I spent most of last Monday with my colleagues on the J-Lab New Voices Advisory Board, going through 250 applications for “micro-news” projects so that we could pick the top ten to fund. (J-Lab will announce the winners soon.) I was impressed by the exciting things people are doing today with community blogs, elaborate “content management systems” that allow many citizens to contribute news to local websites, and “podcasting” projects (in which people make audio news files that others can elect to receive automatically over the Internet). Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis (who’s also a J-Lab advisor) have been describing many of these projects on their blogs.
It makes me think that maybe we’re seeing a second wave of efforts to use the Internet for civic purposes.
The last surge occurred in the mid-1990s, when grassroots civic groups often provided free email accounts and helped local citizens and organizations to establish free web pages and discussion forums. For example, in Charlotte, NC, a community computer network called ?Charlotte?s Web? once offered free email and Web access to at least 6,000 people, including residents of public housing projects and homeless men. Hundreds of local churches and civic groups created pages for the Charlotte?s Web site with help from volunteer webmasters.
However, private companies soon offered the same basic services (free email and Website hosting), and the Charlotte Observer started its own Website devoted to ?community.? Local government agencies decided that they no longer needed to fund Charlotte?s Web, since residents could get all the same goods free of charge from the private sector. When government grants vanished, the bank executives on Charlotte?s Web?s board judged that it was no longer viable. The Observer offered to join forces and was rebuffed by the volunteers at Charlotte?s Web, who were suspicious of a corporate enterprise. But when Charlotte?s Web ran out of funds, the Observer bought all of its assets and canceled the free Internet access program. Gradually, the community-oriented, civic, and political aspects of the new commercial site have vanished. Today, it has nothing to say about local nonprofits; and there is no space for citizens to describe their own work. It is a glitzy, professional site, full of advertising.
Charlotte?s Web failed because there were insufficient nonprofit resources to produce goods such as email accounts and web hosting that the market can provide more efficiently. This was a typical story in the mid- to late-1990s. However, the new wave of collaborative, community-oriented work uses technologies that have developed since 2000: blogs, wikis, podcasting, and the like. The cost of these activities is lower and the potential may be greater.