communaity Informatics as Place and Space
3. Physical Place & Cyberplace: The Rise of Networked Individualism
4. Creating Community in Conspiracy with the Enemy
5. The Technological Story of a Woman's Centre: A Feminist Model
of User Centred Design
Eileen Green & Leigh Keeble
6. The Safety Net? Some reflections on the emergence of computer
mediated self-help and social support.
Nicholas Pleace, Roger Burrows, Brian D Loader, Sarah
Nettleton & Steve Muncer
Part 2 -- The Experience of Community Informatics
7. Community Networks and Access for all in the Era of the 'Free'
Internet: "Discovering the Treasure" of community.
Fiorella De Cindio, L Ripamonti & G Casapulla.
8. On Crafting a Study of Digital Community Networks: theoretical
and methodological considerations.
Nicholas Jankowski, Martine Van Selm & Ed Hollander.
9. Community Networking in Russia: identifying the research agenda.
10. Some Lessons of Social Experiments with Technology
11. Change Agency and Women's Learning: new practices in Community
Anne Scott & Margaret Page
Part 3 -- Electronic Empowerment and Surveillance
12. Social Capital and Cyberpower in the African American Community:
A case study of a community technology centre in the dual city.
Abdul Alkalimat & Kate Williams
13. Online Forums as a Tool for People-Centred Governance:
experiences from local government in Sweden.
14. Surveillance in the Community: Community development through
the use of Closed Circuit Television.
C William, R Webster & John Hood
15. The Techno-Flaneur: Tele-Erotic Re-Presentations of Women's
Tamara Seabrook & Louise Wattis
Part 4 -- Policy Implications of Community Informatics
16. Community Informatics: Setting out the Research Agenda
17. Cultivating Society's Civic Intelligence: patterns for a new
18. Participating in the Information Society: Community
Development and Social Inclusion
19. Communities and Community E-Gateways: Networking for Social
Sonia Liff & Fred Steward
A human being has roots by virtue of his (sic) real, active and
natural participation in the life of a community which preserves
in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain
particular expectations for the future.
Throughout the world in recent years there has been a dramatic surge
of activity by hundreds of community groups, social support networks,
voluntary agencies and government organisations dedicated to exploring
the transforming qualities of the new information and communications
technologies (ICTs) such as the Internet for the development, economic
regeneration, and democratic stimulation of communities. A rich
variety of social experiments in what we term Community Informatics
(CI) are giving community activists, policy-makers and citizens a
new set of possibilities for fostering social cohesion, strengthening
neighbourhood ties, overcoming cultural isolation and combating
social exclusion and deprivation. For some commentators the new
media offer us the prospect of resuscitating community life from its
torpid condition in the modern world (Rheingold 1994; Schuler 1996).
Computer-mediated social relations are depicted as the conduit through
which new forms of community structures and culture can evolve through
spontaneous electronic interaction.
The rapid convergence of new media such as the Internet, digital TV,
cell phones and other ICTs is providing a powerful set of tools with
which to challenge many aspects of our social and economic behaviour.
In the home, at work and in our public spaces these technologies
are beginning to facilitate new patterns of social interaction and
exchange. By enabling communication between people to be conducted
across the world at any time they begin to challenge traditional
distinctions of time and place. News of human rights violations,
environmental catastrophes or military aggression can no longer
be easily suppressed by nation states (Hick et al 2000). Medical
advice and social support can be shared across national boundaries
(Burrows et al 2000). Remote locations can offer the ideal prospect
of employment opportunities for tele-working and local economic
sustainability. In addition, e-commerce provides the potential for
producers to access wider markets to sell their goods and services and
also for greater price responsiveness to customer demands.
For many commentators the transforming capabilities of the new
digital media are providing the conditions for an economic and social
revolution leading to the collapse of the Industrial Society and its
replacement by the Information Age (Castells, 1996). At the heart of
this transition is the creation of a 'global knowledge economy' where
the communication of information, knowledge and other symbolic goods
rather than material goods becomes the primary motor for economic
development. As a consequence governments and policy makers around
the world are urgently extolling the need to put their populations
online by sponsoring awareness raising programmes, computer literacy
courses, and connecting schools, libraries and other public amenities
to the Internet (Cabinet Office 2000, HM Treasury 2000, NTIA 2000).
