By Bruce Barbour - Melbourne, Australia.
Internet as a Form of Communications
The Internet, and in particular the World Wide Web, is a
relatively new form of communication. It has features
which are either not found, or are not found in
combination, in the other forms of communication. Some of
the different features and their implications for
community are listed below:
1. Communication between Person and Machine.
Business has economic goals and unfortunately these
days it seems that State and Federal Government also has
predominantly economic rather than social goals. The
Internet provides a means of reducing operating costs to
achieve economic goals. The main areas of potential
saving are electronic commerce and the dissemination of
information and delivery of services.
Electronic commerce on the Internet allows people to
choose items, and order and pay for them over the
Internet. This is really still in its infancy because of
lingering security doubts (real or imagined) of paying
for items over the Internet. Businesses are also making
more information available and providing more services
over the Internet.
In both of the above cases cost savings can be made as
people, the customers and citizens, access information
directly off the business and Government computers using
the Internet. This means that staff that currently
handle sales or provide specific information person to
person could be redeployed.
Most resources for Internet development are aimed at
achieving economic goals (although enlightened
Government may also fund other social goals). The
Internet structure that is implemented to achieve
economic goals may not benefit other users with
different goals, such as Community groups.
2. No geographic boundaries for communication.
The Internet enables a person in Australia to access
the information on a computer which is, say in America,
Europe or China, as easily as a computer within the next
suburb. The costs are exactly the same, and the speed
virtually the same. The Internet allows transmission of
pictures and text information to people around the world
or locally. It allows discussion groups to be formed to
discuss topics of mutual interest regardless of the
geographic location of the participants.
Locality may seem to become less important. This could
lessen the importance residents place on communications
within a local community.
3. The low cost of publishing information by anyone or
Anyone with a computer, a modem, an Internet connection
and a little time to learn a new computer program and to
prepare the information can publish information onto the
Internet. An organisation can do the same. No longer is
it necessary to rely on the information being filtered
through the conventional news print or broadcast
electronic media with the possibility of their bias or
selective interpretation. You can go straight to the
source to get an organisations point of view.
It now also means that local neighbourhood
organisations can easily and cheaply publish on the
Internet for the world to see, but more importantly, for
their local community to know who they are and the
physical services they offer.
4. “Anarchic” Structure of Internet Communications.
The Internet has no inherent user structure. Let me
explain that. The Internet has a very well developed
technical structure, with the technical communications
standards such as TCP/IP, Hyper Text Markup Language and
the network of Internet Service Provider computers and
dedicated cables and telephone lines. This is really the
substructure of the Internet, it doesn’t define how the
Internet is used. As an analogy timber has a structure
of cells and fibres formed in a definite configuration
which makes it timber. However if we want to build a
house this substructure will not achieve it for us. It
requires planning and then the input of physical effort
to achieve the goal.
In terms of the Internet, User Structure refers to the
construction of a number of websites that serve specific
users, and the organisation of these websites (and
others) by the links provided.
There are various implications of this lack of
a). Difficulty of Finding Websites. At present
if you want information on say, the suburb of
Strathmore, you could type “Strathmore” into an Internet
search engine, and you might find most of the sites
related to the local Strathmore. You would also find
information on places named Strathmore in Canada and the
USA and even Kenya. You would find information on
Strathmore Brand Paper, the Strathmore Uranium Mining
Company and the Strathmore apartment complexes in
b). Lack of Connectedness of Websites. If
someone was to launch a new site relating to a local
community it would be just one site amongst the millions
of other sites on the Internet. It would not necessarily
have any connectedness or relationship to the other web
sites in the local community.
The Internet allows random construction of Websites
with random linking together. While a lot will be
achieved through individual organisations and people
constructing websites for their own purposes, there will
be sections of community need which may not be served.
At present some gaps in Internet services are recognised
individually, mainly by groups which have some community
advocacy skills to get funding. This can be a scattergun
approach. Other sections of the community may not be
served because their need or the potential benefits to
that section is not recognised.
Neighbourhood community is the antithesis of anarchy.
To be of most use to a neighbourhood and to foster
community, some local Internet structure is necessary.
Community on the Internet.
