Nov. 22, 2003
forums: 21st-Century Communications for Our Community and
How Well Does Media Serve Cambridge
For over a decade, the convergence of the computer and telecommunications
industries has inspired grand predictions of a bright new world
of freedom and prosperity . . . an "e-topia." And
we have seen advanced communications technologies help to improve
business practices, enhance medical services, enrich educational
opportunities and deliver a wide array of entertainments to
our homes. But how can these advanced telecommunications services
be used to foster strong local democratic communities? How are
these communications technologies being used, if at all, in
the City of Cambridge? And what role, if any, does local government
play in making sure 21st-century communications technologies
serve public needs?
Hampton is assistant professor of technology, urban
and community sociology and holds the Class of '43 Career Development
Professorship in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning
O'Bryant is assistant professor of political science at
Resnick is a professor in the Media Lab where he co-founded
the Computer Clubhouse Project, a network of after-school learning
centers where youth from under-served communities learn to express
themselves with new technologies.
RESNICK described his project, now international in scope,
to involve children as creators and designers of new technology.
Clubhouse (http://www.computerclubhouse.org), begun ten
years ago in the MIT Media Lab, is a network of after-school
computer centers for young people in low-income communities.
The main focus of the project is to offer new means of expression
rather than merely to provide access to new technologies. The
project was at first associated with the Lego Company, creating
"programmable" Lego blocks. The research group tested
these blocks with kids visiting a local museum (now the Museum
of Science in Boston), and later, in response to interest from
the museum and young people in the community, started an after
school program at the museum. The project expanded to Boys and
Girls Clubs in Boston, and eventually to national and international
locations. Resnick noted that often technology is presented
to kids only as entertainment (gaming) or as a means for looking
up information. In contrast, the Computer Clubhouse's goal is
to let kids see themselves as designers and creators with technology,
and thus, to see themselves as creative, competent learners
and strong members of a community.
O'BRYANT began by discussing the Camfield
Estates Project (http://www.camfieldestates.net), a project
he worked on as a graduate student at MIT. The Camfield Estates
is a housing development in Roxbury, Mass. The goal of the project
was to study how technology contributed to community building,
residents' self-sufficiency, neighbor-to-neighbor communication,
and increased access to information that previously necessitated
outside services. O'Bryant showed a short video summary of the
project and discussed some of the project's findings. The researchers
found that the residents, identified by the digital divide as
those least likely to use new technology, were able to use this
technology on a regular basis after initial training. O'Bryant
noted that although the results cannot be attributed entirely
to the project, over the project's two year span the Camfield
Estates developed a stronger sense of community, and the residents
were better able to accomplish activities from the home.
also discussed his current research, which investigates the
relationship between those who have Internet access and those
people's political participation, including the potential of
Internet voting. The goal of this research is to study political
participation in low-income communities, and to discover the
extent to which Internet access might increase political participation
in these communities.
HAMPTON's work has two primary focuses: how new communication
technologies affect social relationships and community, and
how to create new technologies that can be used to build stronger
communities, build social capital, and build connections within
neighborhoods. Hampton's work focuses on middle-class rather
than low-income communities because middle-class communities
currently tend to have more access to new technologies, and
thus provide a more natural setting for research. He noted that
his work is informed by a "social network" perspective
in which both online and offline communication must be studied
in order to fully understand either form of communication. The
social network perspective also includes a focus on individuals'
"weak" social ties, in addition to the more often
studied "strong" ties. Hampton discussed three current
project he discussed was Netville, a project in which he moved
to a suburb and supplied the residents with technologies such
as broadband Internet access, videophones, neighborhood email
lists, multimedia chatrooms, and music sharing programs. He
found that the residents primarily used only the email lists,
and that those residents who were "wired" visited
each other about 50% more often and talked to their neighbors
about twice as often.
project Hampton discussed, E-neighbors, was designed to confirm
the results of the Netville project by replicating it in the
greater Boston area. This project is focused on four neighborhoods,
three of which were provided simple technologies such as email
lists, with the goal of finding how these technologies affect
both neighborhood social relationships, as well as individuals'
other existing relationships. Thus far, Hampton has found evidence
that Internet relationships do not become strong social ties,
that those with greater face-to-face contact have smaller strong
tie social networks, that higher web use (not email use) correlates
to less weak social ties, and that higher telephone use increases
diversity of social ties. The project also found that residents
began to use the email lists as a means for political discussions,
and that this contributed to an increase in political participation
in the community.
project Hampton discussed was the Network Awareness project.