To be without access to the Web in the Information Age it seems is to
run the risk of losing competitive advantage in the race for economic
Yet information, knowledge and its communication are not simply
economic variables, they are also cultural assets. They enable us to
create our identities, develop a shared sense of community, and gain
an understanding of communities which are different from ourselves.
The transforming force of the information revolution is not therefore
primarily technical but rather social and cultural in nature (Loader
et. al. 2002). New forms of computer-mediated-communication (CMC)
are challenging our self-perceptions and the communities within
which we interact. But they are also in turn being shaped by social
and cultural forces. The technologies are not inert. They are not
independent of the social and cultural conditions from which they
have emerged. Rather they are the product of imaginations which are
themselves formed within complex and dynamic cultural, economic and
political relations. The social crucible of technological development
is therefore both a highly contested space as well as a creative
one. Competing desires and unequal access to human resources ensures
that the factors shaping the development and diffusion of community
informatics are highly unpredictable and not easily determined by
those who deign to prophesise them.
Few can now doubt the enormous potential of new information
and communications technologies (ICTs) such as the Internet for
facilitating social and economic change. But are the impressive
transforming capabilities of this new media likely to regenerate
community social relations during the next century or are they
the harbinger of the breakdown of locally based social interaction?
Can the Internet, for example, strengthen bonds between neighbours,
provide job opportunities, improve local access to public and
commercial services, stimulate cultural activities and facilitate
the creation and communication of information between local residents?
Or conversely, does online connectivity lead to the replacement of
face-to-face interaction by an incorporeal communication network?
(Kraut et al., 1998). Does remote computer-mediated communication
(CMC) lead to remoteness between individuals who share the same
geographical community space? (Haywood, 1998)
These questions are the primary focus of this book. Whilst somewhat
exaggerated in their starkness, they represent significant concerns
which human societies are currently grappling with as a consequence
of an uneasy alliance with the new ICTs. This ambivalence is played
out through a number of dichotomies which arise from the catalytic
qualities of the new technologies. For example, its capacity
to facilitate the development of a 'global informational economy'
(Castells 1996) provides great opportunities for opening up world-wide
economic markets but also for placing many regions into economic
insecurity as a result of global competition. A global network
facilitating contact between millions of people across many nations
may not only stimulate greater co-operation and understanding but also
a weakening of national and local cultural differences as we witness
an increasing cultural homogenisation. The development of online
public information services may provide the prospect of improved
democratic accountability between local citizens and their elected
representatives but it could also provide the tools for more
sophisticated management of the population. Surveillance technologies
such as CCTV may enable community members to feel safer in their
streets and homes but the information such technologies procure may
also threaten people's privacy and freedom from commercial or state
abuse. Such competing scenarios are woven throughout the chapters
contained in this book.
What is Community Informatics?
Community Informatics is a multidisciplinary field for the
investigation and development of the social and cultural factors
shaping the development and diffusion of new ICTs and its effects upon
community development, regeneration and sustainability. It thereby
combines an interest in the potentially transforming qualities of
the new media with an analysis of the importance of community social
relations for human interaction. Community Informatics is therefore
concerned to foreground through its analyses the complex dynamic
relationship between technological innovation and changing social
relationships. It pursues this objective by bringing together
and drawing upon the work of community activists, webmasters
and Internet enthusiasts, policy makers, digital artists, science
fiction writers, media commentators and a wide variety of academics
including sociologists, computer scientists, communications theorists,
information systems analysts, political scientists, psychologists and
Community informatics is also a broad approach which offers on the
one hand, the opportunity to investigate the rich diversity of Virtual
Communities which are forming between normally disparate individuals
as a consequence of CMC (Smith et al 1999). Typically these are
communities of shared interest rather than spatially or geographically
constructed. Through a variety of Internet and Web-based technologies
millions of people are able to interact socially, economically and
politically around the world in what is popularly known as cyberspace.
