Posted by: Clive | July 25, 2008

In the spirit of collaboration

from small tomatoes ....

from small tomatoes ....

Just to prove that we may actually be heading into a period of long awaited summer. The ‘greenhouse’ tomatoes are now looking like, well, tomatoes! May they grow big and strong.

In the spirit of collaborative inquiry I’ve posted something I’ve been working on today for your comment/critique. I’m busy writing some input for a level I course I’m teaching next year on communication and the internet. In the section I’ve posted I’m looking at the nature of online communities and the issues surrounding them. In particular, I’d really welcome any comments you have on the section entitled ‘The Debate’. Also, If you think there are issues I haven’t included that I should have, or that there are better ways to hook the reader, please say so. It is true that ‘two (or many more) heads are better than one’.

I haven’t included the piece in this front page so …

The story of a Brand

The idea of community lay at the very heart of the development of the internet. One person, in particular, illustrates the ways in which a number of disparate elements were brought together to forge the spirit of what we know as the internet today.

Thousands of people, man, all helplessly stoned, all finding themselves in a room of thousands of people, none of whom any of them were afraid of. It was magic, far-out beautiful magic. Jerry Garcia, guitarist with the Grateful Dead speaking about the Trips Festival in 1965.

Stuart Brand helped to organise the event.

The 1960s in San Francisco saw the hippie counter-culture grow out of the Civil Rights, Anti-War and Freedom of Speech movements. Its drug-fuelled hedonism challenged the social and emotional rigidities of post war America. And its response to a closed, conventional middle-America lifestyle was to move in droves to back-to-the land communes. According to Miller, in the early 1970s almost 750,000 people lived on more than 10,000 communes throughout the US.

Englebart’s mouse

In December 1968 the central idea that would inform the development of the internet was exhibited by Doug Engelbart.
Not only did Englebart invent the mouse and lay the foundations for personal computing, he also showed how computer-to-computer networks would allow people to work on the same documents while physically on different continents. Turner (2006) describes the moment as follows:

For the first time they could see a highly individualised, highly interactive computing system built not around the crunching of numbers but around the circulation of information and the building of a workplace community.

Cover of the first Catalogue

Stuart Brand helped to video the event which became known as the ‘mother of all demos’.

In 1968 the first edition of the Whole Earth Catalogue appeared and for four years it offered its readers on the communes of America books, mechanical devices, appliances for the fields, potters wheels … all manner of artefacts for communal living. You couldn’t buy those things from the magazine. You had to go to the warehouse. But you could comment and make suggestions in the magazine for future editions. The Whole Earth Catalogue represented something very new for the world of publishing and the communities it served and helped maintain. It invited its readers in and published its accounts out. Throughout its short history the Catalogue was very open and egalitarian.

Stuart Brand started the Whole Earth Catalogue.

In 1971 Brand closed the Catalogue down at a party in San Francisco. He had initally invested $20,000 in the venture and now decided to give that money away to whoever at the party could suggest a scheme that would keep the spirit of the Catalogue alive. A number of schemes were financed but at the end of the party the audience voted that the remaining $14,905 should go to Fred Moore. Although it is unclear whether he used that money specifically, Fred Moore later started the Homebrew Computer Club in 1975. The ethos that he took with him was of information sharing, of peer to peer collaboration and of computers as vehicles for the creation of communities.

In the late 1970s Brand grew disillusioned with the back-to-nature commune livers and instead turned his attention to another set of related ideas with the publication of the CoEvolution Quarterly. Here, systems-orientated ecological theory met cybernetics and Brand brokered a number of meetings between computer scientists, critical, cultural thinkers and entrepreneurs in the San Francisco area. They moved towards an understanding that computer technology was not simply something to build communities with but could actually host communities themselves.

In 1984 Brand, who had returned sporadically to the Catalogue throughout the 70s, started the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (or WELL) which was a teleconference system that users could dial up to a central computer and type messages to each other asynchronously or in real time. Although technically similar to many systems that emerged at the time, the WELL was infused with the communitarian spirit that started with the Catalogue as well as having a business, entrepreneurial interest. The members of the WELL during this time were journalists, computer technologists, and people who wanted to keep their ears to latest developments. The WELL was free and it was only through the donations of the ‘Dead Heads’ (the followers of the band, the Grateful Dead) that it was able to keep going.

Two of the most prominant members of the WELL were Howard Rheingold and John Perry Barlow. Rheingold is credited with coining the term ‘virtual community’.

In 1990 Tim-Berners Lee developed the protocols that created the world wide web. He says of it:

The basic idea of the Web is that it is an information space through which people can communicate, but communicate in a special way, by sharing their knowledge in a pool. The Web is more of a social creation than a technical one. It has not changed anything fundamentally in the way human beings think, read and communicate with each other.

