People Who Create Online Communities

On rare occasions a progressive local government sets up a community network, like PEN in Santa Monica, California. But usually, networks are created by groups of ordinary citizens—or not so ordinary ones, as we shall see—in the face of incredible technical, financial, and political barriers.

This article describes the work of seven people who have played important roles in community networking, and offers a brief statement about government policy from each one. Some of the leaders discuss what community networks need from the government in order to prosper, while others suggest what the networks can do to change how government runs.

Although their projects span a broad array of topics and locales, these people share a sense of vision, a commitment to hard work, and the achievement of impressive results. Often they have not been paid for their networking activities, but manage to squeeze the work into other jobs or do it on the side.

The article begins with two political activists, Evelyn Pine and Richard Civille, whose experiences span a wide range of networking activities. Pine and Civille have drawn some deep conclusions about the value of telecomputing in public life.

The article continues with Anne Fallis, Frank Odasz, and Dave Hughes. Each has become famous in the telecomputing world by building strong communities through the very simple, low-tech means of electronic bulletin boards. All of them are now engaged in broader initiatives: state-wide, nationally, and even internationally.

Next comes Tom Grundner, leader of the Free-Net movement, the single largest collection of community networks today.

Last is an international perspective from Dutch system administrator Felipe Rodriquez.

While community networking places a high value on access to information, it doesn’t stop with facts. At the heart of any such project is the desire to build a feeling of community. Often the project seeks to improve the opportunities for its members to talk together, share resources in new ways, or find work. And perhaps most of all, community networking seeks to get citizens more involved in governing themselves.

What the leaders in this article tell us is that community networking is powerful—but fragile. Its spread requires supportive government policies, an educated public, and a feeling of commitment by people to their communities. In the United States, the decisions made for the National Information Infrastructure over the next few years may determine whether community networks remain scattered experiments or succeed in reaching millions.

Evelyn Pine: Electronic Democracy Must Come From Us

Richard Civille: The Civic Promise of the Nat’l Information Infrastructure

Anne Fallis: People Using Networks Can Have an Impact on Government

Frank Odasz: Community Networks Benefit Federal Goals

Dave Hughes: The Electronic Public Interest Versus the Private Good

Tom Grundner: A NREN That Includes Everyone

Felipe Rodriquez: The Worldwide Impact of Network Access

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