New Community Networks

Wired for Change

Addison-Wesley, 1996

Douglas Schuler



Chapter 9



Lo! Men have become the tools of their tools.

  Henry David Thoreau

Since the Industrial Revolution, society and culture have been subservient to technology. One of the compelling tasks today is to reverse the process and make technology serve culture and society.

  Ben Bagdikian (1992)



Until now we have said very little about the technology that supports the community network. In this chapter we discuss technological architecture that complements the social and political architecture described in the last chapter. The basic technological architecture (Fig. 9.1) consists of four main components: (1) users (including developers, participants, administrators, information providers, visitors, and others) and user interfaces, (2) the community-network software, (3) the computer hardware (including the various CPUs, memory, disk drives, interface drivers, and so on), and (4) the delivery channels through which users can access the services on the system. In the remainder of this chapter we discuss each component and related issues.



As computer use becomes more commonplace, people who happen to spend more time working with computers are less likely to identify themselves naturally as "users."

  Jonathan Grudin (1990)

A community network offers a multitude of capabilities to the community. Accordingly, there is a broad set of users of such a system and, ideally, the users are provided with an interface to the system that matches their needs, skill level, and temperament as closely as possible. Additionally, there will be a wide range of ways by which to access the system such as dial-up telephone lines, the Internet, and other ways. "Users" fall into four main groups administrators and developers, information providers, basic system users, and "visitors" (nonregistered users). Each group has particular needs in relation to the community network and each group has different levels of access to the network software and hardware. Other computer applications available over the network can also be viewed as a fifth type of user, one lacking flesh and bones to be sure, but a user with distinct, usually precise needs.

A sometimes implicit, but nevertheless critical concept of the community network (pioneered by the Free-Nets) is the decentralization of administration. In a community network, the system is maintained by many people assuming many roles and accessed through a variety of means (Fig. 9.1). Information providers, for example, must be able to add, delete, edit information, or change the menu structure in areas in which they have jurisdiction. On the other hand, they shouldn9t be able to modify information in other areas, nor should other information providers or users be able to modify information in theirs. Administrators and developers need, in general, more access to the computers and devices than the basic user. They will often need special privileges to add new users, install new software, reboot machines, etc. With the decentralized approach, the community network takes on the characteristics of the new community by supporting a network of peers, in contrast to a hierarchy, where rules and system content are developed at the top and "marching orders" flow downwards.



The user interface into the community network is what the user sees that allows him or her to use the services. It's the intermediary between the user and the computer and is responsible for displaying information to the user and conveying the user's input back to the computer. A powerful yet easy-to-use interface can help ensure the success of a community network, while a difficult-to-use, nonintuitive user interface can dampen interest rapidly. To be effective, the user interface must have several attributes. The most important one is that it must quickly and accurately convey the capabilities offered by the community-network system to the user. In other words, the user interface must convey the community network's information and services in an economical way and respond to user input in the way the user expects. When the user is dealing with e-mail, all available actions must be clear; when the user is looking for information on senior centers in a particular location, the information should be found under a category that makes sense to the user‹senior services, community services, information about seniors, for example. The user interface should also be easy to use, consistent, and resistant to user input errors.

One important function of the user interface is to integrate different information and services into a package that looks and feels like one community-network system. On the one hand, the system software must allow software services to be easily integrated or plugged into the rest of the system. This is accomplished primarily through the technical design of the software. The FreePort software, for example, allows any resident Unix program to be launched with a menu choice. On the other hand, the system —with several new constituent parts grafted into one— should still appear to be one system rather than several distinct ones. In other words, if a user enters similar input on one subsystem, it should cause similar actions to take place when he or she enters it into another. Returning to the main program, for example, should not be caused by typing Q (for Quit), from one subsystem and E (for Exit) from another subsystem. It is presumptuous to expect a computer-naive user to know when he or she is working with one type of software rather than with another. Attaining this consistency is not trivial; different vendors do not share the same user interface philosophy and in some cases are legally prohibited from doing so. Some community-network developers supply their information providers with user-interface guidelines that help promote consistency within the system. These guidelines can also supply information providers (who may be relatively unskilled at presenting information electronically) with useful advice on effective presentation.


Special-Purpose User Interfaces

Some users (including, but not limited to, the estimated 49 million disabled people in the United States and the 750 million disabled people worldwide [NIST, 1994]) will find the traditional ASCII text-based interfaces difficult to use. User difficulties might include having limited sight or being unfamiliar with English (or other supported languages). Some users may be most comfortable using a language with non-Roman characters. For those used to non-English languages that primarily use Roman characters (such as Spanish), limitations are not as severe, though in practice users who use these non-English languages have generally seen their special needs ignored. Although the necessary effort would be substantial, instructions and menus of system functions (such as the mail reader) should be available in the languages most used within the community. Additionally, registration information and other important system documents (both on-line and paper versions) should also be available in a variety of languages.

Providing access to all members of the community is an important objective of community networks. The nontechnological aspect of this commitment means providing education and outreach as well as the actual infrastructure such as public terminals. From the technological standpoint considered in this chapter, there are many design decisions that must be made. The main principle is that the system be modular: It must be easy to swap out one piece of software and use another. For example, this principle allows the community-network developer — at least in theory — to provide different "shells" (user agents) to different users. This idea will be discussed in more detail later, but these shells could include a menu-based system, or a Mosaic or Netscape-like Web browser system. Modularity also allows a user to choose his or her favorite text editor, mail reader, news reader, or other generic tool where alternatives exist.

Although different software shells might make certain types of services easier to provide, it is important not to build separate community networks for different classes of users. It is also important to prevent duplication of effort wherever possible. In the discussion on World Wide Web browsers later on in this chapter, we see how it's possible to make the same community-network information available from the FreePort text-based software and the graphic-based (and text-based) Web browser with virtually no extra work. Another important consideration is the issue of where customization should take place — at the information level, the system level, the shell level, or in the users' environment?

Ideally all information would be comprehensible as well as accessible to all people, but in the case of presenting information in other languages, this goal is very difficult to attain in practice. Accommodating every language is impossible, and accommodating just a few is difficult. As mentioned before, all on-line information and software prompts should be available in various languages, especially those most prevalent in the community. The main system software could check if an "environmental variable" USER-LANGUAGE had a value (such as "Spanish," "Laotian," or "Swahili") and display the text in that language, if it existed, to the user when available.

Another way that support for other languages could be done is at the menu level. As shown in Fig. 9.2, this approach would provide a very simple way to offer material in different languages (but with "Arabic" being written with Arabic characters, "Chinese" with Chinese characters, etc.). The National Capital Free-Net in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada has duplicate systems available in French and English.

Since automatic translation by computer is not a reality (and probably will never be!), supporting a multilingual community on a community network may result in separate community networks, each in a different language. For example, the opening screen could say "typez 1 pour francais; type 2 for English." Of course we hope that information intended for the entire community will be translated into many languages, but this can't be required. Multilingual forums should also be promoted where people could converse about language differences as both an aspect of individual culture and as a barrier to effective communication between cultures.

While we are discussing language it is important to note that standards exist (ISO UNICODE, for example) for encoding hundreds of written languages. By means of the standard ASCII character set, various languages can be sent across the Internet and displayed on standard terminals. Software is available to perform both sides of the translation process. The first side (and this software is harder to find) allows users to input text in their own language. It is awkward but doable to use the common English-style keyboard as a way to input text in, say, Chinese, whose characters are composed of individual glyphs. The software then encodes the original language message into a coded message using only ASCII characters. At the other end, the display side, software is used that decodes the encoded message, and displays it in an acceptable original language form. This process presupposes that the terminal is capable of displaying arbitrary pixels on the screen rather than ASCII text only. With a terminal of this sort (known as a "bit-mapped display") it is possible to "paint" any pattern onto the display. Older terminals can only "type"; they're constrained to displaying the letters on a keyboard.


1 Arabic

5 Español
2 Chinese
6 Français
3 Deutsch
7 Swahili
4 English
8 Vietnamese

Figure 9.2 Language Options


A community network can't assume that all users have bit-mapped displays or that they're running the same software suite at their local site. For that reason, community networks must support the lowest common denominator — text. As we've mentioned, the basic approach to supplying different interfaces is by using different shells as the primary system software that the user will use while on the system.

Blind people and others with limited sight have special requirements for interfaces that will work well for them. Traditionally, they have employed software that intercepts the text stream. Ironically, visually based approaches like Microsoft Windows and those of some network providers like American Online and Prodigy actually make it more difficult for users with limited eyesight who rely on the software assistants. If a text stream can be intercepted by software, text-to-speech software (that "reads" the text and "speaks" aloud through speakers or headphones) can be used. If the text stream can be intercepted, then users may be able to make the text larger or change the font or color of the text to make it more readable. While this aspect of user configurability is usually done on the user's display device, the host computer should be able to adapt and produce different output for different terminal devices at a minimum, and should be able to provide output for other user interfaces as well (such as the Tcl/Tk approach described later in this chapter).

There is a new software standard in the software grab-bag that may help in the struggle to support different users with different user interfaces. The MIME (for Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) standard defines a very convenient intermediate form for both multiple languages and for multiple types of information (including graphic, audio, and video). MIME allows messages written in non-ASCII languages to be sent electronically in their encoded form. This standard thus allows a person to read the message as it was meant to be read. Unfortunately, few public access terminals are capable of reading MIME messages. Nor are most terminal programs that people use at home to call network applications using a computer and modem. Until MIME-compliant clients and MIME-compliant community-network shells are available, community-network users will have to download the encoded text in order to display it on their local computer using display software that understands and can decode the message.