On the other hand, community informatics, as we have noted elsewhere,
also enables us
to connect cyber-space to community-place: to investigate how ICTs
can be geographically embedded and developed by community groups
to support networks of people who already know and care about each
other. It thereby recognises both the transforming qualities of ICTs
as well as the continuing importance of community as an intermediate
level of social life between the personal (individual/family) and
the impersonal (insqtitutional/global). The numerous community
enthusiasts ... who are building interactive Web sites, virtual chat
rooms and electronic-lists as tools to support local communication
between their members, are a striking testament to the value of a CI
perspective. (Loader et al. 2000:81)
Such initiatives however are not uniform in their spread across the
globe or indeed throughout national populations (Holderness 1998,
Loader 1998). At a time when the value of being 'connected to the
Net' for individual life opportunities is being recognised, there is
also a growing concern among policy-makers that many countries are
witnessing a 'digital divide' between those members of society who
have access to networked computers and the skills to use them and
a large section of citizens who are excluded from such advantages.
Given the perceived increasing importance of communications and
information exchange for job opportunities, educational achievement,
access to good quality public services, improved independent living
and economic advantage these divisions between the information rich
and the information deprived may become reinforced by the manner in
which the new technologies are designed and dispersed. Consequently
many community informatics initiatives often arise as a means to raise
awareness of the importance of computer literacy to people living
in deprived areas as well as providing them with communal access and
Yet to be effective in bridging the digital divide CI perspectives
need to avoid approaches which assume that communities are 'densely-
knit and tightly bound' (Wellman et al., 1999). The reality for many
individuals is that their 'personal communities' are 'sparsely knit
and loosely bound' (ibid.). Within these fluid community networks
the new media provides the opportunities of enabling people to span
across geographical, social and cultural boundaries and constraints.
The new media thus offers the potential of being used as a liberating
and empowering tool by many people and particularly more relevant
here, for the disadvanted and excluded, to 'challenge entrenched
positions and structures' (Loader et. al., 2000:87). The Internet
and World Wide Web allow individuals access to global information
and potentially provide a space for participation without preconceived
socially constructed identities based on gender, age, sexuality,
ethnicity, disability and the like constraining meaningful
interaction. Many of the community informatics initatives mentioned
in this book demonstrate potential of ICTs to support, strengthen and
extend individuals 'personal communities'.
Structure of the book
The first contribution in the book is from Perry Bard, a video artist
based in New York. A key component of the conference, which we held
in April 2000, was digital arts. We ran two different digital arts
projects over the duration of the conference. Firstly, Perry worked
with a group of young people aged 16-25 from a local young people's
project, [log in to unmask] The young people and Perry spent a couple of days
with a mini-disc recorder and a digital camera. The young people and
Perry then cut together a PowerPoint presentation with words, sounds
and images which presented the issues which faced young people in
Middlesbrough. The piece was presented to the conference participants
on the final day of the conference.
The second digital arts project was an artslab in which young
people aged 11-13 worked with Jen Southern and other artists from
the IDEA (Innovation in Digital and Electronic Art) project based
in Manchester, UK. Jen worked with the young people teaching them
HTML and scanning in parts of their body and working with the digital
camera. Each of the young people participating in the project
produced their own web page and learnt to use photo-editing software,
the scanner and the digital camera. The picture on the cover of this
book originates from this artslab and we are grateful for opportunity
to reproduce it.
Our motive for including the digital arts work in the conference was
our recognition that arts are potentially a powerful way of engaging
people with the new technologies. In particular, we are keen to
explore how young people might make use of different software and how
they might use it to give themselves a voice. Our colleague, Rupert
Francis, was fundamental in the organising and running of the digital
arts section of the conference.
The benefits of working creatively with technology are many.
Over the course of our work on various projects, our colleagues
have demonstrated how this work has the potential to boost confidence,
expand social skills and enhance literacy and numeracy. Rupert
Francis and Steve Thompson of CIRA work to promote the idea that
there is a sense of empowerment in creation, in creating and in being
creative. Effective examples of such work can be seen on the Tees
Valley Communities Online web site at: www.tvco.org.uk.
The contribution by Perry Bard which follows this chapter describes a
project in which she worked with a small community to install a piece
of video art into the Staten Island Ferry Terminal building. Perry
describes the processes involved in realising the project and some of
the problems encountered. However, despite the difficulties, the end
result is a piece of work which has given the individuals involved a
great deal of pleasure and which has undoubtedly taught them some new
The remainder of the collection has been divided into four parts.
The first section we have called 'Community Informatics as Place and
Space' as the essays which form this section explore the relationship
of physical place to the engagement of individuals within cyberspace.
