A Report to the ACM from the ACM Community Center Project
* authors of this report
First Draft:: May 30, 1997; Last Revision: July 2, 1997
Abstract: The ACM Community Center Project was started as a joint project of the ACM Membership Activities Board and ACM Headquarters in June, 1996. The Charge of the Committee was to develop the foundation for an Electronic Community Center for ACM which would complement other ACM electronic initiatives in publications, member services, marketing, etc. This foundation would be outlined in a series of progress reports throughout 1996 and 1997, the second of which is this document. It is intended that a final "white paper" on electronic communities will be written and published in some ACM forum.
The volunteer charter members of the CCP were Hal Berghel (chair), Bob Judd, Hilbert Levitz, Judson Rosebush, David Sallach, Ed Skellings, and Barry Wellman. Representatives from ACM Headquarters include Fred Aronson, Peter Clifford, Joe DeBlasi, Lillian Israel, and Jennifer Schwartz.
The first meeting was held at ACM Headquarters on September 20-21, 1996. All pertinent documentation relating to the activities of this committee are available on the committee Website at http://www.acm.org/~ccp/.
a. Commercial products
b. Member support services
c. Hybrid activities
d. Services to the profession at large
ii. Encourage under-involved ACM members to develop and participate in technical activities
iii. Draws ACM members closer to professional community
iv. Facilitate anonymous engagement in controversial, technological topics
v. Take advantage of quasi-independent or relative identity technologies
vi. Promote use of emmersive technologies
a. Dynamic involvement
b. Location transparency
c. Self-organization and self-administration
d. Activity enhancement and enrichment
e. Thought swarms
f. Content vs. Status
g. Interest Group Focus
A. Potential advantages
a. Intellectual quality
b. Intellectual economy
c. Enhanced Internet Relay Chats
d. Value-added products and services
e. Enhance the sense of ACM community
f. Broader range of member-connectivity options
g. greater range of participation by peripheral members
B. Potential disadvantages
a. Time sink
b. Potential loss of privacy
c. Dilute the value of proprietary information
d. Intensity loss
e. Not all ACM activites may port well to electronic realm
(1). Develop complete understanding of technology
(2). Select digital kindling carefully
(3). Promote sense of community within ACM
(4). Promote virtual scholarship
(5). Help define future standards
(6). Consider creation of political interest groups to advance ACM's interest
(7). Help deploy enabling software
(8). Create discussion groups for publications
(9). Create conferences on virtual communities
(1) Video conferencing
(2) standards research center
(3) technical report index
(4) volunteer classifieds
(5) Civic center
a. Global issues forum
b. Debate and referenda rooms
c. Polling place
Introduction: As currently envisioned, ACM sees future activity in many aspects of what has become known as electronic communities. Two important categories of such activity are the use of electronic community technology to produce goods and services of use to ACM members and the broader computing community, and the use of electronic communities as enabling technology in support of ACM member and ACM chapter activities.
One may, of course, also look at these activities and programs in terms of the constituency served. On this account, one might distinguish between activities which serve ACM members and those which serve the broader computing community. However, these two forms of participation are interleaved and mutually reinforcing. For example, the availability of online voting, as in the Student Webbie Prize (www.acm.org/webbie/), becomes a precedent for other decision-making process within the ACM such as the election of officers and online referenda. Such organizational decisions are then likely to become an exemplar for the larger society.
The following list illustrates how ACM might organize these activities.
a. commercial products - "electronic publications", access to ACM publications database, access to ongoing research by leading professionals in computing
b. member support services - both technical and non-technical. Technical support might include such things as a Technical Report Index to provide indexed access to online technical reports produced by the ACM, other professional organizations and leading research universities. Non-technical service support might include online membership for both ACM members and members of ACM SIGs, online registration to conferences and events, digital ombudsperson, etc.
c. hybrid activities such as electronic communities which may have both commercial (e.g., advertising) and service-oriented aspects. The ACM electronic community center as envisioned would be the Internet/Web focal point for computing professionals who wish to engage and participate in technical and innovative activities.
d. services to the profession at large - again, both technical and non-technical. Since these services would not normally be revenue-producing, inclusion would have to be made at the senior volunteer/HQ levels.