The City as a Model for a Community Network

A community network offers a large amount of data and services. Since users must navigate through all these options, the organization is critically important. Many systems use a metaphorical approach where "real world" physical characteristics are used to help orient the user through the computer's artificial landscape. The Taos Telecommunity, for example, divides their system into a North Plaza (Fig. 9.3) and a South Plaza to convey a sense of place. The right metaphor will successfully convey the range of information available to the users and suggest the best way to obtain the information or use the services they require.

Since the computer system is exceptionally pliable, there is a huge range of approaches to organizing the community network. Just as a desktop interface on a personal computer is meant to suggest an actual, physical desktop where people perform certain tasks, community networks (and other network systems) employ a city-with-buildings metaphor to provide a useful organizational scheme. Disparate systems use the metaphor, such as FreePort (used in the various Free-Net systems), InterLink, The Virtual City, and Apple's on-line eWorld service. The city metaphor implies that the information and services available in the community network are organized in "buildings." E-mail, for example, is received and sent at the "post office," whereas city council agendas may be found in a "townhall" or other government "building." Connecting to a community network in another location is accomplished via the "teleport." The main menu and some subsidiary menus from the fictitious Erewhon Community Network are shown in Fig. 9.4.

Placing the information into buildings is usually straightforward, and users generally know where to look. One question is, How far can or should the metaphor be taken? As the amount of information grows larger, say, in the case of legal decisions, one might want to divide the buildings into "floors" and the floors into "rooms." As the system grows larger and larger, the metaphor tends to break down, making other searching and navigating techniques necessary. However, the city metaphor is eminently serviceable and offers a sort of user portability. If users are familiar with the city metaphor in their own community, they should be reasonably comfortable with it in another. Since the number of community networks using a city metaphor is increasing rapidly, adopting it as a standard seems quite reasonable.

InterLink's Virtual City

The InterLink software (see Appendix D), developed by Eric Raymond as an alternative to traditional (generally FreePort) community-networking software, goes beyond the current community-network city metaphor in many ways. For one thing, it extends the metaphor to include other city amenities: Conveyances include elevators and monorails, while buildings may have desks, drawers, brochure racks, and other "real world" artifacts "inside" them. The InterLink approach as well as a view of how a system might look is shown in Fig. 9.5.

Information and services are found in likely city places. On Tech Street, for example, one can find technical libraries, computer user groups, and other technology-oriented information and discussion, as described below.

You are on a street lined with about equal proportions of low-rent hacker crash pads and gleaming, futuristic buildings (among the latter are the immense flying-saucer shape of the Tech Library and the offices of Frobozz Construction). A moving sidewalk in the center of the street offers easy transportation to either end. The Town Square is visible at the north end, and the Plaza to the south. There is room for new construction here.

One could find business information in the Business Resource Center:

You enter a four story building and walk across the marble floor of the Center's Lobby to the building directory located next to the indoor pond. The directory lists the current resources available and their locations within the Center. You are standing in front of the directory. To your left you notice a rack of brochures and pamphlets.


The City is in virtual reality, not real space. It doesn't really have a layout yet, in the sense of a set of fixed geometrical relationships between places. But here is a model that may help you think about it.

Imagine a beachball. The Town Square is one pole; the Plaza is the other. The major streets (Random Avenue, Tech Street, Commerce Place, Academy Lane, and Service Boulevard) stretch from pole to pole, like the seams of that beachball.

The City's geometry is subject to change without notice --- this will help keep your life interesting :-). But the routes between the major landmarks (the Square, the Plaza, and the four main streets) won't be altered, at least not without a lot of public notice and discussion beforehand.


+------------+ <------------ TOWN HALL

| ========== |

+---+ | ========== | +---+

/ /| | |::| | |\ \

NEWS ----> / //| +---+------------+---+ ||\ \ <---- POST OFFICE BUILDING +---+//|/ /\ \|||+---+

|===|/// || \|||||||

|===|// || \||||||

|===|/ || \|||||

-----------+---+ THE ----> || +---+---------------

Commerce Place / MONUMENT == \ Service Boulevard

---------------/ \------------------ /

\ / \


/ \

/ \


This is a plan view of the Town Square. Tech Street also abuts on the square, but your view of it is blocked by the Town Hall.

Figure 9.5 Interlink-"How The City Is Actually Laid Out


Here the Virtual City takes the building metaphor one step further by offering virtual elevator rides to more services:

a = Take elevator to On-Line Referral Library Area (1)

b = Take elevator to Direct Assistance Programs (2)

c = Take elevator to Self-Help Oriented Programs (3)

e = Take elevator to Business Events Calendar (4)

De Digitale Stad

Influenced by U.S. politicians Ross Perot and Bill Clinton and the existence of community networks in the United States like Santa Monica's PEN and the Cleveland Free-Net, the Dutch political/cultural party De Babe, XS4all ( "Access for All"), and a handful of imaginative hackers launched "De Digitale Stad" — the Digital City — in Amsterdam in 1993.

The Amsterdam Digital Town was electronically visited by 15,000 people (or 2 percent of Amsterdam's 750,000 population) in its first eight months. Developers have found that users particularly like having access to job and housing information and that there is a large number of independent political groups and civic noncommercial activities represented on the system. There are similar projects in other European cities such as Berlin, Budapest, and Vienna, including some projects employing virtual reality (VR) techniques where users may ultimately be able to view 3-D scenes of the actual city (Dieberger, 1993).



Procedures for software acquisition are similar to those for hardware acquisition, but with the unique guidelines and precautions. A demonstration of a software package provides certainty of what it can do, and quick verification with present users provides adequate confirmation.

  Clark Rogers and Brian Vidic (1995)

From a technological standpoint, a community network provides an orienting framework and a collection of software services. On this level it is similar to an electronic bulletin board system, except that it can accommodate hundreds of simultaneous users with specialized needs and a user base of tens of thousands. As previously mentioned, the orienting framework often uses a city metaphor, but this particular approach is not required. FreePort software is often used, but BBS software such as FirstClass or Galacticomm is also used, as are WWW browsers or specially developed software. The basic software services that community networks generally provide are: forums or discussions (moderated and unmoderated), access to static information contained in files, e-mail, and file download —upload capabilities. Other possible services include: chat (or "real-time" conferencing), remote login (to other computers), search capabilities, World Wide Web access, and database facilities. There is no real limit to the types of services. Community networks of the future could contain MUDs (discussed later in this chapter), and audio and video services. In addition, a simple menu structure with which to navigate information and services is often used. The system must also easily incorporate new capabilities as they become available, such as new search techniques, multimedia applications, or wide-area information servers.


Sending and receiving electronic mail (e-mail) is an essential feature of a community network; this capability allows users to send and receive private messages to and from other users. E-mail users might include people using the community network as well as users of other systems throughout the world including Internet sites, commercial networks like Compuserve and Delphi, and, in many cases, to homegrown, hobbyist networks such as Fidonet, which serves thousands of PCs around the world. Tens of millions of people around the world currently use e-mail, and this figure is growing rapidly (Rand, 1995).

Electronic mail implies an ability to send and receive messages over a network (Fig. 9.6). Those messages nearly always contain text only, but voice or graphic messages are becoming more common. In addition to sending and receiving e-mail, mail readers provide the ability to manage e-mail (Fig. 9.7). A user can view a list of e-mail messages (sorted by date, author, or by subject, for example) and is able to act on them. A user might respond to a message, include it in another letter, or save it as a file on the computer. Mail readers and mail systems also allow messages to be sent to lists of people as easily as they might be sent to individuals, thus making committee or other group work more viable electronically. Thus people often maintain mailing (or distribution) lists that contain e-mail addresses of people concerned about a particular issue.


Post Office (go post)

1 About the Post Office.

2 Read Your Mail.
3 Send Mail.

4 Check the Size of Your Mailbox.

5 See Who Your New Mail Is From.

6 Edit Your Signature File.
7 Edit Your Personal Aliases File (Address Book).
8 Have Your Mail Forwarded.
9 Directory Services.

Figure 9.6 SCN Post Office Menu

Listservs and Mail Lists

Listservs and mail lists offer similar approaches to electronic discussions on community networks and on the Internet in general. A mail list is basically just a type of e-mail alias. For example, there might be an alias called "outreach-volunteers" that includes the e-mail addresses of all the members of the outreach committee, and any mail sent to "outreach-volunteers" will be forwarded to every address on the list. A listserv (such as majordomo), on the other hand, is more powerful, as users (including the list administrator who oversees maintenance on the list) can send a variety of commands to the listserv via e-mail, to get the names of all listservs at a particular site, or the names and e-mail addresses of all subscribers, for example.


Current message is #3 (3 is last)


1maggadu! () (692 chars) Thu, 30 Jun -- Possibly a duplicate response

R () (772 chars) Wed, 13 Jul -- Re: testing

*R (Barbara Weismann) (378 chars) Wed, 13 Jul -- Proposal

n = Read next unread message

d = Delete this message
p = Back to previous screen
h = Help, list of additional commands

Figure 9.7 Reading E-Mail


Listservs exist on thousands of topics. (See Appendix B for several listservs on topics related to community networks.) To participate in a specific listserv, one must "subscribe" to it. To begin a subscription to a listserv, one sends e-mail with the proper command in the body or the subject line of the message to the electronic address of the listserv software. To join the communet listserv on community networks I would send a message "subscribe communet Doug Schuler" to, for example. Once a person has subscribed to the listserv, the person can also "post" to the listserv, also by sending electronic mail. (There is usually one address for sending articles or postings and another for subscribing, unsubscribing, and performing other administrative functions.) When the listserv software receives the posting, it automatically distributes it to all the other subscribers of that particular listserv.

