Reprinted with permission from Internet World.  
This version differs slightly from the printed version.

Creating Public Space in Cyberspace

The Rise of the New Community Networks

Doug Schuler
206 634-0752

Internet World
December, 1995

If asked to name the fourth largest consumer online service in the world most people would be hard pressed for the answer. Currently weighing in with over 380,000 registered users - right behind CompuServe, America Online, and Prodigy - is the National Public Telecomputing Network (or NPTN), a non-profit corporation that serves as the parent organization for a loose-knit, grassroots alliance that currently links "Free-Net" community computing network services in over 50 locations in the US, Canada, Europe, and the Pacific Rim. When the hundreds of other efforts going by such names as community networks, public access networks, civic networks, community computing centers, telecommunities, and telecottages are included in the total it adds up to what Apple Senior Scientist Steve Cisler calls a "community computing movement."

What is a Community Network?

While NPTN probably represents the most organized of the community networking efforts, with its 50 operational Free- Net systems and 120 organizing committees working to launch their own systems, there are almost as many approaches as there are projects. Even given this wide variety, there is enough overlap that we can offer a common definition. Community networks are an attempt to use computer network technology to address the needs of the community. A major part of that effort is spent making computing facilities available to everybody in a community, especially those without ready access to the technology. Developers often have a strong sense of community responsibility (see, for example, the Principles of the Seattle Community Network) and work with community activists and organizations to ensure that useful information can be found on the system. And although somewhat out of step with recent trends towards commercialization of the Internet, most community network developers insist on the utopian ideal that the services be provided without charge. Cognizant of the fact that the poor have been generally left out of the network arena, developers are actively working to ensure that free public access sites (for example at all Seattle Public - and many other cities as well - Library branches). Other are finding homes for discarded AT and XT class computers and older generation modems for people and organizations that are interested in exploring the on-line world but lack the resources to buy their own equipment. Community networks are not designed to be on-ramps to the Internet, however, as this metaphor implies that the purpose of the system is to help people escape from their local community. While virtually all community network systems do offer access to at least some Internet services (e-mail at a minimum) the focus of a community network is on the local community. To that end it is important to involve local organizations and individuals in a democratic process that guides both the design and the operation of the network.

Some History

The world's first community network system, Community Memory in Berkeley, California, was started in the early 1970's by Efrem Lipkin, Lee Felsenstein, and Ken Colstad to serve as a model for facilitating the free exchange of information to communities around the world. From a variety of public locations including community centers, the Public Library, and Mil'ss Laundromat, participants could read forums for free, contribute their thoughts for a quarter, or start a new forum for a dollar. With this approach, everything that could be found on the system was placed there by a member of the community. The system included forums on " discussion around Peoples' Park," " confessions of programming addicts, " Vietnam Day Committee," " Look before you Join," " " Senior Centers' Lunch Menus," "," "" and ", Grateful Dead information" and many more. One particularly interesting Community Memory project was the "Alameda County War Memorial" instituted by rock musician and anti-war activist Country Joe McDonald (but included volunteers of all political persuasions). The "virtual memorial" included the names of all the people from Alameda County (which includes Berkeley and Oakland) who had died in World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the War in Vietnam. The system allowed people to search through the database and also to add their own messages to the names much as people leave flowers or other mementos at the Vietnam memorial in Washington, DC.

Several interesting projects, including the New York Youth Network (NYYN), Playing to Win (PTW) and Plugged-In (PI), were designed to address issues of youth and poverty. The New York Youth Network started in 1987 working with social service agencies to provide a communications channel through which economically disadvantaged youths could talk candidly about issues facing them including teen pregnancy, gangs, smoking, and aggression in themselves and in their community. NYYN focuses primarily on critical areas in the psychological development of young people such as self-esteem.

Playing to Win, first established by Antonia Stone in the basement of a Harlem housing project in 1981 with 20 Atari 400s provides access to computing technology in low-income communities through a network of community computing centers across the US. Providing a public center in which a wide range of capabilities (now including networking) is available promotes both computing and traditional literacy and economic self-sufficiency in addition to opportunities for community-building and community projects (the facilities allow participants to publish newsletters using desktop publishing software, develop project proposals with word processors, or write budgets using spreadsheet programs). There are now over 50 PTW affiliates in the US, and there are plans to establish a national, self-sustaining, self- governing network of 300-350 centers with support from the National Science Foundation.