A number of enabling technologies can be extended to the ACM membership in ways that strengthen the organization. Perhaps the key feature of such technologies is the availability of location-independent, multi-modal interactivity. Effective use of such technologies can empower ACM members both technically and organizationally.
Empowerment of ACM membership, especially includes members who have not been active in the leadership process. This use of electronic communities would facilitate the initiation of new programs and projects by those who are not within the ACM volunteer administrative "loop". The benefits of such electronic empowerment include:
a. it enables ACM to take advantage of membership expertise which has not previously been available by removing many of the obstacles to member participation in ACM activities (e.g., limited time, lack of contacts, unfamiliarity with procedures and regulations, etc.). Membership participation can be facilitated by providing electronic classifieds for members, and a multi-faceted Civic Center.
b. it encourages under-involved ACM members to develop and participate in technical activities relating to the ACM's scope and mission. A Standards Research Center and article-focused technical exchanges define two of the enabling technologies through which member involvement may be facilitated.
c. it provides the opportunity for ACM members to participate more directly in a professional computer science and engineering community and to benefit from the results of that collaboration.
d. it may facilitate anonymous engagement in controversial technological topics. An example might be an electronic forum on deficiencies of software systems or computing platforms, or on politically sensitive issues (e.g., the Clipper Chip, the Communications Decency Act).
e. it may allow the computing community to take advantage of whatever virtues (if any!) quasi-independent or relative identities might afford. There may be circumstances under which the customization or relativization of one's identity might be beneficial. An example might be interactive, participatory network environments (ala MUD, MOO) in which multiple individuals serve as the same avatar within virtual learning settings.
f. It may promote the use of "immersive technologies" such as interactive, participatory and virtual environments which may be used to enhance technology understanding or increase the efficiency of information uptake. Other examples might be the use of such capabilities for simulating computing events or for reconstructing computer system errors for diagnostic purposes.
ACM's activities within the electronic community umbrella are a special case of electronic community offerings, generally. Here are some high-level issues which apply to electronic communities as such and in general.
Organizational characteristics of future electronic communities might include:
a. dynamic involvement. Unlike social organizations built upon in-person contact, electronic interest groups may well lack significant formal infrastructure. Participation may be intermittant or ephemeral, and the focus, or even the very existence, of any particular electronic interest group may be transitory. Electronic communities which are based on such dynamic associations will have the best chance of success. The operational metaphor will come from internetworking rather than organizational behavior.
b. location transparency. All electronic communities are potentially global. They cannot be thought of in geographical terms because digital networks are dimensionless with respect to information transfer. Connectivity, not location, is the key. At this moment everyone who has access to the Internet is a potential full and equal partner in each digital village. In time we will increasingly move toward discovery and maintenance of digital demographics of electronic communities .
c. self-organization and self-administration. Electronic communities will be primarily self organized and self administered. Membership will change constantly as interests wane and attentions shift. The criteria for the administration of digital villages will also change through time. They will appear as if in anarchy, when in fact they are really quite democratic, even though the rules of governance will appear as a moving target to outsiders. Individuals won't really organize digital villages so much as they will initiate them and impart momentum to them.
d. activity enhancement and enrichment. Electronic communities will enhance and complement their physical counterparts in a variety of ways. Diverse forms of electronic contact will emergein ways that complement and deepen the physical communities from which they arise. To illustrate, teleconferencing will at the same time enrich and re-define the traditional conferencing experience as chat groups supplement and reinforce digital recording. Electronic publications can collapse temporal distance between information producer and consumer while enabling us to build indexable, searchable databases of core, vital contributions to the field.
e. thought swarms. The constant, interactive stimulation of participants in electronic communities will accelerate the process of cognitive and technical evolution. New ideas will coalesce and converge about concepts and innovations dynamically at rates which will allow us to recognize the evolutionary patterns - as the process goes faster it becomes easier to discover and observe. Electronic communities will increase the frequency of cooperative and conflicting interactions to the point where innovation may become more conscious and intentional.
f. "content" rather than "status". Research has shown that electronic communications focus attention more on what is being said -- the content of the message -- than who is saying it -- the status of the person saying it. Electronic discussions foster greater creativity and a wider range ofideas.
g. "interest group focus". Electronic communities emphasize shared interests rather than geographical or organization propinquity. Hence they are ideal for ACM members coming together to discuss ideas and matters, in groups ranging from ad hoc and short-term to formalized and long term.