Electronic Forums

Electronic forums are essential to community networks. A forum — sometimes called a "room" or "board" or "newsgroup" — enables a group of people to participate in an extended conversation on any topic. The conversation can be tightly focused or extremely broad, loosely conversational or concentrating on specific goals. The tone can be encouraging and welcoming or contentious and abusive. There are two main types of forums: a moderated forum that employs a moderator and an unmoderated forum that does not.

A user that wants to read forum postings will usually select the desired forum with a menu choice or by indicating that he or she wants to bring up a "news reader," which is functionally similar to a mail reader. The main distinction is that a user reads e-mail that is "owned" by that user, while a user reads news (or a forum) that is available to anybody who wants to participate in that particular forum. Many important policy issues associated with public forums were discussed in Chapter 8.

A message sent to an unmoderated forum is automatically posted to the forum. A message sent to a moderated forum is sent to the forum's moderator. The moderator then reads the posting and determines its suitability to the forum according to whatever criteria are relevant to the forum. Ideally, these criteria have been explicitly defined by the moderator and usually include relevance to the topic at hand (including clarity) and respect for other participants. Sarcasm and ad hominem attacks (universally referred to as "flaming") are often screened out, along with profanity and other strong language.

The moderator has several choices after receiving an intended posting. The first is to send the posting unchanged to the forum. The second is to post portions of the posting, omitting irrelevant or inflammatory remarks. If parts of the posting are deleted, it's customary to indicate where the deleted material had appeared and why the material was deleted. If the moderator interjects his or her comments into the posting, the changed portions must be made obvious to avoid any confusion as to authorship of the various sections. The third option is to not post the article and send it back to the author along with the reasons why the article was rejected and what would be needed to make it acceptable. In some cases, aspects of the posting might be unclear or confusing to the moderator. In those situations, the moderator will raise the issues with the author, who can then rewrite the posting and try submitting it again. It is generally recognized that moderated forums have higher-quality material —called a "high signal-to-noise ratio" in techno-slang— than unmoderated ones and have fewer digressions and flaming. The responsibilities of a moderator can be very demanding as the moderator must read every posting that is submitted to the forum. Moderators have the sometimes difficult chore of justifying their decisions to users whose contributions have been rejected. For that reason, and for the integrity of the entire community network, it is the responsibility of the moderator to articulate a clear policy for forum submissions.


Structured Forms of Moderated Forums

Since conversations in forums (even moderated ones) tend to stray or become fractious, participants often suggest approaches to structuring the conversation in various ways. These approaches ultimately must rely on the participants themselves abiding by a set of agreed-upon conventions, such as the use of key words in the subject line to indicate the conversational "thread" or subtopic within the forum that the posting addresses. The second approach is to let the moderator structure the conversation by guiding the conversation, asking questions, and even annotating postings from other users. Although this approach adds to the workload of the moderator, the result is more likely to be satisfactory. A third way to add structure is again to rely heavily on the good offices of the moderator. A common form of moderated structure is found in the "Question and Answer" (Q&A) forum. In this venue, users submit questions electronically to "experts" or whomever has agreed to find answers. The expert might be the moderator, or a group of people, who then researches the question. When the expert has devised a suitable answer, both question and answer are posted to the forum. Experts have included doctors and lawyers (in the Cleveland Free-Net) as well as automotive specialists (Heartland Free-Net) or ethical investment advisors (Seattle Community Network). The possibilities are endless for this electronic variation on the "Dear Abby" model found in daily newspapers. Scientists, nurses, gardeners, home-repair specialists, educators, policymakers, hobbyists, artists, musicians, craft people, farmers, and so on are all very good candidates for Q&A forum moderators.

Once a structured approach is known, it seems reasonable to develop software that enforces the desired interaction model. The trouble with this approach is that software developers aren't capable of second-guessing the ways in which people want software to mediate their electronic communication. Users in the past have balked at attempts to impose unyielding communication structure on their communication. Researchers at Bellcore damned this approach as "Naziware" when they were asked to use software that classified all their e-mail communication according to a rigid set of conventional conversational types.

While structuring electronic conversation has been generally unsuccessful, it seems likely that useful structuring conventions will be developed in the future. Jeff Conklin devised a structured communication tool called gIBIS (1988) (for graphical Issue-Based Information System) based on German researcher Horst Rittel's approach for dealing with "wicked problems." Rittel's "wicked problems" (Rittel and Kunz, 1970) are precisely the type of problems that modern society has in abundance, the types of problems that must be faced together by the new community. These problems can't be solved like mathematics problems, or solved by "professionals" in academia, government, or business. Solutions to Rittel's "wicked problems" can only emerge after extended dialogue with all participants and stakeholders. Rittel's approach to structuring this public dialogue is to categorize all comments into one of three conversational components (issues, positions, or arguments) and to build hypertext-style linkages between related comments. Other software like Lotus Notes, which provides the environment for developing structured communications programs, could be used to support systems of this nature but would probably not be useful in a community network due to the high costs of providing the client software to large numbers of people.


Chat and IRC

While e-mail or posting notes to electronic forums is analogous to sending letters to individuals or to a newspaper, the "chat" capability offered on many community networks is more like a telephone conversation, with the keyboard serving as a mouthpiece. With chat, a user can type at the keyboard and the text is displayed on the terminals of all people who are also currently chatting. The capability often exists on community networks as well as on commercial systems like America Online, where it is frequently used as a social-opportunity on-line singles bar. Internet Relay Chat or IRC (Reid, 1994) is the equivalent of chat except that anybody on the Internet with the IRC software can participate over any number of "channels," generally named for the topic to which the channel is dedicated. Although IRC, like chat, is often used for "idle" conversation, it has also been used as a way to rapidly disseminate information on a current events. For example, the #gulf channel was used to send late-breaking news from the Gulf War to participants all over the world.

Because chat is often used for conversation (as opposed to directed topical conversation in forums) and has been used for flirtatious conversation, it is sometimes considered frivolous by developers or not worth overcoming its costs and hence not instituted or even removed from the system after being in operation for some time. However idle or potentially problematical the chat capabilities are for the community-network organization (because of minors and adults flirting on-line, for example) chat systems offer informal conversational capabilities that are needed in convivial, community settings.

Navigating and Searching

When the amount of information increases to the extent that there is information of interest to everybody, it will necessarily contain more and more information not of interest for an individual person. As the community network becomes larger, the issue of finding information of specific interest becomes simultaneously more important and more difficult. The related issue of navigating through the system as quickly and as effectively as possible also becomes more important, and more difficult.

In the traditional community network, users navigate through the system via a series of menus. At each menu, there are one or more choices that a user can make. Some choices will cause information to be displayed, some choices initiate actions like opening a mail or forum reader, while other choices bring up additional menus. This series of menus can be arbitrarily deep. Navigation through menus is a serviceable method of locating the desired information or service on a community network. It is a method that new users can readily comprehend and use. It's not without drawbacks, however. Many times it is not clear what menu heading should be used, and where specific information belongs. Additionally, when there is a large body of information, a user might have to go through several levels (possibly 5, 10, or more) of menus to find the information they need or the forum they want to read. The FreePort system has go commands that short-circuit the lengthy menu traversal. An SCN user, for example, can type go senior at the prompt and skip immediately to the main senior menu. Using the go commands is like leaving bookmarks in a book to mark particular locations. One can immediately open the book to the marked page without skipping through the book page by page. The Mosaic program (and Netscape and other World Wide Web browsers) has the equivalent of the bookmark idea with its "hot list" concept. When a user reaches a location via Mosaic that they plan on visiting again, they can add the location to their hot list. When the user wants to revisit that location at a later time, the hot-list menu is pulled down and that location chosen from the list of previously chosen locations. When the user indicates which location is wanted, Mosaic establishes a connection with the host computer and downloads the Mosaic "page." Thus, from any location, a user can go directly to a hot-list location, bypassing all the intermediate locations that the user had originally visited.

Ideally, a community network should support browsing as well as searching. Although a FreePort user can get a list of all the go commands which provides some type of global view of the system, there is very little support for a directed search, in which a user is looking for specific information. A community network should have at least one type of search capability. This capability would allow a user to focus in immediately on information in the system even though the location is unknown. Generally a user indicates that he or she wants to search for information and then must provide some indication on what is being sought. Sometimes the user also indicates the range of the search. For example, should the software search through all files on the local system, document files only, information on other systems, or use other specifications? Providing searching capabilities can have some interesting indirect consequences because information may be brought forth from unexpected sources. For example, a libertarian might find some traditional conservative writings that bear on an issue; a community-oriented person on the left might find community-oriented literature from the right, and vice versa.

The user interface to a community network ideally supports many ways for users to accomplish their goals. Terse or complex ways to find and manipulate information may be ideal for experts, whereas menus may be sufficient for inexperienced users. The user interface should also support the complementary modes of searching and browsing: Sometimes a user is looking for something precise — the time and location of the neighborhood Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, for example. Sometimes the user is just curious about the system and wants to casually amble around, heading down paths that happen to be appealing at the moment.

File Transfer (Upload and Download) Services

Users will also need an assortment of other services related to communication. The SCN Communications and User Services menu (Fig. 9.8) shows the variety of these services.


1 About Communications and User Services

2 The Post Office...
3 Read Usenet News
4 Offline News Reader...
5 Directory Services...
6 User Services...
7 File Transfer Services...
8 World Wide Web
9 Other Freenets and Community Computer Networks
h=Help, ?=List of Commands, "go help"=Extended Help
m=Main Menu, p=Previous Menu, x=Exit SCN

Figure 9.8 Communications and User Services Menu


The first menu choice describes the general services, while the second is for sending and receiving e-mail. The third is for reading any Usenet news groups that are available on the local system. An off-line news reader allows users to download Usenet news articles to their home computer so that they can read them locally without being logged on to SCN (this is more important to users who are paying by the minute). Directory Services allows users to get user information or to access the user database, while File Transfer Services (Fig. 9.9) helps provide users with information and facilities for dealing with computer files that are stored on the community network and the user's personal computer. These facilities include sending files as part of e-mail messages and transferring files between the system and the personal computer using Kermit, Xmodem, Zmodem or other file transfer programs. Finally, the last two capabilities can be used if I-Comm or Lynx Web browsers (described later in this chapter) are desired or if a user wants to login to another Free-Net or community network.