On the other side of the country is East Palo Alto, California (not to be confused with its upscale neighbor Palo Alto, home to Stanford University) where Plugged In helps community youth learn videotaping, HTML web page building, and other technical skills that they use to implement community-based projects. Several of these projects are now on their web site (see sidebar) and are based on extremely important and timely topics. "Families in Transition," for example explores how modern circumstances and poverty affect urban immigrant families, while "No on 187" tells a short but powerful story about the kids' opposition to California's Proposition 187 and how, for example, it would deny medical services to undocumented children.

Things were and are also happening in rural areas. In Dillon, Montana (population 4,000) in 1988 ex-dude rancher Frank Odasz was creating the Big Sky Telegraph to help support community development in the rural west and to help reduce the isolation of rural teachers (one of his first jobs was electronically linking 40 rural schools and 12 rural libraries). The goal of the Big Sky Telegraph is to demonstrate "low-cost, low-tech, high-imagination, scaleable networking models" and the system now supports over 5000 mostly rural users. Odasz is now involved with projects in Nebraska, Wyoming and other western states in addition to his work in Montana.

In Santa Monica, California, in the late 1980's, the city government instituted a landmark experiment (with guidance from Ken Philips and Joseph Schmitz) in promoting community- oriented, participatory democracy within their city by establishing the free (to residents) Public Electronic Network (or PEN) system. PEN provides access to city government information including city council agendas, reports, public safety tips and the library's on-line catalog and to government services such as granting permits or registering petty thefts. There are conversational venues as well. Citizens can send e-mail to public officials and city servants and to each other. They can also participate in electronic conferences that cover a wide variety of local civic issues. PEN has also served as an important case study for understanding issues of electronic democracy as they play out in the real world. Some important cautionary tales have emerged from this pioneering system as it was subjected to everyday use from a variety of Santa Monicans.

Tom Grundner's groundbreaking work on the "St. Silicon's Hospital" medical BBS in 1986 led to the creation of the Cleveland Free-Net (which now has over 40,000 registered users and over 16,000 logins per day) and, ultimately NPTN, the organization devoted to the creation of Free-Net systems worldwide. In the Cleveland Free-Net "electronic city" (see sidebar) 100s of community organizations including Alcoholics Anonymous/Al-Anon, Habitat for Humanity, the Handicap Center, the Lesbian/Gay Community Service Center, United Way Services, the Scouting Center, the Museum of Natural History, the Alzheimer's Disease Support Center, the Center for International Health, the Pediatric Information Resource Center, Bioethics Network of Ohio, Cleveland Children's Museum, and the Cleveland Institute of Music assume responsibility for maintaining the information in their own area. Cleveland Free-Net has an innovative question and answer forum that is shared with Heartland Free-Net (in Peoria, Illinois) and others. On the Cleveland system, for example, there is a question and answer forum on AIDS and HIV issues that is conducted by a registered nurse.


The first generation of community network developers described in the section above have now been joined by thousands of others. What are developers trying to accomplish with these systems? There is no simple answer. Many reasons have been advanced: rebuilding civil society, securing access to information to disadvantaged or disabled people, community economic development, improving access to health care and health care information, providing forums for minority and alternative voices, improving communication among civic groups, and improving literacy were all mentioned by community network developers at the first "Ties that Bind" community networking conference in 1994 sponsored by Apple Corporation and the Morino Institute. How well they'll fare at reaching these goals will depend on several factors, many of which are beyond their control.

Accompanying these idealistic visions of community network developers is the widespread perception among the general population that community and civic values are declining. Although difficult to quantify in general, this perception (at least for the US) is supported by empirical evidence. Harvard University professor Robert Putnam cites falling memberships in almost all civic associations in the US over the last 30 years from PTA, church groups, and labor unions, to the League of Women Voters, the Red Cross, and political party identification.

Many people believe that computers and computer networking may have the potential to provide some relief to the increasing - and alarming - disparity between the economic haves and have nots in the US and in the rest of the world. Ironically, the "computer revolution" has probably helped to exacerbate this problem by providing people of the more privileged classes with tools that helped them to communicate more rapidly with each other and access information more rapidly.

Computer networks, unlike traditional media, provide the opportunity for many-to-many communication, opening up immense possibilities for increased political participation for all people. This potential comes at a time when the democratic process is in danger of becoming dominated by the strong economic interests, including the hordes of lobbyists that encircle Washington, DC, fantastically expensive political campaigns (the loser in the California senate race spent 30 million dollars!), and the concentration of media ownership that Berkeley journalism professor Ben Bagdikian calls the "media monopoly."

