Developing and Sustaining Community Networks

Workshop Outline

Doug Schuler
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility
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.

Workshop Topics


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


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


Strong Democracy

Health and Well-Being

Economic Equity, Opportunity, and Sustainability

Information and Communication

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


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

Technological Infrastructure

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 to support.

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

Organizational Issues

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 systems.

Issues and Questions

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


Books, articles, and reports

Web Sites


List Servs

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.