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Community Networking in the 21st Century
Jon Lebkowsky, 3 May 05

AFCN logoThe Community Networking movement has run parallel to the evolution and growth of the Internet as a way to bring access to, and meaningfuly use of, computers and computer networks to underserved populations, mostly in rural and depressed urban areas within the U.S., and in developing nations. The various organizations within the movement have focused on access and training to bridge the "digital divide" and ensure information equity. One of the leading Community Network Organizations, the Association for Community Networking, used the Seventh Annual Community Internet Summit (formerly called the National Community Networking Conference) as a platform new thinking about where the community networking movement should be and should go, via Open Space Austin, "an intensive two day strategy meeting, designed to spark common alignment, new alliances and individual actions for anyone passionate about community & independent media, community networking, community wireless, community informatics & research or community technology and the relevance of these to community and economic development."

The Open Space sessions focused on Social and Media Justice, Policy, Open Source, and Collaboration from a community network/nonprofit/NGO perspective, seeking a renewed vision and strategy for AFCN and its adherents. Whereas AFCN was almost the only organization of its kind when it formed as a backbone for the nascent community networking movement, a number of organizations have emerged in recent years to support community technology centers (CTCs), nonprofits, and digital divide issues, including CTCNet, NTen, the Digital Divide Network, Aspiration Tech, et al. There's also a growing list of global community wireless networks that have emerged with little reference or connection to the original community networking movement, and there are new globally-focused projects like Global Voices and Blogger Corps that have emerged from the blogosphere/social software realm.

Given the current explosion of web innovation and activity – "Web 2.0" (or is it 3.0?) and the renewed emphasis on interactive participation – community networking is experiencing a resurgence in many organizations, initiatives, and projects that are decentralized and, in many cases, unaware of each other. Decentralization is a characteristic of the evolving network society, about which Manuel Castells says

Networks and social actors increasingly require the shared cultural codes - values, categories, and meanings that networks can process effectively. They need to redefine cultural code and alternative meaning - to change the rules of the game/society. This is what identity based social movements are seeking to do as sources of change in an information age, for example environmentalism. They affirm experience over instrumentality, meaning over function, the value of life over the values in the networks.
Helping define and sustain these "shared cultural codes" may be a task for AFCN, and this was reflected in some of the closing comments and commitments I heard at Open Space Austin. We should work at building effective networks that connect projects in the same space so that they can share ideas and identity, form ad hoc alliances behind affinity initiatives, and avoid duplication of effort. Where a thousand flowers bloom, we may need organizations like AFCN to tend the garden.

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Excellent post. Much good information here. Thank you. - Troy

Posted by: Troy Worman on 3 May 05

Maybe it is a groundless impression but it seems that these community network associations end up promoting somewhat gated and highly connected enclaves which end up undermining the efforts to bridge the digital divide.

Posted by: jp on 4 May 05

Community networks in general have far less funding and human resources than the really need to accomplish their mission of ensuring access and information equity for populations that are underserved for whatever reasons - generally related to economic and educational level. They're not gated, they just have their heads down, working without high visibility. Beyond the local, AFCN is pretty open - dues are $25, but you're not excluded from the communications loop if you don't pay. I know less about CTCNet, but I'm aware that it's also underfunded.

I personally have stood for connecting and networking these and other kinds of groups at the grassroots level, bringing more voices into the mix that affects culture and policy. Connective tissue, so to speak. I think that could be a good role for AFCN.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 4 May 05

Jon, thanks for posting this! I am very pleased that the event went well and that folks felt they got something out of it. I think we are all much better connected because of it, and though we have much to do, we don't feel as alone.

There's a distinction between Community Networks as organizations and entities, and Community Networking as a process. Sometimes we've been too tied to the former, and in that sense heads were down, but if we keep the latter process in mind, we can work towards networking persons, organizations and resources in the community interest. That's my aim!


Posted by: Michael Maranda on 4 May 05



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