In first chapter in this section (chapter three), Barry Wellman
explores how networks of community exist in physical places and
how they might be moving to exist in cyberspace. The relationship
of cyber-space to cyber-place is important to Wellman. He argues
that online relationships and online communities have developed
their own strength and dynamics. Wellman identifies that participants
in online groups have strong interpersonal feelings of belonging,
being wanted, obtaining important resources, and having a shared
identity. For Wellman, these communities are truly in cyber-place,
and not just cyber-spaces. Wellman also examines the development of
computer supported community networks and how this affects access to
resources. Wellman focuses on the opportunities and transformations
for communities afforded by computerised communication networks.
Chapter four is about the design of the technology by the public.
Erik Stolterman argues that in a democratic society, a public sphere
in cyberspace must be defined and designed by the people using that
sphere. Stolterman suggests that technology can be deliberately and
consciously designed by community groups, and in fact, this happens
every day. The overall message of this chapter is that technology
cannot be regarded as a ready-made tool that can be used to create
The issue of the design of technology is picked up in chapter five.
Eileen Green and Leigh Keeble use case studies of two women's centres
from the North East of England and describe how the women themselves
are taking the new technologies and integrating them into their
'everyday'. The chapter addresses the issue of the everyday design
of technological systems and asks questions about the potential of
the women in the community groups to become involved in a user-centred
process of community based design.
Chapter six looks at the impact of computer mediated social support
(CMSS). Nicholas Pleace, Roger Burrows, Brian Loader, Sarah Nettleton
and Steve Muncer examine the benefits of CMSS and acknowledge its
potential to enhance the lives of some individuals by offering access
to communities of interest. Such communities are potentially of
particular benefit to individuals who are housebound. However, the
authors do express some words of caution and remain critical of the
ability of CMSS to replace 'real life' social networks or to be the
only source of information.
Part two of the collection moves on to explore some real experiences
of community informatics. The first chapter in section two by
Fiorella de Cindio et al. (chapter seven) begins by discussing access
to the new technologies and the impact of such access on the Milan
community network. The chapter then explores how access has been
facilitated and extended through the design and implementation of a
game, 'Cyberhunts'. The chapter describes how 'Cyberhunts' began by
engaging schools but then moved on to involve other members of the
wider community as word of its success spread. The game and process
described by de Cindio et al. demonstrates how innovative software
can be used in an effective way to teach people how to use the
Internet in an informal and fun way.
Chapter eight by Nicholas Jankowski, Martine Van Selm and Ed Hollander
discusses the development of a research project around two digital
community networks in the Netherlands. Jankowski et al. do present
some findings of a preliminary study conducted on one of the community
networks but the focus of this chapter is on considering theoretical
perspectives and methodological issues in relation to researching
community informatics projects.
The next chapter in this section is a contribution by Sergei Stafeev.
Stafeev explores the issues around developing a research programme
which would support the funding of Internet connections for
non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Russia. Stafeev's main theme
is that the Internet potentially offers NGOs in Russia not just access
to a wide range of information, but more importantly, a networking
tool which could support Russian NGOs in their work.
Birgit Jaeger explores in chapter ten the impact of ICT projects
in Europe and more specifically, Denmark. Jaeger describes the
development of 'social experiments' in Denmark and discusses how such
projects have been evaluated, what lessons have been learned and how
these lessons have been disseminated to other projects.
The final chapter in this section examines how to sustain community
informatics projects in women's centres. Anne Scott and Margaret
Page focus on the experience of the 'Women Connect' project and argue
that online communities need to be built in such a way as to utilize
face-to-face interaction and political will.
Section three of the collection brings together chapters which
tackle the issues of empowerment and surveillance. Whilst some of
the chapters in this section do present case study material, their
main focus is on how technologies can be used to empower individuals
or communities or how the introduction of CCTV has impacted on a local
The first chapter in this section, chapter 13, is the contribution
by Abdul Alkalimat and Kate Williams. This chapter focuses on the
experiences of a community technology centre based in Toledo, Ohio.
The main objective of the chapter is to establish how public computer
centres can play a role in sustaining the African American freedom
struggle. The chapter concludes by drawing out the implications
of this research both as guidelines for future research but also
for the public sphere. Alkalimat and Williams argue that building
a sustainable democratic equality in the Information Age means
working and supporting people with information technology in those
organisations which are already active.
