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Community and the Internet.

By Bruce Barbour - Melbourne, Australia. February 1999.

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 any organisation.

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 structure.

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 America.

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 community.

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 people.

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 residents.

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 involved.
  • 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 application.
  • 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 of course.)

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 include are:

  • 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 possible.

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.

Phased Introduction

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 municipality.

Local Business

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.