Community Services

Communities can be thought of as living systems. And just as a human body has a skeletal system, circulatory system, and other systems that sustain its life, a community has several "systems" or "core values" that help sustain its life. These six systems or core values - culture and conviviality, education, strong democracy, health and social welfare, economic equity and opportunity, and information and communication - are essential to the life of the community. Community information is critical to community networks and information that supports the core values is especially valuable. Although the possibilities are nearly endless, some examples include information on arts and crafts fairs and classes, writing workshops, local dance and theater events, (culture and conviviality) homework hotlines, "Ask Mr. Science" forums, parent's forums, on-line curricula and lesson plans (education) e-mail to local government agencies, city council agenda and public meeting schedules, forums on local issues, legal documents on-line (strong democracy) social services information, environmental information (health and social welfare) job listings, forums for unemployed workers (economic equity and opportunity) library catalogs on-line, ethnic and alternative newspapers, letters to the editors of newspapers, and civic journalism projects (information and communication).

Hardware and Software

The rapidly falling prices of computer and communications technology and the increasing availability and decreasing cost of accessing the Internet have made community networks feasible and community networks now are running on virtually any platform from Macintoshes and PC clones to UNIX workstations. The important thing is that the system be able to handle lots of simultaneous users (the Cleveland Free-Net (the world's largest) has over 16,000 users on a given day and over 400 simultaneous users). The urban Free-Nets usually use UNIX platforms and the Free-Port software, a text-only, menu based system that was developed at Case Western, while rural Free-Nets often use the FirstClass BBS system (from SoftArc in Markham, Ontario, Canada) in their implementation. Although Free-Port supports other organizational approaches most Free-Nets (and some commercial systems as well) use the city metaphor for storing and navigating to information. Thus finding information about government regulations would be found in the government center or "city hall", educational information would be found in the "schoolhouse."

In general community networks provide services like those found on other network systems. Access to Internet e-mail is an important capability and many community networks provide other Internet services such as ftp, telnet, or gopher as well. Although many community networks provide a WWW interface to the world it is more problematic to provide graphical web browsing capabilities to users that are logged on to the community network system. For that reason, Lynx, the text-based web browser is sometimes offered as an interface for browsing the local system that can also be used to access other resources on the Internet.

The Organization of Community Networks

Community networks currently rely on volunteers for some or all of the labor that's needed to run them. The volunteers are usually organized into committees such as hardware/software, staff and facilities, ways and means, outreach, and services. Since volunteers will provide the central foundation for the community network effort in the foreseeable future, it is essential to adopt approaches that work well with a volunteer base.

Community networks are organized in a variety of ways and in association with a wide variety of strategic partners. Many projects are run by independent, non-profit organizations while others are under the auspices of another organization, like a university, a library, or a government agency. Although I don't know of any for-profit community networks, it is possible, though unlikely, for a commercial system to be developed that meets community needs as effectively as a non-profit community network.

Strategic alliances with other institutions may be necessary for long term survivability of community networks and current relationships offer some hints of what shape these future relationships might take. Community networks could be aligned with any institution with shared objectives including community access television centers, public television or radio stations, educational institutions, government institutions, libraries, or social service agencies. Colleges and universities make strong candidates for possible alliances Case-Western Reserve University in Cleveland, for example, has been a strong proponent of the Cleveland Free- Net since its inception. While other universities in the US and around the world have also supported community networking efforts with donated staff, computer facilities, or office space, there seems to be some reluctance within higher education to get involved in community work. Government or library alliances both also intriguing if problematic possibilities. Government has clear responsibilities in this area - as nations rely more on electronic communication it will be essential to ensure equitable access to the "infrastructure of democracy." Libraries, also, make strong candidates due to their commitment to free public access and freedom of speech. Unfortunately libraries are under continual pressure to reduce their expenditures and they might be expected to reduce other services to pay for community networks - robbing Peter to pay Paul! At any rate it is essential that the community network organization be largely independent of any organization it's affiliated with. It is also important to maintain high levels of unpaid volunteer involvement - even while "professionalizing" some aspects of the operation with paid employees. This will help ensure that costs are kept low and that community involvement is kept high.

Funding for Community Networks

Community networks need funding for hardware, modems, Internet connections and telephone lines. If community networks are going to be permanent community institutions like public libraries, they will also need funding for ongoing development, office facilities, and staffing. Funding thus far has been sporadic. Computer companies including Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Sun, and Digital, among others and some telephone companies, including US West and AT&T, have made substantial contributions, while there has also been some foundation support. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), through their "Community Wide Education and Information Services" (CWEIS) program have supported a variety of interesting projects involving CPB radio and television affiliates. The National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA) of the US Department of Commerce helped fund nearly 100 projects in the first year of its Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP) but was nearly killed in its second year by congress.