1 Using Files on SCN
2 Help with file transfers
3 Send a file from SCN to your PC
4 Send a file from your PC to SCN
5 Check for files sent to you by other users
6 Retrieve files sent to you by other users
7 Send a file to another user
8 Manipulate files in your 'work' directory

Figure 9.9 File Transfer Services


Lynx and Other Web Browsers

The Mosaic program, developed at the University of Illinois based on work pioneered at CERN, a physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, is probably the most prominent of the second-generation Internet programs. Mosaic established as a reality world-wide hypertext (sometimes called "nonlinear" text because information can contain "links" to other information, providing a portal by which a user can "navigate" readily to the other information). It simultaneously made the Internet more approachable and accessible to the nonspecialist. The Mosaic program (and other Web browsers such as Netscape) enable users on the Internet to build multimedia "pages" that contain links to other pages, which themselves can contain still more links, forming an increasingly vast collection of interlinked documents known as the World Wide Web. Each page is identified with a URL (Uniform Resource Locator) that uniquely specifies its location on the Internet. When the Mosaic client (or browser) on the local machine is aimed at another page's URL, it connects to the other machine, fetches a copy of the page to the local computer, and then displays it on the local machine. Establishing a "home-page" using HTML (Hypertext Mark-up Language) is becoming an extremely popular way to "hang your shingle" on the Internet, and some community networks are providing that capability to their information providers (see Sustainable Seattle page in Fig. 9.13). Since browser software can obtain copies of the HTML version of Web pages, anyone who is new to HTML (or to computer "markup" languages in general) can easily learn by example from existing pages.

Although graphical Web browsers make fairly high-resolution graphic information widely and easily available, some people lack the requisite display devices, while others don't have the desire or patience to wait for the graphics to come streaming in. (Some graphics seem to take forever to load and supply little or no added information.) Enter Lynx, an extremely hardy, public-domain text-only Web browser (Lavender et al., 1995). Providing text-only access to the world of WWW via Lynx is an elegant solution to the dilemma posed by (1) the existence of a wealth of material available on the web, (2) the desire to provide comparable service to all users (especially those with older and less sophisticated equipment); and (3) finite resources. The SCN Webmaster's committee identified several issues that should be considered before providing Lynx to all users. These concerns included: the effects on disk space if Lynx users began transferring large files to SCN, policy implications of having "objectionable" information on the Web, support issues, processing and bandwidth resource issues, and, finally, the effect of this service (which might accentuate nonlocal characteristics of the system) on the community aspects that provided the initial motivation for the system. Currently Lynx is offered to all SCN users.

Other types of lower-tech browsers are also becoming available. The I-Comm browser (see Appendix D), for example, is a relatively inexpensive shareware graphical Web browser ($29.95 or $19.95 to students) that runs on Windows machines over ordinary telephone lines (those not running SLIP, PPP, or other protocols). The Seattle Community Network currently supports I-Comm as an alternative to the text-only Lynx browser, which is also supported. I-Comm finesses some of the issues that Lynx introduces. If users want to download a document with Lynx, for example, they usually must save it to a local file (on the community-network machine) and download it from there to their home or office machine. I-Comm, on the other hand, already downloads the remote files onto the user's machine as temporary files that can be readily saved without the additional step that is required with Lynx. Since I-Comm is shareware, it is perfectly legitimate to allow its downloading from the community network to a user's machine. Moreover, since it employs the public HTTP protocol, this approach does not force users into using I-Comm. Macintosh, DOS, and other non-Windows users, unfortunately, do not currently have an I-Comm equivalent and, as of this writing, must use Lynx or a non-SCN account for access to the Web.

The newer browsers are extending beyond mere information distribution. A new form of browser has emerged that will allow cross-platform (PC, Macintosh, Unix, and so on) information and application distribution. One of these is Sun's HotJava browser that permits distribution of "active content." Conceivably, in the future users would be able to use browsers to participate in virtual forums in which participants could see and hear each other "live." Delivery of application software via browsers may become increasingly common and could ultimately completely change the nature of software distribution.

FTP, Telnet, Gopher, and Other Internet Tools

FTP and Telnet are the two applications that have traditionally formed the backbone of intensive Internet applications. FTP, which stands for File Transfer Protocol, allows a user to connect to another computer on the Internet, list or retrieve files on the remote computer, or transfer files from the local computer to the remote computer. People often set up extensive FTP "sites" where information can be made more widely available to other users. It is common practice to set up public FTP sites where "anonymous" is the login name and the user's e-mail address is the password. The Telnet program enables a user with an account on another computer to connect to the other computer and interact with it as if directly connected. Many community-network systems allow users to Telnet to them and login as "visitor." Some community networks also allow users to Telnet out of the community-network system, but this is often limited to a pre-selected number of other community-network sites.

A wide range of other Internet tools that were developed for the most part by universities are becoming available; these have the potential to be used with community-network systems (Engst, 1994; Liu et al., 1994). Many of these tools have names from the Archie comics family: Archie (for locating files on the Internet), Veronica (a searching agent that's used with Gopher), and Jughead (which is similar to Veronica). Gopher is a network retrieval tool that provides access to files, on-line phone books, library catalogs, information stored in WAIS databases, Usenet news, e-mail directories, and Archie servers, all contained in one easy to use interface.

On-line Services

There is already a profusion of for-profit and not-for-profit on-line interactive services devoted to general and specific topics. CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy, Delphi, and GEnie are major commercial networks for general topics, while there are scads of special-purpose on-line systems devoted to special topics such as the law, health information, and computer games. The software giant Microsoft has just launched its Microsoft Network, while rival Apple Corporation has eWorld, and AT&T has Imagination Network. In the world of free on-line services, there are a number of special public access networks ranging from on-line public library catalogs to those supporting, for example, one community core value such as on-line health information. The World Wide Web is also serving as an amazingly fertile medium for new on-line services. Issues involving access from community networks to other networks and to community networks from other networks will become more important as more people become network users and community networks become increasingly important to community life.



A MUD (standing nominally for Multi-User Dungeon or Multi-User Dimension) is software that allows multiple users to connect over a network to a shared "text-based virtual reality" (Curtis, 1992), creating a social setting that Howard Rheingold characterizes as a "virtual water cooler" (1993). This type of computer-mediated communication (CMC) allows users to communicate with each other and also to add and modify "objects" (such as "rooms," "notices," or other programmable "things"), which other users can then interact with.


@help communication
There are several commands available to allow you to communicate with your fellow MOOers. Help is available on the following communication-related topics:
say -- talking to the other connected players in the room
whisper -- talking privately to someone in the same room
page -- yelling to someone anywhere in the MOO
emote -- non-verbal communication with others in the same room
gagging -- screening out noise generated by certain other players
news -- reading the wizards' most recent set of general announcements
@gripe -- sending complaints to the wizards
@typo @bug @idea @suggest

-- sending complaints/ideas to the owner of the current room

whereis -- locating other players
@who -- finding out who is currently logged in
@whois -- finding out a non-anonymous player's real name & email address
@char -- finding character names belonging to a given real name
mail -- the MOO email system
email -- email addresses for mailing lists
security -- the facilities for detecting forged messages and eavesdropping

Figure 9.10 Available Communication Commands in MediaMOO


MUDs are text-based and users interact with each other using a simple language (Fig. 9.10) that is reminiscent of older text-based computer games like Adventure. For example, a user can type in look and the system will print out the text description of the "location" of the person. If the description of the location contains a sign, the user might choose to type in the command read sign. Based on the sign's text (printed on the screen) the user might type go east, go up, or other commands, to change locations within the MUD.

As Pavel Curtis (1992) and others have noted, a variety of social phenomena have arisen in MUDs. But are MUDs little more than a form of entertainment, a diversion for computer technologists and social misfits who are unable to communicate in traditional ways? Curtis of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and others have been developing MUDs that can accommodate the requirements, skill levels, and tastes of communities with specialized needs. Curtis and David Nichols, for example, have built the Jupiter MUD for Astronomers (1993) and MIT student Amy Bruckman is developing a "MOOSE Crossing" (1994c) MUD for children.

As InterLink creator Eric Raymond (and others) have pointed out, a community network could be a type of virtual reality in which the objects — buildings and the like — could be given certain "real life" attributes like appearance and geographical locations. In fact these virtual cities could incorporate graphic virtual-reality technology over a network to provide graphic images as well as textual descriptions of the city's buildings and other resources. From this insight, it is but a short stretch to envision a community network as a specialized type of MUD.

From a technical point-of-view, merging MUDs and community networks is not overly daunting. One approach would be just to use the MUD software, with minor modifications, as the community-network software. The rooms of the MUD world would become buildings in the community network. Moving from one location to another with FreePort software is accomplished with go, same as with many MUDs. A MUD "note" could be the FreePort menu, containing a list of other locations. This note would serve as the location description that MUDs usually employ. All the MUD commands would be operational, so somebody in the Public Safety Building could communicate with other people that were in the building. If there were no other occupants, the person could leave a "note" there for others to read later, asking a question, making a comment, or suggesting a time when people could "meet" in the room and communicate. It would be interesting to build special-purpose MUDs for community use that incorporated democratic protocols (such as Robert's Rules) or new objects that would be useful in supporting the new community —for example, agendas, resolutions, petitions, or soapboxes.


