Community Development In The Cybersociety of the Future

Howard Rheingold

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The quality of community in tomorrow's wired world is an important concern. It is not, however, the first question we need to ask. The prefix "cyber," from the Greek word for "steersman," implies that cybersociety will be steered in some manner. The first question to ask is: Who will be doing the steering?

Decades before computers existed, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley wrote about future dystopias where society is commanded by an elite who use advanced communication tools to control the population. The malevolent dictator Big Brother and the paternalistic dictator Mustapha Mond used technologies of surveillance and persuasion to steer the societies of 1984 and Brave New World. E.M Forster, also writing years before digital technology emerged, wrote a novella, The Machine Stops, that painted a future society steered by the machines themselves.

Today's world is a combination of all three visions, with a surprisingly democratic twist.

The Orwellian portion is the invasion and commodification of privacy, aided and abetted by digital information gathering and surveillance tools.

The Huxley portion is the disinfotainment machinery that sells experiences, beliefs, issues, and candidates to a world that willingly pays for the illusion of information in the guise of entertainment.

The Forster part is the globalized economy, where liquid electronic capital has become detached from humanly recognizable goods and services

The global economy depends upon a rapidly self-innovating technological infrastructure. Superheated economic competition requires the biggest players to concentrate massive resources on technology development. For these reasons, the only thing we can know with any degree of certainty about tomorrow's world is that technologies will be more powerful than they are today. And communication technologies, because of their ability to influence human perceptions and beliefs as well as their power to command and control automatic machinery, will continue to grow more powerful and persuasive, if not more true, authentic, and humane.

The democratic twist is that more people today have more to say about how their world is steered than any other time in history. Structurally, the Internet has inverted the few-to-many architecture of the broadcast age, in which a small number of people were able to influence and shape the perceptions and beliefs of entire nations. In the many-to-many environment of the Net, every desktop is a printing press, a broadcasting station, and place of assembly. Mass-media will continue to exist, and so will journalism, but these institutions will no longer monopolize attention and access to the attention of others.

It is not yet clear how this democratization of publishing power will translate into political change. The critical uncertainties today are whether the citizenry will learn to use the new tools to strengthen the public sphere and whether citizens are going to be any match for the concentrations of money, technology, and power that are emerging in the Internet era.

One important point of leverage where these critical uncertainties can be influenced is the role of journalism in civic affairs. If the BBC doesn't take the lead in this regard, it isn't easy to think of who else will. And I think you are off to a great start with BBC Online. I want to pose a few longer-term questions. How can professionally gathered news stories and civil citizen discourse be blended in a way that enhances democracy? If BBC or any other organization can take a lead in answering this question, it will be doing the world a great service.

First, I want to say a few words about how I came to know and care about the kind of world we are building when we use the Internet as a communication medium. Then I want to talk about two fundamental questions we must address in order to build humane and sustainable communities in the future.

The first question is the question of the public sphere -- how will new media affect the free and open discourse that forms the bedrock of democracy?

The second question is the role of news media -- what place does traditional journalism play in a world where the power to publish and communicate is radically diffused and disintermediated?

I am still hopeful that informed and committed people can influence the shape of tomorrow's cybersociety in a positive manner, although it has become increasingly clear that democratic outcomes won't emerge automatically. A humane and sustainable cybersociety will only come about if it is deliberately understood, discussed, and planned now -- by a larger proportion of the population, and not just the big business, media, or policy elites.

Intelligent and democratic leadership is desperately needed at this historical moment, while the situation is still somewhat fluid. Ten years from now, the uncertainties will have resolved into one kind of power or another.

How I Fell Into Cyberspace and What I Found There

As a freelance writer, I spent over a decade in solitary confinement, laboring over a typewriter, before the prospect of word-processing lured me into the world of personal computers. When I bought a $500, 1200 baud modem in 1983, I discovered a world of conversation online, as well, through the rich ecology of the thousands of PC bulletin board systems that ran off single telephone lines in people's bedrooms. At the same time, I was researching the origins of personal computers and computer-mediated communications.

