Community Networking:
Leveraging the Public Good Electronically!

by Ron Bender

Community networking is an idea that has caught the global imagination. Communities worldwide are creating telecottages, televillages, teleservice centers, community technology skills centers and more. In the US alone, there are more than 150 community networks and nearly 3,000 community web sites. And the numbers are increasing every day.

What is a community network?

It's people coming together electronically to make good things happen!

Community networking is fundamentally about people, not technologies. It is about caring about the needs of others, and the giving of ourselves to support our local communities.

The Internet's social potential is to link people together to empower them on many levels. The former Congressional Office of Technology Assessment reports "The diversity of innovative applications required to create a successful national information infrastructue can only come from the citizens themselves."

A true sense of community is now, as it always has been, the sum of what we give to each other in time, consideration, service and good humor. Community networking in the past has involved face-to-face meetings, chance encounters, and various technologies that aided our sharing: the newspaper, radio, TV and the telephone. Today, additional means of sharing, in the form of modern telecommunications technology, help us continue to build our communities in even more powerful ways.

Community Networking Models

A community World Wide Web homepage on the Internet allows current information to become easily available from the home with no more than the pointing and clicking of a mouse. The same information can be as easily available worldwide, too!

Text-based electronic bulletin boards have been available for a decade, allowing convenient ongoing discussions online. Such systems may be accessible only to registered community members locally, or open to anyone via the Internet. Such systems may be dedicated to a geographical community, or to a "community of interest" such as students studying Shakespeare. New forms of community networks are continually evolving.

Web-based online discussions allow combining the interactivity of electronic bulletin boards with the image-based easy interface of the World Wide Web. Web systems that are accessible only by the community are called Intranets, similar in concept to non-Internet electronic bulletin boards.

These types of "Inner-Net" community networks bring neighbors closer together electronically to engage in public problem solving and other community support activities. Connecting multiple community networks together through the Internet allows the sharing of the best ideas and information; creating an online "community of communities."

Before long, we're likely to have wall-sized touch screens that will allow us to "be anywhere visually and virtually." New methods of connecting people will be lead by the innovations of citizens, in partnership with corporations and governments, in ways we can't yet even imagine.

"Value-Pull," Not "Tech-Push."

Our common sense will determine what works best for the good of our families and our communities. We need to gather the best information possible for solving our local problems. A wide array of resources need to be matched with unmet needs. Via the Internet, we can have a direct tap on the world's knowledge base and the innovations of others.

Putting People before Technology

One growing problem we all face is the lack of time to meet face-to-face. We need new ways of keeping in touch, conveniently. Internet electronic mail and electronic community networks allow us greater flexibility and convenience in keeping in touch and finding the information we need. One-by-one, we're showing each other how to use these new community-building tools. It has always been through the trust in another that we're able to build friendships, the building blocks of any strong community.

The one-to-one relationship is the basis of community building.

Community networking allows sharing ideas anytime, anywhere. Communities will need to work together on an ongoing basis to continue to develop a joint vision for the optimal effectiveness of networking as the technologies continue to improve. Our shared vision of the benefits of community networking will grow as we each gain more personal hands-on experience.

Will Rogers once said: "We're all ignorant, only on different topics." Each of us can now be both learner and teacher all the time; learning from the world's resources and reflecting globally the best of ourselves. Our individual abilities to become all we can be has been increased dramatically by the availability of self-directed learning opportunities via the Internet. We also find we now can help others learn anywhere, anytime; by combining our caring with our connectivity.

K-100

Lifelong learning is an essential survival skill for the 1990s and beyond. Ongoing learning from the home greatly extends the learning opportunities for kids as well as adults. School networking and community networking are merging around the theme of K-100 lifelong learning, but in a more enjoyable familial context than the traditional educational system. Since students spend only 19 percent of their time in school, this opens up 81 percent more potential time for learning. Many students find the self-directed interactive features of telecomputing more motivating than passively watching television!

There are successive levels of self-empowerment:

  • First is the ability to search globally for specific information and literally teach yourself whatever you'd like to know.

  • Second is the ability to create a social community of information sharing contacts, both locally and globally.

  • Third is the ability to self-publish world-wide for both entrepreneurial purposes, and to interact with and teach others as your part of creating positive world change.

Community empowerment starts with individual empowerment

As people become more able to demonstrate a positive impact for themselves and their families, they become increasingly able to benefit their local communities. Eventually, people begin to make an impact on a worldwide basis, as is becoming increasingly common.

For example, Gleason Sackmann, a high school science teacher in North Dakota, found he could teach himself about the Internet through resources others had made available online. The more Gleason learned, the more he began to share with others online, first locally, then regionally when he was hired to help run the state network, "SENDIT."

Today, Gleason hosts his own discussion conference globally called the Internet Scout Report at http://scout.cs.wisc.edu/scout/report/index.html with over 11,000 subscribers, as well as his own homepage where he shares the best information he can find from his extensive Internet explorations. As a result of Gleason's self-publishing generosity, he is now world famous and touches thousands of lives on a daily basis, from his network connection via his home basement office in North Dakota.

