The effects of a community network, the InfoZone, were studied in Telluride, Colorado, by a series of taped interviews. These interviews permitted an analysis of perceptions about the network and its impact on the residents of this community. InfoZone acted as a medium for political discussion, generating more in-depth analysis of issues. InfoZone also allowed individuals to be more personally expressive and less intimidating.
A Sense of Community
The Household Community
Techno-phobia or Techno-domination
Exploration of the Self
The task of theorizing trends works best when the domain of investigation is well established and relatively stable. When the object of study is the emerging and rapidly evolving world of new technology, spotting trends becomes much more difficult. These difficulties are increased by the paucity of relevant literature on which a new study can be based and existing theories tested.
There is no dearth of writing on the subject of the Internet itself, but in common with the rapid growth of the Internet since the early 1990s, much of the work is fairly recent and remains to be substantiated or refuted. It has mainly been concerned with the Internet's potential commercial applications and its supporting role for remote or home workers, the basic premise being that as many jobs become dependant on information technology "they will become more time and location independent." Jobs will move from centralized office spaces into the home, and employees will reduce or eliminate the costs of commuting .
Community networks unlike online or virtual communities, are based in a physical place, and the participants share a common neighborhood and city. This paper looks at the relationship between online communication and real communication which occurs between the members of the community. In particular, it examined the relationship between the people of Telluride, Colorado and their community network.
Telluride, located in the Rocky Mountains of southwestern Colorado, has a small population utlizing a very successful community network called the InfoZone. It is seen to represent a lifestyle, in which telecommunications are being utilised to allow people to live in such remote locations yet compete and work in the global economy. A former gold and silver mining town, Telluride is now a ski, tourist, and real estate development boom town. There is a year-round stable population of 1,500 to 2,000 residents. Most are not natives to the Telluride area; most of the population gravitated to Telluride from other places in the United States and the world. As a result, the people of Telluride have a reputation for being educated and liberal minded.
The method chosen for this study was face-to-face interviewing using a non-directive and open-questions style. The respondents were all interviewed individually in a convenient location. The interviews lasted between 30 to 45 minutes and each was taped, in which an interview guide was used by the researcher. This style of qualitative methodological research is gaining popularity, and is now recognized as one of the most valid ways to learn about the differential subtleties of individual's engagement with media . It allows the interviewees to voice their own opinions, and to control the flow of the conversation. The aim should be a mutual exploration of the issues, without the imposition of the researcher's preconceptions . The adoption of a more quantitative method would have acted against the current trends in the research of domestic and communication technologies .
This paper is an interpretative analysis of the interview data, outlining the themes that emerged and relating them to previous work in this area. The InfoZone is a community net that has produced an online or a virtual community in Telluride. It is an important new environment in which people can communicate, and creates what Ray Oldenberg calls electronic "third places" . By this he means an additional environment, separate from the home, in which people can get together to talk and hold discussions.
In many studies of online communities, the focus is purely on the on-line communication, there being no other form of communication within that community . The people are often complete strangers, and geographically separate from each other. In Telluride this is not the case; the online community is not a different place from the real-life community, and the users of the InfoZone are not, in most cases, geographically separate. They often personally know those with whom they communicate. I was interested in the ways in which the online community interacts with and affects the real community.
Many claims have been made about how technology will be accessible to everyone and will increase democratic participation, but it is evident that barriers still exist which prevent some people from using the technology. Those who do use technology, see it as a powerful tool which now constitutes an important role in their lives. Technology can be seen to change aspects of peoples lives for the better, but there are also those who believe that technology can pose a threat to society and those who live in it.
There was a consensus amongst the respondents that the strong sense of community in Telluride has been crucial in the unique success of the InfoZone. Several factors contribute to this sense of connection to the community, namely the existence of public places in which discussions and interaction takes place, and the frequency of festivals and events in the town, in which the residents are encouraged to share and participate.
The existence of a real-life community is important when discussing electronic communication, because one criticism of community networks is the threat that they pose to face to face contact. There is a fear "that these networks will further isolate and distance us from our neighbors ." This does not seem to be the case in Telluride where there is an established participatory tradition, or as one respondent said "there has been a strong tradition of people [ ..] getting together in coffee shops, meeting, having discussion groups." This appears to have resulted in the InfoZone being seen as a way to increase this involvement in the community.
