Developing and Sustaining Community Networks
Computer Professionals for
Seattle Community Network
2202 N. 41st St.
Seattle, Washington 98103
"...even the poorest in social relationships is a member in
a chain of social contacts which stretches to the world's end."
- Robert MacIver
This is the outline for a "Developing and Sustaining Community
Networks" workshop conducted at the U.S. Department of Housing and
Urban Development (HUD) "Neighborhood Networks" Western regional
conference held in Seattle, Washington on July 15 - 17, 1996. This workshop
is an outgrowth of a previous workshop developed by Aki Namioka and me
and presented at the 1994 CPSR annual meeting held in San Diego, California.
The workshop is divided into six topics and can be conducted in various
ways. For larger groups each topic is presented by one or more convenors
and is followed by a discussion on that topic. Depending on the size of
the group and the time allotted for the workshop, the attendees can also
break up into smaller discussion groups, and present their findings to
the larger group after their discussion.
The structure of the workshop is reflected in the sections below. Each
topic is discussed briefly and is followed by a list of pertinent issues
and questions, some of which are linked to other pages. Since each community
is unique, each community network will be different. For this reason I
did not (and could not) provide definitive answers to the questions. The
topics are followed by a relatively small resource section. This is because
I didn't want to duplicate the information that is readily available by
following those links or by joining the listserv.
I have made this workshop outline is available on the World Wide Web.
Please feel free to use the material in conducting workshops or in other
ways. I welcome your comments, suggestions, questions, and concerns.
Fueled by rapidly diminishing computing costs and a groundswell of grassroots
and organizational enthusiasm, creativity, and hard work, community networks
are both a new type of computer application and a new type of social institution.
A community network is a computer network system that is developed for
use by the local geographical community. They provide a variety of services
for the community using a variety of computer capabilities such as electronic
forums (or newsgroups), e-mail, and World Wide Web access. Often, but not
always, access to the community network is free, for the same reasons that
society provides free public libraries, fire and police protection, and
public schools. Ideally the community network is run by the community --
not solely by an institution or a small group of people.
After pioneering work in Berkeley, California (Community Memory), Dillon,
Montana (Big Sky Telegraph), New York, New York (New York Youth Network),
Santa Monica, California (PEN), and Cleveland, Ohio (Cleveland Free-Net),
the number of community networks has grown to approximately 300 sites with
over 200 more in development. Systems operate in the U.S., Canada, Italy,
Finland, Germany, and other locations around the world. Currently sites
are planned in South America and Asia and community networking activists
are currently discussing the idea of launching an International Association
of Community Networking (IACN).
People in many communities are interested in creating community networks
without considering what it is that they hope to accomplish. Others have
a good idea of what they would like to accomplish but no underlying foundation
that will help others share the vision and keep the project focused on
these goals over the long run.
Issues and Questions
- Why do you want to develop a community network?
- What specific goals do you (and others) have for your community network?
- What principles do you want to develop that can help provide vision
and direction? (E.g, the SCN
- What do you hope to accomplish by developing a community network?
- Why formalize the mission, motivation, or principles?
- How will you evaluate and assess programs that use the system?
- What goals or objectives are nearly universally shared and which ones
There are a nearly limitless number of services that the community network
could provide. It is these services -- and the activities in the community
that they help engender -- that will determine the success or failure of
the community network.
Most (if not all) of these services can be said to support one or more
of the six community "core values." The core values and some
"core services" are listed below.
Core Services for a Community Network
Conviviality and Culture
- Forums for ethnic, religious, neighborhood interest groups
- Community Histories and Lore
- Recreation and parks information
- Arts events
- Community calendar
- On-line homework help
- Forums for educators, students, and parents
- Q&A on major topics
- Distributed projects
- Pen pals
- On-line reading lists and syllabi for self-paced education
- How to contact elected officials
- E-mail to elected officials
- E-mail to government agencies
- Forums on major issues
- On-line versions of legislation, regulations, and other government
- Community action campaigns
Health and Well-Being
- Q&A on medical information
- Information on environmental hazards in the community
- Community policing information
- Tobacco and alcohol education
- Access to health-care information
- Self-help forums
Economic Equity, Opportunity, and Sustainability
- Want ads
- Job listings
- Labor news
- Ethical investing
- Community-development projects
- Unemployed, laid-off, and striking worker discussion forums
Information and Communication
- Access to alternative news and opinion
- Media literacy campaigns
- E-mail to all Internet addresses
- Cooperation with community radio, etc.
- Access to library information and services
- Access to on-line databases
- On-line "Quick Information"
- Access to on-line periodicals, wire services
Working with community organizations and individual information providers
is a task that takes coordination, training, and patience. Developing on-line
services for a community network is truly a grass-roots effort that is
immensely rewarding and time-consuming at the same time.
Issues and Questions
- What and how will community groups be approached?
- Who will work with them?
- What kind of training will be provided? Who will do the training?
- Who will coordinate the structuring of the information, etc.?
