The Netizens and Community Networks
by Michael F. Hauben
In junior high school, I started using local bbses in Michigan in 1985. (This is the same year that COARA was formed) After seven years of participation on both local hobbiest-run computer bulletin boards systems, and global Usenet, I began to research Usenet and the Internet. I found these online discussion to be mentally invigorating and welcoming of thoughtful comments, questions and discussion. People were also friendly and considerate of others and their questions. This was a new environment for me. Little thoughtful conversation was encouraged to happen in my high school. Since my daily life did not provide places and people to talk with about real issues and real world topics, I wondered why the online experience encouraged such discussions and consideration of others. Where did such a culture spring from, and how did it arise? During my sophomore year of college in 1992, I was curious to explore and better understand this new online world.
As part of course work at Columbia University, I explored these questions. One professor's encouragement helped me to use Usenet and the Internet as places to conduct research. My research was real participation in the online community by exploring how and why these communications forums functioned. I posed questions on Usenet, mailing lists and freenets. Along with these questions, I would attach some worthwhile preliminary research. People respected my questions and found the preliminary research helpful. The entire process was one of mutual respect and sharing of research and ideas. A real notion of 'community' and 'participation' takes place. On the net people willingly help each other and work together to define and address issues important to them. These are often issues which the conventional media would never cover.
One response to my research came from a Netizen from Montreal, Jean-Francois Messier. He commented on how his connection to the world via the Internet changed how he viewed the world. He said,
"...my attitudes to other peoples, races and religions changed, since I had more chances to talk with other peoples around the world. When first exchanging mail with people from Yellowknife, Yukon, I had a real strange feeling : Getting message and chatting with people that far from me. I noticed around me that a lot of people have opinions and positions about politics that are for themselves, without knowing others." (Hauben & Hauben, 1996, chapter 1)
"Because I have a much broader view of the world now, I changed and am more conciliant and peaceful with other people. Writing to someone you never saw, changes the way you write...Telecommunications opened the world to me and changed my visions of people and countries....." (IBID.)
My initial research concerned the origins and development of the global discussion forum Usenet. Usenet developed out of the desire of several graduate students in the United States to be part of a cooperative technological community across campuses. As campus connected to campus across state, across the nation, across the continent and then across continents, a global Usenet communication network emerged. People used Usenet because it is more powerful to be in a large community than in isolation; communication with others leads to broader ideas and cooperative activity is more productive than competition. These principles emerged from the necessity of sharing knowledge to successfully implement new technology; at the time it was Unix. Much of the culture of open discussion and sharing of technical experience spilled over into the non-technical discussion groups.These basic principles were part of the evidence behind the discovery of Netizens.
For my next paper, I wanted to explore the larger Net and what it was and its significance. This is when my research uncovered the remaining details that helped me to recognize the emergence of Netizens. Netizens are the people who actively contribute online towards the development of the Net. These people understand the value of collective work and the communal aspects of public communications. These are the people who actively discuss and debate topics in a constructive manner, who e-mail answers to people and provide help to new-comers, who maintain FAQ files and other public information repositories, who maintain mailing lists, and so on. These are people who discuss the nature and role of this new communications medium. However, these are not all people. Netizens are not just anyone who comes online, and they are especially not people who come online for isolated gain or profit. They are not people who come to the Net thinking it is a service. Rather they are people who understand it takes effort and action on each and everyone's part to make the Net a regenerative and vibrant community and resource. Netizens are people who decide to devote time and effort into making the Net, this new part of our world, a better place. Lurkers are not Netizens, and vanity home pages are not the work of Netizens. While lurking or trivial home pages do not harm the Net, they do not contribute either.
The term Netizen has spread widely. The genesis comes from net culture based on the original newsgroup naming conventions. Network wide usenet groups included net.general for general discussion, net.auto for automobile owners, net.bugs for discussion of unix bug reports, and so on. People who used usenet would prefix things related to the online world with the word NET similar to the newsgroup terminology. So there would be references to net.gods, net.cops or net.citzens. My research demonstrated that there were people active as members of the network, which the term net citizen does not precisely represent. The word citizen suggests a geographic or national definition of social membership. The word Netizen reflects the new non-geographicly based social membership. So I contracted the phrase net dot citizen to Netizen.
Two general uses of the term Netizen have developed. The first is a broad usage to refer to anyone who uses the Net, for whatever purpose. Thus, the term Netizen has been prefixed in some uses with the adjectives good or bad. The second usage is closer to my understanding. This definition is used to describe people who care about Usenet and the bigger Net and work towards building the cooperative and collective nature which benefits the larger world. These are people who work towards developing the Net. In this second case, Netizen represents positive activity, and no adjective need be used. Both uses have spread from the online community appearing in newspapers, magazines, Television, books and other off-line media. As more and more people join the online community and contribute towards the nuturing of the Net and towards the development of a great shared social wealth, the ideas and values of Netizenship spread. But with the increasing commercialization and privitization of the Net, Netizenship is being challenged. During such a period it is valuable to look back at the pioneering vision that has helped make the Net possible and examine what lessons it provides.
