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Community Networks and Websites? 155

brendano writes "I've been doing some research into the fascinating world of community networks and websites -- online places that can inform and connect people of a real-life community. They typically provide news, discussion forums, and email for local residents. There are some quite successful ones (such as the nonprofit Seattle Community Network or the Blacksburg Electronic Village), but also also ghost town-like failures that show how hard it is to get a community network/website rolling. In addition, many struggle with questions of how to get funding; whether they can be for-profit while serving the community, or be non-profit with enough money to keep going. Unlike the wireless community networks we hear about so much, these types of community networks go beyond just internet access and try to provide access to the community itself. Some, even, are being done to help build up disenfranchised communities, such as one in a housing project, or the three of HP's Digital Village project (one of whose projects I'm researching for.) I was wondering if members of the Slashdot community know of more examples of community networks, and what people think of these projects. Can real-life communities succeed in the online environment as well? How so?"
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Community Networks and Websites?

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  • by RedMage ( 136286 ) on Sunday May 05, 2002 @10:42PM (#3467818) Homepage
    The town of Arlington MA has been online for many years now in the form of a community mailing list and adjuct web sites. The mailing list, of which I have been a member since 1998, serves several purposes: community Q&A, a notice board, and a place to vent on general topics of relevance. The forum is pretty self-regulating in the old usenet tradition, but there is a moderator to handle housekeeping and extreme problems.
  • by lopati ( 74873 ) on Sunday May 05, 2002 @10:47PM (#3467839) Homepage
    one way might be to start a LETS [u-net.com], like the kind in victoria [victoria.bc.ca].
  • My university has a very popular online community which sprung up around a site which was initially designed for buying and selling textbooks.

    I suspect a lot of people in a geographic area would have something to buy/sell (cars, collectibles, appliances, computers, etc.) Advertise free buy/sell classifieds. They will come. And then introduce forums, chat, community calendar, and all that stuff.

  • WhitleyNet (Score:3, Interesting)

    by InnovativeCX ( 538638 ) on Sunday May 05, 2002 @10:52PM (#3467852)
    I work for a local community network. I'll admit, it's a rather small non-profit operation with a 'staff' of about 10 people that meet every several months. The main feature is the forum board in which people sound off about anything and everything around town. Slashdot it [whitleynet.org] if you really care.
  • by Sc00ter ( 99550 ) on Sunday May 05, 2002 @10:54PM (#3467858) Homepage
    At one point I was part of a really fun online community (I will not mention it because I no longer belong to it, and their webserver is having enough issues as it is right now). It was a lot of fun, we had all kinds of fun events and most of us got along really well.. Then it started to fall apart. The age difference between us really started to grow once som of us got over 21, then people wanted to have events where you had to be over 21 (like go to a local bar). This really cut off some of the members that were still under 21. Then people started having different interests, some of them got into drugs while others were really against drugs. Then both sides started to try to get more people to join in and back them up untill finally I had enough and left. I tried to form my own community for some of the people that felt the same way I did, but it just didn't work out. I'm still friends with the people that I was friends with in the community, but I don't belong to that community anymore. The things that were there that made me want to be part of it are not there anymore.

    On a side note, it is interesting how people hold grudges and such, even on an online community. Still, on my online journal, and when I comment on friends, people that had nothing better to do in our chat room then insult me still do it, even after being gone for over two months now.

  • Sure they can. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Rebel Patriot ( 540101 ) on Sunday May 05, 2002 @10:55PM (#3467860) Journal
    Can real-life communities succeed in the online environment as well? How so?

    As of right now I am posting this through community DSL. Granted, it is for profit and more pricey than Bellsouth, but I've had negligable downtime (only twice, once due to a server upgrade on their end and once when their pipe got broke). When I call them up with a problem (like getting a static public address), I talk to as person. There is no machine that picks up and asks you to hold for fifteen minutes with confusing options. The people are generally helpful and their service is impeccable. And if you're wondering if they are a community provider, website [gnat.net].

  • Tallahassee Florida (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 05, 2002 @10:55PM (#3467864)
    today is the 10th anniversary of Tallahassee Freenet. Cinco de Mayo!
    20K users, free dialup, community forums, etc. They sell used donated equipment from time to time, and have had library grant money in the past. Initially set up by Florida State University [fsu.edu]. Tallahassee Freenet [tfn.net]
  • by Sc00ter ( 99550 ) on Sunday May 05, 2002 @10:57PM (#3467872) Homepage
    But the point is to organize.. At the hight of the on-line community I was a part of we'd have "events" at least once a week. Be it going to the movies, play kickball, rollerskating, or whatever, we made it a point to get out and get together, away from the computers.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 05, 2002 @11:16PM (#3467915)
    This online designe community was destroyed [newstoday.com] by those who created it because of over-zealous deleting/censorship. They have effectively eliminated the most productive and helpful demographic because of puerile editing; an excellent way to bring a community to it's knees is by silencing it's most active members...
  • by MattRog ( 527508 ) on Sunday May 05, 2002 @11:27PM (#3467940)
    I'm the Technical Director/CTO for a large sports-based web forum located at http://forums.fanhome.com