Agneta Ranerup continues with the theme of democracy in chapter 14.
Ranerup focuses on whether local government initiatives in Sweden
established to provide a virtual public space have functioned as
a tool for people centred governance. From her survey of local
government provision in Sweden, Ranerup found that simply establishing
a space on a local government web site will not suddenly result in
citizens starting to debate. Ranerup concludes, like Alkalimat and
Williams, that without support, these spaces are not sustainable.
The next two chapters in this section examine the impact of closed
circuit television (CCTV) in different local communities. William
Webster and John Hood argue (chapter 15) that the introduction of CCTV
into an area is a community informatics initiative as it represents
the provision of an electronic service to meet local demand.
Drawing on evidence from a case study based on the Greater Easterhouse
CCTV system, Webster and Hood suggest that whilst CCTV can be in
the community, for the community and demanded by the community, it
inevitably leads to increased surveillance of communities which has
significant ramifications for democracy and individual privacy.
The issue of surveillance is further explored by Tamara Seabrook
and Louise Wattis in chapter 16. Seabrook and Wattis focus on
the perceptions of young women to the introduction of CCTV in their
local community. They argue that although the young women in their
sample viewed the cameras as providing them with greater interpersonal
safety, the reality is that when the nature of public crime is
deconstructed in relation to gender, this sense of protection that
CCTV offers is unfounded. Accordingly, Seabrook and Wattis suggest
that CCTV represents a 'heightened manifestation of the male gaze'
which legitimises men watching women.
The final section in the collection examines the potential research
and policy agenda of community informatics both in the Europe
and North America. Mike Gurstein opens this section (chapter 17)
by exploring the history of 'citizen technology' and discussing
strategies for local development by using the new technologies.
Gurstein addresses some of the outstanding research issues identified
through his work and concludes by examining some of the future
implications for research and sustaining community informatics
Doug Schuler's chapter (chapter 18) is designed to challenge the
pessimistic and defeatist views of our capabilities to confront
and overcome many of the social and environmental problems facing
us. Through an evocation of earlier utopian visions of human
society using scientific knowledge and technologies as a means of
amelioration, Schuler presents us with a new formulation which he
describes as a 'world brain'. Whilst such futuristic theorising is
highly unfashionable the author attempts to ground his idea in the
work and practices of the social network movement. In particular,
Schuler suggests that many of the problems confronting society
can be understood and challenged by mobilising what he calls 'civic
intelligence': that is collective knowledge and its communication
used as a means for collective problem solving. Such an approach is
clearly ambitious and Schuler makes no claims for it being a panacea
for all our ills but for the author, it does represent a positive,
evidence-based proposal for civic engagement.
The contribution by Peter Day (chapter 19) draws on a longitudinal
study of Scandinavian and UK community ICT initiatives to examine
tensions between policy and some of the attempts to address social
exclusion through ICT initiatives. Day describes the UK policy
environment in relation to ICTs and reflects on these policies.
Day concludes that despite the rhetoric of UK government policy
in relation to access and involving citizens in the decision-making
process, policies remain fundamentally techno-economic,
i.e. policy-makers regard people in terms of their market potential
rather than as citizens. Whilst such an approach is identifiable
in government policies, Day argues that community efforts to shape
information society policy will be limited. He concludes that we must
establish a framework of methodological tools that informs policy.
The closing chapter in the collection by Sonia Liff and Fred Steward
(chapter 20) stresses the importance of social networks to the
successful operation of what they call 'e-gateways'. By discussing
the practitioner literature on community e-gateways and studies of
actual practice, the authors argue that whilst the importance of
networking is implicit in much policy advice, its full implications
are not always drawn out and are actually contradicted by some
funding regimes. By using a network mapping approach to provide a
visual representation of the relationships an organisation, Project
Cosmic, has with its resource providers and its users, mapped their
organisation's assets. However, this mapping is done in a way that
is informed by the social scientific understanding of different types
of networks and forms of learning. Liff and Steward argue that such
analysis might prove useful to centres themselves in identifying areas
for future development.
It is hoped that the contributions to this book go some way towards
demonstrating the rich range of community informatics projects which
are happening around the world. We also hope that as the implications
of living in a global information age become more apparent, the
research which informs these contributions may help the future
development and sustainability of community informatics projects.