The sad and untimely death of US community networking pioneer Steve Snow, just as we are getting excited about a network of digital mentors and in the UK, led me to revisit earlier enthusiasms for the potential of the Net.
Steve was a former journalist who in 1994 set up Charlotte’s Web in North Carolina, as one of the earliest examples of a network aimed at serving those who didn’t have access to the still-young Internet. He wasn’t a techie – as you can read in this article – but he did see the great social and educational developments that local and global connections could offer.
Steve wrote in 1993:
I am not your basic propeller-head. I`m a computer idiot. Before Christmas, my 14-year-old daughter could use our computer better than I. I stumble around, get lost and make mistakes.
But my computer has extended my reach into the world, and in a surprisingly personal way. Sounds like a contradiction, doesn`t it – a machine making my life more personal?
… and then went on to explain how he had used email and bulletin boards, with his computer connected to the telephone via a modem, to reconnect with family and make new friends around the world.
In that article, and also here, you may pick up some of the enthusiasm that I caught when it was possible, in the UK, to see on the Net what Charlotte’s Web and other North American projects were attempted … a mix of providing access, equipment, training and content for local communities.
I met Steve and other US networkers in 1995 when I managed to get a free trip and pass to the Ties that Bind conference organised in Cupertino by Apple and the Morino Institute. That led me to a flurry of activity with others in UK, referenced later.
The idea of all-purpose local networks didn’t prove sustainable, either through volunteer effort, grant support, revenue-generation – or a mix of all three. But it did lead to a lot of discussion about digital inclusion and how to mix “real-world” and virtual community building that we are still working through.
Steve’s interest was always people and communities, rather than technology, and in 1999 he set up Commcure to concentrate on counselling and psychotherapy. More than anything he was an enthusiast for trying stuff, as he explained in this open letter he wrote in 1997, at my invitation, to UK community networkers. I think it still holds good for digital mentors and new enthusiasts for hyperlocal:
Dear Networking Neighbors,
I suppose I could summarize my point of view about building community networks in three words: “Just Do It!”
How ’90s. How American, aye?
Yet, I can tell you from experience that it takes a tremendous amount of energy to create even a small “electronic community”, much less sustain one. So it takes a dash of “devil-may-care” to make it happen, a belief that the power and urgency of the concept demands that you do this.
Perhaps a less intense way of saying the same thing would be this: “Don’t let anyone tell you you cannot do this.”
And once you believe that this is right for your community, that the concept truly has value and honest usefulness, then you can begin to work on the details:
Make friends, forget enemies. Collaborate with any group that will have you and wants to work together. That will vary from community to community, so the model to copy is the process, not the organizations. Natural collaborations will surface. Make the most of them. Conversely, be nice to those who would undermine you but stay away from them; they will bring negative energy you can ill afford.
When you have some kind of critical mass to form an organization, be crystal clear among yourselves what each partner’s role in the organization is — what each brings to the project and what each is expected to deliver. When the going gets rough later on, as it invariably does, you can return to your initial agreements to help guide you out of the mess.
Open your arms wide to the community, but make sure those who volunteer for you can actually do both what they say they can do and what you need. Interview each volunteer as if they are seeking a paying job and hold them to high standards. They will be glad for it and your project will be better for it; anything less will lead to disaster eventually.
When you train people to help build the network, trust them to do most of the work, so it becomes *their* network, not yours.
Be on the lookout for unusual opportunities. Here in the U.S., we at Charlotte’s Web are getting ready to develop some related businesses to generate money for our nonprofit corporation. We hadn’t thought of that originally, but it will become increasingly an important part of our support.
Do not try to invent everything “new”. Hundreds of groups have already tried what you are doing and most will be only too happy to share with you. The U.S. will launch its Association for Community Networking in 1997; this is a precursor to an *International* association that we hope can provide more coherence for this movement internationally.
Finally, let me offer a small caution and a great hope: take care of yourselves physically and emotionally as you build your community networks; know they are part of a matrix of things that will help make your community better, but do not let yourself get dragged into the “black hole” of the Internet. Overwork only hurts the movement in the long run.
My great hope is that we can work together to take electronic community building to new levels in coming years; and it is more than a hope — I believe we can and will do it; we will do it for ourselves, we will do it for each other and we will do it for our communities.
While researching this blog item I discovered that Steve Cisler, who organised the Ties That Bind conference, has died earlier this year. Steve had a different background, as a digital librarian with Apple, but a similar interest in local communities and the benefits technology might bring … or maybe not. In 2004 Steve began Unconnected, an exploration of people and organisations not directly using the Internet, to learn how they cope. I love this note from one appreciation:
In the last years, somewhere between few and several, he’d taken to bringing an inflatable kayak when he traveled to conferences and paddling around cities all over the world.
I think it was Steve Snow who once defined community networking for me as good people doing useful stuff. It was a privilege to have known both Steves, and a reminder of what’s important about social media … the people behind it.
Earlier work on community networking
- Inventing the Future – booklet in 1996
- International Association for Community Networking
- Story of UK Community Networking
- Getting Connect project
- Civic and Community Technology article
- Making the Net Work site
More recent items: