Community Networks (long version)

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Peter Day
CNA Project

Communities often lack the type of information and communication infrastructure needed to: 1) support and sustain the social networks of clubs, organisations, associations, groups, agencies, families and individual citizens that constitute the structures, organisation and activities of community life; and 2) enable effective organisation, planning and enactment of local campaigns when threatened by external agency. Network technologies present interesting opportunities to support community networking activities but in and of themselves do not constitute community networks. Indeed, the ICT agenda of both public and commercial sectors is often hostile to the mutuality, collaboration and communicative processes required for building healthy communities (Day & Schuler, 2004). There is a need therefore for the development of appropriate and effective strategies that facilitate community appropriation of communication technologies in support of the social network relationships required to build, organise and sustain active communities.


Contemporary society is commonly described in terms of its networks, especially its technological networks. ICT, we are told, provide both the structure and organisation of the world in which we live. A natural corollary of this worldview is the oft encountered assumption that the social fabric of our lives is shaped by, and increasingly dependant upon, ICT. If this hypothesis is accurate, and the age in which we live is truly one characterised by information flows, communication patterns and the media infrastructure and applications that support these transactions then it is reasonable to question who and what influences the design and use of communication technologies? Similarly, it is reasonable to consider what alternatives might exist. With this in mind this pattern is intended as a contribution to, and perhaps even as a catalyst for, a much needed dialogue about the planning, design and potential for use of geographically located community networks.

Perceived participants in such a dialogue would include: 1) Community members


Despite growing numbers of claims that ‘community’ no longer exists, people in all parts of the world continue to connect with one another to socialise, plan events and organise activities that build and improve the communities in which they live. Community is the building block of society. Social networks, trust, respect for diversity and a commitment to improving socio-cultural environments, i.e. social capital (Putnam, 2000), provide the conditions for building and sustaining healthy community.

As a social construct, community networks are not new and they are most certainly not a construct of the ’Information Age’ or ‘Network Society’. Community networks have been contributing to community life for many years. In his seminal text on the emergence of ‘new’, i.e. ICT based, community networks, Schuler explains how the term ‘community networks’ was a sociological concept – that referred to community communication patterns and relationships (1996) – long before the emergence of the community bulletin boards of the late 1970s (Morino, 1994), i.e. the forerunners for the web-based community networks of the 1990s onwards (Kubicek & Wagner, 1998).

Understanding the significance of communications and social relationships to community networking provides a starting point for addressing the challenges of planning, designing, developing and sustaining ‘new’ community networks. Making connections and interacting with people of diverse values and belief systems is a crucial component of community networking. It is interesting then that community networks are increasingly referred to as technological artefacts (ref???) and appear to be understood in terms of the connectivity they give to ICT rather than the links they enable to be built within communities.

Musing on this paradox led me to conduct a quick search for community networks on Wikipedia. The search linked me to 14 pages of content – all of which provided various descriptions of ICT related projects/activities. For example the ‘community network’ page revealed that, “Community Network is a term used broadly to indicate use of networking technologies by and for a local community (Wikipedia, 2006).”

Whilst this is certainly true, the statement lacks any sense of purpose. A slightly more developed definition refers to computer-based systems “supporting, augmenting, and extending already existing social networks”. This hints at social rather than exclusively technological ‘uses’ but it still does not address questions pertinent to community uses of network technologies. 1) For what purpose/s would communities want to use network technologies? 2) How can ICT benefit communities in ways that are meaningful to the communities themselves?

Establishing what lies at the heart of community networking, i.e. the purpose and nature of the relationships within communities and the processes of communication, is central to understanding what community is all about. Generating knowledge of what shapes and energizes community life is pivotal to developing effective community networks. In this respect the effectiveness of community networks is understood in terms of how they support and sustain community communications, relationships and activities. An example of how knowledge of community networking in its broadest sense can be generated and how this knowledge might inform the development of ‘new’ community networks is illustrated by the Community Network Analysis (CNA) project in the Poets Corner community of Brighton and Hove, UK.

Spread over 31 small, tightly packed streets, Poets Corner is a demographically mixed community. A significant proportion of its housing stock is owner-occupied – many of which are being bought by London-based commuters. A consequence of this trend is that house prices are increasing beyond the reach of many locals – an interesting development in an area where the majority of the housing stock was built originally for artisans and factory workers! However, recent construction of ‘social housing’ (with more imminent) and a fairly large sector of privately rented accommodation means that Poets Corner comprises a socio-economically diverse population ranging from comfortable affluence to social exclusion and poverty. The area also has a mixed socio-cultural demographic. All of which, once you’re connected to the local social networks, makes Poets Corner an interesting and vibrant place to be.

Space does not permit a fuller description of Poets Corner neither does it allow an account of the CNA research methodology to be developed here but as part of our early activities in the area we conducted a community profile (Hawtin, Hughes & Percy-Smith, 1994). A range of typical tools were employed to develop the profile but in order to add richness, character and authenticity to the pictures of the community being developed, we introduced innovative use of story-telling techniques. This was significant in developing our relationship with the local community and in assisting our understanding of Poets Corner past and present. The 104 community groups, clubs, associations, centres, organisations, etc. that comprise this small, eclectic community often interpret their shared social environment in different ways. Acknowledging the existence of such diversity is a central part of beginning to understand and work with it as a source of community strength rather than community threat.

Subsequent social network analysis of the community infrastructure reveals 8 main clusters of groups, clubs, etc. and 4 smaller clusters. These clusters, or affiliation networks, are organised by a parent organisation, e.g. community associations and worship-based locations. Connectivity appears to be based around organisational support mechanisms and the availability of physical space. A number of isolated nodes or didactic networks also exist, e.g. the two schools are exemplars of a didactic network, although both are keen to develop stronger ties within the community.

Most communications within the community network appear to occur within cluster boundaries. That is to say that despite geographic proximity, connectivity or communication between clusters is not as commonplace as might be expected. When cross community network communications do occur they are usually mediated through a small number of key actors who populate more than one network cluster. These people are central not only to community communications but community activities as a whole, e.g. the annual summer festival and family fun day. Consequently, they are also key to the building and sustaining of social capital in the community. However, when they are unable to fulfil their roles, community communication and activities suffer, which perhaps explains why, one of the first questions put to the CNA team by our community partners was whether ‘ICT could assist in building and strengthening communication links in the community?’ Of course, this is not just a technological question. It has significant community development implications and we resolved early in the project to work with local agencies and organisations to support their work in addressing this and other community identified communication problems.

The ‘informal’ network structures in the community are altogether more open and dynamic than their ‘formal’ counterparts but they are also quite transient in nature. Networking often occurs initially in public spaces, e.g. Stoneham Park, local pubs and coffee shops, and serendipitous street meetings. These spaces become agora in which mutual support, knowledge exchange, human contact and comfort networks can emerge.

Informal social network activities tend to be support based and fall into one of two categories. 1) They are spontaneous in nature, e.g. someone’s cat has gone missing and the neighbours organise a search of the locality; neighbours leave bags of good quality but unwanted clothes/toys on the door steps of families new to the area as a welcoming gesture; groups of people pop in to each other’s houses for coffee and a chat – reinforcing and developing social bonds. 2) They are slightly more organised but have no formal membership, e.g. networks of baby-sitters and parents requiring ‘sitters’ evolve through the local grapevine, a curry club – where participants try new curry recipes is organised at irregular intervals by email, a book club – run along much the same lines as the curry club is organised by mobile phone, or key holder networks among neighbours in the same street – in which spare keys are cut and distributed among trusted neighbours. Such networks play an important role in developing relationships of trust and social cohesion in the community and are often underpinned by technologies that people feel comfortable with, i.e. that they already use.

Although we have only begun to scratch the surface in identifying these networks, the challenge for the CNA project, is to develop an understanding of their contribution to social capital. Such knowledge will enable us to establish whether the conditions for their existence can be created within the prototype community communications space (CCS) being developed as part of the project. If ICT are to support the diversity of social realities that exist in a community network they must start by providing spaces for community voices to be heard and needs to be met. Enabling people to tell their stories and interact with one another in ways that are meaningful to them and in environments that they are comfortable with is an important part of the valorisation of diversity that underpins effective community networking.

The CCS provides ICT based support for community networking activities by creating additional public and private spaces for the Poets Corner community. Based on the open source Plone content management system (CMS), the CCS is being designed with local people to address community information and communication needs. The use of Plone has not been without its problems though. Although flexible, standards compliant and modular in design – attributes that community users welcome – our partners have found Plone complex and counter-intuitive at times but this might because it is new to them. At the moment we take the view that these difficulties form part of the community (and community research) learning process. At the moment, they (and we) have elected to carry on with what we planned but we will not rule out changing to another to another platform, if the community desire it.

Multimedia in nature the CCS supports video and audio podcasting, digital story-telling, digital art, poetry and music. Local communication forums are being established to support community development/building processes currently underway but it is anticipated that these forums will spread as community members learn to use them. The CCS also facilitates blogging and other social software applications; provides spaces for local web pages, notice boards, local diaries, visitor pages and a growing range of social networking applications are being considered.

The exciting developments outlined above indicate how ICT are beginning to be utilised in support of a wide range of community activities in Poets Corner but this should not deflect from the significance of developing effective community engagement strategies. At the beginning of the CNA project we resolved to operate using the Community Development Foundation’s (CDF) participation ready model (Chanan, Garratt & West, 2000) – i.e. start by working with those in the community ready and able to work with you. As community development occurs, news of the activities spreads throughout the community and more participants emerge. Translating this in terms of CNA activities we can say that as awareness of the CCS is increasing so community interest in participating is increasing. However, it should be noted that at this stage most interest lies within the community infrastructure, although individual residents are now beginning to join up as members of the CCS.