In 1985, I joined the WELL, and first started thinking about the social aspects of online discourse when the WELL's parenting conference formed an online support group for our friend Phil, whose son had been diagnosed with leukemia. Over the years, Phil's friends contributed a stream of emotional support, and over $30,000. Anyone who declares that the most important elements of community are impossible online needs to talk to Phil and his family, or the tens of thousands of people like them, for whom the Net has been a lifeline.

In the fifteen years since I joined the WELL, I've contributed to dozens of such fund-raising and support activities. I've sat by the bedside of a dying, lonely woman, who would have died alone if it had not been for people she had previously known only as words on a screen. I've danced at four weddings of people who met online. I've attended four funerals, and spoke at two of them. In 1988, concerned about the mass-media image of computer BBS's as cults for antisocial adolescent males with bad complexions, I wrote an article for Whole Earth Review about "Virtual Communities." I knew from direct experience that people can reach through those computer screens and touch each other's lives.

I had not travelled a great deal before I started the research for my book on the subject, but virtual communities and the people I've met through them, have led me around the world a dozen times and more. I shared lunch with 60 young web designers in Stockholm, who exchanged hundreds of messages with one another each day via an electronic mailing list, but who had not met in person and en masse until that luncheon. I spent the night with a Buddhist monk in Shigaraki, Japan, who ran a computer community for people in the Lake Biwa region. People I knew only online hosted me in their homes when I visited Sydney and Adelaide, Tokyo and Amsterdam, Paris and Vancouver. I've visited chatters, BBSers, MUDers, mailing listers, in Australia, England, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland. I received so much email from people who wanted to talk about virtual community that I started a virtual community for those discussions.

A few years ago, I crossed the line from participant observer into a more active role: I became a compulsive instigator of virtual communities. I created a Usenet newsgroup, sci.virtual-worlds, that is still used by VR researchers. Then came the River., a virtual community that is a California Cooperative Corporation, in which participants each have the opportunity to buy one share of ownership and have one vote in the governance of the operation. In 1994 I was the executive editor of HotWired, the first commercial webzine. We used a primitive web-based conferencing system, one of the first. In 1996, I founded Electric Minds, a webzine with an integrated webconferencing and chat system.

In 1997, I sold Electric Minds and created Brainstorms, a private virtual community. I also started one for alumni of my college, one for a service organization fighting blindness in Asia, and am creating a national network of regional virtual communities that are linked to the geographic communities of cable-modem users.

It would be wrong to conclude that I am an uncritical enthusiast of virtual communities. Like all technologies, this medium has its shadow side, and there are ways to abuse it. Right now, the most publicised form of abuse is the fashionable illusion that there are fortunes to be made in virtual community building.

Lately, vague talk of "community" has become fashionable among Internet entrepreneurs and financiers. I am skeptical, based on my own experiences growing virtual communities, that more than a very few will make real money in the virtual community business. It's too difficult to aggregate millions of people, and keep them aggregated, and too easy for people to roll their own online communities.

John Hagel and Arthur Armstrong, two McKinsey consultants, published a book in 1997 called "Net.Gain" which purports to show that hundreds of millions of dollars are to be made in aggregating virtual communities. Although I don't doubt that a dozen of the largest players will make advertising and e-commerce profits from the activities of people using virtual communities, I don't believe that online community is going to succeed as a profit-making industry for very many entrepreneurs, however.

The greatest value of virtual community remains in its self-organizational aspects. Any group of Alzheimer's caregivers, breast cancer patients, parents of learning disabled children, scholars, horse breeders -- any affinity group that has a need or desire to communicate -- can start a Listserv, a chat room, a BBS forum. Using Internet social tools is a literacy, not a commodity. The greatest products of the printing press had little to do with paper and ink, but with the powers of a literate population. The greatest impact of virtual communities will not come from advertising revenues for online chatrooms, but from the new forms of culture that will emerge from virtual communities.