This project's focus is on how communication technologies, particularly
position-aware technologies, can be used to build community.
Hampton concluded the talk by noting that new technologies do
not cause social change, rather they afford social interactions
by breaking down barriers of social contact; that the Internet
should be treated as part of existing social networks, rather
than as a separate social domain; and that place remains an
important concept despite the reduction in special barriers
due to new technologies.
How do projects such as E-neighbors deal with privacy issues
of email lists?
We make it an opt-in service. We don't do anonymous because
there are some experiments we've done in the past where that
has proven to be a little bit ugly. We also very much limit
the size of neighborhoods to about 200 homes, and what we find
is that if it goes beyond that or becomes anonymous, people
forget that they are actually communicating with neighbors who
live very close to them, and often say things that you wouldn't
want to say to a neighbor when you have to pass them in the
street for the rest of your life.
DAVIS, vice mayor, City of Cambridge: I just ran for office,
and was communicating with a lot of people using many different
methods. It strikes me that running for office you're creating
a neighborhood of people also. I wonder, practically, what is
this software and how do you get it?
We're getting ready for the public release of E-neighbors. Hopefully
in the spring we'll have a website where you can show up, enter
in your zip code, and it will identify online neighborhoods
that are near you or allow you to create your own online neighborhood.
You can set up our own neighborhood email list and all of the
services that we've been providing to these existing neighbors.
LONG: I was interested in the Camfield findings. One of
the findings seemed to be a 20 percent decline in the use of
the technology over the several years that you were looking
at it, and I'd be interested in your comments about that.
That was an interesting finding for us too, and at first it
was a little concerning. But, it was just around the website
because the residents allowed us to keep web logs, so we collected
data on who was using the website and how often it was being
used. But, what we were able, after further analysis, to realize
was that once people reach a certain level of comfort with the
technology and have found what they needed as it relates to
the site, they would usually only come back when they actually
needed something from the site or became familiar enough where
they didn't have to continue to stay at the site. And, once
people became more comfortable with the technology and Internet
use, traffic began to go other places. So, as opposed to staying
at the Camfield site and what was specific to Camfield, they
began to venture out to other areas of the Internet. The website
drop in usage wasn't as troubling as we had initially thought
because the web log showed that people were going other places.
Do you have statistics on the overall technology use? Use of
the website went down, but the overall use of the net, do you
The average was about 3.8 hours per day; with most of the participants
saying they use the computer and the Internet everyday or almost
everyday. So that was showing that it wasn't consistent with
a drop in the website, that usage was still high, although the
website use had dropped.
Could any of you provide any insight into how the use of technology
is affected by language barriers, and how technology might adapt
to accommodate that?
For out particular project that was one of the unexpected challenges
that we came across because some of the residents were strictly
Spanish speaking, and all of the Spanish translation software
that we found was not adequate. But, in addition to that we
found that there were literacy challenges within the Spanish
speaking community. So, even if you translated it, you still
had to deal with the issue of whether or not they could actually
read. So, that was one of the lessons that we learned, and in
hindsight, we would probably take more time at the front end
identifying those residents who were strictly Spanish speaking,
identify the kind of tools that would be adequate for them and
address that issue accordingly.
One issue that has come up for us as I mention our Computer
Clubhouse network has expanded internationally. We're now in
seventeen countries, and we do have an intranet that connects
members and staff at all of the different Clubhouses, which
leads on one hand to some language barriers. On the other hand,
it also contributes to new language opportunities. A lot of
the members in US cities don't have English as a first language.
It helps connect them to others. There are a lot of Latino youth
here who are now speaking online with kids from the Clubhouses
in Costa Rica, Brazil and Columbia, opening up new possibilities
to see the broader community that they can be a part of through
that language. We also are looking at different types of language
translation. We find that, with kids, bad language translation
is often still good enough to support interesting communication.
I'm interested in the Camfield Estate. These findings help increase
the voter participation and political participation in Boston?
These studies involve mostly involve African-Americans or other
The Camfield Estates development is mostly African-American,
with a pretty good number of Hispanic and Spanish speaking residents,
but there were some whites, some Asians, and some Native-Americans
in the development. Unfortunately, only the African-American
and Hispanic residents participated in the project. In relation
to voting, that was one of the things that we did capture. Voting
did increase during the life of the project, but it occurred
during the time of the 2000 election, where voter participation
increased everywhere, so that would not be a good indicator
for the rest of the low-income communities in Boston. However,
that is where my interest is taking me, to try to find out about
voter participation in other low-income communities.