Developers have been creative in finding ways of money. In Seattle, the University Science Shop and the Red Hook Brewery (and others) have agreed to pay for one telephone line for a year and others are being sought. If community networks are going to become a community resource, they ultimately will need a more reliable form of funding, however. Many possibilities are being discussed including providing some fees at a cost. While this may sound reasonable, there are many cautions both philosophical and immediately practical. In a democratic society, we take it for granted that many services are "free" at least we don't pay for them directly when we use them. Police and fire protection fall under this category as well as public parks, schools, and libraries. Additionally it's not clear that the systems could survive based on fees alone. After all, community networks generally are interested in helping all people in the community and the poor (who generally aren't computer users) have little money with which to support the systems. Although far from a representative view, I believe that public funding sources be it based on taxes or revenues derived similarly to the way that public access television stations are now funded will be necessary. Whether we as communities or as nations make that commitment is an open question.

Challenges Ahead

At the 1994 Ties that Bind Community Networking conference sponsored by Apple Computer and the Morino Institute, Mario Morino asked the question, "Are community networks part of a social phenomenon that is destined to stall or implode . . . or do they represent a vibrant force, capable of building on the knowledge they have accumulated, adapting to a rapidly changing world and community needs, and ultimately achieving positive, lasting social change in their communities?" Although community network development is surging and systems are operational or planned worldwide there are any number of difficult challenges ahead, including technical as well as social, political, and economic ones.

The user interfaces for community networks need improvement. They need to be powerful yet easy to use. Community network developers face a substantial challenge in this area because many users want the more sophisticated, graphically oriented displays but text-only is the "lowest common denominator" used on the terminals of the less economically advantaged. As Steve Cisler, senior scientist at Apple and community networking advocate puts it, "How can you keep them on VT100 once they've seen Mosaic?" In addition to software issues, there are hardware and infrastructure issues. What changes would be necessary if as many people in a community use their community network as use telephones or televisions? And what delivery channels might be useful for community networks in the future? Cable? Wireless?

It is important to realize that current on-line systems offer very little for the economically disadvantaged. It will be necessary to provide services that are genuinely useful for people who aren't being served. Beyond that, it will be necessary to turn talk into action and help develop projects that help empower poor communities. Sometimes we forget that talk is, after all, cheap, and talk alone will not address the problems that are ailing communities.

There are also some serious threats to community networks, including legislative attempts to promote "decency" in cyberspace. Many of these proposals (the Exon bill, for example) would levy hefty fines against providers (the community networks, in this case) if anything that the community found "indecent" was posted on the system. This bill would put community network developers in the uncomfortable and impossible position of having to act as full-time censors on the system.

Needless to say, the major focus of network development, both financially and from a media standpoint, is on commercialization and privatization of networked services. Increasingly, large corporate interests are attempting to frame our view of what telecommunications technology and services of the future ought to look. Recently a large number of public-interest, social service, and public sector groups have convened a Telecommunications Policy Roundtable (TPR) to help fight this trend, and other regional and municipal groups (like TPR-New England and others in Chicago, New York, Seattle, and other places) have also sprung up. Is it time for community developers to work together more actively? And if they do, what issues will they address?

The Future of Public Computing

The ultimate challenge is to cultivate broad support in order to institutionalize community networks in a suitable way. It is important for supporters of public space in cyberspace to work now on many levels - from community education and community network development to policy development and political action to ensure that the developing "National Information Infrastructure" (NII) actually supports community needs. As technology scholar Langdon Winner explains, "Because choices tend to become strongly fixed in material equipment, economic investment, and social habit, the original flexibility vanishes for all practical purposes once the initial commitments are made." He then says that, "The same careful attention one would give to the rules, roles, and relationships of politics must also be given to such things as the building of highways, the creation of television networks, and the tailoring of seemingly insignificant features on new machines," which seems particularly appropriate in relation to Community computer networks.

Tom Grundner of the National Public Telecommunications Network likens free public computing to free public libraries, "I can't envision a 21st century without free public computing." Free public computing is a visionary concept befitting a caring and democratic country. Community networks could become a cornerstone of that vision but that will only happen if people work to make it happen.

Access to community networks and organizations.

About the author: Doug Schuler has studied and written about democratic development and use of technology for many years. He is currently chair of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) and a member of the Seattle Community Network (SCN) board. His book on community networks, "New Community Networks: Wired for Change" will be available in early 1996 by Addison-Wesley. The book's web pages will be available through

Return/go to SCN home page.