- What kind of access and software will be available to help information
- Should the project provide mentors that will make sure a process is
- How should the user interface organize and present the services on
- Calendar, survey, and voting software are often mentioned as desirable
community networks software. What issues are involved in these systems
and what other capabilities might be needed in these systems?
- What is the relationship between on-line services and the community
- What is the relationship between on-line services and actual community
projects and services?
- What new types of software will be needed in the future to support
community programs, discussion, and decision-making?
Policies are the rules that guide the operation of the community network
organization, the limits of acceptable behavior on the part of users, and
the procedures for resolving problems between users of the system. In addition
to the above mentioned internal policies there are external policies,
imposed from the outside, that may be relevant to community networks. Unfortunately
many community network developers often treat these external policies as
being entirely outside their control, thus granting increased power and
influence to other organizations and interest groups.
Issues and Questions
- Sample policy document
(from SCN [http://www.scn.org/scnpolicy.html] in this case). .
- How does Internet pricing and taxation affect the community network?
- What government policies affect community networking and what should
we do to know about them and influence them?
- What types of telecommunications (or, in general, information) activism
are there and how should we be pursuing and advocating them?
- What type of user activity is likely to face criticism from the community?
- What types of user abuses might you expect?
- How should you react to different kinds of alleged user abuse?
- How should you react to different kinds of proven user abuse?
- How should community networkers be organized to more effectively share
information and ideas?
- How should community networkers be organized to more effectively represent
Although there is a lot more to community networks than hardware, software,
and delivery channels these technological ingredients are absolutely indispensable
in a community network. What software and hardware you choose has important
implications for you - the developers - and for the communities you wish
The technological infrastructure you adopt depends on many factors --
objectives, interests, and resources are the chief among these. The most
relevant parameters in terms of cost (for technology only) are (1) access
methods (e.g. using modems and telephone lines, T1 lines, etc.); (2) connection
to the Internet (e.g. no connection, e-mail only, or direct connection
and with what bandwidth); (3) number of simultaneous users; (4) type of
interaction (text-based, graphics, video, etc.).
Issues and Questions
- What services to you want to provide? (e.g. e-mail, forums, chat, IRC,
database access, voting and decision-making software, Telnet, Ftp, gopher,
web browsers and servers, Usenet news, etc.)
- How many total users do you expect at various stages of your system's
evolution? How many users at one time?
- How do you want the information to be sent to the user? Text-only?
or multimedia? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
- How will users access the system? Over the Internet? Via telephone
and modem? From public sites? (like where?)
- Some community network users come in all flavors: some will have had
no computer experience and some may be computer-phobic. Some may have disabilities
that make using "standard" computer equipment difficult and some
may not speak English and/or use non-ASCII alphabets. What implications
does this have on the user interface? What types of interfaces are required
and how might these be implemented?
- How would you organize your software and hardware to support the peculiarities
of community network systems, that may include heterogeneous machines,
the need to grow to support large numbers of users, lots of simultaneous
and varied use.
- What software and hardware is available?
- Community networks often employ a hierarchical menu structure that
uses a "city metaphor" to organize the information and services
on the system. What are the advantages and disadvantages of that and what
other interface styles might be used to replace or supplement the city
Community networks help facilitate communication between large numbers
of people using fairly sophisticated technology. This is a challenging
enterprise requiring some degree of organization to help manage the process
effectively, efficiently, and humanely. Even more challenging, however,
is the desire to move beyond mere management of processes into an atmosphere
where users of all types are finding that their use of the network is rewarding
to themselves and the community.
Community network projects often rely heavily on volunteers, requiring
a fair amount of organization and delineation of responsibility. How does
a volunteer led project differ from other types? How can these responsibilities
be divided and still maintain a coherent structure to the project? What
is the purpose and character of the organization?
How the community network organization interacts with the rest of the
world is also important. Since developing stronger and more cohesive communities
is a major goal of community networks, working closely with existing community
organizations is likely to be critical to success. But what groups you
work with and how may make or break your project.
Finally, it is still an open question what type of organization will
be the most appropriate. Although there are many models to examine and
no shortage of opinions, the answer to this critical question will ultimately
fall on the shoulders of the developers and other creators of the individual
Issues and Questions
- What's the best way to get started?
- How should groups go about developing shared goals?
- How should the tasks and responsibilities be divided?
- Who is responsible for commitments that are made, e.g. financial or
- Should the project be its own non-profit organization or should it
be part of an existing organization?
- If it is its own organization, what is the purpose and character? E.g.
non-profit, commercial, etc.
- How is coordination between all project workers handled?
- How do you prevent volunteer burnout on a sustaining project?
- How is conflict within the organization resolved?
- Why cooperate with other groups?
- What should you look for in a cooperating group?
- What groups in your community are good possibilities?
- What groups present interesting - but not obvious - possibilities?
- How would you work with groups to maximize their effective use of Community
- What features characterize (demographics, strengths and capacities,
problems, circumstances) your community and how could (or should) these
influence your strategy?
- What should you do before initiating a discussion with a potential
- How would you go about initiating a relationship? Sustaining it?
- What things can you do to maintain your independence and your principles?
