Civic Networks:
Building Community on the Net

By Scott London

All sorts of reasons have been advanced in recent years to explain the decline of community in America, including the way we design our neighborhoods, the increased mobility of the average American, and demographic shifts like the movement of women into the labor force. But the onslaught of television and other electronic technologies is usually cited as the main culprit. As Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam puts it, these technologies are increasingly "privatizing our leisure time" and "undermining our connections with one another and with our communities."

Composing Knowledge
This essay appears in the book Composing Knowledge, edited by Rolf Norgaard (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2007)

In his essay "The Strange Disappearance of Civic America," Putnam draws a direct parallel between the arrival of television and the decline of what he calls "social capital" — the social networks, trust, and norms of reciprocity that are the essence of healthy communities. As he points out, a "massive change in the way Americans spend their days and nights occurred precisely during the years of generational civic disengagement." It follows that computers, VCRs, virtual reality and other technologies that, like television, "cocoon" us from our neighbors and communities exacerbate the loss of social capital.

With the advent of computer networks and "virtual communities," however, some feel that electronic technologies can actually be used to strengthen the bonds of community and reverse America's declining social capital. Advocates stress that electronic networks can help citizens build organizations, provide local information, and develop bonds of civic life and conviviality. While the claims are no doubt overstated in many cases, as they always are when new technologies are involved, there is growing evidence that this may be the case, particularly in local community networks.

The social and political ramifications of electronic networking has become a favorite topic of speculation in recent years. Cover stories, conferences, books, Web sites, and radio and television programs devoted to the subject have grown exponentially. In looking over the burgeoning literature on the political uses of the Net, I find that most of it falls into three general categories: 1) questions of democratic culture and practice, such as the pros and cons of direct democracy, issues of privacy and social control, and the changing nature of public opinion; 2) how on-line petitioning, electronic voting, information campaigning and other forms of "netactivism" can promote politics more narrowly defined; and 3) the implications of networking technologies for communities. This essay leaves aside the first two categories and focuses specifically on the third: whether computer networks can be used to strengthen and enhance the bonds of community.

A great deal of attention has been focused on electronic or "virtual" communities that knit together individuals who may be geographically dispersed but who share common interests. While I take up some of the problems with this idea, my main focus is on geophysical communities — municipalities, counties, regional areas, Indian nations, etc. — and the ways they are using networks to build healthier communities. As I hope to show, electronic networks, especially when augmented by face-to-face networks, can strengthen communities by serving as "free spaces," by fostering dialogue and deliberation, and by enhancing the bonds of trust, reciprocity and connectedness that make up social capital.

Virtual Community

When Vice President Al Gore introduced the idea of an "information superhighway" in a speech in 1992, it conjured up all kinds of visions: videos on demand, electronic voting, on-line shopping, instant access to government information. But just as the metaphor of the information highway began to catch on, a book called The Virtual Community appeared which offered an altogether different vision of the digital revolution. As Howard Rheingold saw it, people are not interested in interactive entertainment and information so much as the opportunity to form relationships and interact with other people. The real promise of electronic networks, he said, is that they bring people together in new ways.

Rheingold defined virtual communities as groups of people linked not by geography but by their participation in computer networks. They share many of the characteristics of people in ordinary communities, he said, yet they have no face-to-face contact, are not bound by the constraints of time or place, and use computers to communicate with one another. Even though communities can emerge from and exist within computer-linked groups, he added, the "technical linkage of electronic personae is not sufficient to create a community." Community includes more than merely the exchange ax machine, telephones, international publications, and computers, personal and professional relationships can be maintained irrespective of time and place. Today we are all members of international `non-place' communities."

