This is an article I was asked to write when I was working in the late 1990s as a consultant for SSE, a technology services firm in St. Louis. This article appeared in the October 1999 issue of St. Louis PC Journal. The publication is no longer in print, so this is published purely for historical interest.
By R. Scott Granneman, Internet Specialist, SSE
One of the promises the World Wide Web held in its early days, and still holds, was that anyone could now publish anything onto the Web, with a virtually unlimited audience. Individuals have not been the only beneficiaries of the Web's power, however. Businesses in particular have made extensive use of the Web to further commerce, improve communication, and automate processes. Finally, governments at all levels have also begun to maximize their use of the Web as well.
Certainly the Web allows people to communicate with each other over great distances. People in Japan can easily work with other people in Texas, for instance. Further, the Web allows virtual communities to be created that can be emotionally and intellectually vital. A classic example of this would be the cancer patient who finds a lifeline on the Web by chatting with other individuals undergoing the same experience.
One area of the Web that is just now coming into focus, however, is the way in which people that already live together within a physical community can use the Web to improve their lives and the well-being of the community as a whole. I plan to discuss these issues is a two-part article.
Of course, there are certain things that every community's Web site should have on it. I call these things the "Chamber of Commerce" information. You can probably list these things yourself:
- A description of the community: maps (hopefully interactive), demographics, history, and perhaps some photos of significant sites.
- Arts, events, and attractions
- Time, temperature, and weather
- Accommodations: motels, hotels, and a healthy dollop of B & B's.
- Shops and businesses: descriptions, hours of operation, and phone numbers.
- Contact: too often this is missing, or the Chamber of Commerce is the only contact information given.
Now, there is nothing wrong if your community's Web site contains only the above content. This is certainly great information to have. But a community's Web site could be so much more.
Community Web sites can do two things very well, if the will to do those things exists within the community itself. These two things turn the Web site from a mere billboard facing out into the external world into an interactive tool that helps those within the community:
- Pull people together
- Serve the people in the community
The city of Ithaca, New York has set up a Web site at http://www.ci.ithaca.ny.us titled, "IthacaNet: Community Networking in Central New York." It has the Chamber of Commerce information on it, but it goes beyond that. A large section of the Web site is devoted to community organizations. Here one can find out about recreation groups (juggling, flying, running, Scrabble®), special interest groups (dog owners, Harley Owners Group, South American Explorers Club), community groups (Boy Scouts, Friends of the Public Library, Lion's Club), religious groups (churches and temples, even the local Institute for Buddhist Studies), and service groups (day care, Amnesty International, Office for the Aging).
Another way to bring people together is to enable them to communicate with each other, especially concerning very specific topics that impact the people who live in the community. For instance, IthacaNet currently hosts "Interactive Ithaca—Electronic Discussion Group on Ithaca Commons." This mailing list describes its subject as "the Ithaca Commons pedestrian mall, its problems, its possible solutions, and the controversy regarding the idea of tearing up the walkways and restoring State Street as a thoroughfare." Do I have any idea what they're talking about? No. Do I think it's a great thing for people in Ithaca to be discussing? It sure seems like it.
The Twin Cities Free-Net for Minneapolis-St. Paul, which can be seen at http://freenet.msp.mn.us, provides Safetynet. Using either a mailing list or a bulletin board, residents and community activists living in neighborhoods in those cities can discuss issues and solutions relating to community safety. A look at a list of some of the topics covered is instructive: Sale of non-beverage alcohol, Prostitution, Boom Cars: Bane of Inner-City Living?, Snow and Ice on Sidewalks, Illegal Parking, Cruising, and Street Gangs.
Finally, Tucson, Arizona's Web site, at http://www.tucson.com/tucson/, has a unique area on it that is designed to literally bring people together. Called "PeopleFind," it is a place for people to post a description of a person they are seeking to find, along with the story of their quest. It makes for some fascinating reading: "Please help Bjorn Olson who is looking for his birth father … I lived with my mother til I was 8 when she passed away … my father was a Math Prof at a College or University in Tucson in 1975." In my mind, this is almost as riveting as a good novel. And how else could Mr. Olson have conducted his search? I think Tuscon is performing a great, and humane, service with PeopleFind.
Next month, I'll look at ways community-oriented Web sites can serve the people in the community. I've got some great examples and stories to share. If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to send them to me via my email address. See you next month!