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David Wilcox
View from the UK, Part 2

May 16, 1996

I got an answer the to leadership and Foundations question over lunch on the first day, from a Foundation staff member who had better remain anonymous.

He told me: "The problem is that people up the Foundation hierarchy just don't understand the technology. If the networkers want them to understand, they are going to have to offer them some training. There is a big communication gap."

Across the table a discussion starting around the idea of civic journalism, and the role community networks can play.

I heard: "The problem is that traditional journalists don't understand what all this is about. They are frightened that we are talking about citizen control of the media - rather than citizen participation. There is a communication problem."

In another corner were some researchers from a big teleco, who were personally sympathetic to community networking. Unfortunately their bosses had been spouting off about networking in terms which implied the main purpose was to create fat pipes to carry entertainment to the customers, with small pipes the other way. "They just don't get what this is all about. There is a communications problem."

What was I hearing? Three stories about lack of communication in a conference all about communication. What are the community networkers doing about this? Where is the breakout room where these people can come together?

Will bridging these communication gaps be one of the first tasks of the new association? If so, it sounds as if it will have to be done using traditional means of face to face, with plenty of time to build trust and understanding.

My first contributor to the open space is Lisa Kimball, who works for the for-profit Metasystems Design Group, and was also the facilitator on the listserv discussing the international association.

She gladly took my Powerbook and contributed: "The distinction between non-profit and for-profit enterprise is no longer useful for us. The issue of sustainability which is on everyone's lips this year is an indicator that there is a realization that we need to have effective feedback systems for our work if it is to survive and thrive. The grant system does not provide this kind of feedback - all the reward is for writing a successful grant and there is very little if any reward - and no checks and balances - related to actually doing the WORK. In some way, it's essential for the beneficiaries of community networks to support them if they have any future ...whether this support is in the form of direct dollars or some other creative economic exchange.

"There can be great synergy between f-t-f and on-line processes. While it's true that few listserv groups end up making decisions, meetings of groups who have had the advantage of exchanging ideas on-line can be much more effective. People have developed a level of trust plus they have less need to use up valuable f-t-f air time because they have already had a chance to say a lot of what they need to say.

"One of the things we need to get smarter about is how alternative on-line technologies can support social processes of various types for various purposes. Just as we know that work group meetings work better around a round table than when everyone is seated in an auditorium facing a stage, the listserv isnŐt the best structure for focused work - there are alternatives."

During the afternoon sessions I picked up a recurrent theme: "Computers do not a community make" - or put another way:

"The community has got to be there to build a community network. Toys are toys - they don't create community."

And a nice quote from Alice in Wonderland, summarized as the Cheshire cat telling Alice "If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there."

Seneca told the Romans something similar a little earlier: "If one does not know to which port one is steering, no wind is favorable."

Maybe there's not much that's really new.