With the introduction and continuous development of the browser from 1993 information exchange grew to enormous heights together with the networks distributing that information.

Magazine cover ‘Wired’

Brand moved on from the WELL to a role in MITs Media Lab and in creating the links that would later become the Global Business Network (GBN) and the Learning Networks: all examples of the ways in which computer networks could develop cultural critique social entrepreneurship. He also worked for Wired, perhaps the most significant publication for innovation in information technology and one which was, and still is, an collection of various networks. One of those networks was the Whole Earth Catalogue brought by Brand and his co-writers.

Wired broke down many barriers between authors and their sources and created a community around its forums similar to the WELL. The personal, the digital, the business and the rest, all became networked around the commmunity managed by Wired.

In the 1990s Brand worked for six years on a book called How Buildings Learn, which was also made into a series for BBC2. The book brought together all his interests in the social uses of technology in an original way.

With everyone seeming to rush into the future, Brand has more recently begun work with the Long Now Foundation ‘established in 01996* to creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.’

Clearly this story has the flavour of utopianism. The early days of internet use were understood to herald the new age of free communication and personal fulfilment in a networked ‘virtual earth’. As the internet diffused into the mainstream some, but not all, of that early hope was tempered. However, the story is instructive for one extremely important fact: it reminds us that the concept of community as a social network predates the internet and world wide web. And without that change in understanding and social practice, the web as we use it today would not have been conceivable.

Community

The village community

Our notion of community is anchored in understandings of local, neighbourhood sociability and connected to ideas of social cohesion. The village is perhaps the most widespread model here, seen as a small community where people are socially and cognitively placed inside broadly homogeneous groups. People ‘belong’ to the village and interact principally with the members of that village. They work in a single group, are members of a small number of kinship groups and they participate in the recreational groups bounded by the village. This model, while emanating in the popular imagination from rural Britain, is also enshrined in urban and semi-urban environment.

However, there has been a fear that since the industrial revolution this model of group-based sociability has been lost. ‘The loss of community’ has been a mantra of those worried by diminishing social cohesion for a very long time. At the same time an understanding of a different kind of community interacting beyond the local and densely knit village-like group has also emerged. This sees changes in the means of communication and transportation together with structural changes in society caused by industrialisation and urbanisation, as changing the nature of community into a more spatially dispersed set of social networks. Because people can maintain contact over longer distances the idea of community has been spatially stretched and connections have emerged which are more akin to a web of networks rather than a simple one-group exchange.

A word of caution is necessary here. In trying to explore questions of community we have to be aware of the differences between normative prescriptions (the ways people promote what they think community should be like) and empirical descriptions (the ways people try to describe what a particular community is actually like). The concept ‘community’ is complex and often seems to defy an overarching definition capable of capturing its multiple uses. However, Barry Wellman (2002), does offer a working definition which can be used as a useful benchmark for our thinking:

networks of interpersonal ties that provide sociability, support, information, a sense of belonging, and social identity.

Notice that here location or locality (close physical and geographical proximity) has been replaced by ties though exactly what kinds of ties has been left open. This definition does however enable us to better see the ways in which community, those interpersonal ties, contributed to the emergence and subsequent shaping of the internet. It also reminds us that it was the emerging network that enabled the development of the internet and not the other way round.

The Debate

What then is the impact of the internet on community thus defined? Let me gloss below three positions on this question that have dominated the debate during the last few years:

1. The internet leads to the breakdown of community and social isolation.
Despite the spread of technology our world is becoming a worse place to live. The internet is a moral distraction from the real issues of daily life. The notion of an internet community is a myth that encourages the domination of the spirit of individualism. The internet further atomises a fragmented citizenry.

2. The internet creates a more cohesive community
Because the internet liberates people from the confines of locality, new opportunities are created for communities to develop. The internet adds to the communication platforms that enable to maintainance of interpersonal ties.

3. The internet changes the nature of community
The internet allows for the development of new means of group-formation and in so doing develops new communities based on shared interests and practices.

This debate continues to fuel the commentary sections of the mainstream press, academic articles, and blogs. It is often hidden within concern about such things as the Google generation, Children and the dangers of the internet, or mobile, ubiquitous computing. However, polarised discussions about virtual reality, Facebook, YouTube or Second Life mask the fact that there is as yet been no opportunity to conduct empirical research of a longitudinal type that examines these phenomena. The phenomena are simply too new.

Readings

Rheingold, Howard (1993) The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier rev. edn. 2000 Cambridge, MA. Available online The Virtual Community

Turner, Fred (2006) From Counterculture to Cyberculture University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Castells, Manuel (2001) Virtual Communities or Networked Societies in The Internet Gallaxy. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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