"Only Connect"--E. M. Forster In An Age Of Electronic Communication: Computer-Mediated Association And Community Networks
Note: A slightly different version of this paper appeared in Sociological Inquiry 67(1):645-650.

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Mary E. Virnoche and Gary T. Marx

Department of Sociology
University of Colorado at Boulder

In this paper we construct a framework for the analysis of types of computer-mediated communities. In part we emphasize "community networks" for further development and analysis. Considering data gathered from 1994 - 1995, we suggest some problems concerning community networks as a locus of computer-mediated interaction. In addition, we propose research directions that may prove fruitful to richer social understanding of computer-mediated association.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.
Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,
And human love will be seen at its height.
Live in fragments no longer.
Only connect...

--E.M. Forster, Howards End
Introduction

Within the world of Howards End, Forster and his characters struggle with the dilemmas of making connections in a Victorian liberal-humanist period that preceded the First World War. While the epigraph "only connect" suggests a positive imperative for making ties, it also implies despair for the difficulties of making those connections. His story weaves in and out of the tension between ideological visions of connection and the obstacles created by an often hostile world.

The tension between context and ideals remains salient in an age of electronic information. There has been much excitement about the Internet's potential to facilitate these "connections" which are discussed in tandem with an equally amorphous concept of "community." The complexities of contemporary societies and the nuances of computer-mediated community building suggest these new forms of connecting may offer a different social web than we have seen before. This web may likely fall short of the ideal of some technological advocates.

In this paper we construct a framework for the analysis of types of computer-mediated communities. In part we emphasize "community networks" for further development and analysis. Considering data gathered from 1994 - 1995, we suggest some problems concerning community networks as a locus of computer-mediated interaction. In addition, we propose research directions that may prove fruitful to richer social understanding of computer-mediated association.

Community

In dichotomized macro theories of social organization, the concept of "community" has been associated with a traditional, highly cohesive, ritualized, and sometimes idealized societal form (Durkheim 1893/1964; Toennies 1887/1963). At the micro level, others have theorized community in terms of specialized interaction forms such as those common to "primary groups" (Cooley 1909).

Gusfield (1975) warned against thinking of communities as groups or entities to which a person belongs. He discussed "arenas of situated action" and similar constructs are reflected in later work such as Knorr-Cetina's (1981) "transepistemic arenas" of scientific community. More currently community is being framed theoretically in terms of "social networks" (Wellman 1988).

Analyses of community understood as loosely intertwined networks of association consider among other factors the variation in establishment, interaction, and maintenance or dissipation of various networks.

There is an ongoing debate in the literature concerning the dynamic of information technologies and community. While the empirical work of Fischer (1992) found no significant changes in "localism" or community focus with the diffusion of telephony, others have suggested that new information technologies present a significantly different platform and are contributing to qualitatively different mechanisms and forms of association (Cerulo 1995; Marx 1994; Meyrowitz 1985). Still Wellman (1996) maintains that, even with new technologies, relationships are in some ways similar to those in "real" life: they are weak, intermittent and specialized.

This paper takes one step back from the social change discussion of community and technology. Just as we find variation in the role of information technologies in the social dynamic, we speculate that various forms of computer-mediated association will also vary in their dynamic with community. We suggest a model for differentiating community types.

Our model begins with an interactional definition of community. In this model, community is constituted by individual identification of and involvement in a network or web of particular associations. With identification and involvement as a given, we suggest variation by degree of geographic and virtual space intersections. We suggest that this model can provide the framework for considering further qualitative and quantitative variation in computer-mediated community.

Method

This paper is based on field research on the Boulder Community Network (BCN) and a community networking discussion group. In addition, we considered a variety of primary and secondary sources related to computer-mediated communities. The data were gathered using participant observation, guided conversation, private letters, and print as well electronic media.

Mary took on an active membership role (Adler and Adler 1987) with BCN beginning in November, 1994. In addition, she followed the communications of "LocalNet," an on-line discussion group of community network advocates and organizers from around the world. For the most part, Mary remained an unknown observer (Lofland 1971) of LocalNet. Throughout the data gathering process, we used principles of inductive analysis (Znaniecki 1934) to uncover emerging themes in the data.