Personal satisfaction from extending your positive impact on your family's future, as well as your community's future, is inherent in the new technologies. But it will take time for many of us to become comfortable with these new ways of leveraging the public good electronically. In addition to being strapped for time, we are already suffering from information overload.

When technology doesn't work right, we need to get help quickly. We need new ways of learning how to keep up. We are finding new reasons to need each other; to support each other's continuous learning, and to make it an enjoyable, exciting community-oriented process.

Citizen Roles

A community depends on citizens contributing on their individual strengths to achieve common goals. Community networks give individuals increased ability to help others in the following ways:

Infoscout
Bringing the world's best knowledge home to post for easy community access

 

Telementor
Helping citizens with online learning with the convenience of home access

 

Reference Cybrarian
Guiding citizens in finding specific information from the global Internet

 

Town Crier
Communicating to citizens the information they need to know

 

Discussion Leaders
Leading online public problem solving discussions

Think Globally, Act Locally

Though community networking is primarily about local communications, the global Internet can play an important role:

The World Wide Web (WWW)

The WWW provides any individual, business, or organization the ability to self-publish worldwide, and to gather the best information from other sites for reposting locally. The diversity of citizen-created innovations is already testimony to the citizen empowerment potential of the web. With the ability of citizens to learn from each others' innovations, we all grow stronger, together!

New Information Searching Capabilities

The Internet allows easy access to vast amounts of highly specific information, with as little effort as typing in a few words related to the information you seek. These new "search engines" are as powerful as they are easy-to-use!

Internet Electronic Mail

E-mail provides near instant delivery of text correspondence worldwide. Groupwork in a distributed, connected, knowledge economy will require that we know how to work with others online efficiently.

Reuniting the Generations

Because of the increasing and accelerating change and innovation, we need to learn to strengthen our ability to imagine new ways of doing things; better ways. Young people today are comfortable with the latest technology; perhaps because it allows them to learn without limitations and provides a new means of exercising their imaginations.

Young people are invaluable as community trainers and technical support resources, not only because of their technical talents and imaginations, but because they have the time, which is in short supply these days. Our youth are a perfect match with the wisdom of the older generations. Older people have an enormous contribution to make, particularly in partnership with our youth!

Schools are finding networking allows students to use the community and community members as learning resources, and communities are finding that schools can provide training and expertise, and will often open up their computer labs for community members during the evenings.

Community networking, creating a new venue for family home learning and home-based businesses, is allowing us to return to a homelife and community lifestyle similar to the agricultural age where communities once worked and learned together. What can you do to help, you ask?

Support Your Local Champions!

If your community doesn't yet have a community network, or a community training center, here's a story with some tips on planning one:

Ken and Nellie Bandelier, both retired teachers, have a vision for their community: Dillon, Montana, population 4,000. After being diagnosed with prostate cancer, Ken joined an Internet support group for cancer patients. When he went in for surgery, he had 70 letters of support and encouragement from new friends found through networking. Ken's doing fine now, and he and Nellie have developed a vision for creating a Dillon-Net community network to allow Dillonites to support and encourage each other, much like what Ken and Nellie experienced.

Nellie's Internet Notes

Ken and Nellie have convened a Dillon-Net planning committee. To share their vision, Nellie writes a weekly column for the Dillon Tribune called "Nellie's Internet Notes." They received a computer and modem donated by United Way, and a donated office through a local business. Five days a week Ken and Nellie offer free hands-on Internet-awareness training for the community. They are both instrumental in the new "Beaverhead (County) Computer Users Group," or "BUG" for short. Monthly demonstrations showcase for the community the benefits of computers and networking.

Their greatest challenge is raising community awareness regarding the benefits of community networking to secure the financial support for Dillon-Net. "Public Interest Networking" is not yet a familiar concept. Local leaders are focused on budget problems, not technology. Ken and Nellie make a point of regularly meeting with local leaders to discuss the viability of community networking.

Expectations rise with experience, and Ken and Nellie hope to help community leaders gain hands-on experience with what other communities have found to work. Since many leaders are intimidated by computers, patience and perseverance are required. Videos, articles, and exploring other community networks are additional ways to build a vision of local "real benefits for real people."

The competitiveness required for success in the industrial age is being replaced by the ability to collaborate online as the key for success in the information age.

We're ultimately one human family, joined in a war against ignorance. This war will be fought with gentle spirits teaching a better way; moms, dads and kids, working with our electronic elders, sharing encouragement in support of the ongoing learning and empowerment of each other, as we all come to recognize we need to work together to "do what needs to be done." Are you prepared to do your part?

Citizens, through use of these new community-building tools, can be effective global philanthropists, generously sharing their time and knowledge. Caring and connectivity must come together if we're to meet today's great challenges.

Individually, we each share the challenge of helping our communities create grand collaborations of purpose and passion, and we're limited only by our imaginations.

Make the Choice to Take Action

  • Take the time to develop your own leadership potential.

  • Find someone to help you get started, and then find someone you can help begin...their own empowerment.

As we each learn to empower ourselves with collaborative skills, may we empower others. As we learn to be all we can be, may we bring people together to make good things happen for the people in our communities.