The trouble with virtual or "non-place" communities is that they tend to exacerbate, rather than challenge, the atomization and fragmentation of modern society. They give their members a sense of belonging without any of the obligations of old-fashioned communities. As a result, they foster a watered-down notion of community that is convenient and virtually free of commitment of any kind. When we virtualize human relations, as naturalist David Ehrenfeld puts it, we are no longer in touch with the essential ingredients of community, "for at the end of the day when you in Vermont and your e-mail correspondent in western Texas go to sleep, your climates will still be different, your soils will still be different, your landscapes will still be different, your local environmental problems will still be different, and — most importantly — your neighbors will still be different, and while you have been creating the global community with each other, you will have been neglecting them."

Virtual communities are, more often than not, pseudocommunities. They lack many of the essential features of real communities, such as face-to-face conversation, the unplanned encounter — the chance meetings between people that promote a sense of neighborliness and familiarity — and, perhaps most importantly, the confrontation with people whose lifestyles and values differ from yours. In this sense, virtual communities tend to be utopian — they are communities of interest, education, tastes, beliefs, and skills. The result, as Stephen Doheny-Farina writes in The Wired Neighborhood, is that "much of the Net is a Byzantine amalgamation of fragmented, isolating, solipsistic enclaves of interest based on a collectivity of assent."

Information is the currency of virtual communities, like many other marketplace cultures. The way it is shared and transmitted therefore has direct implications for the overall identity of the group. It works better, as Howard Rheingold writes, "when the community's conceptual model of itself is more like barn-raising than horse-trading." That may be so, but a more fundamental question is whether the exchange of information by itself is a sufficient criterion for community. Langdon Winner, in an essay called "Mythinformation," attributes this idea to a certain "optimistic technophilia" characteristic of on-line enthusiasts. Community requires public dialogue and deliberation, he says, not information. Information is essential to public debate, to be sure, but it is only meaningful when tied to purpose, and only the community can give it purpose.

The metaphor of the information highway, while inappropriate in many ways, accurately reflects what can happen to communities when they are woven into a larger social fabric. Just as the interstate highway system linked existing road structures and allowed rapid movement between them, digital networks allow vast amounts of information to pass between different locales almost instantaneously. The danger of the information highway, as futurist Robert Theobald points out, is that "we are building it before we have a local knowledge system in place. We shall therefore reinforce an already existing pathology of looking outside our own systems for the ideas we need rather than finding competence within our own communities." In this respect, the push toward globalization flattens not only local economies and indigenous traditions, but also the knowledge base of a community by urging its members to look outside the community for answers.

The Networked Community

In his popular book Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte observes that the digital revolution has removed many of the limitations of geography. "Digital living," he says, "will include less and less dependence upon being in a specific place at a specific time, and the transmission of place itself will start to become possible." Howard Rheingold acknowledges this possibility, but the virtual community, as he sees it, actually does require some ties to physical community. Most of the stories he tells in The Virtual Community involve people who live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I asked Rheingold about this, he said that a sense of community first began to develop on the WELL after members of the group met face-to-face. "Different [on-line] conferences had different get-togethers," he recalled. "The parenting conference decided to have a softball game and picnic in the summer. We all met each other and the kids we had been bragging about to each other, and a lot of solidarity came out of that. Other groups had bridge games or poker games or went for Chinese food at different restaurants every Sunday." As a result of these face-to-face gatherings, he said, "we started to become part of each other's lives and a real community began growing up."

Rheingold's experiences confirm the view that electronic networks are best understood not as separate worlds in cyberspace but as "nervous systems for the physical world," as long-time Internet observer Phil Agre puts it. "Face-to-face meetings will always be indispensable for cementing relationships and sharing worldviews, but the Internet is valuable before and after those meetings." This point is echoed by Francis Fukuyama in his work on trust and social capital. The advantages of technology, he says, are not in creating new communities but in strengthening already existing social networks.

This premise is at the heart of a burgeoning movement sometimes referred to as "civic networking" which is using computer-based communication to create new forms of citizens-based, geographically delimited community information systems. These systems, variously known as civic networks, Free-Nets, community computing centers, or public access networks, are proliferating around the world today. In his book New Community Networks, Douglas Schuler estimates that more than 500,000 people are regular users of the hundreds of community networks currently in existence in the United States and abroad. They usually bring together a variety of local institutions, such as schools and universities, local government agencies, libraries, and nonprofit organizations into a single community resource that then serves a variety of functions, from allowing people to communicate with each other via e-mail to encouraging involvement in local decision-making to developing economic opportunities in disadvantaged communities.