Network Exotica — Filters, Agents, and Live Mail

Developers are currently designing new types of software that may permanently demolish the notion that network media is analogous to non-network media. These new types of software will enable users to develop environments and applications that are more capable of being tailored to the user's own needs; this effort might include setting up new and idiosyncratic services that will act in the user's behalf. Thus a user could receive a regular electronic "magazine" that contained only articles on preselected topics. At the same time, commercial vendors will be spending large amounts of resources on environments and applications that meet their needs with the citizen or user as the intended target.

Filters, especially mail filters, are at the low end of technological sophistication. Mail filters allow the e-mail recipient to set up rules to deal with his or her e-mail. At the simplest level, this takes the form of a "bozo filter" to delete upon receipt any e-mail received from anybody on the user's list of "bozos," generally people that have flamed, threatened, berated, or otherwise earned the wrath of the intended recipient. A more extreme version of the bozo filter is also possible. With this approach, the intended recipient makes a list of people that he or she will accept mail from, and all other mail is deleted. For example, the recipient could accept all mail emanating from specified companies, networks, or machines. Note that in this version, it is entirely possible to disallow a lot of e-mail that a user might really want to receive, such as e-mail from a friend or relative who just established a new e-mail account. In many —but not all— cases, the sender of a rejected message would receive an electronic reply stating that the mail filter rejected the message.

Moving slightly up the technological ladder are e-mail filters that process the contents of the e-mail in some way, generally to automate routine tasks like sorting the mail into appropriate mail folders. Mail from relatives might go into a personal folder and mail from the boss into an urgent folder, for example. A full discussion of processing e-mail is beyond the scope of this book, but the idea does have implications for the community network because collecting e-mail testimony, tabulating votes from an on-line meeting, tabulating survey results, and many other e-mail processing activities are directly related to community networks. Message-enabled e-mail or computational e-mail hold similar potential for structuring communication and for building interactivity into e-mail messages.

"Agents" are a still more unusual software technology. At their most exotic, they're envisioned as being as competent as humans that serve as round-the-clock, unpaid, artificially intelligent assistants. Although many people blithely assume that agents will exist in a few years or so, their existence in this most advanced form depends on developers solving many of the problems that the field of artificial intelligence has largely abandoned (for the second time), such as how to automatically extract "meaning" from text. In a more prosaic form, an agent could be employed to scan an on-line newspaper every day for news on a given topic, say, Romania, and the excerpts then could be e-mailed to the agent's owner. While this would provide handy assistance, it is by no means intelligent (as it just searches character-by-character for words such as "Romania" and "Romanian") and shouldn't be considered in any way as a substitute for a trained —human— librarian or researcher. Such an agent might constrain its results too much so that potentially interesting information is not returned. On the other hand, an under-constrained search might produce a mountain of unwanted information (such as this presumably irrelevant paragraph).

Agents can also search through archives of material in many ways as well as range through a wide variety of archives. One example of current agent technology is Perl or Tcl/Tk-based Web agents that navigate through the World Wide Web examining Web pages for "damage" such as nonexistent locations. At some point in the not-too-distant future agents may even negotiate with other agents for certain pieces of information, acting on the user's behalf. Future users of such agents will be well-advised to temper the zeal of the information ravenous infobot that has access to your credit-card number!

Integration of Services

A critical question is how these software services are organized into a unified, coherent community network. There are two general answers to this question and each one has several advantages and disadvantages: You can buy a system "off the shelf" (see Appendix D for more information) or you can "roll your own" using software components that will need to be integrated, adapted, or developed as necessary. FreePort is the original Free-Net menu-based text-only software available from Case-Western Reserve University in Cleveland and is used in many of the Free-Nets. The software costs $850 and is available only to NPTN affiliates (see Chapter 8). The FreePort software is written in C and must be compiled to run on your (Unix) machine. It is available only on an "as-is" basis and modifications may be necessary to get it running properly on your equipment. The nptn-admin mailing list (see Appendix B) provides a good forum if any questions or comments arise about FreePort (as well as other community-network issues). Additionally, the developers at National Capital Free-Net in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, have developed several software additions and modifications that enhance FreePort considerably. CIX, which is modeled after FreePort, provides additional functionality and is another option. InterLink (discussed earlier in this chapter) offers yet another off-the-shelf solution and is used in the Chester County InterLink community network (see Appendix C). Although large-scale, multiuser network systems have traditionally been hosted on Unix machines, platforms (such as Macintoshes and PC clones) and available networking software have increased in power and flexibility in recent years. FirstClass (BBS) software, available from SoftArc in Ontario, Canada, has been used extensively in Macintosh-based rural Free-Nets, while Worldgroup, a multifeatured BBS system for the PC platform is used all over the world, including the city of Seattle's PAN (Public Access Network) system (See Appendix D.). FirstClass and Worldgroup are client-server-based software and both use a proprietory protocol for "conversations" between the "client" software (on the user's machine) and the "server" software (on the community-network machine). Client software of either system can be distributed at no cost (although FirstClass does charge for use licenses). Moreover, both systems will work correctly (but not ideally) in a text-only mode if a user's machine does not have the appropriate client software.

Finally, the roll-your-own approach exists as an option for community-network organizers who meet any of the following characteristics: (1) they demand a certain style or functionality that can't be found elsewhere; (2) they prefer this approach; or (3) they're on a very tight budget. "Rolling your own" consists of adapting or integrating existing components or developing your own software (a daunting task that can be tempting — sometimes irresistibly — to software developers). Adapting or integrating software from various sources has other problems besides technical complexity, however. Each piece of software carries its own distribution constraint, from being strictly in the "public domain" (do anything you like with it) to GNU's "copyleft" approach to being "publicly available" (Lynx Web browsers) or being shareware (for which users are requested to send a fee to the developer).

Using the Web is a fairly good way of making community-network resources available on the Internet and other network tools such as Gopher and Archie can provide additional useful functionality. Community-network developers will need to integrate a variety of tools to provide the maximum utility. In other words, a Web-based interface to community-network services should provide as much functionality as FreePort or other interface. Designing and formatting information for a variety of accessing approaches, however, takes time and effort on the part of the information providers and developers. Preferably, one shouldn't have a different group of people working on each different interface. Nor should some services and information be available when using one interface while different services and information are available when using other interfaces. This would result in a schizophrenic community network as well as diluting the volunteer and staff effort.

To avoid the problem of disjoint services and information on the network, some developers might end up maintaining information in multiple formats.


Environment Menu (go enviro)

1 About This Area
2 EarthSave Seattle
3 The Mountaineers
4 MPSFEG-Salmon Enhancement
5 North Seattle Community College, ENV Forum
6 Overpopulation
7 Sustainable Seattle
8 Washington Toxics Coalition
h=Help, ?=List of Commands, "go help"=Extended Help
m=Main Menu, p=Previous Menu, x=Exit SCN
Your Choice ==>

Figure 9.11 FreePort Menu


Although avoiding duplication of information —as well as effort— may not always be possible, it is certainly worth some advance planning to achieve a functional approach. In Seattle, for example, the original SCN system used the FreePort menu-based software (Fig. 9.11). Using FreePort requires that developers and information providers "build menus." They must create formatted text files (see Fig. 9.12) that describe what the menu looks like and what happens when items are selected. It turns out that Mosaic, Netscape, or Lynx can provide alternative interfaces to the same functionality (Fig. 9.13) using "HTML" files (Fig. 9.14) instead of FreePort "menu" files. An HTML file, like a FreePort menu file, is a specially formatted text file. The SCN developers found that the same information could be made available both ways if an HTML file could be created that duplicated the functionality of the FreePort menu file. With that aim in mind, SCN volunteer Bob Kennewick created a small software tool using the Perl program that automatically generates an HTML file based on a FreePort menu file whenever a Web browser accesses the URL of the FreePort menu file.


Lynx as Community-Network Framework

Many community-network developers are currently suggesting that the Lynx browser could form the basis of a community-network shell or skeleton on which to build the entire community network. Lynx can fairly easily be made to provide the same functionality as menu-based approaches while making community-network information and communication services available to outside users with Web browsers as well. Since HTML is becoming a de facto standard for publishing on the Internet, this approach seems quite reasonable.


# environment menu, community/environ/menu

# 5/13/94
%L (go enviro)
%e About This Area
# %p p about.the
%p p not.ready
%e Overpopulation
%t Overpopulation
%p $o/overpop/menu
%e MPSFEG-Salmon Enhancement
%p $m/mpsfeg/menu
%e Sustainable Seattle
%p $envtech/sustainable/
%e Washington Toxics Coalition
%p $w/wtc/
%e EarthSave Seattle
%p $e/earthsave/ESmenu.txt
%e North Seattle Community College, ENV 150 Forum
%p nr scn.environment.nscc

Figure 9.12 A FreePort Menu File

This approach is not trivial, however, and it does raise some issues. For example, Lynx may not be as easy to use for a beginning user and the Web may not support interaction as readily. Moreover, if Lynx is used to access nonlocal URLs, the distinction between local community information and information on remote sites will become increasingly blurred in the minds of the users. This eventually could raise some support issue, and it could make the identity of the community network as a community network less distinct.

Security Issues

Since the early days of computer systems, the protection of resources and information from unwanted access and control has been a perplexing issue. With the advent of networked computers for which physical isolation is no longer possible (or desirable), the problem has become more acute. Community networks offer a number of challenging concerns to developers, as their very purpose is to provide access to very large numbers of people. Also, during at least part of the time, most community networks will be administered by volunteers, thus introducing some risks due to a possibly transient, uncertain, and inconsistently skilled work force.