Some people talk about community
on the Internet as electronic communities of
interest, where people of like mind can communicate from
across the country or the globe. This is quite different
to the traditional concept of community. Electronic
Communities of Interest are a new form of community which
have their own validity and can co-exist with traditional
community. However I don't believe that this concept of
electronic community should or could displace traditional
Traditionally community is a community of neighbours,
people living in close geographic proximity, who
traditionally share physical infrastructure and
organisations. Typical of the infrastructure and
organisations which are shared, are the local schools,
shopping centres, sporting and social clubs. It is a place
where local people interact face to face with other local
The traditional concept of community has been under
attack for a long time from a variety economic and social
factors. Some of these factors are the growth of the
number of cars, the development of large undercover
shopping centres (e.g. Highpoint West) and supermarkets,
the development of more mistrust in the community. The
Internet has the potential to be another factor which
contributes to this trend, facilitating less
communications with others in the neighbourhood.
The Internet also has potential to be a factor which
assists the Neighbourhood Community, however this will not
happen by itself. It requires some thought by the
community about what it requires from the Internet and the
amount of resources (mainly time) put in and the structure
that is required to achieve the goal.
A Model for Neighbourhood Community Internet Structure
This raises the question of what structure should be
provided on the Internet to assist neighbourhood
community? What I suggest is needed is an Internet Website
dedicated to each neighbourhood. This Neighbourhood
Website needs the following:
1). Links to all Websites related to a Neighbourhood.
A local Internet site should provide links to all the
websites of local organisations and people. It would
become a well known website in the community and create
a site on the Internet where residents could go and
reliably find information relevant to the suburb and its
2). Provision of Communication Services
Service which will be of use or interesting to the
local neighbourhood and probably not provided elsewhere.
Some detailed suggestions of what this might include is:
- Community Forum Page - a place for the discussion of
local issues using one of the many discussion board
applications available on the Web.
- Community Billboard Page - Listing of all events in
Neighbourhood (Fetes, Cake Stalls, Sporting Events,
Finals, Theatre etc). This will give all residents the
opportunity to support fund raising ventures by
community organisations which the resident may
otherwise not have any contact (e.g. a school fete).
This will need to be a database application
(preferable for low maintenance) although could for
low volume be done through Email and manual posting.
- Community Assistance Page - A do it yourself contact
point for community Skill Sharing and Co- operatives.
Could facilitate the set up of Interest Groups e.g.
book reading groups, golf groups, bike riding groups.
People could set up tool sharing groups or vegetable
growing co-operatives. A person may be able to offer
teaching of say pottery in return for music lessons.
There could be opportunities for Community assistance
to the elderly with handyman services.
Services like these have a greater possibility for
working because of the close proximity of the people
- Community Advertising Page - for the use of
residents to sell unwanted second-hand goods to other
residents. This could be achieved efficiently for low
volume use through a “Guestbook” application. Higher
volumes may require a more elaborate database
- Community News Electronic Magazine - news articles
submitted from the community or possibly pulling
together articles from other paper magazines produced
within the community (such school magazines,
Newsletters, Neighbourhood Watch etc.)
- Community Marketplace - Listing local businesses or
business groupings and what they provide.
Encouragement of support from local businesses and for
local businesses. (See below for more.)
- Community Automatic Mailing List - For monthly
announcement of upcoming events, new information or
services on website, local business offers and to
promote continued website use. (Voluntary registration
In most cases (other than the Magazine and Mailing List
announcements) these services require very little
ongoing labour input as most services can be set up
using simple CGI database applications, publishing
direct to the website. However many ISPs charge
additional fees for running database applications, so
the funding implications need to be addressed.
3). Provision of Community Information
Information which will be interesting to the local
neighbourhood. Some suggestions of what this might
- Community History - Local history of the suburb and
its community organisations. The aim is to make the
history interesting to residents and let more recent
residents know of the community's efforts in the past
to act together to lobby for the suburb and achieve
community facilities. The site could become like a
collective community memory.
- Community Information - Facts about the
demographics, geography of the suburb. Also
information on local clubs and organisations (although
these groups should eventually be encouraged to get
their own simple Web sites).
4). Provision of links to other external Websites
Links which provide relevant, useful or interesting
services or information to residents of the
neighbourhood. This might include Websites such as the
three levels of Government, local public transport
services, weather, gardening, educational sites etc.
Initiatives should have the aim of making the web site
the local neighbourhood Internet focal point. The Website
will facilitate residents communicating with other
residents, it is an extended electronic noticeboard and
virtual village common. It will compliment the existing
traditional community by encouraging the interaction and
participation of people in community activity if this is
Support for the Website needs to be gained from as many
community groups as possible. All local groups need to be
encouraged to have a web presence, especially schools.
