Sunday, December 04, 2005

What happened to community networks?

When I was at Evergreen, one of the best classes I was in was taught by Doug Schuler. It was about a concept called "Community Networks," which where efforts to expand social capital online using open and civic minded networking.

I've been reading about the concept of using libraries as "third places" in communities and how libraries can use their public education mandate to get into the business of pushing for civic dialogue, and I ran into a reference to the civic/community network movement. That led me to do a quick read-up on community networks, and I discovered that the steam pretty much died down on the movement around the late 1990s. If you take a look at the Seattle Community Network homepage, you will see a somewhat retro looking design.

What seems to have happened is that community networks rose early on in the internet world as BBSs, a free network than anyone could dial into. This was during the time when not every dial-up led to the internet, and providing a free network, accessible to anyone, was of great civic importance. But, when the walls between these networks broke down, access became more easily available and the internet world moved into HTML, the community networks followed. They built lists of civic organizations, gave free web space to worthy groups, and tried to be as open as possible.

But, they didn't become widespread enough to counter to increasingly commercial side of the internet. And now, in the case of the SCN at least, they seemed to have gotten stuck in that first generation of the HTML world. While social software has taken off, community networks have either died or not moved into this new world. Community is being built on the internet, but not in the directly local fashion intended by the community network movement.

In Doug's class is some of us tried to start a community network in Olympia. I can't remember what would have been so hard about that, but we never really got it off the ground. Now, the makings of a community network is starting to be built in Olympia. The most exciting part of the new Olympia Community Network is that it holds most important something that was lacking in those HTML community networks: dialogue.

It's ironic that because of the limitations of software in the 90s that one of the main ingredients in actual community (talking to people) couldn't happen easily in community networks. Anyway, at, the best thing is the back and forth between the folks there. More on that later.

With new, free software now available and a new interest in building community online in the progressive community, would now be a good time to revive the community network movement?

As a side note, Doug's class did inspire me to do, a community newsite that, for a few months at least, got me some college credit and taught me a lot about community, Olympia, building websites and tons of other stuff. You can still see the remnents of that site here.

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