A Model Of Community Types

In this section we develop a model for approaching the analysis of computer-mediated community. In developing this model, we consider various community forms as understood in relationship to virtual and geographic space. Using these criteria we distinguish and situate community networks in the model.

Whether or not we can say that a group of people are united by shared geographic space depends upon the size of the net that we cast. We share the planet Earth and in some very loose sense of the concept could say that the planet constitutes some type of community. Yet the term "global village" is itself problematic due to, among other factors, the social dynamics of group size, heterogeneity, and degrees of norm maintenance possible at the global level as compared to a small village.

Since the focus of computer community networking is at the level of the county, city, town or neighborhood, we use the local level as a defining analytical characteristic for our model. Those who share geographic regions beyond this size and who never come into close proximity are not considered to share geographic space. In this model, we suggest six "ideal types" of communities as they can be understood in relationship to shared virtual and/or geographic space. (See Figure 1).

The people who live in a city may share several square miles of space and the accompanying problems and rewards of that space. Though the level of their interaction with one-another may be limited, they live on an ongoing basis within the geographic boundaries which define the city or "ongoing community" (Cell B). If we shrink our net, with the exception of "total institutions" (Goffman 1961), it is likely we will find geographic spaces in which people interact on an intermittent basis. We label these "intermittent communities" (Cell D). There may be greater degrees of interaction when people step into, for example, geographic organizational boundaries such as where a university department is housed. Yet again, the shared geographic space of the department is common for only slices of time.

Figure 1: Community Type Based Upon Shared Geographic and/or Virtual Space

 
Shared Virtual Space
Yes
No
Shared 

Geographic 

Space

Ongoing A B
Community Networks Ongoing Communities
Boulder Community Network Cities
Denver Free-Net "Total institutions"
 
Intermittent C D
Virtual Extensions Intermittent Communities
CU sociology web sites Many workplaces
CU discussion groups Youth clubs
 
Never E F
Virtual Communities Dispersed Communities
alt.support.attn-deficit Some paper organizations
   

Finally "dispersed communities" are collectives whose members are separated by distance and never meet literally face-to-face (Cell F). Again, in identifying them as communities there is an underlying assumption of member identification with and involvement in the community. Dispersed communities are constituted outside of shared virtual or geographic space through mediums other than literal face-to-face contact. Any of these geographic groupings may claim interaction space in the virtual world.

We define "virtual communities" as those encompassing people whose connections to one another are based solely in virtual space or on computer-mediated communications (Cell E). At the next gradation, "virtual extensions" are a computer-mediated community form in which actors also move in and out of a shared physical interaction space such as an office (Cell C). Here computer-mediated communication theoretically extends already present interaction potential. We distinguish "community networks" from virtual communities and virtual extensions by their relationship to ongoing shared physical space. Community networks blend the fluidity of the virtual with the concreteness of ongoing shared geographic space (Cell A). They connect via electronic communications or virtual space people who also share a common geographic space such as city or neighborhood.

While the rest of this paper is devoted to a closer look at community networks, let us quickly consider the other two community forms which claim virtual interaction space. Again, the virtual extension is broadly defined by the intermittent shared physical space of actors and the presence of some virtual association. One example of a virtual extension is an electronic discussion group and web site for the Sociology department at the University of Colorado at Boulder. There graduate students and faculty share questions, papers, and social news. While some have warned that these extensions are replacing co-presence interaction rather than extending overall association (Roszak 1986; Talbott 1995), this remains one among many questions which deserve analysis beyond the anecdotal.

With the growth of the Internet, there are now thousands of "virtual communities" whose members never come together in shared geographic space. Virtual communities such as alt.support.attn-deficit find their home here. The newsgroup "alt.support.attn-deficit" refers to a group of people who are concerned with attention deficit disorder and share problems, ideas, and strands of their lives via the Internet. In addition, virtual communities are sometimes transformed into virtual extensions. People meeting on line may move to physical co-presence that complements or even transcends their virtual interaction.