4. POTENTIAL ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF ELECTRONIC COMMUNITIES
Of the potential benefits, none loom larger than
a. "intellectual quality" - Intellectual quality in the ACM is a manifestation of the technical community through contributions to the professional literature as well as its body of members, volunteers and staff. ACM electronic communities will be built around distinguished professionals and their work, thereby taking advantage of ACM as a premier source of high-quality information on computing.
b. "intellectual economy" - In terms of intellectual economy, ACM is perhaps uniquely positioned to preserve the time and enhance the intellectual resource of its members. As the oldest and broadest-based society in computing, it is in a position to provide electronic offerings which are organized, original and well-managed, sources of important, timely information. Through its membership rosters ACM can draw upon access to a vast community of computing experts.
In addition, new electronic offerings will expand upon ACM's ability to provide quality information. This might include:
c. enhanced Internet Relay Chats (IRC) - This might include enclosed feedback loop extensions to moderated discussion groups which would draw upon ACM member expertise to create enriched interactive exchanges. This concept might even be extended to "expert nets" where multiple ACM experts simultaneously participate in expert forums.
d. digital "value added" products and services which expand upon and reinforce ACM's traditional strengths as a reliable and innovative source of quality information. This might appear in many forms. For example, ACM might augment individual publications with moderated online discussions, reviews and references, and downstream citation.
e. using electronic community technology to enhance the sense of an ACM community, which has the potential to raise the overall level of member activity and enfranchise new members. There is even some evidence that indicates that email goal satisfaction may be superior to traditional alternatives. Electronic communities may be expected to translate into increased standards of professionalism for those who participate.
f. enabling a broader range of connectivity options for members, including various classes of electronic membership (e_members)
g. Enabling a greater range of participation by peripheral members, may these be peripheral in terms of geographical location (distant lands), organizational participation (small organizations) or ACM involvement. For better or worse, it levels out the interactional playing field.
There are potential disadvantages to electronic communities as well. Among them:
a. As with any alluring electronic offering (e.g., the Web), an electronic activity or setting may become a time sink for both consumers and supporters. Barry Wellman's corollary to Gresham's Law with respect to chat rooms also applies here: bad discussion drives out good. There appears to be a tendency toward the deterioration or electronic forums over time. It is for this reason that all electronic discussions contemplated by ACM use mechanisms such as moderation or enhanced stimulus to establish and maintain a high quality of discussion.
The easy access of electronic communities and weak moderation may also combine to produce excessive, content-free communication. In the absence of robust moderation, peer review, etc, the electronic community may end up proliferating unsuccessful mutations of ideas.
b. There is also concern for potential loss of privacy amongst both computing professionals and human rights organizations, as was made evident by the debate over including personal information like Social Security numbers in the Lexis/Nexis database. This has been well ]documented in "Personal Information Goes Public" in the November, 1996 issue of Scientific American (http://www.sciam.com/explorations/)
c. Electronic offerings may also dilute the value of proprietary lists and indices - e.g., mailing lists - as electronic community facilities make it ever-easier to communicate by direct, narrowcasting and broadcasting means. This may eventually have a negative financial impact on organizations such as ACM which derive benefit from proprietary lists and databases. This is a volatile area of law which can be expected to evolve over the next decade. One goal of the ACM electronic community center should be tomake relevant legislation and court rulings available to its members and the professional community at large so that these groups may track emerging issues.
d. Some forms of electronic communication lack intensity, and some intense forms lack content. For example, more political rhetoric doesn't necessarily translate into higher-quality political decisions [see Berghel, Digital Politics, CACM, October, 1996 http://www.acm.org/~hlb/col-edit/digital_village/oct-96/dv_10-96.html]. The use of email for good or ill effect has also been observed [see Berghel, Email: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, CACM, April, 1997 http://www.acm.org/~hlb/col-edit/digital_village/apr-97/dv_4-97.html]
e. Not all experiences translate well into the electronic realm. In the absence of multi-sensory immersion, and body language cues, electronic communication can be easily misinterpreted. This phenomenon is so widespread that a new term, flaming, has worked its way into our technological vocabulary. On the other hand, certain types of casual and frank communication and correspondence may be inhibited. An illustration might be the non-private nature of email at the worksite.