    I basically do all the tech work (Sybase ASE, PHP, Linux, etc.) but am also vitally interested in keeping the user-base happy with high-performance and reliability combined with ease-of-use. The problem has been integrating casual members of different real-live groups (e.g. Red Wings sports fans interacting with PGA Golf fans) while still catering to the hard-core fan.

    We've taken to limiting almost all off-topic posts to specific forums (called the 'BBQ's) while keeping on-topic posts in the team-related forums. Typically the 'word association' and 'what are you wearing' type threads are relegated solely to the BBQ. Users who want to get their Pedro Martinez fix can do so without wading through 100 pages of 'What is your favorite food' threads. This allows both the hard-core and casual fan user groups to coexist but also via the BBQs we can also get different fans (Football and Hockey for instance) to begin to know each other.

    Another often-ignored section is usability. As has been said countless times before - usability is king. As we all know from Windows vs. Linux etc. the mass market is generally quite computer-illiterate when it comes to anything more complex than double vs. single clicking on icons (sometimes even that is too complex!!). Slashdot for the masses? Sheesh, if you look in the prefs section there are a billion different things to click on, some of which have scary names like 'threshold', 'display mode', and 'thread'. Sure, for Slash's audience this makes perfect sense, but for mass-appeal you have to really, really dumb things down. Keep that in mind when developing - as the 'elite' we work with computers very often. Mom-n-Pop (who probably have a larger disposable income than most college computer-savvy types) need to be able to maneuver and feel comfortable in your site. Why is AOL so freakin popular? You don't have to worry about DUN, TCP/IP settings, or even trying to figure out what browser you are using! All you have to do is click "Connect to the internet" and you're there!

    Don't also forget that usability doesn't necessarily mean 'high-tech'. The user doesn't necessarily need to have 30 widgets available to them on the front page, but us geeks really like to poke with settings. Make the 'default' interface nice and clean. If it limits some of the 'cooler' options then so be it. Let the geeks check the box called 'power user'. :) But don't confuse 'usable' with 'simplest'. The technologies you use can't be crap. :) No one likes reading Times New Roman 10pt. for your entire site. Font tags can be your friend!

    Keep it fast - they say that most users have a 3 second (or thereabouts) tolerance for page lag. Most I've noticed are quite lower than that - if it doesn't start loading by the time IE makes that little 'click' sound they're somewhere else.

    And last of all -- make sure it is 'boss friendly'. People that need to browse covertly at work have a much easier time if you use few 'neon' colors and pop ups! :)
  • Perfect Timing (Score:3, Interesting)

    by fivepan ( 572611 ) on Sunday May 05, 2002 @11:30PM (#3467943)
    This may not be an insightful post to anyone, but I thought it was so great of a coincidence that I had to post a comment.

    I've just recently started working on a community website for my local community. We're not a large group of people and fairly rural as far as that goes. But we are growing fast (in the top 3 fastest growing counties in Missouri, USA) and a lot of "computer-friendly" families are moving here from the city. My web design business is starting to pick up as they do as well.

    I've started to do a lot of research on the 'net, looking at other community sites and reading articles on the subject. I haven't found too much to help me, however. The Seattle website that you mentioned was one of the best organized that I found. I think, for-profit or not-for-profit, that a community site could work if advertised, well monitored, updated regularly, and information posted that was relevant to the community. You might even find people logging into the site that normally don't spend any/much time on the Internet.

    With that said, I am still looking for help myself. You can be sure I will be reading through every post on this subject over the next couple of days. If anyone knows of sucessful sites or websites that offer points to consider, I would appreciate the info...either in reply on /. or via email (fivepanATyahooDOTcom -- you know how it is).
  • by GNUCyberKat ( 62503 ) on Monday May 06, 2002 @12:27AM (#3468081)
    Having read all the (on topic) posts on this topic I find myself wanting to describe the website I am building for my community. I live in a co-operative housing community of approximately 180 residences in the middle of a large city. Currently there is no online presence for the community other than a single page advertising its existence on its parent associations website.

    The people who live in the community come from all walks of life and embrace most age groups, religious backgrounds, levels of financial stability, etc. However, having talked to a large number of them, I have come to an understanding of some of the general functions and premises that would build a great community website.