- With increasing frequency, projects with a "community network"
flavor are popping up all over. What criticisms might you make of some
of these and what can you do to influence these efforts in the right direction?
Challenges and Strategic Issues
It's a safe bet that community networks (both individual ones and the
movement in general) will be confronted with a bewildering and bedeviling
assortment of challenges over the next few years. Not meeting these challenges
can mean legal difficulties, financial ruin, emotional chaos, or, most
likely of all, a slow and steady slippage of the community network into
marginalization, disinterest and disuse.
There will be no shortage of problems originating from outside. This
may include legal problems -- people could (and probably will) sue for
a variety of real and imagined reasons. (So far, mercifully, this has been
rare.) Other problems include a raft of problems that users (a small --
but non-zero -- minority) will insist on introducing. These may include
threatening and/or sexually harassing notes and hate speech. Legislative
problems are also possible (e.g. the recent "decency" legislation
ruled unconstitutional) and financial problems are so thorougly expected
as to be almost synonymous with community networking.
The most significant challenges, however, will come from within ("we
have met the enemy and he is us"). The first of these challenges stems
from the ability of the community network organization to work effectively
as a unit. The second has to do with the organizational ability to work
with the community to develop important, compelling, and easy-to-use services.
Finally, the organization will need to be decisive, flexible, and creative
in dealing with these challenges both reactively (when trouble comes) and
proactively (when trouble can be anticipated and averted).
Funding for community networks is a constant concern of virtually every
system. Funding can come from direct users or from indirect users in almost
any combination (see Figure below). There are almost as many funding approaches
as there are community networks. Two things that they all have in common
is that there isn't enough money and the future seems uncertain. Is there
a funding model that is principled yet effective? One thing seems clear:
There are no silver bullets.
Issues and Questions
- What types of legal issues should you expect?
- What can community network organizations do to anticipate and avoid
- How can community network developers work with elected officials and
- What public education issues should community network advocates take
up and how should this education be undertaken?
- What legislative challenges can we foresee and how should we respond?
- What funding options seem most effective in your community at start-up?
- What funding options seem most effective in your community on a sustaining
- What advantages and disadvantages do you see for each funding source?
- How would you organize your funding tasks?
- What are the funding priorities?
- How do you evaluate your systems and communicate these results to the
rest of the world?
Books, articles, and reports
- Bagdikian, B. (1992). The Media Monopoly. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
- Barber, B. (1984). Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New
Age. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Bishop, A. (Ed.) (1993). Emerging Communities: Integrating Networked
Information into Library Services. Champaign-Urbana, IL: University of
- Bobo, K., Kendall, J., and Max, S. (1991). Organize! Organizing for
Social Change. Washington, DC: Seven Locks Press.
- Center for Civic Networking. (1993). A
Vision of Change: Civic Promise and the National Information Infrastructure.
Cambridge, MA: The Center for Civic Networking. (gopher://gopher.civic.net:2400/11/ssnational_strat)
- Cisler, S. (1995). (Ed.) Ties that Bind: Converging Communities. Cupertino,
CA: Apple Computer Corp. Library.
- Cisler, S. (1994). (Ed.) Ties that Bind: Building Community Networks.
Cupertino, CA: Apple Computer Corp. Library.
- CPSR (1993). Serving
the Community: A Public Interest Vision of the National Information Infrastructure.
Palo Alto, CA: Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. (http://www.cpsr.org/cpsr/nii_policy)
- Doctor, R. and Ankem, K. (1995). A Directory of Computerized Community
Information Systems. Unpublished report. Tuscaloosa, AL: School of Library
and Information Studies, University of Alabama.
- Grundner, T. (1993a). Seizing the infosphere: an alternative vision
for national computer networking. In Bishop (1993).
- Kretzmann, J., and McKnight, J. (1993). Building Communities from the
Inside Out. Evanston, IL: Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research,
- Lappe, F., and Du Bois, P. (1994). The Quickening of America. San Francisco,
CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc.
- Medoff, P., and Sklar, H. (1994). Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise
of an Urban Neighborhood. Boston, MA: South End Press.
- Miller, S. (1996). Civilizing Cyberspace: Policy, Power, and the Information
Superhighway. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Morino, M. (1994). Assessment and Evolution of Community Networking.
Washington, DC: The Morino Institute.
- Odasz, F. (1995). Community networks: an implementation planning guide.
Electronic document. telnet://bigsky.bigsky.dillon.mt.us/pub/franko/ Guide.
Dillon, MT: Big Sky Telegraph.
- Rheingold, H. (1993). The Virtual Community. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Schuler, D.. Public
Space in Cyberspace (handout), Internet World, December, 1995. (http://www.scn.org/ip/commnet/iwdec.html)
- Schuler, Douglas.
New Community Networks:
Wired for Change. Addison-Wesley. 1996.
- Communet List Serv. Discussion list for community network issues. To
join, send e-mail to email@example.com with the message
"sub communet first-name last-Name."
A Few Community Networks
Go to the New Community
Networks home page.
Return / go to the SCN Home Page home
page. contact me via e-mail.