Further, not everything within our power is worth doing - this applies to electronic communities most especially because wrong directions may divert scarce resources from important projects which may have a higher yield rate. Beyond asking whether we can do something, we need to ask also whether we should do it and whether we can do it profitably. Of course the contrary question also arises: can an information technology organization survive without offering certain products and services. This is the central concern of publishing houses at the moment.
While detailed recommendations are to be made in the next CCP white paper, there is considerable agreement to the following general recommendations to ACM.
(1) As we are not only empowered by the technology, but also limited by it, it is essential that we have as complete understanding of the technology as possible before we initiate electronic products and services. Fortunately, ACM is well- positioned to draw upon the necessary expertise from its volunteer base. This volunteer base, particularly those with strong backgrounds and credentials in networking, telecommunications and client-server technologies, should be enlisted to provide subsequent direction to ACM electronic community initiatives.
(2) We also recommend that ACM give careful consideration to the ordering of projects on which it embarks. ACM will be most effective if it selects "digital kindling" first - projects that capture a lot of attention and satisfy immediate needs. For example, public newsgroups and chat groups would make poor kindling for they are well-established on the Web and it is unlikely that ACM can provide sufficient added value to make their service distinctive. On the other hand, immersive interactive Web sites may satisfy a unique need. One such project would be a "computer bowl" site on the Web.
(3) ACM should focus all of their their electronic community development on the promotion of a sense of community among its members. An effective ACM electronic community will strike a balance between its professional and technological goods and services on the one hand, and its offering forums for collegial interchange. Both are important, and the electronic community provides unprecedented opportunities for ACM members to maintain contact with distant colleagues. However, we don't foresee a time when the social use of electronic communities (e.g., chats) will become a top priority for ACM.
(4) ACM should promote the concept of virtual scholarship within its electronic community
One way might be to leverage traditional programs and projects in ways which will enable ACM to launch new initiatives, grounded in networking technology, which will seek to understand the dynamics of the electronic communities and their successful deployment. Examples might include formation of Special Interest Groups in this are, establish online video conferences, and so forth. Care must be taken to emphasize the knowledge-building aspect of this service in order to retain the distinctiveness. Care must also be taken to transition toward electronic communities at a planned, purposeful pace because current electronic communities lack the infrastructure to be ideally utilized.
(5) ACM must draw upon member's professional experience to help define future standards for electronic communities. As with network-based activities generally, electronic communities are re-defined continuously. The ACM should draw on its member's expertise to define a "center of gravity" relative to emerging standards in such a way that it will provide active members a coherent migration path to emerging technologies such as electronic communities. ACM should also make available relevant educational materials to support and facilitate this process.
(6) ACM should consider creation of political interest communities to advance the interests of ACM and and its members, and the global computing community of which it is a part, ACM should continue to engage in areas of public policy. One possibility might be to extend the range of programs currently supported by USACM. Another might be to work with other organizations to promote the online availability of government databases and records. Such initiatives might include the support or development of data mining interfaces to facilitate more in-depth analyses. All of this work would be focussed on enhancement of emerging forms of electronic participation to benefit ACM members
Internet-based forms of electronic communication will provide strikingly new forms of political participation in the years and decades to come. The new forms of participation will transform the meaning of membership in voluntary associations such as the ACM.
a. Video conferencing - One form of electronic communication that will play a growing role is video conferencing which will allow distributed meetings to be held with regularity. As bandwidth permits, videotaping a meeting (or recording a videoconference) makes a meeting interactively available on a global basis. Agenda items, or conference presentations, can be edited for effective use of viewer time as well as for efficient distribution.
From such forms of electronic participation come a series of Committee proposals designed to give substance within the ACM to the emerging technical potential:
b. Standards research center - As has been described, many forms of participation are natural enhancements of professional roles. One example is the contribution that ACM members make in the definition and evolution of technical standards. Such standards are, in turn, essential to the strategic business and technical plans of numerous other members. Thus, ACM can make a seminal contribution by creating on online Standards Research Center that can serve as a forum for participants in standards bodies, and through which members will be able to research technical standards and communicate with other members about standards and their associated implementations.
c. Technical report index - Another form of professional participation might be the development of an online Technical Reports Index ranging over the research works maintained by universities and other research institutes. Such an index can assist members in identifying substantial research that provide the basis for technical assessments and professional development.