    First is universal access. A website doesn't do a community any good if there are some who cannot (not to read will not) gain access to it. Currently there is a single computer and dial up internet connection at the main office available for public use. After talking with the board of directors for the co-operative, they have agreed that if I could get enough interest and show sufficient progress and early participation from community members that they would be willing to purchase three additional computers and install high speed internet...its a start. (Note: about 78% of the residences in my community have Internet connected computers).

    Of the things that I have discovered that are most desired are:

    1. A community schedule of events
    2. An online copy of the co-operatives manuals
    3. A set of community chat boards
    4. A news board for non co-operative sponsored happenings
    5. An online booking resource for the co-operative's public maintenance and groundscare equipment
    6. A community for sale / wanted board
    7. A babysitting service listing / opportunities
    8. A personalized reminder / scheduling system for those community members who have tasks assigned
    9. A place for people to publish their thoughts, ideas, suggestions, comments, etc...(moderated of course)
    10. A place where some of the more creative souls in the community could write the occaisonal column or review for their friends to read
    11. A listing of all the public facilities with up to date descriptions and comments on availability
    12. A birthday / anniversary board
    13. A listing of all the businesses in the area such as stores, restaurants, etc. where the members can post reviews, critiques,etc.
    14. A member listing
    15. A security and advisory alert
    16. Links to other pertinent and community-useful sites on the internet.
    17. Personal pages for some of the members

    There really isn't much else that the community has currently expressed interest in so I won't try to include anything that isn't needed yet. As the title to my comment notes, you have to target the community with the website.

    These are just suggestions that have come my way. I plan to implement them in stages as time and resources permit. Currently I have just the basic foundations laid out so this is quite a timely discussion for me.

    As for the site, I have a service plan through my service provider that has a static IP and a domain name...I will be offering it to the community as part of my contribution as a member of the co-operative.

    I will be making every available attempt to make the site fast, easy to use, and personable for as many people as I can. You cannot usually please everyone, but if I can get most of them then we're laughing. Who knows, if this takes off, I might box it up and offer the basics to other co-operatives to use...anyways, thanks for letting me share my thoughts.

  • by netclift ( 158504 ) on Monday May 06, 2002 @08:57AM (#3468960) Homepage

    The use of global internet tools in very local communities has tremendous potential. Embrace geography. Love geography. This is not high school anymore, use your technical skills to benefit everyone even those jocks who pushed you around.

    However, when you mix the goals of Internet access, local content, and local discussions/information exchange most non-profit/voluntar individual/commercial efforts fail without some level of subsidy. Figure out what you want to do most and do that well.

    With Minnesota E-Democracy [e-democracy.org] we have focused on the use of e-mail lists for state and local political/community discussion since 1994. We use e-mail lists with web archives to reach thousands of people on an ongoing basis. We are completely volunteer-based, have a donated web site, and are completing a move to Mailman [list.org] from Yahoogroups in part because of their marketing/privacy shift.

    We have a wealth of experience and articles available on my web site [publicus.net].

    Steven Clift

  • by netclift ( 158504 ) on Monday May 06, 2002 @10:19AM (#3469382) Homepage

    In the specific area of online discussions in local communities we [e-democracy.org] need your advice. Related discussions on this has occured on the Democracies Online Code Network e-mail list [yahoo.com] for civic-minded techies.

    We use e-mail lists. They work. Our participants love them. They need to work better with the web. We do not need a web-based system that treats e-mail participants as second class citizens. Our thousands of users won't make the transition - and we are not going to sacrifice our sustainable non-profit model that has worked for eight years.

    In an ideal world someone would create an e-mail/web system akin to a cleaner, crisper Yahoogroups but something better that you can host on your own domain.

    What we have:
    Mailman [list.org] with additional archives using Mail-Archive [mail-archive.com]. (We are moving our last few lists off Yahoogroups.)
    Basic web pages with forum information [e-democracy.org], hundreds of Minnesota-specific political links [e-democracy.org], and special election/candidate link directories [e-democracy.org].

    What we need in term of priority:

    1. Advanced Web Archives and Subject Line Syndication - Improved web access to our e-mail forum archives including the ability to post via the web to -recent- messages by "no e-mail" members, the ability to automatically display via RSS the most recent subject lines from our various lists on our home page/other key web pages to posts in the archives. Hypermail [hypermail.org], Mhonarc [mhonarc.org] just don't cut it. They were great in their time, but we need something that takes advantage of MySQL, allows for linear display of posts in the same thread, and other tools. More on this ... [yahoo.com].

    2. Member Preferences Page - A single page like Yahoogroups where someone can control their settings on the all the lists they subscribe to on our server. We'd also like to allow people to recommend new e-mail lists for their local communities and essentially reserve a spot by letting us know that they are interested in a specific city/county/region or statewide public policy issue. We do not open community discussions without at least 100 participants and have an extensive public outreach process that goes with each new lists (i.e. online and in-person recruiting). If we recruit 50,000 "e-citizens" across Minnesota we need to use technology to help shape our forum development priorities.

