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David Wilcox
View From The UK

David Wilcox, from Britain, has an open brief to ask some tough questions, gather opinions, and look for the real opportunities for international collaboration. Here's his first report.

American enthusiasm for an international association - announced at the opening session - gives a warm feeling to anyone from Europe, who can feel a long way from the front line action on community networking.

My lifeline since attending Ties That Bind has been the rich discussion on the communet mailing list. Yesterday I was part of the group developing ideas for the international association.

But even after today's stimulating keynote speeches I have some fundamental questions. It was some comfort to find other participants had similar questions. Here's a few to start, plus some observations.

What are community networks really for?

I heard a number of answers which focused on helping with community problem solving, collaborative action and personal empowerment.

But if that is the case, why are so many networks Web-based with little or no scope for citizen users to contribute, debate with each other, or take action together.

Is it because Web is easy to use to impress the funders? Is it because people starting networks are more likely to have technical expertise than experience of 'real world' community building?

What are the models?

I picked up three.

  1. Community networks as structures - an organisation, with a Board, volunteers and staff, struggling like any other non profit to keep going once the first grants and enthusiasm goes.

  2. Community networking as a movement which includes any project trying to use the new media for community benefit and personal empowerment. Includes schools, libraries, community computing centres.

  3. Community networkers - brokers who try and help individuals and organisations find information or otherwise use the media to solve problems and aid their development.

My questions: can these different approaches all fit within the same tent? Do community networkers have to have community networks?

Are these useful categories? all? If so, where would people put themselves - in one or all? Which leads to another question....

What do people at the conference have in common?

This year there is less emphasis on the technology - there's more discussion on information publishing, management and mediation. But is there something behind understanding 'how to'?

Doug Schuler's excellent book 'New Community Networks' starts with community, not with technology. He argues that there are six core values for the good, new community:

The challenge is how the new media can help build new communities around these values.

What values do those involved in community networks (ing) share? How far do we have a shared understanding of 'community'? If we don't, how can our use of the technology help build good new communities?

Should community networks try and be sustainable?

The pressing practical question for networks is how to keep going. But should they try? Maybe yes if they have a fundamental role as integrators of other media, or a support system for community networkers.

But in a field which is moving so fast, is there a danger that today's innovative vehicle will be the become the slow moving truck holding up new models tomorrow?

How can community networks avoid becoming - like many too non-profits I know - more concerned about the career paths of their staff and reputations of their Board members than with their service to users?

Does the medium really work so well?

For a month before the conference, some 20 people posted to a listserv formed to develop and promote the idea of an international association. I was privileged to join in.

We created maybe 300K of messages - but despite some good facilitation work we meandered around and didn't reach any firm conclusions. Some people didn't join at all, others dropped out after a couple of postings. It took six hours of face to face yesterday to get the bones of the association agreed.

Did we work better because of the past month on the listserv? Maybe. or are we caught up in a romantic vision of electronic networking which is a long way from the reality - locally, nationally, internationally?

Let's be optimistic - but let's not delude ourselves about the difficulties.

This is an open space - so if you want to contribute, find me and lend a question or a quote, or come to the Netcasting room.

My next themes (unless I find something more interesting) are:

David Wilcox 5/15/96