For commercial organizations that are truly committed to broadening their communications with their prospects, customers, subscribers, suppliers, value-added retailers, users or others that constitute the company's "community," well-designed message boards and chatrooms can prove valuable. But they will only work in this respect if they are regarded as a cost of doing business, an aspect of marketing, support, and/or customerrelations, and not as a profit center. If you squeeze your community to make a profit at the same time you are trying to coax it into taking its first breath, you will simply kill your enterprise. Unlike other aspects of the Internet, it takes months, even years, to grow valuable and sustainable virtual communities.

Over the years, I've learned that virtual communities are not the norm, but the exception, that they don't grow automatically, but must be nurtured. Any groups that are thinking about adding chatrooms or message boards to their web pages, expecting community to blossom without much forethought, design, or committment of ongoing resources, is headed for failure.

In order to succeed, a virtual community has to have an affinity -- the answer to the question "what would draw these people together?" It has to present a user interface that doesn't baffle the newcomer, but gives a range of options to the experienced user. Building a social space online does not guarantee that people will inhabit it. It has to have a social infrastructure, including simple written agreements to a social contract governing online behavior and sanctions for transgression. It needs skilled human facilitation. And there must be some plan for bringing a continuing stream of newcomers into the community.

The social side of the Net has its shadow side, and it isn't hard to find. I've seen that the relative anonymity of the medium, where nobody can see your face or hear your voice, has a disinhibiting function that cuts both ways -- people who might not ordinarily be heard in oral discourse can contribute meaningfully, and people who might not ordinarily be rude to one's face can become frighteningly abusive online. As the Net has grown, the original norms of netiquette and collaborative, cooperative, maintenance of an information commons that enriches everyone have been assaulted by waves of clueless newbies and sociopaths, spammers and charlatans and loudmouths. Maintaining civility in the midst of the very conflicts we must solve together as citizens isn't easy.

The Net is the world's greatest source of information, misinformation, and disinformation, community and character assassination, and you have very little but your own wits to sort out the valid from the bogus.

There is no single formula for success in virtual community building, but there are several clear pitfalls, any one of which can cause the effort to fail. In order for a virtual community to succeed, the software must have a usable human interface, something which was not available until relatively recently. Unfortunately, many VC organizers don't know better, or are sold on something by their investors, and use older paradigms for online communication, which drives away those who have something to communicate but are not compelled to spend their time fiddling with technology. Another necessity for success is a clearly stated policy regarding online behavior that all participants must agree to. Having such a policy won't guarantee success, but not having such a policy probably guarantees failure.

Give people sensible rules and most of them will be very happy with that. Some communities will have very loose rules, some will be far more formal and controlled; the most important point of the exercise is that every participant agrees to a clear written statement of the rules before joining. People sometimes want to make up their own rules. If a subgroup wants a community with different rules, then they should formulate and agree upon those roles and roll their own Listserv, webconference, or IRC channel. A warning: "policy thrashing" over meta-issues such as how to elect the people who make the rules can swallow up other forms of discourse. Face to face meetingsare still far superior to online discussion for resolving conflicts and coming to agreement where consensus is not clear.

Most importantly, people who have had experience in dealing with online discourse need to participate, moderate, and host. Facilitating convivial and useful online discourse is a skill, one that is best learned through direct experience. Because behavior online tends to degenerate in of the absence of conversational cues such as tone of voice, facial expression, or body language, it is necessary for experienced chatters or BBSers to model the behavior that the medium requires in order to maintain civility. Without a cadre of experienced users to help point out the pitfalls and the preferred paths, online populations are doomed to fall into the same cycles of flame, thrash, mindless chatter, and eventual dissolution.

The social and informational treasures of cyberspace are what drew me into the world of virtual communities, but when I began to study the significance of these new media on our culture, I realized that the most important questions had to do with the political implications of global many to many media. Who would gain wealth and power? Who would lose?