In summary, computer-mediated community is established when individuals identify a networks of associations, as well as show some degree of involvement. There is likely a great deal of qualitative variation among these communities and we suggest a model which begins differentiation based on community relationship to virtual and geographic space. Traditional measures of community involvement (Fischer 1992) used for geographic localities may prove fruitful for further differentiation and analyses. For now, let us consider some of the variation among the computer-mediated form called "community network."

Community Networks

Early efforts at community networking can be traced to the electronic community bulletin board services (BBS) of the 1980s. These were communication forums run on a single computer into which people "dialed in" over phone lines using a computer modem and "met" with other locals. The "father of community networking," Tom Grunder, established in 1984 the St. Siliconís Hospital bulletin board service (BBS) which grew into the Cleveland Free-Net (Morino 1995). "Free-Net" became Grunderís trademark for the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN). As of December, 1995, NPTN had more than 150 affiliated community systems (NPTN, 1995).

A Free-Net, with its standard of providing individual electronic mail accounts among other services for members is just one form of community network. As indicated by its name, membership and services are usually free. Other networks claiming the community network label may not provide individual accounts, and instead may focus on local content, developing public access sites, and other communications tools. While there are more than 200 community networks around the world which include Free-Nets as well as other types (See Figure 2), as of 1995 the majority were located in Canada and the United States (See Figure 3). Many of the latter networks were developed in the early 1990s under Clinton-Gore plans for the National Information Infrastructure (NII). Federal as well as private funding, corporate struggles for control of the NII, general media attention to the Internet, and the creation of the World-Wide Web in 1992 (Morino 1995), have all contributed to what some organizers call the "community networking movement."

Figure 2: Community Networks Around the World

Australia (1) Ireland (1) Northern Sweden (1)
Canada (26) Italy (1) Mariana Islands (1) United States (177)
Finland (2) Holland (1) Philippines (1)   
Germany (3) New Zealand (1) Russia (1)  

 

Figure 3: Community Networks in Canada and the United States

Canada

Alberta (3) Manitoba (3)  Newfoundland (1) Ontario (6) 
British Columbia (6) New Brunswick (1) Nova Scotia (3)  Saskatchewan (3) 

United States

Alaska (2)  Illinois (3) Mississippi (2) Oklahoma (2)
Alabama (3)  Indiana (3)  Missouri (4) Oregon (1)
Arkansas (1) Iowa (3) Nebraska (2) Pennsylvania (7)
Arizona (1) Kansas (2)  Nevada (2) Rhode Island (1) 
California (19) Kentucky (2)  New Hampshire(1)  South Carolina (4) 
Colorado (16)  Louisiana (3)  New Jersey (2)  Tennessee (2)
Connecticut (2) Maine (1) New Mexico (3)  Texas (11)
Florida (10) Maryland (2)  New York (9) Vermont (1)
Georgia (3) Massachusetts (2) North Carolina (5)  Virginia (6)
Hawaii (2) Michigan (10) North Dakota (1) Washington (6) 
Idaho (2) Minnesota (2) Ohio (17)  Wisconsin (4) 

We define community networks based upon three self-identified goals: 1) a focus on local information; 2) a commitment to assuring that residents have access to send and provide information on the Internet; and 3) a concern for building community in their locality (See Figure 4).

Figure 4: Defining Characteristics of Community Networks

Local Information
Access To Receive Information
Access To Send Information
Local Community Building

Because community networks vary widely in their approaches to meeting these goals, these factors provide a means for further considering variation in computer-mediated community.

Local Information

Community Networks focus on local information. Local information can be in the dynamic form of communication forums such as neighborhood discussion groups, or in the static form such as maps and descriptions of area hiking trails, information about social services in the area, local restaurant guides, and a current video image of a local park to illustrate current weather conditions.

At face value, static information hardly seems to fit within a framework which is concerned with interaction. By itself, it does not. Yet static information may enter into the dynamic of association. Media such as newspapers or television programming have served in the past as the "technological voice" in many interactions: two friends exchange thoughts about the morning headlines over breakfast; and visitors at a local senior center incorporate the talk show they are watching into their conversation. Similarly, web pages -- or those who have access to create them -- may play a role in computer-mediated dialogue. For example, locals may read web pages about an upcoming election issue and also engage in an electronic discussion about that issue.