    3. Member Directory with Archive Links - (Again, we are not interested/able to use a web-centric conferencing system) This is where the web can complement our e-mail environment. I'd like each member to have the option to share information about themselves (our rules for posting including signing your real name, we have to use personal accountability in our model for online political discourse or everything would be pure crap). I'd like each e-mail that goes through the list server to insert their member directory page URL. From the member-directory page I'd to present both the information provided by the participants but also links to their recent posts across our various forums. And perhaps ...

    4. Participant Ratings - With unmoderated mailing lists, rating each post before it is delivered is impossible. Even if we moderate our lists, a multiple moderater bottle neck among our mostly non-techie audience would cause major delays in discourse. So ... one idea is to allow participants to optionally vote +1 substance, -1 for style for any post after it is distributed. We don't want to create a situation where people simply vote against people of other ideologies (we have a cherished and extremely rare cross-political spectrum audience) so some sort of forumula would have to be developed to give various weight to votes (i.e. repeat votes by one individual against another count less over time) and always bring the rating toward zero over time. Oh - why do this? While our unmoderated lists to have forum managers who have the power to sanction participants who violate our rules and guidelines, we ultimately believe that self-regulation, and group self-governance is our strength. We walk on a tight rope between chaos and control in order to keep and build our participatory civic audience based on our democratic and community purpose.

    5. E-Newsletter Distributed Content Management System - We have currently have 4,000+ people on our general announcement list (over next five years we'd like it to raise it to 50,000 or 1% of Minnesotans). We are planning a once or twice monthly e-mail newsletter with various content sections. I'd like to give our volunteer editor the tools to allow other volunteers to submit content (i.e. event lists, Minnesota political history this month, quotes of the month from our forums) on a regular basis into key sections of the newsletter and assuming that some content will be to long for e-mail newsletter format, something that integrates with a longer web section. 6. Mailman Advancements? Or another list packages. As an organization we'd like the ability to send one message to everyone on one of our lists without double posting. For our volunteer list managers we need the ability to quickly delete all the non-member (mostly spam) posts in one or two clicks and not have to click and select every post. What list packages [yahoo.com] do people recommend?

    If you actually read this far, you should join the DO-CODE e-mail list [mailto] that I mentioned above.

    Cheers, Steven Clift [publicus.net]

  • by netclift ( 158504 ) on Monday May 06, 2002 @12:20PM (#3470332) Homepage

    Great question.

    The world is run by those who show up. In Minneapolis 13 council members represent 380,000 people. We have 800 active citizens including many of the council members, local journalists and hundreds of people active in their neighborhoods. Our goal is to open up community discussions - put an online forum in the middle of real politics to make it more accessible and transparent. What is better, 13 council members with little city-wide press coverage in a metro-media market only or an open forum that allows anyone with good ideas to see their opinions spread and perhaps help set/influence the agenda?

    More information including links to articles in the local paper about the forum [mail-archive.com].

    Cheers, Steven Clift

  • by kwj8fty1 ( 225360 ) on Monday May 06, 2002 @12:39PM (#3470475) Homepage
    We've been having a hard time over at seattlewireless, but we are making good progress. We have quite a dynamic group - -From business people, geeks, 'users', and other wireless groups asking questions. As of this point, we have a bunch of 'DXnodes' (nodes offering 'hotspot' internet), a few point 2 point links up. We should be getting 3-4 more point 2 point links up in the next two weeks. If you are interested in wireless, checkout our website:

  • by netclift ( 158504 ) on Monday May 06, 2002 @03:21PM (#3471780) Homepage

    It is all about outreach. With E-Democracy [e-democracy.org] we host local community discussions that have a tremendously diverse amount of expression. We don't know who our 800 participants are compared to say the census, but we know that 800 people in any geographic community discussing local issues [mail-archive.com] is very important and empowering. Take a look and judge for yourself.

    In terms of gender, age, neighborhood, ethnicity, income, etc. we can alway have more diversity and we are actually working on some grant proposals to hit various community events in-person to recruit for our forums. However, these community forums really only matter to various communities when they themselves think they matter. Right now the "active citizens" of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Winona understand the real world political agenda setting power of online discussions where community leaders/the media participate/lurk, while many of diverse and newer immigrant communities haven't caught on yet. They will as they come to use all forms of media and communication to increase their power in the community ... or they won't if it doesn't appeal to them or relate in someway to their everyday life.

    Steven Clift [publicus.net]

Don't tell me how hard you work. Tell me how much you get done. -- James J. Ling