|Better understanding and use of these empowering tools and networks will both promote a new form of community and can accelerate the natural cycle of social and health change - helping people to move quickly and readily network, organize, educate, or advocate to meet their needs.|
-Ed Madara (1993)
Before computers took center stage, the term "community network" was a sociological concept that described the rich web of communications and relationships in a community. New computer-based "community networks" are a recent innovation that are intended to help revitalize, strengthen, and expand existing people-based community networks much in the same way that previous civic innovations (like public libraries) have helped communities historically.
Currently, community members and activists all over the world are developing these community networks, often in conjunction with other local institutions including colleges and universities, K-12 schools, local governmental agencies, libraries, and nonprofit organizations. There are currently nearly 300 operational systems (with nearly 200 more in development) (Doctor and Ankem, 1995) and the number of registered users exceeds 500,000 people worldwide.
These community networks (sometimes called civic networks, Free-Nets, community computing-centers, or public access networks), some with user populations in the tens of thousands, are intended to advance social goals, such as building economic opportunities in disadvantaged communities. A community network accomplishes these goals by supporting smaller communities within the larger community and by facilitating the exchange of information between individuals and these smaller communities. Another community network objective is to provide electronic "one-stop shopping" for community information and communication, by using discussion forums; question and answer forums; electronic access for government employees; information and access to social services; electronic mail; and in many cases, Internet services, including access to the World Wide Web (WWW). These networks are also beginning to integrate services and information found on existing electronic bulletin board system (BBSs) and on other computer systems.
The most important aspect of community networks, is their immense potential for increasing participation in community affairs, a potential far greater than that offered by traditional media such as newspapers, radio, or television.
Community members interact with community networks in various ways. Community network terminals can be set up at public places like libraries, bus stations, schools, laundromats, community and senior centers, social service agencies, public markets, and shopping malls. Community networks can also be accessible from home via computers and, increasingly, from the Internet. In recent years, activists have also been establishing community computing-centers where people, often in low-income neighborhoods, can become comfortable and adept with computer application and network services.
Community networks are thus far local and independent projects. Many were loosely affiliated with the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN), an umbrella organization that helped establish and sustain community networks - or, in NPTN’s terminology, Free-Nets (now defunct). In general, community-network developers have not explored just what the nature of a stronger or closer relationship between them would mean. Historically, community network systems have had a difficult time financially, but increased public interest and some financial infusions from the government, businesses, and foundations have at least temporarily relieved some of the problems with some of the systems. Even so, very few of these systems have much in the way of paid staff. Whether or not community networks "implode," as Mario Morino of the Morino Institute has warned (1994), this is an important concern that hinges on the question of whether or not community resources can coalesce around the idea of community computer-networks as a permanent institution in the community.
Community networks offer a new type of "public space" with similarities as well as major differences between other public spaces that our society currently offers. Steve Cisler, a senior scientist at the Apple Library forecasts (1993) that: just as electrical systems began to transform urban and small-town America a century ago, community computer networks will do same in the 1990s." Regardless of whether that forecast turns out to be true, community networks offer an important and rare opportunity for communities to develop and manage democratic technology.
(Doug Schuler, excerpt from New Community Networks: Wired for Change)
What are Community Networks?
Further reading about the subject of community networks and their impact on their neighborhoods
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Network Movement home page.
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