Local Organisations should annually appoint (or elect as
part of the committee) one of their members as a
Communications Officer with responsibility for maintaining
their Website up to date and also advising the
Neighbourhood Website of the Organisation's events (a
great office for a younger web savvy member).
It is also preferable that the Website be apolitical and
without bias, providing links to community Websites
regardless of their own views and the views of the linked
site (provided the site has Community content). The
Website organising group should see itself as
predominantly a service group, with the aim of providing
communication services to the community, rather than
necessarily communicating its own political message (other
than the message of support for community). Being
apolitical will allow support from the greatest range of
community groups and individuals.
At present in Australia only about 20 to 25% of people
have accessed the Internet in the last year (1997/98).
Many of these people accessed the Internet through work,
school or their local library. This lack of access has
implications for what can be achieved with the Internet
and the timetable of introduction of services.
The traditional concept of community is that of residents
grouped around common facilities such as a Primary School.
Ideally community on the Internet should reflect and
reinforce this neighbourhood model of community. At the
moment full implementation of neighbourhood websites may
need to be delayed until there are sufficient residents
connected to the Internet to successfully support and use
the local Website Services. Some of the services as listed
above require a critical mass of participants before they
become viable and it may be counter productive to try to
provide them to the local neighbourhood before the
critical mass is reached.
This does not mean that nothing should be done until
there is sufficient access. What is needed with the
Internet is planning for the future and not just reaction
as the Internet develops. I suggest some of the proposals
listed above can be implemented at the neighbourhood level
immediately. This would include the linking to other
neighbourhood organisation websites, provision of links to
sites which may be useful to residents and community
history. The other proposals can be implemented for a
larger area, say the local government municipality wide.
These Municipal wide sites should be planned with the idea
that at a future time smaller neighbourhood Websites will
takeover some of the tasks from the larger site when the
degree of in home access to the Internet is higher and
there is sufficient interest from residents.
Eventually the Municipality wide site will become the
site that co-ordinates and links the more local sites
providing facilities that can’t be provided by a
Neighbourhood Website. For example it may be useful for
the municipal wide site to have a combined “Community
Billboard” page covering all events across the
The local shopping centre and other businesses are an
important part of the neighbourhood and should not be
allowed to wither on the vine in the face of competition
from large shopping centres outside the neighbourhood.
There is a role for the local trading associations in
forming a website for each strip shopping centre in the
neighbourhood. As most of these trading associations have
recognised the shops in a strip are not in competition
with each other but with the external shopping centres.
Forming Website for the strip rather than each individual
shop will allow residents to find the shop more readily as
it is grouped, will ensure a more complete up to date
listing of shops and will cut down on Internet Service
Provider costs and development costs.
The local shopping strip has a vested interest in
maintaining support from the neighbourhood. In the longer
term local businesses should be encouraged to financially
support the local community Website in return for say
monthly access, with the other businesses, to a mailing
list serving residents, allowing advertisement directly to
residents advising them of "This Month's Special" goods or
services available in their shop. Such advertising, and
other sponsorship, would need to be strictly controlled by
the local neighbourhood Website. Support local business
but on your terms.
Role of Local Government
As stated previously, the Internet has no inherent user
structure. Nor has it any overseeing body. While it would
be ideal that neighbourhood websites just spring up in all
areas because of the community itself sees the need, gets
the skills and knowledge and organises to bring about the
website, this may not (consistently) happen. It is my
belief that Local Council should become the body with
overview of the Internet locally on behalf of the
Community. The main reason for this is that Local Council
is the main body which has the resources, responsibility
and overview for other aspects of local affairs. Just as
the Local Councils look after and plan local roads away
from the main highways, the local Council could oversee
the local by-ways of the Information Super Highway. This
does not mean that it should attempt to control the
Internet locally (which it couldn’t do anyway). It does
mean that Local Government should look beyond solely the
set up of its own Council Website.
Council needs to work with the community to ensure the
provision a comprehensive structure for the Internet
locally involving Council, Community Groups, Volunteers
and Business Sites and ensure that comprehensive local
content and communication services are provided for the
benefit of residents. Council may need to provide
assistance, if necessary, such as "seeding" new community
Website groups, providing limited training or technical
support and perhaps free space for Community Websites. The
established Websites however, should be controlled and run
by volunteer collectives and community groups and not
directly (or indirectly) by the local government, and
should endeavour to obtain a degree of independent
financing from within the neighbourhood.