Many respondents felt that the InfoZone had increased their opportunities for face to face contact, and has worked to strengthen the community. Beamish says that "increased communication between residents; and greater information about local events and festivals will increase the sense of community ." One respondent pointed out that for some users of the InfoZone it can be their only way of keeping in touch with the community, "Here, especially in the winter time, some people never come into town. One guy came into my class who lives way up on one of the mesas, and doesn't come into town all winter, but he is on the InfoZone every day; talking to people, keeping in touch with what is going on. It feels like a community, it feels like walking down the street."
One respondent spoke of how his conversation with another user in one of the discussion groups led directly to face-to-face contact. He said, "We got to like each other so much on the Zone, that he invited us to dinner, so my wife and I went to his house, and we made a real connection."
It must be borne in mind that their experiences may be related to Telluride's size and structure. In places where physical contact between the residents is already at a minimal level, there is the fear that community networks would reduce this even more . This fear is stimulated by the experience and perceptions of television, and the fact that "Americans already spend an average of 3-4 hours a day watching television" and "as the recreational and social applications of cyberspace increase, there will be a greater temptation to extend this time of relative isolation ."
However this line of argument does not apply to a place like Telluride which is very active, with lots of public and community participation. This argument also ignores that users of community nets are expected to be producers and contributors of information not passive consumers . Most respondents used their computer for work orientated activities, not for leisure activities. One female respondent, whose whole job is connected with computers, said "It's definitely a productivity tool." This point has been verified by others, where personal experiences with computers indicate their use for work and for organization, not for entertainment .
The InfoZone could also be seen to provide the necessary conditions and facilities that allows individuals or groups to process intelligence . This line of thinking arises from the concept of "social intelligence" which implies collective action and responsibilities. It has been suggested that the "Free-Net phenomenon" in the United States "allow community-level exchange or cultural chatting ...[and] these nets allow these exchanges to be conserved and exploited as community intelligence ."
Telluride is arguably comparable to a household in its appropriation of new technologies. One model traces the progress of a new technology in the home, with the main stages being labelled as Objectification, Incorporation and Conversion .
Objectification occurs when the technology first finds a place within the home and is concerned with its location and display. For example, the location of the television in a room often dictates the positioning of the other furniture and therefore indicated the importance of the television. The coffee shop in Telluride is an important example of Objectification. It has been established that in Telluride "there has been a strong tradition of people [ ..] getting together in coffee shops, meeting, having discussion groups." Hence the location of the InfoZone terminal in the coffee shop is an acknowledgement of the values and interests of the people who go there. In this model, they "provide an objectification of the values [ ..] of those who feel comfortable or identify with them" .
The inhabitants of the Telluride household are seen to be very participatory and like to "interface with one another." The InfoZone, it was said "is a reflection of what Telluride already is." In the case of a true household, the appropriation and display of technologies signify "an expression of the systematic quality of a domestic aesthetic which in turn reveals with varying degrees of coherence, the evaluative and cognitive universe of the household ."
Incorporation deals with how technologies are used as part of the daily activities of the household and how they may "become functional in ways somewhat removed from the intentions of the designers or marketers ." This was reflected by the varied uses of the InfoZone, some of which were intended, others which served the precise needs of individuals. One respondent described the InfoZone as "a clearing house for information on the Internet," then added "although it wasn't designed for that originally." Another respondent said, "We only use the InfoZone to download what's happening this week in Telluride, because we provide that on our information kiosks around town." This shows that the InfoZone technology can be used just like technologies in domestic situations.
The incorporation of a technology may "facilitate control of time" as in the time-shift capabilities of video recorders . InfoZone demonstrates time-shifting on a daily basis. In the words of one respondent, "you can have a conversation whenever it's convenient to you. You can post a message a three in the morning that someone can respond to at night."
The final element is Conversion, when the meanings which surround a technology within the household are "turned back in the direction of the public sphere" and the technology becomes symbolic for the image that the household presents to the outside world . In Telluride's case, the InfoZone is enabling it to become more than just a ski resort, and to claim a place in the technological society of the United States. The respondents suggest that Telluride is more than just a tourist destination, its association with technology and connection to the Internet presents an image to outsiders as a town in which technology is important. For example, the following story was related by one of the respondents:
"There are people in Malibu Beach, near LA, who had a electronic cafe, and they had a live hook up between Berlin, Paris, Rome, London, New York, Telluride, and Los Angeles. Now that never would have happened without that kind of electronic connectivity. People would never know where Telluride was."
One respondent's move to Telluride was influenced by "Telluride's reputation as a teleworking community," and another person "came here because this was a great place to work as a "lone eagle," and ... the connectivity with the Zone makes it possible."