The Internet and the Public Sphere

The public sphere is where people, through their communications, become citizens.. The printing press did not cause democracy, but it made a literate population possible, and literate populations, who are free to communicate among one another, came up with the idea that they could govern themselves. Radio and television each had effects on the public sphere. The Internet will have an effect. But we won't know what it is for a few more years.

Will the Internet strengthen civic life, community, and democracy, or will it weaken them? Failure to make the importance of this question clear to the public has been a shameful episode in the history of journalism. As one of the people who gets called for quotes on a daily basis, I can tell you that I've been talking about this issue for years, but all that ends up on the air or in print is something about porno or hackers or bomb recipes on the Internet. How do we introduce this truly important matter to popular discourse?

"The public sphere" is the what German political philosopher Jurgen Habermas called that part of public life where ordinary people exchange information and opinions regarding potholes on Main Street and international politics.

Habermas focused on the media -- pamphlets, debates in coffee houses and tea houses, committees of correspondence, that incubated democratic revolutions in the eighteenth century.

Habermas wrote:

* By "public sphere," we mean first of all a domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed. Access to the public sphere is open in principle to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere is constituted in every conversation in which private persons come together to form a public. They are then acting neither as business or professional people conducting their private affairs, nor as legal consociates subject to the legal regulations of a state bureaucracy and obligated to obedience. Citizens act as a public when they deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion; thus with the guarantee that they may assemble and unite freely, and express and publicize their opinions freely.

Because the public sphere depends on free communication and discussion of ideas, clearly this vital marketplace for political ideas can be powerfully influenced by changes in communications technology. Again, according to Habermas:

When the public is large, this kind of communication requires certain means of dissemination and influence; today, newspapers and periodicals, radio and television are the media of the public sphere. .. . . The term "public opinion" refers to the functions of criticism and control or organized state authority that the public exercises informally, as well as formally during periodic elections. Regulations concerning the publicness (or publicity [Publizitat]) in its original meaning of state-related activities, as, for instance, the public accessibility required of legal proceedings, are also connected with this function of public opinion. To the public sphere as a sphere mediating between state and society, a sphere in which the public as the vehicle of publicness--the publicness that once had to win out against the secret politics of monarchs and that since then has permitted democratic control of state activity.

The sophisticated and wholesale manufacture of public opinion and the domination of popular media by electronic spectacles had damaged the public sphere, just as industrial pollution has damaged the biosphere. I believe the foundations of democracy have been eroded, for the reasons Neil Postman cited in Amusing Ourselves to Death: the immense power of television as a broadcaster of emotion-laden images, combined with the ownership of more and more news media by fewer and fewer global entertainment conglomerates, has reduced much public discourse, including discussions of vital issues, to soundbites and images..

Opinion-shaping techniques originated in the print era, but truly grew into their present degree of power during the era of broadcast media. Now that the Internet has turned every desktop computer into a potential global printing press, multimedia broadcasting station, and place of assembly -- what will change?. Will citizen communications via the Internet be commodified, co-opted or shaped? Have citizen forums been neutralized already, or were they never a threat to centralized control of public opinion? Are many-to-many media less easily manipulable than mass media, or does the manipulation simply come in a different form? Which way can the Internet go? When the present turbulence clears, who will have more power because of the Internet? Is there a concrete way of preserving a universally accessible public area in a rapidly privatizing Internet?

If ever there was a time for good journalists and civic-minded editors and producers to help us ask these questions, it's now.

The Role of Journalism in Cybersociety

I believe the first role for journalists and news organizations today is to try to maintain some kind of gold standard for truth seeking in an environment where everyone is an eyewitness, Matt Drudge can send the cream of American journalists to root in the mud like hogs, talk radio is a haven for protected but socially corrosive hate-speech, and tabloid television is a big money-maker.