While a deep analysis of security issues is beyond the scope of this book, a few observations are in order. The first is that 100-percent safety is impossible to attain. As they back away from the idea of total security, community-network developers need to face the important task of defining the appropriate level of security for their systems. AT&T senior researchers William Cheswick and Steven Bellovin have written a useful (and entertaining) book on Internet security that is subtitled "Repelling the Wily Hacker" (1994). In their book they stress the importance of a security policy that "determines an organization's posture towards security." This policy should describe the limits of acceptable behavior and the responses to violations.

User education is critical in community networks, for users are likely to be unaware of security risks and the precautions they should take. This education should include how to choose good passwords and keep them private. Users should also have a sense of how secure the system is, so they can make appropriate decisions regarding how much they can trust the system. This type of education needs to be ongoing: It can be conducted via several routes, including log-in banners, policy statements, informational and alerting e-mail notices, and newsletter articles.



Common wisdom states that hardware decisions are secondary to software decisions. This means that hardware purchases must be based on application objectives and end-user needs.

  Clark Rogers and Brian Vidic (1995)

The hardware may be the least complicated aspect of developing a community network. At the heart of the community-network system is a computer (or group of computers) that needs to be an extremely reliable, multiprocessing machine. Its main role will be gathering input from large numbers of simultaneous users (from various delivery channels), running programs, accessing data from disk, and presenting output back to users. The community-network computer must also be configured to communicate with a potentially large number of devices. Since participants will want to save e-mail and other documents (possibly including graphic or audio information), disk drives with gigabytes (or terabytes) of storage will also be required. The community network can be hosted on any number of platforms. As the number of users increases and the services become more sophisticated, the platform must become correspondingly more powerful.

To adequately address hardware concerns developers must analyze needs, select hardware, connect the hardware to the system, monitor the system, and repeat this sequence ... forever. There is a basic sequence of four questions that can be used to guide much of the process. The first question is "What are the services that the community network will provide?" The second question is "What access methods will be used?" The third is "What type of performance is desired?" (relating to the type of service and number of users that will use the system) and the fourth is "How will the components be assembled in a way that meets current needs and that can evolve to meet future needs?"

As Table 9.1 shows, community networks can be characterized as either low-end, mid-range, or high-end systems based on what services are available and how many simultaneous users the system will support. Note that high-end services such as graphical Web browsers can stress the system, particularly in the delivery of the information over delivery channels, while these systems can handle much higher numbers of users that are using only text. A system that offers Internet capabilities such as FTP or Telnet makes some type of Internet connection mandatory, while a system that simply provides Internet e-mail to its users can accomplish this goal in many lower-tech ways such as by e-mail transfers over the telephone using UUCP (UNIX to UNIX copy) or other protocols.


Table 9.1 Community-Network Hardware Classification
Computer-System Type Capabilities
High-End Multiple CPUs, 128-256-MB RAM per CPU Example: SPARCserver 1000 with 8 CPUs, RAID storage, multiple T1, multiple network interfaces
Mid-Range Fast, single or multiple CPUs, 64-MB RAM, large storage Example: SPARCstation 20 with 2 HyperSPARC 125-Mhz CPUs, T1
Low-End Single CPU, 16-64-MB RAM Example: SPARCstation 4 or 133-Mhz Pentium, ISDN or partial T1


Some SCN Hardware Anatomy

In early 1994, the Seattle Community Network first went on-line. It used a donated 386 clone and donated BSDI Unix operating system. The FreePort software was modified slightly ( "ported") to run under this system. The modest system did surprisingly well — up to 10 simultaneous users could use it and the response was slow, but tolerable. The developers felt that it was important to have an operational system, but stressed that the system was only in "prototype mode." In December of 1994, the SCN organization bought a Sun SPARCstation 5, a fairly high-powered work station for approximately $5000. Plummeting computer prices have made grass-roots community-network projects more viable — a comparable machine would have cost tens of thousands more a few years earlier. In fact, the SPARCstation 4 that is now available is less expensive and faster than the SPARCstation 5 that SCN currently uses.

According to the classification scheme in Table 9.2, SCN is a low-end system. It is not, however, a toy system, and examining its architecture in some detail (Fig. 9.15) would be useful. Most SCN users access SCN from home using a personal computer, modem, and text-only terminal-emulation software. Approximately 20 percent use the 16 modem lines, which attach to the SCN main machine through a terminal server. Forty percent of SCN users reach SCN via the Seattle Public Library, King County Library, and Seattle Public Access Network (PAN) dial-in lines. Fourteen percent of SCN users are logging in from public terminals in the Seattle City and King County libraries. The rest reach SCN over the Internet via Telnet or the World Wide Web.


Table 9.2 Types of Hardware Needed


Number of simultaneous users Text only Internet nongraphical capabilities Internet graphical capabilities
High (500+) Mid-range High-end High-end
Med (50-499) Low-end Mid-range High-end
Low (1-49) Low-end Low-end Low-Mid-range


The SCN main computer (a Sun SPARCstation 5) is attached to the two other SCN machines — the 386 machine (now an administration machine) and a Sun SPARC SLC (the News/Web server) — and to the Seattle Public Library machines via a local area network (LAN). The LAN is attached to the Internet through a router. The SCN main computer has 64 MB of main memory and 4.5 GB of disk space. As of August, 1995, the system has over 5400 registered users and supports over 56,000 log-ins a month with up to 45 simultaneous users. Additionally, the SCN Web server is currently servicing over 4000 "hits" (or individual Web page accesses) a day.

Hardware Heuristics

To accommodate large numbers of simultaneous users, it is important to have as much memory as possible because the more memory there is, the less disk swapping and the better the performance will be. The SCN machine currently has 64 MB of memory, and NPTN recommends at least 32 MB of real memory, although 64 MB is better still (1993b).

Disk storage is cheap (now below $300 a gigabyte) and important. The system will need a lot of storage for information-provider areas and user space (allowing 1+ megabyte per user). The operating system requires about 300 MB and FreePort software uses an additional 80 MB. SCSI disks are currently increasing in capacity and becoming faster. In addition, newer storage systems provide high-capacity and redundancy by using RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) technology. RAID storage allows for single disk drives to fail without loss of data. NPTN also recommends a terminal server to handle the communication between the modems and the host computer, as they "are relatively cheap and make life much easier" (1993b). They also recommend that you don't skimp on modems, as they will be in near constant use, or on a large tape drive to facilitate making the time-consuming daily backups with as little manual intervention as possible.

The modular approach to system architecture is sound for many reasons. The basic reason is that modularity is a simple way to take advantage of all available components and to spread the processing load among machines. This is often done by turning various machines into servers for different software services, like news reading, Web server, or e-mail. Another advantage is that older components can be replaced incrementally when needed. This architecture also can lead to the situation where a single component of failure will not crash the entire system.

For the extremely cost-conscious community-network developer it is possible to get 486 or Pentium PCs relatively cheaply and run the public domain Unix clone Linux (Welsh et al., 1994) on them. There are electronic distribution lists dedicated to Linux and other appropriate public domain software. Low-end work station pricing has also come way down as there are now machines available for under $3000. These machines can be grouped together in a cluster (where each machine performs a specialized task) and can provide acceptable performance on a small budget.



"Have you ever gotten a call on your television?

Have you ever bought concert tickets from a cash machine?

You will."

  AT&T ad, People Magazine, November 27, 1993

Besides illustrating how commercial concerns are actively engaged in framing the possibilities of future network use, the advertisement above illustrates the impending uses of new and traditional delivery channels that could radically change some familiar patterns of information and communication in the home, workplace and community. In this section the term "delivery channel" is applied loosely to the physical medium, protocols, and the interfaces that allow information to pass back and forth between the community-network computer and users and services on computers. It is important to think of delivery channels in a general sense because the physical substrate, protocols, and policies are changing rapidly. Because of this rapid evolution, community-network proponents should be active participants in all decisions concerning public uses of delivery channels that might include voice-grade telephone, ISDN, cable television, or radio transmissions.

The term "infrastructure" refers to the base-level technology — both hardware and software — that is used to deliver information; it might be thought of as intelligent wiring or plumbing for information and communication. Currently infrastructure takes the form of telephone connections, cable television connections, and connections via invisible electromagnetic radiation for wireless telephones, radio and broadcast television. In the near future, there will be more types of "wire" — such as LEOS (low-level earth-orbiting satellite), direct broadcast, and other technologies. There will also be "smarter wire," including cable television retooling that would allow communication in both directions, ISDN telephone connections, and integrated technologies such as new set top boxes that can be used to control television sets and also to pull together several other types of communicating devices including the television and the telephone.

Telephone, wireless, cable, TV, and personal computer companies are beginning to compete in many services. One such service is broadcast television offered in conjunction with access to the Internet and, perhaps, thereby to community networks, through personal computers connected to cable networks with so-called cable modems. Soon, the services may encompass interactive video applications made available on computers, and eventually extend to data and video applications on television sets controlled by set top boxes.

The term "information superhighway" evokes many images of an ubiquitous high-speed network, providing information from all over the world to homes, schools, libraries, businesses, and government offices. One image identifies the information superhighway with the Internet, another with cable television networks having the oft-quoted capacity of 500 digitized and compressed video channels. The term originated in the United States as a metaphor for the National Information Infrastructure (NII), a government-sponsored network infrastructure. Though the use of the metaphor has increased with the growing availability of data and video networks, a community network considering becoming an "on-ramp to the information superhighway" should remember that there is no such specific entity as the "information superhighway," and consider carefully the specific nature of any network to which it might connect.