Licklider, the Visionary
The world of the Netizen was envisioned some twenty seven years ago by J. C. R. Licklider and Robert Taylor. They understood the computer as a communication device while others still treated it as an arithmetic engine. Licklider was a social scientist who applied his training to the question of technology. He brought to his leadership of his division of the United States Govenment's Advanced Research Projects Agency [InformationProcessing Techniques Office] a vision of "the intergalactic computer network." Whenever he would spoke from ARPA, he mentioned this vision. It is important to understand Licklider's vision since he focused on the communicative and community aspects of the future of computer networking. His ideas reflect the true importance of the Net. Licklider and Taylor established several principles from their observations of how the computer would play a helpful role in human communication. These principles were:
Licklider and Taylor focused on the Net being comprised of a network of networks. While other researchers of the time focused on the sharing of computing resources, Licklider and Taylor looked towards the future when they wrote how a supercommunity would form out of the connection of computer technology, both hardware and software and people. They emphasized how each part of that community could communicate with any other part. This is an important way to understand the present Net and future hypernetwork. The networking of various human connections quickly forms, changes its goals, disbands and reforms into new collaborations. The fluidity of such group dynamics leads to a quickening of the creation of new ideas. Groups can form to discuss an idea, focus in or broaden out and reform to fit the new ideas that have resulted from the process.
The virtual space created on non-commercial computer networks is accessible universally. This space is accessible from the connections that exist; whereas social networks in the physical world generally are connected only by limited gateways. So the capability of networking on computer nets overcomes limitations inherent in non-computer social networks. Access to the Net, however, needs to be universal for the Net to fully utilize the contribution each person can represent. Once access is limited, the Net and those on the Net lose the full advantage the Net can offer. Lastly the people on the Net need to be active in order to bring about the best possible use of the Network.
Licklider foresaw that the Net allows for people of common interests, who are otherwise strangers, to communicate. Licklider observed as the ARPANET spanned two continents. This physical connection allowed for wider social collaborations to form. This was the beginning of Computer Data networks facilitating connections of people around the world. International connection coexists on the same level with local connection.
The International online community is formed out of various communities. Organizations like Universities, companies, lower schools, hobbiest bbses and increasingly community networks are contributing members. Special Bulletin Board software exists to connect Personal Computer users to the Net. Prototype Community Network Systems are forming around the world. For example: In Cleveland - the cleveland Freenet, In New Zealand - the Wellington Citynet, In California, the Santa Monica Public Electronic Network, and of course here COARA. Access via these community systems can be as easy as visiting the community library and membership is open to all who live in the community.
The Net has only developed because of the hard work and voluntary dedication of many people. It has grown because the Net is under the control and power of the people at a bottom-level, and because these people have over the years made a point to make it something worthwhile. People's posts and contributions to the Net have been the developing forces.
The old model of central distribution of information from the network broadcasting or publication company is being questioned and challenged. The top-down model of information being distributed by a few for mass-consumption is no longer the only news. Usenet brings the power of the reporter to the Netizen. People now have the ability to broadcast their observations or questions around the world and have other people respond.
The Net allows for the meeting of minds to form and develop ideas. It brings people's thinking processes out of isolation and into the open. Every user of the Net gains the role of being special and useful. The fact that every user has his or her own opinions and interests adds to the general body of specialized knowledge on the Net. Each Netizen thus becomes a special resource valuable to the Net. Each user contributes to the whole intellectual and social value and possibilities of the Net.
J.C.R. Licklider believed that access to the then growing information network should be made ubiquitous. He felt that the Net's value would depend on high connectivity. In the article he wrote with Robert Taylor, "The Computer as a Communication Device", they argue that the impact upon society depends on how available the network is to the society as a whole. They wrote:
"For the society, the impact will be good or bad depending mainly on the question: Will `to be on line' be a privilege or a right? If only a favored segment of the population gets a chance to enjoy the advantage of `intelligence amplification,' the network may exaggerate the discontinuity in the spectrum of intellectual opportunity."
The Net has made a valuable impact on human society. The enhancement of people's lives provides the incentive needed for providing access to all in society. Society will improve if net access is made available to people as a whole and these newcomers are introduced to the principles of Netizenship. Only if access is universal will the Net itself truly advance. The ubiquitous connection is necessary for the Net to encompass all possible resources.
Similar to past communications advances such as the printing press, mail, and the telephone, the Global Computer Communications Network has already fundamentally changed our lives. It is important for you, as members of COARA, to both learn from and to help teach others in this new global community. Welcome to online and become a part of Usenet and the global online community.
Michael Hauben (firstname.lastname@example.org) is studying the impact of computers on human communications at Teachers College graduate school. He is in the process of forming a Netizens Association.
Copyright © 1997 by Michael Hauben. All Rights Reserved.