The news organization of the future might not need printing presses or broadcasting stations, but I can guarantee that the more varied and untrustworthy the information on the Internet becomes, the more valuable will be a network of educated and experienced professionals, who know how to cultivate and qualify sources, to second and third source stories, to verify and corroborate reports, to simplify complexities without dumbing them down, to find the human story without peddling human suffering.

The other important role news organization ought to play in the age of many to many media is the role of active host and participant in community-building. Establishing a dialogue with readers and viewers that extends beyond letters to the editor is a start. A few traditional news organizations, like the San Francisco Examiner, with it's sfgate.com, have been experimenting for years, with some modest success, in the area of online communities for subscribers. There is a more pointedly specific movement afoot, however, the movement for "civic journalism." I believe that the practices and beliefs underlying civic journalism flow naturally from the concerns about the public sphere that I have outlined.

The Pew Center for Civic Journalism defines Civic Journalism this way:

Civic journalism is both a philosophy and a set of values supported by some evolving techniques to reflect both of those in your journalism. At its heart is a belief that journalism has an obligation to public life - an obligation that goes beyond just telling the news or unloading lots of facts. The way we do our journalism affects the way public life goes. Journalism can help empower a community or it can help disable it.

Fortunately, a number of pioneers have already performed concrete experiments, so those organizations today that are interested in civic journalism can look to the case histories cited on the Pew Center website and other online sources. One of many such resources is a collection of case histories. In the introduction to "Adventures in Civic Journalism," Jan Schaffer, Executive Director of the Pew Center wrote:

What these projects have in common is that they did not stop at simply unloading a lot of information on their readers and considering the job done. That was only the start. They moved on to build some roles for their intended audience as active participants in solving the problem. They gave readers entry points for having a voice and for taking responsibility -- and the readers came aboard and shouldered some stake in the outcome.

In Portland, Maine, it meant giving ordinary citizens direct access to question candidates in a presidential election year only to see that blossom into a desire by those citizens to stick together and to do more.

In Binghamton, New York, it meant inviting teams of citizens to figure out ways to resuscitate a severely depressed local economy.

In Springfield, Missouri, civic journalism took to the streets to chronicle a rising tide of juvenile crime and found the community rallying at a "Good Community Fair."

In St. Paul, Minnesota, the journalists built on their coverage of safety and intergenerational issues to help citizens grapple with the issues of poverty in the context of welfare reform.

And in Peoria, Illinois, a new generation of leaders rose from the community after journalists examined the societal changes that led to a leadership decline.

Taken together, the experiences shared in these case studies amount to a blueprint for journalists interested in energizing their coverage and bringing about change in their community.

Forgive the America-centric examples. I mean only to point toward some concrete experiments. I believe that well thought-out and well-run virtual communities can play an important role, along with civic-minded journalism, and face-to-face community-building, in the creation of a cybersociety we would be proud to hand on to our children. I want to leave you with a suggestion. You can amplify your efforts to build authentic community and online forums that serve a commercial, educational, or civic purpose by communicating regularly with one another about best practices and common obstacles. Is it too radical to propose that a group of community-builders ought to consider building their own community, online and face to face?

References:

Tools for Thought by Howard Rheingold and The Virtual Community by Howard Rheingold are both available in full-text, hyperlinked versions at http://www.rheing .com

Links for Public Sphere

Internet and the Public Sphere http://www.weltanschauung.com/

Democracy is Online http://www.e-democracy.org/do/article.html

United Kingdom Citizen Online Democracy http://www.democracy.org.uk

Expanding the Public Sphere through Computer-Mediated Communication: Political Discussion about Abortion in a Usenet Newsgroup http://www.sunyit.edu/~steve/abstract.html

Postmodern Civic Culture http://www.civsoc.com/

A Supervised Public May Lose Skills Requisite to Discourse http://soclink.csudh.edu/wisc/dearhabermas/adminsoc.htm

Links for Civic Journalism

Pew Center for Civic Journalism http://www.pewcenter.org/index.php3

Case Histories in Civic Journalism http://www.pewcenter.org/doingcj/pubs/stop/index.html


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