Connecting over existing telephone lines via a modem connected to a personal computer or terminal from home, work, or other locations is probably the simplest and most direct way to access the community network. This access method is open to anybody with a home computer, modem, telephone line, and telecommunications software. And, using SLIP, PPP, or TIA serial line protocols, someone with a home computer can effectively be "on" the Internet, allowing that person to use graphical Web browsers, for example. The variety of possible hardware and software at the user end presents challenges to the person using the community network as well as to the community-network developers who must try to accommodate as many users as possible. For one thing, a long-distance telephone call might be required to reach the community network, discouraging frequent and significant use for a large number of people. Also, modem speeds vary considerably, thus affecting the amount of data that can be sent across the telephone lines. If transmission is fast, then displaying a screenful of information that the user didn't absolutely require would not be terrible. If, however, transmission is slow, the user will not want to be subjected to any unnecessary information. Suppose graphics information is being transmitted over a telephone line, particularly a slow telephone line. Because graphics information is generally orders of magnitude greater in quantity and hence slower to transmit than textual information, it must be specifically needed by the user. If the graphic (or sound video or other large document) is merely decorative, then it is an unnecessary frill that detracts from the system's usefulness.

From the community-network side, it must be expected that users will use a wide variety of means by which to contact the community network. These include anything from a lowly dumb terminal that can only display characters to a powerful multimedia work station. Based on this wide variety of approaches, it is clear that the use of text-only is the lowest common denominator for all systems, and if text only is supported, then all users (that can read) will be able to use the system.

On the other hand, some information is inherently graphic. Maps and other geographic information, for example, cannot be translated into equivalent textual representations. Because of requirements for graphics and the desire on the part of users to take advantage of more advanced hardware, community-network developers are exploring the use of GUIs (graphical user interfaces) and newer software tools like Mosaic in their systems. Steve Cisler's question "How are you going to keep them happy with VT100 emulation once they've seen Mosaic?" (1995a), reflecting the seemingly inexorable push towards graphical approaches, is very relevant.

Client-Server Architectures

Whether telephone-based or not, the fundamental issue with client-server architectures is, How does the receiving program know what is data and what is something else? With a strict text-only character-based system, this is not a problem: Everything is either viewed directly as text or downloaded for later viewing. Once out of that regime, it becomes important that the sending system (the community-network system) knows something about the receiving system (typically a home computer). They must "speak the same language."

This shared language can become very sophisticated. It can be used for all types of display screen control as well as more advanced capabilities like information compression (at the sending side) and decompression (at the receiving side). Sophisticated user interfaces can be developed with the right protocol and "intelligence" on both ends of the communications channel or pipe. When software on both ends of the pipe speak the same language, to accomplish fairly complex tasks by working together, this is a "client-server architecture." In the case of a community network, the system is the "server," while the terminals or computer at home, work, or in a public access location are the "clients." Typically a client can only communicate with a server of the same type.

Examples of these client-server architectures can be found in commercial BBS systems (like Coconut, Ripterm, or FirstClass) or in commercial network systems like America Online or Prodigy. The servers on these systems are often able to communicate both with character-based and with full-fledged "smart" clients that are capable of understanding the full language or protocol that the client and server use to communicate with each other. These protocols may, for example, enable a user to resize windows on the local (client) system without sending or receiving any information from the server. These systems are relatively portable across client platforms because the vendors have developed clients with software that runs on Macintoshes, PCs, and other computers.

The trouble with these commercial protocols is — of course — that they're all secret or proprietary. Each protocol is a carefully guarded, proprietary secret that doesn't understand other protocols and whose use in a public way would constitute a violation of copyright. Moreover, requiring the use of a proprietary system to access the system would be contrary to the spirit of a community network. Therefore, public domain protocols are needed. HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) offers one such protocol for accessing multimedia information across the Internet. Unfortunately, Mosaic and other graphical Web browsers are not well-suited for users who use ordinary TTY telecomm programs and modems over telephone lines.

Another criticism of the World Wide Web is its emphasis on "publishing" rather than two-way communication. The Web allows people to "put their shingle up" on the Internet but it's currently less supportive of conversations (using e-mail, forums, or chat, for example). There are several efforts afoot however, to support conversational functionality using the Web (such as Hypermail — see Appendix D), and these should become increasingly common within a few years. There is ongoing work in at least two different languages — Java from Sun (Sun, 1995) and Tcl/Tk developed by John Ousterhout (1994) while at UC Berkeley — to provide "active content" within Web pages. The HotJava and Tcl-based Surfit! browsers are early attempts to extend beyond the Web's publish-only mode. In addition, some new browsers are using the new VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) allowing 3D interactivity over the Web.

Tcl (pronounced "tickle") and Tk, a user-interface toolkit built on Tcl, could also be used as the basis of a high-level client-server system that could be used over ordinary telephone lines (the interface shown for the fictitious Erewhon Community Network in Figure 9-4 is a Tk object). It should be noted, however, that these approaches have the potential problem of executing commands on the user's local machine posing significant security challenges and could have potentially catastrophic results (erasing all files, for example). The safe-Tcl language (Borenstein, 1995) provides one way to address this problem; other approaches are also being investigated.


When people discuss on-line network communications, terms like "cyberspace," the "net," or "the Internet" are often used to describe the totality of the electronic web. The Internet is actually a collection of networks. All of the networks that comprise the Internet use a common language (or set of protocols) called TCP/IP to communicate with each other — to send and receive the bits of data that may be part of a love note, an ad hominem attack, executable software, graphic, video, or audio information. There are literally millions of computers connected together with satellites, high-speed telephone lines, fiber-optic cable, and other connections to form the Internet.

Individuals that use community networks and individuals that develop community networks often want the system to be "on the net." To be "on the net" generally means that you have access to the other computers on the net and can access their information and services with the full suite of available Internet tools, including electronic mail (e-mail), FTP (for transferring files back and forth between the local and remote computer), Telnet (for logging into other computers), IRC (for Internet Relay Chat, allowing multiple IRC users to "chat" together using text on a "channel"), and Mosaic (or Netscape or other Web browsers for Internet hypertext access).

Historically, many community networks have not had ready access to the Internet. There are many reasons for this barrier but it has been very vexing to those in the community-network community. They — very rightly — objected to the fact that their tax dollars had been used for many years subsidizing network use by the educational and technological elite. Many regional providers had contributed to the idea that "ordinary people" had no right to this technology, basically because they didn't have the intelligence to use it correctly or responsibly. Additionally, many people whose use had been subsidized for years strenuously object to subsidizing those in the technological backwater. To them, subsidy to the poor is "socialism," whereas subsidy to the privileged just seems natural.

There are three issues to be addressed in considering the relationship of community and networks to the Internet. The first is, What does it mean to be on the Internet? The second is, How conducive is the focus on the Internet to the principles and goals of community networking? The third is, How should a community network secure an Internet connection should it wish to do so?

Community Networks on the Internet

What does it mean for a community network to be "on" the Internet? There are various interpretations, and being "on" the Internet is not necessarily an unambiguous proposition. Traditionally, it has meant having a 24-hour-a-day direct connection using a router and a modem over a leased phone line. Minimally, being on the Internet means having an e-mail address that can be used by any other person on the Internet. Hence, my address of "" ("douglas" is my logon name to scn; "scn" is the Seattle Community Network's acronym and "org" means that scn is in the "org" domain, a nonprofit organizational designation) can be used to send me e-mail from anywhere in the world by anyone with access to Internet mail. In order for the routing of this mail to happen correctly, several things must have occurred. The first is that the "" domain name must be registered with the Network Information Center (NIC). The community-network organization must fill out a domain registration form containing domain name, contact information, and Internet provider (IP) address to be used. The NIC will check that the name has not already been taken. The community-network organization would have previously registered with the NIC for the IP address mentioned above or else would have arranged with their local Internet provider for the address to be used. An IP address is a four-part address (four numbers separated by periods) that will uniquely identify (at a low networking level) the machine to which it is attached. An IP address is required for direct attachment to the Internet.

Interestingly, having a name need not imply that the system is directly on the Internet. E-mail can be routed between the computer "on" the Internet and then exchanged over lower-speed telephone lines using any number of existing methods. Besides having a name (e.g., "") and an IP address, your machine's address must be placed in routing tables. These are used by the computers responsible for distributing data through the web of computers so that the right piece of information ends up in the right location. While Internet e-mail is fundamental to a community network (and available for little cost, especially for creative and enterprising developers), providing full Internet access for all users may be impractical. Fortunately, there is a wide range of mid-range approaches to be investigated.

Many community networks have not had to worry about their Internet connection because they are affiliated with a university, a library, or a local government with an Internet connection. Without that affiliation getting connected to the Internet may be more difficult. The first part of the job is to locate an Internet provider. If you think of the Internet as a huge network of information pipes, your community network won't be part of the plumbing if you can't find a tap to connect your (two-way) hose to. Finding an Internet provider is like locating a telephone company to "hook up" your telephone — only it's somewhat more mysterious.

Historically, there have been few providers of direct-connection Internet services and most access was through a handful of mid-level providers who were themselves connected to the top level of the Internet, the "backbone." Attaching to a mid-level provider was almost always priced in the same way: an annual fee for unlimited access, based on bandwidth. The cost usually ran between $30,000 and $35,000 for a T1 connection (MacKie-Mason and Varian, 1994). Mid-level providers were nearly all nonprofit corporations.

Nowadays, providers are more plentiful and they are far less likely to be nonprofit corporations. Access can be provided now over ISDN, fractional T1, T1, and T3 telephone lines. Mid-level providers are beginning to offer additional value-added services including e-mail, disk space, domain name service, and the like. Connecting directly to the Internet means paying for a fast, dedicated telephone line, a router (a special-purpose computer), and Ethernet interface cards for the community-network computer. Although I had no luck locating Internet providers with the Seattle "yellow pages" telephone directory, I did find relevant lists on-line on both the InterNIC and the Yahoo Web pages (see Appendix D).

