Community computer networks, also known as civic networks, Free-Nets, or public access networks, are proliferating around the world today. It is estimated that more than 500,000 people are regular users of the hundreds of community networks currently in existence in the United States and abroad. These networks are often developed in conjunction with other local institutions, such as schools and universities, local government agencies, libraries, and nonprofit organizations. They serve 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.
In this overview of the community networking movement, Douglas Schuler maintains that computer networks have an important role to play in strengthening organizations, providing local information, and developing the bonds of civic life and conviviality that lead to social capital. While there has been much talk about the sort of "virtual community" that transcends space and time and allows for new forms of democratic discourse and participation, Schuler believes that the most promising aspect of the computer network is as a local community resource. It can be used to empower the disenfranchised, to solve problems democratically, to help care for those with illness and disability, and to participate in the affairs of the community.
Schuler discusses the rationale for community networks against the backdrop of what he sees as a broader social imperative: the need for a new kind of community. "The old concept of community is obsolete in many ways and needs to be updated to meet today's challenges," he writes. "The old or 'traditional' community was often exclusive, inflexible, isolated, unchanging, monolithic, and homogenous. A new community — one that is fundamentally devoted to democratic problem-solving — needs to be fashioned from the remnants of the old."
The first section of New Community Networks is devoted to a discussion of the six core values of the "new community" — conviviality and culture, democratic participation, education, social health and well-being, economic opportunity and equity, and communication and information. Schuler not only surveys the literature in each of these areas, he shows how the core values can be enhanced using networking technologies. The second section of the book examines the social and political milieu in communities and the ways in which technology can support these systems. This section includes a discussion of the media and makes a case both for public journalism and for decentralized media that allow for lateral discourse among and between citizens. In a final section, Schuler discusses the practical steps communities can take toward developing local networks, and the issues that they are likely to face in the future.
This book is beset by a host of problems. It is overambitious in its scope, sloppily edited, indexed, and proofread, and generally unpleasant to read. But Schuler does have some quite valuable points to make and he has given us the first comprehensive study of community networks. It's been sorely needed, and a long time coming.
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More on New Community Networks:
After posting this review to my website in early 1997, Douglas Schuler wrote to me asking for honest feedback about why the book was, as I put it, "generally unpleasant to read." Most readers agreed the book was "clearly written," he said. So why was I so put off by it? In my reply, I wrote:
"Sorry for the sour note at the end of my review. I feel the book makes a very important contribution, and I've spent quite a lot of time with it since I wrote the review. You cover a lot of source material in a very useful way. For example, I found that it was easier to refer back to your book when citing Benjamin Barber and Ray Oldenburg than to go to the originals (which are right here on my shelf). I also find myself in agreement with you on almost all the major points.
"The trouble, I think, is that the book tries to be too many things at once. It is too long, at times too academic, at times too long-winded, and it's hard to get an intellectual grasp on what exactly you are trying to convey: Is this a book about communities, or about technology? Is it a book for scholars, or for civic networkers? Is it a how-to or a polemic about the sorry state of the American community? I realize it's an attempt to treat these topics holistically, but the result is somewhat unwieldy I found.
"I think that all these problems could have been remedied with good editing on the part of the publisher. In fact, I was amazed at the sheer lack of editing and proofreading, and the practically useless job of indexing that Addison-Wesley did. It made me want to call them and ask, "How can you let this go to press?" (And this was doubly maddening after spending close to $30 for a soft-cover.) I find more and more of this sort of thing today, and I don't think it speaks well for the publishing world.
"Anyway, I appreciate the fine work you are doing and the immense commitment that must have gone into the writing of New Community Networks."
Related essay: "Civic Networks: Building Community on the Net" by Scott London.
Copyright 1998 by Scott London. All rights reserved.