Boulder Community Network developed static information first and only in late 1995 moved ahead with developing discussion groups. Other community networks such as the Denver Free-Net have focused on discussion groups from the outset. There is great variation in the amount and depth of static information on community networks.

While the ongoing Internet "presence" that a web page allows has been attractive for both commercial and non-profit organizations, as well as individuals, further research might consider the role of such information or the lack thereof for community networking. Does static information facilitate an electronic sense of place and related discussions. Does contributing to static information aggregation relate to any real sense of involvement in a community? Can the electronic "store fronts" on web pages create an atmosphere for discussions in any way similar to small tables and chairs outside cafes on a pedestrian mall?

Issues of Access

Community networks are concerned with issues of access. While there is a great deal of variation in the types of access one might have to the Internet, generally speaking there are two types: 1) access which allows one to receive information; and 2) access which allows one to make information available to others. Implicit in community networks is a concern for people who may find it difficult -- socially, financially and/or technically -- to secure these types of Internet connections.

Access to receive information. In providing access to local discussions and other information found on the Internet, community networks have established public computing sites at local libraries, municipal buildings, and even cafes. In addition, they provide mechanisms by which those who have private computer access can "dial-in" to a network from home or work. For our theoretical purposes here, access to receive information alone does not constitute a community network. This same distinction is also made by some community network organizers.

Access to send information. As indicated earlier, some community network organizers are critical of any network claiming the label "community network" without providing mechanisms for on-line discussions metaphorically referred to as "electronic town squares." One Free-Net organizer, Don, went even further in his criticism. He wrote: "I'm not quite sure I feel that a community network IS a community network when it is entirely based on WWW, graphic/multi-media or otherwise" (personal communication, 1995).

Donís comment speaks to the issue of "real" accessibility of various types of community network forums and their supporting technologies. Don provides insight for researchers who may find variation in community network association around these technologies. Technological structures likely influence the types of people who will access a forum as well as the experience they will encounter in that association. Specifically, Don suggested that the multi-media web form, because of individual cost restrictions on hardware to make it accessible, may tailor community network to an elite group. Since community networks are concerned with broad-based reach, he was critical of this approach.

What Don did not say was that while Web technology is more costly, it is easier to use than text-only technologies. In fact, some BCN volunteers complained about having to use text-only technologies with non-profits that donít have the hardware to run multi-media. It is at very least questionable from which direction "real access" will come.

In assisting people to participate in dynamic local electronic forums, community network organizers might provide individual accounts or other communications tools which would allow people to discuss issues or solicit suggestions on a variety of topics such as where to hold an upcoming wedding or who is a good mechanic. In addition, they might provide services to help locals develop their own web pages. In this sense the community network becomes a technical and human assistance source and perhaps a volunteer clearinghouse for related needs.

BCN trained and coordinated senior citizen and other volunteers. Arnie, one senior volunteer, made frequent visits to non-profits to help them get set up to use the community network and use an electronic mail account. Other volunteers paired up with local organizations to help them build web pages. Sarah teamed with her local church and created a page which included service schedules and an electronic image of the church, as well as links to related resources on Christianity. Clearly issues of access are not just about the technologies themselves. They are social issues which are shaped before and after technologies are introduced.

Community Building

Community network organizers hope to facilitate the building of local community. For the community networks this means involving residents with community issues and events, as well as with one another. Underlying this expected outcome is a definition of community and a belief in the importance of social cohesion obtained through involvement and communication about shared interests or concerns.

An underlying assumption of community networking is that Internet technologies provide a means for facilitating or strengthening a sense of community via virtual connections, perhaps even more so when this communication is between those who would not usually interact. For example, a local electronic discussion group might provide a channel of communication between homeless people accessing the forum at the public library and other community members. Such was the case in Santa Monica which led to the availability of showers and lockers for transients.

While others have cataloged the above goals of local information, access, and community building when describing community networks (Beamish 1995; Cisler 1993; Guthrie et al. 1990; Morino 1994), we differentiated community building as a more general goal emerging from the strategies of local information and broad-based access. This distinction is important because to some degree the community networking mission assumes that: "If we build it, they will come. If we customize the information package and get access to the right places, people will use the technology and we will have a stronger community because of it."

