Patrick Finn

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The Human Factor in Community Networking

Patrick J. Finn

In the late 1800s Taos was discovered as an art colony by two artist when they encountered a technological breakdown...their wagon wheel broke north of Taos. Shouldering the wheel, Ernest Blumenschein walked the twenty miles into town and began an adventure that continues here today.

Likewise, we are on a adventure of discovery often fraught with broken wagon wheels. Community networking is more a social phenomena than a technological one. It is important to remember this as we explore and shape the future of our individual communities.

The technology can be enticing and at times elusive, but what remains constant will be the people. The human factor of building community is far more difficult than the wire and stone that comprise the physical electronic network. We are faced with all the same social issues people have dealt with for generations. Every human virtue is needed in building community...compassion, understanding, and forgiveness, for starters.

Social technology is a great teacher and community technology even greater. With it we have the opportunity to place ourselves on the front line to learn, grow, and experience what it means to bring people together. There is no greater challenge.

What is a community network?

Before I attempt to answer that question, I would like to share a quick story. I had been bargaining with our local plumber on the cost of installing an air conditioner in what we call the Smart Room where the central server and modems are located. We were negotiating a deal to trade for a PPP account for part of the installation costs. I have known the plumber since I arrived in Taos 14 years ago, so we were playing hardball with a smile. We finally reached an agreement and complimented each other on what good horse traders we were.

After I got off the phone I asked myself, is this community networking - trading PPP accounts for air conditioning? The only answer is YES! To start a community network you only need to be a lawyer, a plumber, a computer technician, a bookkeeper, a marketing executive, an accountant, a politician, a fund-raiser, an administrator, a community developer, a therapist, a teacher..... and if you are not, you better know at least two of each. The most important one is the therapist. People have to be nuts to start a community network. I know, we did and we are.

I don't mean to discourage you. But since this conference and these proceedings deals with the practical issues of starting and maintaining a community network I thought you should know up front the many challenges we face.

Really, it has been one of the most rewarding and challenging undertakings in my life. And as you've guessed a lot of hard work. Now to try and answer that question, what is a community network? Its not easy, but here is a starting point.....

A Community Network (CN) is an association that serves the communications and/or information needs of a group of people who have a common interest via online technology.

There are many variables that come into play once you begin to look at how to deliver this service at the community level. Some of those include: Organizational Structure, Technology, Local Politics, Audience, Leadership, Access, Training, Funding, Services Offered, Community Outreach, Partnerships, Staffing, Volunteer Management, Cultural Issues, Marketing, and Sustainability.

Who should start a community network?

Anyone can start a community network. It is important to note that it takes a deep commitment to your community. Community networks have been started by teachers, librarians, community developers, and concerned citizens.

In the past there were only a few models to choose from. Today there are many. That is what makes it so difficult to define a community network. However, regardless of its form, it will take cooperation and support from the community being served to make it successful. Unless the people of the community believe in what you are doing you will have a difficult time starting and sustaining the network.

How to start and maintain a community network?

That is the reason for this conference and these proceedings. There is not one formula that will work for every community. Each community is unique. However, the lessons learned by others will benefit both those just starting out and those already in process.

What is the challenge of community networking?

The greatest challenge for community network is providing quality services and training to maintain a competitive edge and to define ways to sustain the network once it is started. Throughout the conference and these papers these issues are explored. Community networking is still young, but in the high speed, heady environment of the Internet it will be necessary to meet this challenge head on, combining our resources to the greatest advantage for all community networks worldwide.

Patrick J. Finn, Managing Director and Co-Founder
La Plaza Telecommunity Foundation
224 Cruz Alta Road, Suite E
Taos, NM 87571
(505) 758-1836