WINTERS, editor, Cambridge
Civic Journal: Can anyone comment on how one or
two people can really sway the ultimate results in any of these
experiments? In other words, you can put the technology out
there, but if one or two people in a user group really know
how to make an email list work, that group can become very organized
while in another group nothing happens at all. So, it's not
just access to the technology; it's the human beings who make
it go. A second and negative side of this is a pattern of online-community
formation referred to as "the bad chasing out the good."
What starts off as a lively online community with lots of representation
ends up being dominated by a few members, and people just throw
up their hands and say "I'm out of here."
I have a couple of comments. The first is that in my particular
work we operate under what we call a threshold theory. In Netville,
we observed that there are always a couple of people who are
going to get involved. For those not so inclined, often what
it takes to get them involved is observing other people who
are involved. The great thing about the neighborhood email list
is that it is very visible, and if you see a couple people participating,
you begin to think that there are more people participating
than there really are. It's like a domino effect; it really
starts to increase participation. But, it also works in the
opposite effect. As soon as something bad happens, and suddenly
communication stops, it just stops and it's very hard to revive.
We've also found in E-neighbors that there are just some neighborhoods
where, no matter what you do, unless you go in there and publicly
intervene, you'll never get people involved. There are some
neighborhoods that are already involved enough that they just
don't want anymore, and there are other neighborhoods that are
particularly transitory neighborhoods, or neighborhoods that
are younger, that tend to just not want to be as involved. For
the fact that they're so transient, the attachment level goes
down a little bit, and it's very hard to get them involved no
matter what you do.
On the point of a few people making a big difference. You allude
to one example where there might be only one or two people who
know how to set up the list and then it can take off. So, that's
a case where a few people with some technical knowledge can
make a difference, and that's certainly true. But, I'd want
to make sure to add that we see a lot of cases where a few people
make a difference, where it has nothing to do with the technology,
but people act as the social glue of the community, whether
it's a proximal, in-person community or an online community.
Or, in lot of the type of activities that we work on at the
Clubhouse, where it's about creative expression, a few people
with a background in the arts who really know how to bring out
the expressiveness of others can make a much bigger difference
than those who know how to use the technology.
What we've found in Camfield is that those people who were actively
involved, similarly to what the voting study was talking about,
were the ones who were really active and involved online. So,
board members, people who were more active and more known. For
our purposes, it was a good thing because it helped to keep
what little bit of activity going, and it helped to support
the other residents who may have had a little nervousness or
trepidation about using it become comfortable with it because
these people continued to use it.
In the Computer Clubhouse study it seemed as though your introduction
of technology was centered on the individual's engagement with
it and empowering them as a consequence, or perhaps improving
esteem and creativity. The other two seemed to be much more
about using the technology in a communication sense, perhaps
more with people around them, but also as much with anonymous
or third parties outside of the regular communities. Were there
any elements or spillovers between that interaction in the Computer
Clubhouse context and the computer as a communications tool
and its impact on the social structure and the social interactions
of the kids?
We paid a lot of attention from the beginning to issues
of social interaction and building of community. We paid more
attention to those issues than to the computers as communication
tools within the Clubhouse itself; it wasn't just about individual
empowerment, but building the community from within. Increasingly,
over the years it's also been reaching outside the walls of
the Clubhouse. There's a lot of work now with kids in the Clubhouse
doing work in the community to try to address challenges in
the surrounding community of the Clubhouse. One of my graduate
students has a project called the Young Activist Network where
young people at more than a dozen of the Clubhouses work on
projects investigating the different issues in their communities,
mapping social networks in their communities, getting an understanding
of how interactions happen in their community, identifying problems
and needs in their communities, and seeing how they can use
technology to develop solutions to those problems. Up till now
most of the focus has not been on the use of communication technologies
in doing that, it's been much more using digital cameras to
document things. Communication in the sense of making presentations
to help convince other people about the problems, but hasn't
been focused on using Internet technologies. We have Internet
connecting the Clubhouses, but it has been used mainly by staff
to share their ideas - it hasn't been at the core of what the
Clubhouse has been about.
How do you go about building up these email lists? Is there
any source from which you could get email addresses?
The E-neighbors site will have a function built-in so that you
can email your neighbors. But, there are many other examples
in Canada, the U.S. and Europe where people have gone door-to-door
and done that initial legwork to get the email addresses. It
makes collective action easier over time because, right now,
the biggest barrier to collective action is the 25 feet between
you and your neighbor's front door and the effort it takes to
move from door to door and the energy required to do that, and
the printing of the paper to get the signatures, and the coordination.