An ACM Technical Reports Index can add value to generic Internet resources in two ways. First, the ACM would use selection criteria to ensure the quality of the resources, and thus preserve member time and energy. Second, the indexing process can include the types of professional classifications (e.g., Computing Reviews classification taxonomy) and linkages (e.g., within the SIG areas) that will result in more fertile connections.
d. Volunteer classifieds - It is important for a globally dispersed organization such as the ACM to provide clear avenues for member participation in the affairs of the organization. In all organizations there is a natural tendency for those most involved to reach out to those they know, resulting in the creation of an inner circle, however unintentional. At the same time, there are numerous activities that cry out for fresh energy, and unidentified members who would welcome the opportunity to play a role in the organization.
Online communication creates an opportunity to make ACM committee and other volunteer positions known to the membership, and allow heretofore uninvolved membership to make their interests known. The organization will be less ingrown, and receive fresh inputs of energy, and the members will appreciate it's openness. Therefore, ACM Community Center Project is committed to creating an online Volunteer Center that will enable bi-directional communication between ACM committee and project leaders and prospective volunteers. A prototype of the ACM Volunteer Center is being deployed at this writing. The ACM Volunteer hotline (http://www.acm.org/.....) is an interactive facility by means of which volunteer positions may be advertised on the Web, with responses transmitted electronically via a form-based interface.
e. Civic center - It is proposed that the ACM create a Civic Center as part of its more comprehensive electronic community. The Civic Center would be composed of a several more specialized 'rooms' as the focal point of different kinds of communication. The following examples are illustrative and not exhaustive.
i. Global Issues Forum
The ACM is a global organization today, and will be more global in the decades to come. Moreover, a number of the issues of concern to ACM members, scientific freedom, censorship, privacy and encryption policies, for example, manifest themselves globally. The Internet is, of course, unique in its ability to facilitate various modalities of communication on a global scale. An online global issues forum provides a mechanism by which ACM members can explore such issues at creative levels of granularity.
Some of the most important contributions to the global issues forum may be made by contributors who are at risk of reprisal. Accordingly, it is important that the electronic forum provide contributors with the means of retaining anonymity.
ii. Debate and Referenda Rooms
Structured debates are appropriate when there are organizational issues which the ACM wishes to resolve, or policy issues on which members hold widely ranging views. They may also be intellectually stimulating.
Setting up a debate 'room' with structured ground rules, well-posed questions, initial position statements (to seed the subsequent discussions), and high standards of argument coupled with an inclusive policy of participation will define a framework that can serve to lay a foundation, &/or focus the issues facing the ACM.
Further, the ACM may wish to present well-defined issues of policy or organizational structure to its members for a vote. A referenda room provides a location in which the alternatives can be presented with an appropriate amount of depth, and in which the a preliminary discussion can be conducted. When the issue has been will frame, online voting will give every member the opportunity to cast a ballot, and the result will hopefully be dispositive.
iii. Digital Polling Place
Increasingly ACM elections will take place online, initially as an alternative. Online balloting has the usual Internet advantages of global access, user-centricity, easy integration with online background resources of arbitrary depth, and links to other professional and personal Websites, as appropriate.
iv. Digital Cafe's
As electronic community software becomes more prevalent, there will be increased need for short-term, open ended forums for personal networking.
The ACM Webbie Prize competition (http://www.acm.org/webbie) illustrates ACM's successful deployment of "electronic ballot boxes". Since late Fall, 1995, both the nomination and voting procedures have been handled electronically, including the tallying of votes.
f. ACM should attempt to take a leadership role in the evaluation, selection, and in selected cases, utilization of such "electronic community software" as will facilitate the electronic organization of members into constructive groups. This leadership role will have the added benefit of providing an objective industry standard around which ACM members may converge.
g. ACM should encourage formation of article-based discussion for as many of it's publications as it can reasonably support. Each article should be categorized for discussion, and the discussion groups should be monitored by an editor.
h. ACM should organize conferences on scholarly and virtual communities to assess the state of knowledge -- both academic and applied -- in these areas to maintain a leadership position in the areas.
i. ACM should encourage the development of special interest groups (SIGS) to focus on various aspects of electronic community structure and development.