The rationale for civic networking is that community information systems can knit together the diverse elements of a community, provide access to and information about local government, stimulate public education, promote socioeconomic development and equality, foster lateral communication among and between citizens, and enhance civic participation. Mario Morino, in an oft-cited 1994 paper, defined civic networking as a "process, facilitated by the tools of electronic communications and information, that improves and magnifies human communication and interaction in a community." It does this in a number of ways:

  • By bringing together members of a community and promoting debate, deliberation and resolution of shared issues.
  • By organizing communication and information relevant to the communities' needs and problems on a timely basis.
  • By engaging and involving the participation of a broad base of citizens, including community activists, leaders, sponsors, and service providers, on an ongoing basis.
  • By striving to include all members of the community, especially those in low-income neighborhoods and those with disabilities or limited mobility.
  • By making basic services available at fair and reasonable costs, or free.
  • And, most importantly, by represent local culture, local relevance, local pride, and a strong sense of community ownership

The prototypical example of a community network is the Cleveland Free-Net, which began as an experiment in making medical information publicly accessible over an electronic bulletin board system. Today it has evolved into a sophisticated network serving over 160,000 registered users in the greater Cleveland area. Cleveland Free-Net founder, Tom Grundner, captured the spirit of the civic networking philosophy when he observed,

America's progress toward an equitable Information Age will not be measured by the number of people we can make dependent upon the Internet. Rather, it is the reverse. It will be measured by the number of local systems we can build, using local resources, to meet local needs. Our progress ... will not be measured by the number of people who can access the card catalog at the University of Paris, but by the number of people who can find out what's going on at their kids' school, or get information about t6e latest flu bug which is going around their community.

A great deal has been written about community networks as tools for promoting civil society and they have been the focus of intensive study in recent years. Nevertheless, much of the literature is still of an advocacy genre and empirical evidence is difficult to come by. How, then, do we measure the effectiveness of on-line networks in fostering stronger communities? In what follows, I outline three qualities vital to healthy communities — public space, deliberation, and social capital — and examine the extent to which networks can support and enhance these qualities.

Public Space

In his seminal work on the public sphere, the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas defined public space as "a domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed." Public space can take many forms, from parks and playgrounds to pubs, libraries, cafes and neighborhood centers. The important thing is that they provide settings for informal public life, places where citizens can gather spontaneously to interact and discuss issues of common concern. To Lewis Mumford, these places are "civic nuclei." Benjamin Barber calls them "talk shops." And in his book The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg describes them as "third places" — neutral grounds away from home and work where citizens can establish a connection with other members of their community and begin to develop a collective identity.

One of today's most pressing concerns is what to do about disappearing public spaces. Across the United States, parks, schools, playgrounds, libraries, and even streets are being privatized at an unprecedented rate. One reason is the drive on the part of many Americans for increased security, "security not only from crime but also from any unwanted interaction with one's fellow citizens," as one journalist put it. This is especially evident in many of the nation's newer suburbs which separate people not only physically but also on the basis of age, income, and sets of interests.

It would be a stretch to call on-line networks "public spaces." They are, in most cases, neither public (since network providers are often private, for-profit enterprises) nor spaces, at least in the conventional sense. Still, networks can serve some of the functions of more traditional public spaces. Some software developers, in fact, have actually gone to great lengths to stimulate the kind of informal, serendipitous conversation that takes place on the street corner, in the university hallway, or at the office coffee machine. In her essay "Networlds: Networks as Social Space," Linda Harasim likens computer conferences to meetings, learning circles, and cafes. They transform "inhospitable message systems into a vibrant social community," she writes. "There is a purpose, a place, and a population."

