Chapter Ten: Thirteen Key Lessons Learned from Ten
Years of CN Experimentation
1. Grant-funding too often doesnt not result in a sustainable
Most community networks created to serve the public good in the past were grant-funded, and closed, when they ran out of money after attempting various sustainability models such as monthly service charges of roughly $10/month. Nearly all such projects had promised in their grant proposals to do their best to become economically sustainable. While the innovators had created and validated for themselves the value of these networks, the majority of the community had not caught the vision to the degree they were willing to pay $10-$20/month to sustain them.
The National Public Telecomputing Network in 1989 consisted over well over 100 community Freenets. They even had an excellent videotape which portrayed citizens providing new levels of community services and information electronically. But, NPTN ran out of money and closed their doors, as have most of the Freenets.
2. People will determine community networking applications that meet
real needs, once they get involved.
When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, his idea was people would use it to listen to opera. Time and experimentation by regular people redefined the medium. Expectations increase with experience and most of those on the WWW have less than a few years experience, and often very little experience with many of the collaborative capabilities. Beyond email, over ten collaborative Internet tools exist, with more appearing regularly. How each will be used most effectively has yet to be invented.
What was considered too technical and esoteric an application last year, may be the status quo application this year, and considered an old hat application next year. Community networking is constantly evolving and running a community network can be like "painting a moving train" in that the technology changes steadily, causing the definitions of community networking to change, perceptions to change, and the expectations of the benefits to change.
3. Turfism is a major barrier to creating community networks which
are truly representative of the whole community.
In many communities in the past, there was competition between the hospital network, the school network, the local government network and the business network efforts. Eventually, the idea of lowering costs by working together to create one network, instead of four, became more obvious. Once widespread local Internet access became available, this became less of an issue. However, control over community networks is still a very politically charged issue. Many community networks became threatened once they became successful by those community powers who decided they should be in control. Typically, once the media begins to give serious attention to a community network, struggles for control result.
4. "Build it and they will come" can work as a strategy for grassroots
champions who create a model community network to showcase the
If gaining widespread support for a project is a problem, one option is to win funding to created a demonstration model. The problem is that without initial buy-in from local organizations, it can be more difficult to secure support and participation after the network has been created. Such organizations will ask "Why should I give power to this person by supporting his/hers network? Whats in it for me?"
5. Achieving broad community representation through creating a board
of trustees can bring talents and resources of local organizations.
This is the recommended strategy, to achieve optimal buy-in from community leaders from the very beginning of a planning a project. Successful community networks typically have one or more grassroots champions who are tirelessly devoted to making it happen. The best of these are skilled at creating, and maintaining partnerships. But, the risk is that the original innovators might be replaced as politics ensue, as has happened too frequently!
6. Giving all citizens a voice in an unmoderated online forum can be
disasterous. Rules for online public discussion are necessary.
Often citizens who have not previously had a public voice have found community networks very appealing. Those in positions of power sometimes have the perception that they had little to gain, and perhaps more to lose, if they supported giving a voice to the disenfranchised. The tensions between the bottom-up folks lacking power, and the top-down folks with the power, are very real. The potential of community networks is to create a lateral network with increased access across levels of power and position, to replace our traditional hierarchical power structure.
When the Santa Monica Peoples Network gave the homeless access and "a voice" some abused this privilege by ranting negatively against everyone they could, causing many citizens to give up on the network in disgust. They often thought this was funny, and the term "sport hassling" is descriptive. The Achilles heel of online discussions is that without a moderator, discussions can be reduced to the lowest levels by a few vocal dissidents. Also, that without some level of uniform understanding as to how to use these collaborative tools, confusion and misuse results. Having a policy for setting rules, providing uniform training, and how to deal with citizens who only want to make trouble, will all be necessary.
7. Publicly funded Internet Service Providers Cant Compete with
Commercial Internet Providers.
Be aware that sustainable models that used public funds, and/or University resources, to compete with commercial Internet Service Providers have been forced to close down.
The Eugene Oregon OPEN community network was able to offer $5/month local dialup Internet access, but the IRS challenged their use of municipal funds for competing with local Internet providers who charged $20/month.
Big Sky Telegraph, based at Western Montana College, a unit of the University of Montana was economically sustainable, but was discontinued because it offered Internet access from a state-funded institution. The rules are such that competition with commercial Internet Service Providers is not allowed, despite any issues related to serving the public good. While one might argue that online public service education networks have a place in Higher Education, the political winds are such that any appearance of competition with Internet Service Providers is inappropriate. Such systems may not attempt to cover operational costs by charging a subscription fee for access or services.
8. It is important to know how users are using your community
At one time the Cleveland Freenet had 14,000 calls a day, but no way of measuring who was doing what, and toward what end. Were they 14 year olds accessing pornography sites, were they involved in purposeful online discussions, were they doing anything that was community related, or were they just using the Internet to entertain themselves by accessing sites outside their community? How can you win support for sustainability if you dont know the benefits youre providing? The Cleveland Freenet closed down this year and holds the honor of being the first Freenet and inspiring the whole International community networking movement!
9. Businesses want to find a for-profit community network model and
could compete with networks serving have-nots and the public good.
While most of the past community networks were created to serve the public good by non-profit organizations, businesses have attempted to create for-profit models with little emphasis on serving the public good.
Corporate attempts at creating for-profit community networks without the dedication to serving the public good and helping have-nots get online have threatened the existence of non-profit community networks.
Since successful models of for-profit community networks have not yet appeared, this threat is less that it was, but is likely to return in another form. The main for-profit model was focused on cherry-picking local advertising dollars away from the local newspapers. Examples: Sidewalk.com citysearch.com
A related problem that resulted was many communities found they suddenly had multiple web sites claiming to be their communitys web site or "community network," with some run by folks outside the community, with little genuine interest in serving the community, short of realizing a profit.
The ideal situation would be to find a sustainable financial model which serves the public good. Its important to realize such models have yet to be invented! It is likely future models will incorporate the best of the "for-profit" and "non-profit" models.
10. If you cant clearly define community networking, many
organizations will not embrace the opportunity to support your
Engaging citizens in committing their precious time requires you answer up-front Whats in it for me? Citizens are at different stages of awareness and technophobia is common. Use of technology often represents perceived threats to self-esteem.
Philanthropic organizations, typically controlled by elderly boards, have been slow to understand what the Internet represents, and are threatened by the risks of potential access to pornography within projects they might fund.
Many foundations and organizations with real leadership potential have backed away from any involvement in community networking, unofficially finding it too difficult to define, facilitate, and evaluate.
11. For those looking to create community networks, its vitally
important to know what we dont know about human adaptation of
Internet tools for social collaboration.
Human behavior changes slowly, as do social norms, expectations, and worldviews. Interactive reading and writing is a fundamentally new communications medium, with, or without, web graphics and hyperlinks.
12. Telling stories about how citizens are benefiting is the best way to
encourage the media to help promote your community network and
is the best way to help people understand the benefits of your
Storytelling is your most powerful means of using the media to create interest and understanding, but the media tends to oversimplify issues and tends toward the glowing generalities that do little to facilitate understanding of the delicate social processes required to change social behavior, even for the betterment of all. Hundreds of very general, motivating articles have been written without making it clear exactly how people were using the technology to create social value.
13. Money Changes Everything.
A common pattern is for a group of friends to embark on a community networking project, but once they win funding they find money changes everything. Be aware that issues of control, and power, come with winning funding and typically change friendships. Choose your partners wisely.