A question to be considered is "How could ACM (or society, generally) measure the ultimate effectiveness of an electronic community?" While these rough guidelines will provide a starting point for finding a solution, they are incomplete as they stand. One point is clear, however. Future electronic communities will have to provide quality content above everything else if they are to have perceived value.
Critical assessment of out electronic community initiatives will require quantitative measures of effectiveness by, e.g., careful monitoring of usage statistics, the results from of form-based user satisfaction surveys. One might measure the degree to which electronic communities further the perceived interests of ACM by monitoring :
I. production of new and purposeful activities,
ii. establishment of new relationships between ACM members (and non-members)
iii. creation of new collaborative projects,
iv. initiation of projects/programs which would not have begun otherwise
v. involvement of previously inactive segments of our membership
vi. production of new membership, and increasing the satisfaction of the existing membership
vii. creation of true location transparency, for example, by removing geographical barriers to intellectual interaction.
While none of these items is individually necessary, an enlarged list might be jointly sufficient. Further investigation of this topic is intended by the CCP committee.
Community Computing Networks (aka Free-Nets, Civic Nets, Public Access Nets) have been set up around the world as a repository of information about the local community and as a point of information exchange between participants. Many of them provide some Internet services free or at low cost. The intention has been that these systems operate at low cost by drawing on volunteers to supply information, help maintain the system, man a help desk, render assistance to users by phone and online, teach classes, and solicit funds from sponsors. Organizing committees exist in many cities to get community systems underway, and there are over two hundred of them in various operational stages. Currently the overwhelming majority are in the United States and Canada [http://duke.usask.ca/~scottp/free.html].
One of the earliest and best known systems is Cleveland Free-Net, founded by Tom Grundner as a medical bulletin board in 1986. It is currently owned and operated by Case Western Reserve University. Grundner later founded an organization called the National Public Telecomputing Networking (NPTN) to foster growth of the movement. It was also to be a kind of PBS of Telecomputing. NPTN has recently collapsed, but not from lack of interest in the community computing concept. On the contrary, interest in the idea is gaining momentum. There is a nascent International Association of Community Networks (IACN) that has been seeded by the Morino Institute [http://www.morino.org] and which shows considerable promise of success. This effort has attracted seasoned practitioners like Steve Snow of Charlotte's Web in Charlotte, NC, and seasoned administrators like Laura Breeden, who headed the U.S. Department of Commerce's NTIA grants program.
Running through most community networks is a strain of idealism and concern for the potential polarization of the world into information-haves and information-have-nots. Community networks are often viewed as a vehicle for promoting a sense of local community in a digitally democratic way. Additional goals beyond the fostering of civic engagement and social connectedness are the furtherance of distance education, and economic development.
Canada has (with respect to its population) a disproportionately high number of civic nets relative to the United States. This may well have to do with the fact that Canadian provincial governments are more in tune with the goals of civic net organizers, and are more likely to render financial assistance. Also true is that the first Canadian Free-Net, the Capital National Free-Net in Ottawa is one of the world's finest, and it has provided leadership and guidance.
RANGE AND VARIANCE
The early Free-Nets generally limited Internet services to e-mail and telnet to libraries and the weather service. Underlying this limitation was concern that there would not be public support or corporate sponsorship if users, especially children, were able to use the systems to retrieve obscene materials. Cleveland, by exception, offered Usenet News, but only for adult users. This caution is still evident in a number of Free-Nets.
Many community systems are simply WWW servers. They avoid the expense of dial-in lines and associated gear, as well as the headaches connected with the legal uncertainties surrounding free speech issues. At the other extreme is the Tallahassee Free-Net (TFN) which started with a wide range of Internet services and which has long since opened the system to full PPP access and free WWW Home pages. Intensive efforts at the outset to educate the Tallahassee public and news media about the benefits of the net seems to have paid off, and a policy under which parents and teachers are assumed to be supervising children's net activities seems to be working well.
THE TALLAHASSEE EXPERIENCE
TFN will serve here as a point of reference in discussing community networking. Now going into its fifth year it is well over the initial euphoria connected with a new undertaking, and it is confronting the realities of operating in the milieu of rapid change brought on by the Internet.
TFN has attracted its share of idealistic volunteers without whom, operations would be an economic impossibility. Its co-founders, although in tune with the desire to assure that the community would not have an "information poor" under class, were driven primarily by the desire to jump start the community into the Information Age, and they saw the Free-Net primarily as a mechanism for building grass roots understanding of the benefits of networking among students, the professions, businessmen, and state government workers. The Free-Net was to be a catalyst! In this respect the undertaking has been quite successful. Some of the successes are listed below.
o A program was initiated by TFN whereby students in university courses were expected to build WWW pages for local arts agencies, environmental groups, social service agencies and civic organizations. This has resulted in a strong showing of such organizations on TFN's WWW server. Now that html is more widely known, school children in grades as low as grade five are engaging in such projects.
o A public private partnership between the K-12 schools, the phone and cable companies, and the Florida State University was mediated by TFN under which the county's schools were hard wired onto the Internet quite early. In addition, TFN has promoted the placement of publicly accessible terminals at such places as the public library, the courts, and community centers.
o As part of the fund raising process, there has been much face to face contact with community leaders, and demonstrations have been arranged for targeted groups such as the banking sector, the hotel and restaurant industry, and state government officials. In these sessions it has been the awareness of the Internet and its role in the coming information revolution that has been the principal focus. Free-Net support has been a by-product.
o City and County government have been induced to come onto the Internet early and have highly developed WWW presences. Leon County's property appraiser's database was the first on the Internet. Tax records and sales prices of all 85,000 pieces of property in the county are accessible (free). A grass roots TFN usership throughout state government has pushed that slow starter into a a winning WWW presence. Most recently one state agency's web site was dubbed the "Best State Government Web Site" by Government Technology magazine.
o TFN currently has over 100 people on its active volunteer roles.
o Equipment manufacturers, in general, have been forthcoming with startup community networks. TFN, in particular, has been very fortunate in obtaining donated equipment. Specifically, IBM donated an RS6000/530 computer. Digital Equipment Corporation donated a 3000 AXP 400 computer, and more recently an Alpha 1000 server class computer. Sun donated a Sparc 10 computer. Unysis donated a 6000/65 H50 Computer. Apple Library of Tomorrow donated four Apple Quadra's for use by the general public at the Leon County Public Library. Apogee Systems donated a Sparc 1 computer. The Florida Lottery donated a used Sun Sparc 10 computer as well as 300 VT320 and VT220 DEC terminals to be used at public access sites and for distribution to local non-profit organizations. Telebit and Xyplex donated network gear.
DIGITAL DEMOCRACY ?
How real are the claims that community nets bring the citizenry in closer touch with their governments, and that they enhance participatory democracy? It's much to soon to tell! Progress in this direction is quite slow. The writer has been queried frequently by journalists who express disappointment to learn that it hasn't all happened full blast in Tallahassee already.
Local government is bringing information online about as fast as they are able, but no more than lip service is paid to the idea of communication in the direction from citizen to government. Underlying this is the fear of elected officials and local government executives that they will be overburdened with correspondence. Use of WWW forms for surveys or for reporting things like sanitation violations, say, to the health department is something that is still in the talking stage.
In the writer's experience there is a general apprehension on the part of the managerial class, whether in government, university, or the non-profits about dealing with feedback. The more forward looking business managers in the area, by contrast, seem more receptive and are eager to automate the compiling and analyzing of information coming off WWW forms and to apply it to their business.
TFN has had some cautious forays into the area of community dialog. It is the electronic arm of a local civic journalism project known as Public Agenda. The project is spearheaded by the local newspaper, the principal TV station, and the two local universities. Public Agenda promotes discussion among citizens with a view to reaching consensus on important local issues. The first Public Agenda session took place in the Florida Legislature's chambers. Others have taken place at churches and various meeting places around town over the last two years.
On four occasions Tallahassee Free-Net suspended its normal operations for a two hour period in favor of a community Internet Relay Chat (IRC) session as part of its participation in the Public Agenda project. All users who logged in were put directly into the IRC. The IRC's are accompanied by considerable pre- and post- publicity in the local press. Public Agenda sessions are then followed up by a professional poll taking firm to gauge consensus.