Electronic public spaces obviously differ in important ways from conventional spaces. They are usually text-based, for one thing, which means that many of the traditional features of social interaction — physical cues, voice intonation, eye-to-eye contact — are missing. Computer-mediated communication therefore tends to be blind to hierarchy in social relationships. It also benefits people who may not typically have a voice in face-to-face situations because of gender, ethnicity, race, age, appearance, etc. These important differences notwithstanding, on-line venues such as "chat rooms," mailing lists, and newsgroups can go a long way toward disseminating new information and ideas, naming and framing collective issues, and promoting broad- based discussion.

In his important book Strong Democracy, Benjamin Barber identifies nine functions of democratic talk:

  • The articulation of interests; bargaining and exchange
  • Persuasion
  • Agenda-setting
  • Exploring mutuality
  • Affiliation and affection
  • Maintaining autonomy
  • Witness and self-expression
  • Reformulation and reconceptualization
  • Community-building as the creation of public interests, common goods, and active citizens

Whether the sort of discourse that takes place on-line satisfies all of these functions depends to a large extent on the participants in the conversation. A freewheeling newsgroup on the Internet, with contributors from around the globe, will probably not be able to satisfy more than the first two criteria, while a small group of individuals in a networked organization or neighborhood may well be able to satisfy all nine standards on Barber's list. But in either case, the virtual environment — the "free space" — enables the conversation.


The difference between conversation and deliberation is the difference between what William Gamson in Talking Politics calls "sociable" and "serious" discourse. The one is more spontaneous, uninformed and unreflective, while the other is based on a deeper consideration of various alternatives in addressing a specific issue. Deliberation is an essential feature of a democratic society because unless citizens have the opportunity to explore, question, and engage each other in a substantive exchange about pressing issues, they will be unable to resolve those issues together without outside help. The rationale for deliberation is embodied in the phrase: If the problem is ours, the solution must be ours.

Are electronic environments conducive to deliberation? In most cases, no. Stephen Bates, a fellow at Annenberg's Washington Program, sums up what seems to be the general perception regarding computer-based communication:

It prompts more knee-jerk reactions than deliberative responses. It gives people a way to respond instantly and often angrily and aggressively without taking the time to mull something over. And when there is more interesting discourse, you can tell it's people who just love to hear the sound of their own voices. They're not really listening to other people.

Benjamin Barber suggests that the speed of the technology is inimical to the deliberative process — a process which, he says, is "steeped in slowness." The increased use of graphical images on the Net is also an impediment to deliberation. Deliberation is "rooted in words," Barber points out, and yet in our high-tech age words are increasingly trumped by visual rhetoric and flashy graphics — not just on television, but now on the World Wide Web as well. Bruce Bimber, a political scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, agrees. Despite the general difficulties in measuring deliberation, he says, a number of cases and examples suggests that there is little to indicate that the Net will be more deliberative than other forms of electronic communication.

It should be said, however, that much of the research on this question and many of the standard observations about the lack of deliberation on-line are based on situations in which the discussants are largely anonymous, where they have no bonds of affiliation beyond their participation in an on-line forum. But what happens when preestablished social or professional groups are electronically linked? Can deliberation occur between geographically dispersed authors collaborating on a book, say, or between networked members of a committee negotiating points of agreement and adopting a decision?

In these instances, the electronic medium may actually facilitate deliberation. One advantage of computer-based communication is that it is asynchronous — that is, it transcends time zones and personal schedules, often allowing time for reflection and deeper consideration of the issues involved. In the early days of the Internet, for example, scholars and researchers routinely posted RFCs, or requests for comments, in the hope of stimulating dialogue, defining the right questions, and mapping the range of alternatives on specific questions. These were, according to some Net veterans, highly deliberative exchanges among colleagues. The essential point is that deliberative dialogues of this sort require that discussants have some connection to each other that extends beyond their participation in a computer network. The closer these ties, and the smaller the group, the more likely it is that the medium will support deliberation.