All that is much easier over email.
There are some online utilities that enable you to search for
email listings in your area.
THORBURN, director, MIT Communications Forum: One theme
I hear in some of the responses from the panel struck an especially
resonant chord with me. That theme is a reminder of the limits
of technology, an incitement not to become utopian about new
technical possibilities because old, pre-technological skills
are still important. I wanted simply to reinforce that and say
something that's almost so obvious that we all take it for granted.
People with very strong verbal skills, who read fluently and
easily, master the Internet much more quickly than people who
have limited verbal skills. The truth of the matter is that
the computer itself, although it is more than this, is also
in a fundamental sense a tool like a typewriter, like a book,
for the exploitation of verbal or language skills. And one implication
of this is that one of the strongest ways to empower people
to use the Internet and to use computers well is to teach them
to read and write, and to strengthen what we might think of
as the most old-fashioned technology, which is the technology
of language itself.
I'll point out a dilemma that we're facing right now that I'd
be interested to hear your view on. We're setting up to strengthen
the Clubhouse Village, the intranet that connects members of
these 80-some Clubhouses. Right now we have the technology,
when members post a project, they type a description of it.
As you said, they could better communicate about it if they
have the language skills to do it. Now we are able to have them
just record a message about it, just hear about it, and I think
we're mixed minds about that. In some ways, I think it would
be much more likely to reflect on their projects, to add commentary
to it, when we have the possibility of voice annotation. On
the other hand, I think we'll remove some of the way that the
Internet has been serving in the Clubhouse to have a motivation
for learning more language skills because that was the way initially
with the Internet to be able to describe your projects. I think
we're opening up to more forms of communication besides the
I would not undervalue oral skills at all. I think that many
people are much more eloquent when they speak than they are
on the page, and it's good that the technology enables that.
But, both are verbal skills, and both are language skills, and
skill with language is still the heart of what it takes to use
I would add to that, too. I sat on a panel at the Aspen Institute
with some of the policy makers from the Federal Communications
Commission, and they were asking the question about social justice
and Internet use and trying to get people machines. I think
that just to focus on getting people a machine and getting people
Internet access falls short of what actually is needed. Just
like Keith said, training people to use this stuff and showing
them how to make good use of it becomes the most important thing
because if you look at low-income communities, there's a lot
of technology in low-income communities. Cell-phone penetration
rates are off the charts in low-income communities. A lot of
the technology that you wouldn't think was there is already
there, but they haven't seen the relevance or haven't gotten
comfortable with the computer or the Internet, and so they shy
away from it. But, if you show them how to use it, show them
the value of it, they will make the provisions to get the technology
they need to do what they need to do.
LLOYD: I know that all of you have talked about your projects,
and I don't know if you've made it explicit that you are not
doing work in Cambridge. Can you give us a reason why you are
not doing work in Cambridge, and could you provide some suggestion
about how the work that you're doing in these other places would
apply directly to Cambridge.
The reason that we didn't choose a Cambridge neighborhood as
a field site is because of the student factor. There's just
so many of them and they're transient. We didn't know what impact
that would have on our study. We wanted something that was more
normal. The other response is that I live in Cambridge. I'm
a House Master on campus, and we're in a residential community
that is very much dedicated to trying to become more involved
with the Cambridge community. We've worked with Henrietta [Davis]
in the past on this, and Mitch, Ceaser and I have talked about
ways that we might be able to do more about integrating technology
in some aspect of that.
With the Computer Clubhouse project, it's true that of the 80
or so Clubhouses, none are in Cambridge. We have about a half
dozen in Boston, one in Lawrence, one in Worchester, so there's
a variety in the area. There's not a scholarly reason for doing
it, it's been largely opportunistic. We've opened Clubhouses
where there's been a combination of a community organization
that shares the spirit and a funder who is willing to put in
the funds for it. We have done similar types of work in some
of the schools in Cambridge, but with the Clubhouse haven't
had the opportunity.
The same reasons that they mentioned. We didn't really look
at Cambridge, but it wasn't that we didn't want to. Some of
the communities in Boston were a little more representative
of urban areas across the country. That's not to say that Cambridge
doesn't have its challenges as an urban area, but Boston seemed
a little more representative of that. And the convenience of
it, we used some of our personal connections to get into some
of the housing developments because it's just not an easy barrier
to break to get into a low-income community. There's a level
of trust that you have to develop, and you've got to deal with
some stakeholders that have some trust within the community.
That would be the most important reason for our doing it in
by Brian Jacobson
--photos by Joellen Easton