The first IRC seemed to follow the pattern of the face to face discussions. Participants started talking about what interested them, and then the discussions almost spontaneously split off into five different IRC channels devoted to the special topics - children, jobs, crime, environment, and growth. About 300 people participated in the IRC with the number of concurrent logins being capped at 100. The experiment was generally considered successful.
Subsequent sessions were devoted to children advocacy issues, school financing, and teen pregnancy. Participants included the state's leading children's advocate and the superintendent of schools. Further public agenda sessions are in the works.
The Free-Net also hosts pages for all candidates in local elections, and by special arrangement with the supervisor of elections, provides up-to-the-minute election results during the primary and main elections. Some local broadcasters have been using TFN as souce for their local election coverage.
ECONOMICS OF COMMUNITY COMPUTING
It is safe to say that few, if any, community computing systems are comfortable financially. Most all are operating right at the edge. There does not exist anything comparable to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for community information systems . The large foundations generally have taken no cognizance of the community computing movement as yet, but there are some indications that a corner is being turned here. State departments of education have not been supportive, despite the obvious, albeit informal, educational potential community nets have. In many ways, the Free-Nets suffer because they are such general instruments. Thus, one state department of education was willing to invest $200,000 in a bulletin board for a particular county school system so that parents could communicate with teachers, but were unwilling to consider supporting a Free-Net in a different county, which could accomplish the same thing and more. TheNational Telecommunications Infrastructure Agency (NTIA) has given grant support to a very limited number of civic nets.This is more in the way of setting up demonstrational projects and not a mechanism for regular support. Grantees are generally required to show a plan for achieving sustainablitiy after the grant runs out..
Common sources of support for civic nets are the user base, universities corporate sponsors, particularly computing equipment manufacturers - who donate equipment, small local businesses, and in some cases local government. Library's are frequently involved in civic nets. It is politically easier for a local government to channel support to a community information system through a public library that it already funds than it is to justify supporting a newly created entity.
Volunteerism is a key factor in the economics of community computing. In the case ofTallahassee Free-Net, the service of volunteers is critical. Still, the case for the economic benefitsshould not be overstated. Volunteerism comes with a considerable overhead. Most people, who come forward, are not sufficiently well trained. The cost in training and coordinating by professionals has to be measured against the fact that most volunteers burn out in six months or less. By and large operations are too technical and require too much coordination to be overly dependant on volunteers. The need for paid staff is certainly the principal undercalculated item in planning a community computing system.
Free-Net's are facing formidable obstacles. The early systems opened when it was not possible for individuals to purchase Internet access at any price. Now service in many urban areas has become quite inexpensive, and a large number of Internet service providers (ISP's) are on hand to compete for the business. People, who can afford it, seem quite willing to pay the modest costs for the convenience of getting fewer busy signals on dial-in, and more certainty of being able to contact a well trained human to give advice with technical problems. It is not unlikely that Free-Net's ISP role in the future will be that of "safety net" services for the economically disadvantaged.
One of the early raisons d'etre of community computing has been that it was to be a storehouse of local information. The early systems pre-date distributed data systems like gopher and the web. Tallahassee Free-Net is already witnessing the beginning of disintegration of its local information base, while at the same time that base is growing. Early information suppliers, like local government, state government, hospitals and schools now have thief own WWW servers, and parenthetically, are becoming more conscientious and aggressive about putting up information now that it's on home turf. Still. a large number of smaller information suppliers have put up information on Free-Net within the last year. The Free-Net is also serving as a central indexing source for local information. Just how that will play out as WWW search engines become more and more refined is not clear.
Some see the ultimate role of Free-Nets as the promoters and facilitators of community building activities. This may well be the case. but it is not clear why one would need to have a system beyond a WWW server for this purpose. In this role the emphasis would be more on civic net as an organization and less as a computing system.
The future of the community net movement is faced with uncertainties. It may well prove to be a transient phenomenon. Still, in Tallahassee, Florida, the Free-Netters are quite busy. Free-Net is becoming more and more of a recognized community institution and the role as catalyst/facilitator/generator is still a vital one.