Interestingly, the CDF model is not dissimilar to elements of Rogers’ diffusion of innovation theory (1995). The graphic below illustrates stages in the diffusion of the Poets Corner CCS. Only individuals who have actually joined the CCS prototype, rather than used, are represented in the graphic. Similarly, the graphic should not be interpreted as a representation of community involvement in the various elements of the CNA project overall.

Diffusion of the CCS is from the centre outwards and each phase or stage of the process is represented by one of 3 concentric circles. The first circle represents our invitation from the Poets Corner Residents Society (PCRS) and the subsequent invitation by the PCRS executive committee to work in partnership with them to map and improve community communications. Much of this period was spent getting to know people in the community, building trust, raising awareness and supporting the activities of PCRS and other community groups. A group of keen advocates of the CNA project emerged as CCS innovators in Poets Corner. With their assistance the project became more grounded and supportive of community activities and needs. In this way trust was built and the sphere of influence of the project increased.

Slowly but surely a number of community groups began to display an interest in the project and began working with us. The second concentric circle shows early adopters within the community infrastructure. By this time, the project was participating in and supporting the planning and organisation of a second summer festival and family fun day. During the 2 week period of the summer festival, the team organised a range of ICT awareness-raising and support activities, together with a programme of participatory learning workshops (PLWs).

The third concentric circle illustrates a resultant increased involvement from the community infrastructure and the beginning of some involvement from local residents. It too early to present this as evidence of early majority involvement and is best described as a second stage of early adoption activity. What is clear is that the CNA partnership has been raising awareness of the potential of the CCS and interest within the community is on the increase. We are now in the trial and evaluation phases of Rogers’ adoption model as the community infrastructure begin to assess whether ICT, in their present project form, can be used for community networking purposes. It remains to be seen whether or not the CCS will be adopted by the majority of the community and whether this adoption can be sustained beyond the funding of the project.

Although I present a normative view of community here it is important to recognise that community is a contested space! Community is as much about tensions, differences and disputes as it is about people working together for the common good. The state of balance between these forces is affected by the ties that exist within the community network.

As the intention behind this pattern is dialogic rather than prescriptive, I have reflected on some of the experiences we have encountered in Poets Corner during the CNA project. Rather than describe how the pattern should be used, I invite readers to reflect on how the pattern might be used within their community and to share their experiences and views with us. We believe that effective community networking strategies require dialogic communications and knowledge sharing. They should be grounded in relationships of trust and mutual respect. They should celebrate diversity and respect differences whilst striving to achieve to common ground. Effective community networking strategies must be grounded in the needs and assets of community life. They must implicitly and explicitly display an understanding of community communications and the relationships existing within and between the social networks. They must also address a dominant ICT culture that is at worst inherently antithetical to community supportive communication spaces and at best orthogonal in that it socialises passive use and individual information consumption as opposed to empowerment and communicative action.


Whilst the effectiveness of ‘new’ community networks is dependent on the development of dialogic partnerships within and between the social networks that comprise community life, challenges exist within the external and internal environments of a community that also require consideration. Although dialogic partnerships provide scope and potential for shared learning and mutual benefit between the community, community practitioners and the external ‘experts’ often involved in the development of community network initiatives, it cannot be simply assumed that the community will adopt a ‘community network’. They will not come just because it has been built!

Effective community networking partnerships must develop community engagement strategies that recognize and valorise the significance of different knowledge forms within the partnerships. These should be both equitable and respectful, e.g. technologists can build great communication systems but lack community knowledge. Community members have community knowledge but lack technical expertise. Together, through dialogic planning and mutual understanding, they can build great community communication systems.

A community must want to use and be part of a community network if the network is to succeed. In many cases this will require that people step out of the ‘comfort zone’ of their daily lives and embrace technologies that are unfamiliar to them. However, we’ve seen in Poets Corner that people intuitively use ICT they are comfortable with to support their social and community networking activities. Wherever possible, in order to facilitate community learning and encourage community ‘ownership’ and identity, community engagement and awareness raising strategies should be located within the context of everyday community activities, e.g. how might podcasting or blogging be useful and relevant to the activities of a local campaign group.

The diffusion of a community network and its subsequent sustainability is dependent on communities understanding their usefulness and relevance to modern community life. Effective community network strategies should reflect this by developing relationships of trust that facilitate and support community learning processes in all parts of the community. In the same way that community networking processes encourage communication for community planning, organisation and action purposes, so too should community network strategies encourage community participation in the planning, designing, implementation and ongoing development of a community network.

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