It is the InfoZone's double role in this process which is interesting as a medium in which an image of Telluride is communicated to the outside world, as well as a medium for members of the community to communicate easily with each other. Telluride uses the InfoZone to connect with the wider world in order to inform them about the InfoZone.
The discussion of public issues in Telluride traditionally occurs in public places, but it does not necessarily follow that a conversation in public is open to all. As one respondent noted, "the coffee shops, the benches in Main Street [..] are not in the public sphere." The respondents agreed that the InfoZone was not radically affecting the community, but they did think that the type of communication on the InfoZone was different: the conversations have more depth and it involves a broader cross-section of the population - the InfoZone is truly in the public sphere.
The use by a broader section of the community and the increased access to the public sphere raises issues of democracy in the community. For example, one of the main goals of community networks is to "improve democratic governance and empower citizens to become more active and informed ." Many proponents of electronic communication say that this technology can "cut through the sexism, racism, and obsession with class and status so prevalent in more traditional forms of interactive communication ." Newt Gingrich believes this technology could be used to "democratically redistribute power and overthrow unjust authority ." This assumption that computer mediated communication (CMC) leads to democracy stems from the current non-hierarchical structure of the Internet .
As a deliberate measure to enhance democracy and increase participation, the InfoZone provides free training and public access terminals in places such as the local library and a coffee shop. The findings indicate that many people, especially the younger generation, are getting involved. One respondent felt from his experience on the InfoZone that there was increased communication between the generations: "... in our society, the kids are in school doing their thing, and old people in the nursing home do their thing, and the young people do their thing; in the Zone you get more of a cross of that, which I think is healthy." Another respondent, involved in the training at the InfoZone, backed this up, she said "Little kids and older people, ... they all communicate with each other, at least on our system, which does not happen on the street or on the phone."
Undoubtedly there are large numbers of non-users. In Telluride's case as one respondent pointed out, "the majority of the people are here because its beautiful wilderness, and they want to be outside. They're not the usual kind of computer people." More generally their non-participation may be because they lack the "inspiration to participate." Access to hardware and the open ended nature of most Internet forums do not by themselves create an "egalitarian space ."
Many of the respondents felt that the InfoZone as a medium for communication has created more in-depth conversations: "You can start getting into some pretty deep conversations with people you've never even met." Or: "I do think there is a real opportunity for deep conversations that don't occur anywhere else, on this new electronic communication." However, certain respondents were aware that some women have problems communicating on the InfoZone, some having difficulties with the medium itself. A male respondent, speaking about a female friend, said, "she relies on face to face communication to communicate, you know, inflexions in her speech, expressions on her face, and body language and stuff like that, and that's removed, so she has trouble." Keay Davidson makes the comment that "women want more from communication than a line of ASCII characters, they want social cues such as a supportive smile or a gentle touch on the hand ."
The gender differences in online communication are proving to be insightful. Some work has shown that in CMC discussions, men speak up more aggressively, while women use more passive language and more deflections such as smileys [ :-) ] at the end of serious statements . Some imagine that CMC has an inherent potential to wipe out many biases present in society .
Sherry Turkle, speaking about her studies of users of the Internet, indicated that many women are attracted to the Internet, more so than any other computer technology . The male to female ratio of the Internet is challenging the previously male-dominated domain of computer technology, because the number of females using the Internet is growing rapidly. Turkle did not suggest, however, that the women could benefit from this experience in ways different to men. Instead she offered the suggestion that they could bring qualities which the Internet discussions were lacking, such as collaboration and cooperation.
The "lack of inspiration" felt by the non-users may be coupled with a reticence to get involved with the technology of the InfoZone. Women's avoidance of computers may result from their previous experiences of technology, when they were told to keep away, or from the competitive and aggressive culture that surrounds computers. At least one study of female computer science students found that women were uncomfortable with the image of the computer and the stereotyped computer user . The typical stereotype of a geek is very negative, they are usually male, competitive, and seen as only able to relate to machines, not humans.
A certain amount of fear and uncertainty surrounds computers. The respondents surmised that many people associate the InfoZone with other technologies: technologies of the industrial revolution, nuclear and surveillance technologies, and even communication technologies such as the television. These technologies have certain negative connotations, and although the InfoZone was not directly compared to them, it is seen to represent them and is burdened with their same negative images. In the past there was a belief in technology and "tech fixes," but "now that we are familiar with nuclear power disasters ... we're beginning to understand that the tech fixes are themselves part of the problem ."
