If we believe that the Internet and development in cyberspace should enhance rather than restrict democracy, enable us to be active citizens - and that everyone should have an opportunity to participate - these are draft proposals for a manifesto for online communities. In summary:
1 Every citizen, regardless of their economic circumstances, should be able to share the benefits of the Information Age - including better communications, greater participation, electronic life long learning, and e-commerce. To achieve this they should have access to local community technology centres, plus public online forums and services to create an online community. The centres will provide technical support and help 'on the ground', the forums will be 'virtual spaces' for online communities related to localities.
The centres will be 'real places' that provide people with access to the Internet, digital broadcast and online services, and opportunities to learn more about their potential. Centres have a proven track record, particularly in the US where there is a strong network.
The forums, with associated Web pages of community information, will be online communities that provide people with the information and communication systems necessary to enhance the social, economic and environmental well-being of their communities.
Both centres and online communities will be needed. Without physical access centres, many people will not be able to get online or use the Internet. Centres can also provide a focus for the development of high quality local content and services.
The centres will be the libraries, schools and community centres of the digital age - sometimes located in these existing facilities, sometimes in other places where people naturally gather, sometimes purpose built. They will be designed to be unintimidating, welcoming and convenient.
A support programme associated with each centre should provide training and advice for individuals, small businesses and community organisations who wish to develop their own use of digital services, ranging from basic Internet use to the development of community media services.
The online community systems will be the local public service broadcasters of the digital age, combining news, information and interactivity. They will develop in a number of ways. Some may be developed by the centres, others by local authorities or non-profit organisations. The minimum services provided should include signposting to local online information, public forums, and scope for self-publishing and broadcasting.
2 Local technology centres and online communities should be well signposted both locally and nationally.
A national signposting system for online communities should enable people to find the physical location of centres, and also the location of online communities on the Internet. This could take the form of a search engine and map, providing the equivalent of local signposts to libraries, and media programme listings.
3 Public support should be available, particularly in low-income neighbourhoods, where the market is unlikely to provide facilities on a sustainable basis without public funding.
In many well-off communities, centres, forums and other services will be developed by public bodies, partnerships and social entrepreneurs. However, in some low-income neighbourhoods - where need is greatest - there will not be sufficient local resources to develop these facilities and sustained Government intervention will be necessary.
In order to ensure centres meet local needs, development should be undertaken through a process which enables the participation of community interests, and the formation of appropriate partnerships. This would allow everyone to become active digital citizens.
Government support should be longer term - not simply for pilots - and designed to help centres become sustainable. How this can be achieved may depend upon local circumstances, and will require some testing and evaluation, as described below.
4 Development of centres, forums and other services should be piloted through pathfinder projects, with community participation
The centres should build on the experience of telecentres and resources centres in the UK, and community technology centres in the US. They would take this well-tried model into the digital age where broadcast and Internet services converge.
The forums and other services similarly would draw on the experience of community networking and community media pioneers, and combine that with professional skills from public broadcasting and online services.
In order to achieve this, it will be necessary to research, develop and trial models for centres, and provide a central 'virtual resource centre' containing advisory materials.
The local pilot development should be undertaken in association with public, private and community organisations. The presumption in developing centres should be that they will be locally controlled, and designed to ensure the maximum participation of local interests. Developing these guidelines will be one task for the pathfinder programme.
5 A network and support for local champions and partnerships
Centres and online communities will only be developed if there are local champions and partnerships of local interests to support them.
Regional programmes should be established to identify, train and support these champions. They will be the catalysts and development staff for local centres, or people who wish to develop some aspect of a centre, forums and other services.
Local partnerships formed by the champions should be able to access material from the virtual resource centre, and call upon support from central development staff.
The centre, local partnerships and local champions should develop a 'learning network' which if possible draws upon the professional expertise in the online industry.
6 The virtual resource centre
Pioneers in the development of local
centres and online communities in the UK, US and elsewhere have
started to share their experience. What
is now needed is work to assemble 'best practice' , as understood by
practitioners in the field, and to test what works and what doesn't
in the pathfinder projects proposed above.