Boulder Community Network set specific goals to engage a group of low-income single parents (mostly women) in the community network. Even with special attention given to the group, the success of that effort was tenuous at best at the time of this writing. One explanation was offered by a participant who told Jean, a BCN staff member, that the women did not "choose" this form of empowerment and that it was pretty presumptuous to assume that they even wanted the technology. (We cannot say if this viewpoint is representative or not of program participants.) Patty, a BCN volunteer who worked with this low-income and other non-profit organizations offered an alternative explanation. "BCN is not unique here. We had a car maintenance program that people signed up for and no one attended. Itís very disappointing sometimes. But they have child care and food and school to worry about. And the government is talking about cutting these things. Programs like learning about the Internet are just not high priority."

There remains hope for a broad range of community members to be drawn to the network and, directly or indirectly, to each other. Community network organizers still hope that the faces of community members participating in the future will be multi-racial, young and old, male and female, rich and poor. The involvement of these "non-traditional" groups to the Internet is essential to their definition of broad-based reach.

Issues and Problems

Making connections in the age of information is not as simple as turning on a computer and sending off a message. There are many decisions to be made and each further solidifies the mold on the computer-mediated world. While it often appears that we have a great deal of freedom in technological and other decision making, Marcuse (1990) has suggested that freedom is relative. In this sense, community networking choice is restricted by choices that have been made long before anyone pulls their chair up to a computer to begin a computer-mediated local discussion.

While community networking has surfaced as computer-mediated form of association to do battle with top-down technological access and dispersion, they have their own sets of boundaries and barriers with which to negotiate. Based on our observations, we consider just a few of those below.

Community networks have made inroads to harnessing the Internet and dangling the reins in front of a more general public. While at the time of this writing diversity was still only a dream for BCN, it was still early in the game. In the Fall of 1995, a BCN related group launched a "recycled" computer program and offered hardware and Internet access to organizations applying to serve as "public access sites." The extent to which developing sites become access points for low-income and/or at-risk populations will depend as much upon constraints upon target groups, as well as staff and volunteer outreach and commitment, as it does upon the availability of technology. In addition, community networks in general would be wise to temper the deployment of technology with conservative estimates of volunteer time available to assist with actual community network use. Whether or not community members are justified in expecting or demanding that support is irrelevant to how they are likely to feel. The taste of community networking may sour if support services are not available for users.

It is likely that the number of community networks will continue to grow. Even if government sources of funding dry up, community networking will continue. Much of the discussion of community network organizers is already focused upon developing long-term economic sustainability models for their networks. It is highly probable that already established partnerships with information technology corporations, as well as some type of local commercial component will play a role in various community networking models which survive after the dust settles. Just as computer corporations have a long-term vested interest in having their product in the introductory labs of schools, so too do these and other information technology enterprises have an interest in partnering with community networks. These partnerships and other community network decisions will shape these information-age welcoming stations for entire localities for years to come.

Research Directions

Beyond considering when, where and if community networks can be successful in reaching their goals, researchers would be prudent to consider the broader theoretical concerns which can be informed through the study of community networks and other types of computer-mediated forums. These "settings" house rich sources of data which through careful analysis may add new dimensions to our understandings of social change, technology, stratification, social organization, gender, social movements, deviance and social control, as well as other substantive areas.

The electronic medium with easily capturable text and images is especially well suited for content analysis and new forms of ethnographic research. In addition, the associated technologies facilitate data collection which might inform network theories concerned with analysis of social associations and activity patterns. Survey data collection becomes streamlined as responses are automatically factored into descriptive displays and channeled into data files for further statistical analysis. Random sampling is facilitated by the use of codes and passwords. Yet caution should be taken in relying solely upon the electronic communications for data. Time-tested literal face-to-face interviewing can facilitate reflection upon and analysis of electronically mediated interaction.

In the area of social change and technology, researchers might consider how the concept of "community" is being defined or redefined. In this paper we have developed a foundation for approaching types of community that are encompassed in geographic and virtual space. Furthermore, we have suggested that community is constituted by identification with and involvement in a collective. Future research might compare and contrast the constitution of these types of community and how they are understood and maintained by members.