Social Capital

The term "social capital" has been getting a lot of play in recent years thanks, in large part, to the work of Robert Putnam. He describes social capital as the stocks of social trust, norms and networks that people can draw upon to solve common problems. His research documents that networks of civic engagement, such as sports leagues, women's groups, and parent-teacher associations, are an essential form of social capital, and the denser these networks, the more likely that members of a community will cooperate for mutual benefit.

As Putnam points out in his influential 1995 essay "Bowling Alone," civic engagement has been on a steady decline in the United States over the last 20 to 30 years. The most "whimsical yet discomfiting bit of evidence of social disengagement in contemporary America," Putnam writes, is the fact that while bowling is more popular than ever today, bowling in organized leagues has dropped sharply over the last decade. The rise of solo bowling, he says, "illustrate[s] yet another vanishing form of social capital."

One of the most pressing questions for the future, in Putnam's view, is how to reverse America's declining social capital and restore civic engagement and trust. It's a pressing question, he says, because stocks of social capital tend to be self-reinforcing and cumulative. As he wrote in Making Democracy Work, "virtuous circles result in social equilibria with high levels of cooperation, trust, reciprocity, civic engagement, and collective well-being." But the reverse is also true: "the absence of these traits in uncivic community is also self-reinforcing. Defection, distrust, shirking, exploitation, isolation, disorder, and stagnation intensify one another in a suffocating miasma of vicious circles."

The effects of the electronic revolution have been especially pernicious, according to Putnam, because "technology is privatizing our lives" to an ever greater extent. Furthermore, "Americans are in the midst of a transformation that is privileging nonplace-based connections over place-based connections," he says. Technologies like the Internet mean that our connections with people around the country and around the world are getting closer, while our ties to our neighbors across the street are weakening.

In spite of Putnam's dour assessment of the new technologies, a number of studies have been done that suggest that electronic networks, especially when grafted onto already existing social networks, can in fact enhance social capital. One of the most well-documented and far-reaching of these was a RAND Corporation study of five community networks:

  • The Public Electronic Network (PEN), Santa Monica, CA
  • The Seattle Community Network (SCN), Seattle, WA
  • The Playing to Win Network (PTW), Boston, MA
  • LatinoNet, San Francisco, CA
  • The Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV), Blacksburg, VA.

The report suggests that local community networks "have the ability to support interpersonal relationships, local community-building, and social integration." It went on to say that "concerns that boundary-spanning networks might facilitate a reduction in community affiliation, or disinterest in local affairs, appear unfounded."

Another study by Andrea Kavanaugh and Scott Patterson, scholars at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, produced similar findings. In their research on the Blacksburg Electronic Village network in Blacksburg, Virginia, they found that "the community network is clearly capable of building social networks and information exchange needed to achieve collective action." Moreover, users of the network reported a sense of being closer to the community. These findings "point to a kind of capacity building with the potential for increasing social capital," according to Kavanaugh and Patterson.

These findings confirm what Howard Rheingold observed from his long-time participation on the WELL, namely that "the community-building power comes from the living database that the participants create and use together informally as they help each other solve problems, one to one and many to many. The web of human relationships that can grow along with the database is where the potential for cultural and political change can be found."

The important thing is that the electronic linkage reinforce already existing networks within the community, not attempt to recreate them. To do this, community networks must be "woven into the fabric of community — not patched or pieced," as Douglas Schuler points out. "Community networks need to work strongly and strategically with other community institutions and organizations." Steve Cisler recommends that "any community network that is being designed or already exists, not only include face-to-face meetings of the board and technical staff but also regular meetings or social events to involve the users and the community that it serves."


The trouble with the virtual community metaphor is that it implies that technology itself can create community. Usually its effect is the very opposite: it hastens the breakdown of traditional community. Still, electronic networks can play a role in strengthening communities if they are used to augment social networks that are already in place. In addition to their obvious benefits as text-based information systems, networks can serve as public spaces for informal citizen-to-citizen interaction, they can support rational dialogue and, in some cases, deliberation, and they can promote the social connectedness, trust, and cooperation that constitute social capital.