Community Networks and the Internet — Made for Each Other?

Newspaper reporters and others often translate "community networks" as "Internet for the masses" or (worse yet) as an "on-ramp to the information superhighway." Both translations — popularity notwithstanding — are inaccurate and misleading. For one thing, both suggest that individuals and communities need to merge or become one with a global system, thus vaporizing the local community focus that community-network developers are striving to promote. The on-ramp analogy has several unfortunate connotations. One is that on-ramps to actual highways are, at best, necessary evils and, at worse, environmental blots. An on-ramp is generally used to get away from the local scene — usually at a high speed — towards a glittering destination several miles down the turnpike. To place the focus on the on-ramp is to place the focus on a retreat from the local community. In the words of Frank Odasz, this is the difference between the Internet and the "inner-net."

Beyond reporters' spins, what other issues are involved with integrating community networks with the Internet? While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with providing access to the Internet via the community network, there are several practical obstacles that community-network developers may need to face. The first obstacle may simply be a resource-allocation issue among the developers. Where should they be spending their time? Should they be developing local information, capacities and relationships or should they be developing services for accessing the Internet? Since commercial providers are springing up to offer these latter services, perhaps Internet access should not be the primary goal for community networks.

The second possible obstacle may be more intractable. While the "acceptable use" policies (forbidding commercial use of the Internet) are no longer a factor, other policies such as "bandwidth reselling" or the financial cost itself may be prohibitive. Let's assume that you're discussing prices with an Internet provider. That provider may want to know how many users you'll be supporting and charge you some amount per user. Since you are buying bandwidth to supply to your "customers" (users), you have now become an Internet provider of sorts, a "reseller" of Internet resources. Each "customer" of yours may translate —in their eyes— into one less customer for them. At any rate, you'll be asked to specify what type of "bandwidth" you'll need. (Bandwidth is the technical term for the size of the information "pipe." The fatter that pipe is, the more information can pass swiftly through it. And fatter pipes mean larger bills for the community network.) As the number of Internet providers increases, it should be relatively straightforward to negotiate a good price for some degree of intermediate service for your users.


Residential Broadband Access

Cable television started as a local entrepreneurial activity in rural areas of the United States in the 1960s, as community antennas were erected to distribute broadcast television signals over cable to homes that were unable to obtain a clear signal. Now, cable companies are extremely large commercial organizations that are searching for new sources of revenue by offering services such as telephone and data connections. To do this, they are investing heavily in market trials and in building cable networks capable of transmitting information not only from the cable "headend" to the home, but also in the reverse direction. At the same time, telephone companies are investigating ways to use their existing equipment to provide broadcast and interactive television, as well as high-speed data.

The networks that supply these cable services will provide higher performance than dial-up and many Internet connections. If the cable system headend is connected to the Internet, all users (scaling issues aside) of the cable system could, in theory, have access to the Internet as well as to cable television. The data will travel on separate channels in the upward and downward directions (from and to the computer, respectively). The relative capacity of these paths is under debate (see Barlow [1995] for example). A network that provides only a small upward path and a large downward path may be suitable for Internet browsing and "interactive" television, but will not facilitate the transmission of large quantities of information from the home. As new applications for computer and communications technology become available to the public, the architecture of the residential broadband network provided by the cable or telephone company may become an issue of concern to community networks.

Users could continue to use computers at home to access community-network data applications, such as e-mail, if residential broadband networks provide the delivery channel. The computers would connect to the network using a cable modem, which must be compatible with the data equipment installed in the headend. The cable modem would connect to a community network in a manner similar to an Internet connection, precluding the need for dial-up access. Data rates of between 1 and 10 Mbps — much faster than dial-up or ISDN — are expected, though this capacity may be shared among several residences in the same area.

Interactive set top boxes will take several years to become common, and when they do, they will probably lack keyboards at first. It is unclear whether the living areas of the home, where people normally watch television, will provide an environment suitable for the focused activity of network access. Until television displays become more sophisticated, their image quality may be insufficient for the kind of work people commonly carry out on home computers. While television can provide a social focus in living areas, computer use generally does not.

Residential broadband networks may provide up to 75 broadcast cable television channels, as well as extra capacity to transmit data and video in response to requests from the individual consumers. Communities, often through their local government, have negotiated access to broadcast channels for many years. In the near future, they will face new challenges‹to present their existing community-network services (perhaps through an Internet connection) and to develop interactive video applications over the new two-way network capacity. It is currently unclear whether government regulation will require cable companies or telephone companies to provide access as "common carriers" to third parties who wish to present services over their networks. Mark Wheeler, an engineer with Apple Computer specializing in cable television applications recommends that community-network organizers find out who the cable contract administrator is for the community, and find out when the current cable contract expires. This information is invaluable for negotiating with cable television providers on PEG (public access, educational, governmental) access issues.

Langdon Winner has referred to applications such as "video on demand" and home shopping, where the upstream channel capacity is extremely constricted, as "interpassive" —rather than interactive— television. Some have suggested that the remote control for an interactive television system will need only one button labeled "Buy." Despite this concern, interest will probably increase in community-oriented interactive television applications. Network providers may wish to offer a local community focus in order to interest subscribers in their revenue-generating services, and community networks will probably need to respond to demands from their constituency for access —as users and information providers— to interactive video. Because the people who express this interest may or may not be actively involved with the data-oriented services of the community network, this may represent an opportunity for a community network to serve a larger constituency. Community networks may come to play an important role in working with network providers to provide interactive video services of value to the community.

To take advantage of residential broadband networks as they become available, community networks will need to consider a wide range of issues: a presence on the network for existing data applications; support of computer software to access existing data applications; access to the network for interactive video applications; production and compression of video content; interactive video application development, or "authoring"; and user-interface development for both computer and set top box. It is clear that community-network developers must broadly define their mission to not only provide access to existing technology but to stay abreast of technological trends. They must be alert to new challenges as well as opportunities for continuing community support.

Technological feasibility alone will not guarantee that community networks will be available on cable television. Cable television is not a common carrier. Compare phone service, where all providers are guaranteed that they can get "an account," that is, get telephone service. By contrast, cable television companies are not obligated to provide a channel for community-networking programming. Many communities have negotiated with cable companies to provide public service programming, educational services through local universities, and government-oriented services such as broadcasts of city council meetings. Because cable companies have been granted monopolies or partial monopolies, the federal government has granted the local franchising authority the power to negotiate with them for PEG access. The inclusion has often required prolonged public pressure. Without this pressure, cable companies are unlikely to surrender a channel for community networks and the local authority may be unwilling or unable to negotiate for appropriate access.



ISDN —Integrated Services Digital Network— offers another approach to the delivery channel of the future. ISDN offers a unified method of bringing in a wide range of information to the home, office, factory, store, or public access location by means of the existing global telephone network. ISDN, for example, can handle voice or data (or both at the same time), making it a good candidate for computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW) applications. In these "groupware" applications, people in different locations can work on computer applications together while speaking to each other and seeing each other. ISDN is faster than character-based or PPP/SLIP connections over regular telephone lines but slower than T1 or T3 leased lines. ISDN service is now available in most urban locations in the United States, but its additional monthly cost and the ISDN interface costs make it an unlikely delivery channel in the near future for community networks, where universal access is important.

Configuration, or "Putting It All Together"

Although the community network should look like a single integrated system, in reality it is probably a collection of hardware and software working together as a coherent, unified system. The Cleveland Free-Net, for example, "is not a single computer. It is a collection of more than a dozen machines all operating in coordination with each other" (Neff, 1995). This state of affairs is inevitable. Over the years, it is quite natural that the project will accumulate additional computers. At the same time, the number of users will also have grown substantially. For those reasons, it is quite natural to seek a way to connect all of the machines together to take advantage of the cumulative processing power. Since there are a variety of software functions that also need lashing together, a straightforward strategy is to distribute these software functions to the various machines at your disposal. For example, machines can be turned into news servers, gopher servers, Web servers, mail servers, Telnet servers, file servers, and so on. Usually these machines will all be connected via a local area network, and one or more of them are "on the Internet." Additionally, file-storage protocols such as NFS can be used to share disk storage with the other machines.

Community networks also need to be connected to other community networks and to other existing electronic resources, including BBSs. These connections can be invisible to end users, thus helping to create a seamless resource for users. Alternatively, the connections can be visible to users, thus providing users with tools for their own use. Electronic mail is an example of a seamless resource: Sending e-mail to somebody beyond the local community network shouldn't require any additional work of the user.



The question "What can technology do to help" is almost always the wrong question.

  Donald Norman (1993)

While the six core values of the new community will no doubt persist as critical issues for humankind over the next ten, hundred, or thousand years, the state of computer technology is likely to change in ways that we can scarcely imagine today —and the change may occur in a short period of time. Forums, MUDs, chat programs, multimedia mail, Archie, gophers, and Mosaic, today are recognizable net denizens. These familiar services are likely to evolve and mutate into possibly unrecognizable new forms. Tomorrow infobots, knowbots, softbots, and others may stalk the net. The research community will need to concentrate on systems that scale up to accommodate extremely large numbers of users (Cisler, 1995b) and on interfaces that accommodate a wide variety of users, including those who don't use the Roman character set and those with special needs. The community-network community will need to keep abreast of the new technology, weaving it together in imaginative ways to serve the needs of evolving new communities. This will not be a trivial undertaking. However, as the Bagdikian quote at the beginning of this chapter asserts, technology should serve culture and society —not the other way around!


D Schuler, NEW COMMUNITY NETWORKS, 1996 Addison-Wesley Publishing Company Inc.

Chapter 10