One of the popular characteristics of virtual communities is the anonymity and "safe distance" factors which create low-risk interactional space. Yet when local geographic communities create electronic forums via community networks, do other social and cultural forces (manners) inhibit the degree of anonymity that is acceptable? Or are relationships more quickly solidified because of the opportunity for physical co-presence? Researchers might further consider the concepts of "connecting" and "involvement" as they relate to community. How do community members understand and use these concepts in defining interaction in electronic forums? How do these definitions compare to definitions applied to interaction in the non-electronic world? Might varying types of connections and involvement be differentiated in their likelihood to generate types of community? Do the same factors which influence the "popularity" of physical communities influence the popularity of the virtual?

It would be useful to gather before and after data to better understand the social dynamics between various types of geographic communities and their virtual counterparts. Fischer (1992) suggested that the telephone largely augmented already established patterns of interaction. Yet with their popularized characteristic of allowing one to "meet people" on line, Internet interactions -- unlike the telephone communication -- depart from this model of technology molding to already established patterns of interaction.

Many of the discussions about community networks are based upon social cohesion and civic debate (conflict) facilitated by these electronic forums. While dynamics of interaction understood within these frameworks might further inform theories of social organization and democracy, researchers might also consider the subversive uses of the Internet and community networks. Closer examination of the degree to which subversive sentiments are actually transferred to action outside the medium can inform developing theories of information technologies and social movements. McCarthy (1985) suggested that technologies such as direct mailing have contributed to the development of movement organizations whose membership operates largely within the medium that ties it together and certainly not much beyond mobilization to making a phone call. Will the levels of commitment and action found by participants connected electronically to movement organizations remain electronic in nature? What types of "electronic civil disobedience" if any are being added to the "how to" books of activism? And can social movement theories help us to explain the "community networking movement" as some advocates refer to the sentiment? How can these elements of conflict be understood or incorporated into theories of technology and community?

How do information technologies fit into our models of social stratification? In this paper we suggested that those who already fit into a computer-literate population are most likely to be drawn to community networking. Access to financial and technical capital contribute not only to whether certain groups will likely use Internet technologies, but are likely indicators of whether they would even be more than mildly interested in doing so. While there is much discussion both enthusiastic and cynical about the emancipatory potential of electronic communications and community networking, researchers should approach empirically these questions of stratification. Under what conditions, if any, have people using or facilitating the use of information technologies been successful in achieving some type of emancipatory effect? What are the countervailing forces? Are certain types of Internet tools or networks more conducive to democracy? Are all people as likely to use various tools and types of networks? If not, what are the implications of varied use?

What forms of deviance and social control are constituted in electronic forums? Furthermore, what is the relationship between on-line deviance and the behavior or the general climate in the "real world." To what degree is the media simply a reflection of culture and to what degree does is enter into a potentially transformative or dangerous dynamic with social action? As electronic interactions become more and more "real" with the spread of "virtual reality," is this dynamic affected? Do the "safe spaces" of electronic mediums generate transformative on-line interactions that transfer to the physical world?

The Internet is already proving a rich site for gender studies. This research needs to further link on-line social behavior with off-line gender maintenance or change. For example, does a homophobic male who finds himself romantically attracted to a cyberfriend named Donna, find new awareness in the "real world" when Donna turns out to be Don? Furthermore, how do people "do gender" in a world where biological sex is uncertain? What are the rituals of gender policing? How are other rules and norms established in electronic forums? How is power for making and enforcing the rules distributed in electronic forums? How do the power holders compare to the population in general? What factors contribute to the varying climates of different electronic forums? Do community networks with their direct connections to geographic localities have substantially different atmospheres than other "virtual communities"? Are people more guarded in local community network forums than in virtual community where they do not share a common geographic space?

As researchers follow the evolution of community networks and other computer-mediated forums, we should pay attention to how each shapes and is shaped by various structural and cultural currents. We need to consider the dynamics between these electronic forums and the communities and persons for which they serve as a meeting place. We must unpack the challenge of Forster to "only connect," and consider the meanings and nuances of various types of computer-mediated connections. Furthermore, we should consider the implications for a society whose people so easily move in and out of these virtual spaces.

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