A manifesto for local online communities

Making sure the Internet is for everyone


In 1999 the BBC has published a draft version of this manifesto with a forum for discussion linked from http://www.bbc.co.uk/webwise. For more information mailto:david@partnerships.org.uk


These pages offer an invitation to help draft a manifesto for action to develop online communities which benefit local communities - whether towns, villages, neighbourhoods or cities. There's a summary and explanation - or you can jump straight to a longer version of the manifesto. The main focus is UK, but I hope it has wider relevance. We aim to link our work with that of the Internet Societal Task Force http://www.istf.isoc.org and similar initiatives.

You can read a summary of subsequent discussion on the conet list here prepared by Jo Twist who is researching the relationships between on and off-line urban 'communities' and community-ICT relations at the Centre for Urban Technology

As well as the manifesto, there is an action plan showing what might be done by linking existing initiative. Already BBC WebWise plans provide some foundations. In summary we argue that:

  1. Every citizen, regardless of their economic circumstances, should be able to share the benefits of the Information Age - including better communications, greater participation, electronic life long learning, and e-commerce. To achieve this they should have access to local community technology centres, plus public online forums and services to create an online community. The centres will provide technical support and help 'on the ground', the forums will be 'virtual spaces' for online communities related to localities.
  2. Centres and online communities should be easy to find - signposted locally, and through a national gateway.
  3. Public support should be available, particularly in low-income neighbourhoods, where the market is unlikely to provide facilities on a sustainable basis without public funding.
  4. Development of centres and online communities should be piloted through pathfinder projects, with community participation.
  5. There should be a network and support for the local champions and partnerships who will develop the centres and online communities.
  6. A virtual resource centre should be developed to provide sources of advice for local champions and partnerships, and a neutral space online for discussion of the development of centres and online communities.

We have identified centres and online communities as the two key elements of 'community networking' - the use of information and communication technologies for community benefit developed in North America and elsewhere over the past 15 years.

There is a wealth of experience of centres - sometime called telecentres, sometimes community technology centres. There are also many local online communities. Sometime the centres and online communities are run by the same non-profit community networks that also provide access, training and support.

However, the pioneers of community networking are struggling to maintain these initiatives just when we face a massive growth of Internet use coupled with a move to digital television. The key issue is no long 'how do we get onto the Internet' - it is what do we want when we get connected and get 'there'.

That 'there' is cyberspace. When cyberspace is structured for entertainment, commerce, or discussion it become a cyberplace.... home to an online community.

The main drivers behind new developments in cyberspace are commercial. These pages argue for a complementary development of civic cyberspace - which in many instances may involve public, private and community partnerships.

These pages set out some principles for understanding and developing cyberspace, offer more details of a draft manifesto for creating cyberspaces as if citizens mattered, and explain why, in the UK particularly, the autumn of 1999 is an important time to address these issues.

The ideas are not new - but the time is now right to see if we can get a 'step change' in action to develop civic cyberspace, building on the efforts of community networkers.

To do that we offer ways in which those who wish to develop these ideas further can become involved. These pages cover:

First drafts were developed by David Wilcox with many comments from others. David Greenop developed the scenarios. More about the history of UK community networking here.

The manifesto draws on a campaign developed by UK Communities Online in 1997, when David Wilcox was acting director.

A task force?

If the ideas in the manifesto are on track, how might we see some action? Hopefully the ideas will appeal to Policy Action Team 15 (see below), the new e-Minister and ultimately the Prime Minister. Meanwhile how about the classic device of a Task Force which would:


Cyberspace is with us all, now...

"Life experiences today are increasingly divided between the physical here and now and a 'someplace else' immanent in a virtual electronic space.

"The social, economic, and political lifelines of the world are now evolving almost exclusively within this electronic space. Here, for example, large corporate alliances busily co-ordinate their quest to balance efficiency, flexibility, and economies of scale.

"Here, data about consumer demand, production flows and finance is managed and shaped. Here is where our savings reside in bit form so that large banks and investment firms can fundamentally mould our lives. This virtual world is thus a place in which we already live." David Greenop, Scenarios for Cyberspace.

Cyberspace exists, and permeates the 'real' world in which we live. For thousands of years we have developed the means to shape 'real' places - buildings, parks, villages, towns and cities - in ways which serve our social and economic needs. We understand something of what works and what doesn't, who benefits and who doesn't.... although there are many problems still to solve.

.... but who will build civic cyberplaces?

The challenge now is to create the cyberplaces we need, and to do that in ways which will help us tackle our 'real world' problems, not increase them. But who will design, who will control, who will pay, who will be able to enter - and who will be excluded from cyberplaces?

The issue is not just who can use computers and the Internet; it is where do these electronic pathways lead. These pages explore how we might design cyberplaces as if citizenship, democracy and social justice matter... while recognising that the main investments in construction will come from corporations properly concerned with customers and profits, and Governments seeking cost saving alongside social investments. That dilemma is not ... but can we square the circle in cyberspace? [Top]


Why be concerned now?

In the autum of 1999, several inquiries or debates will help shape the future of cyberspace as seen from the UK, and it is important that we share some understanding of the realities of cyberspace to inform those discussions. Elsewhere we set out some possible scenarios for cyberspace, and a draft manifesto which derives from the principles below.The inquiries and debates are:

  1. The UK Government's Policy Action Team 15, which is considering action to combat social exclusion in the Information Society, will finish taking evidence by mid-October and then draft a report for Prime Minister Tony Blair.
  2. Culture Secretary Chris Smith has asked for a public debate, concluding by November 1, on funding of the BBC. The Davies panel report recommended funds from an additional digital licence fee should support BBC education campaigns and also local access. Even if this recommendation is rejected, it puts down a marker about the need for public funding for these centres.
  3. Over the same period, the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee is also holding an inquiry into BBC funding.
  4. In October BBC Online started a series of live chats and forums about online communities http://www.bbc.co.uk/liveanddirect . BBC Webwise is providing support for online communities - see more about plans here.
  5. We may also expect MPs to become increasingly interested in the potential and pitfalls of electronic democracy as they consider a general election in about two years time.

Partnerships Online | Cyberplaces | Plan | Scenarios | Principles | Manifesto | | Join in | Resources

www.partnerships.org.uk/cyber/index.htm September 8 1999