This fear and uncertainty is not unjustified. Many of those who are sceptical of computer technology, fear it because they think that "technology fuels the problem it claims to be solving ." Which means that instead of pulling society together, it is helping to drive us further apart . However, the respondents, as representative of the people who actually use the technology of the InfoZone, do not see it in a negative light. They see it as a useful tool for accessing information about where they live and the people around them, and also contributing to their working lives. One respondent claims it makes his "working environment richer." It has also given them the opportunity to have a particular lifestyle: living in a desired rural location yet still being able to contribute to and influence the wider world.
These are all factors contributing to the respondents associating the technology of the InfoZone with power. They perceive those people having a knowledge of computer technology - "Internet savvy" - as being people with access to power. "If you don't know about computers (if you are not a computer geek), you are missing the boat right now."
The downside is that computer technology can also act as a means of distinguishing between groups of people, and even as a way to further separate those neglected by society and those powerful in society. Using technology as a means to hold power over other groups in society, reflects some basic ideas of Critical Theory - science is problematic in society and technology is the "principle factor in the maintenance of the dominant order ." One respondent spoke of a recent meeting between executives of the local phone service provider and residents of the Telluride. The respondent noticed that the group, on both sides, was comprised of mostly middle-aged white men, and he remarked on the fact that, as we move into the 21st century, the people with the power are still middle-aged white men.
This presents a problem. Technological objects are seen to greatly benefit those who use and control them, but the number of people in this position is still a minority. Even in Telluride, which is a small rural place, populated by well travelled, educated and it could be said privileged people, where poverty, illiteracy and the underclass are not major problems, those who use the InfoZone are still the minority.
This new technology has a long way to go to reach the utopian view of participation by all groups in society. Some argue that at present those who use electronic mail and the associated technologies of the Internet "constitute a true counter culture" . This view was supported by one respondent who uses the InfoZone in his spare time. "It [the InfoZone] has just created a sub-culture. It's a pretty small group no different than the guys who are into using skateboards." He then admitted that he thought the computer was more powerful a tool than a skateboard. Another male respondent said, "Sub-culture is almost too strong a term for it, but it's true."
There is a growing concern about the impact of the increasing use of information technologies on the individual subjectivity of the users. There are those who think that involvement with advanced information processing computers will question our traditional notions of who we are . Turkle also thinks this is a possibility, and her research shows that computers do have an effect on the users, but she sees this as a very positive thing.
Turkle believes that on one level the computer is a tool: for writing, for keeping track of accounts and for the communication with other people . Beyond this, she says "the computer offers us both new models of mind and a new medium on which to project our ideas and fantasies ."
This kind of relationship was experienced by some of the respondents. One, with many years of experience in the computer industry, spoke of several breakthroughs in her life as a result of her interactions with computers. First she spoke of her time in college when she first used a personal computer.
"I found that it totally liberated my thinking ... I had always struggled from the fact that I do stream of conscious thinking ... but in writing I could never keep up with it. So with the word processor, almost keeping up with my thoughts, and go back and cut and paste sections, I ended up writing a 93-page thesis, and I won these prizes and scholarships because of it. To me, that was the first example of technology totally changing my life, and freeing me, and allowing me to discover potential and be able to communicate with the rest of the world."
The same respondent then said how she then saw a "jump ... in terms of the way that technology could change the way that people relate." Interactive multimedia ... "gives the people the freedom to choose the path and make the associations that they are comfortable with and that are very unique to them, and nobody is stupid and nobody is smart. Everybody is a hero within their own environment, because they are able to control their own environment."
At present, she thinks that the Internet is not quite at that level of interactivity. When it reaches that level and beyond, there is every reason that it will provide the same type of opportunity for people described above and, also provide such an "effective and memorable and sexy and inviting" environment, as does multimedia. Another respondent who liked using written communication to express himself, said he thought that the anonymity of the "Zone was beneficial because it liberates you ... which was a good thing." He thought writing was less intimidating, and as such "you reveal a lot about yourself through what you write." This relates to what Turkle has discovered about the environment of MUDs, research which she believes is relevant for all online communities. According to Turkle, "The anonymity of MUDs gives people the chance to express multiple and often unexplored aspects of the self ."
People use the InfoZone to express emotion and opinion that otherwise may not be voiced. They can use it to explore aspects of themselves that do not surface in their daily face to face interaction with others. For women especially, they can do this and avoid what one respondent called the "meta-narratives" of male dominated conversation.
Computers were once thought of as giant calculating machines designed and programmed for a specific purpose, and used for fixed computational processes. They were in essence perceived as nothing more than larger and more sophisticated versions of Charles Babbage's "difference engine", a mechanical device for doing calculations . However, information and computer technologies are changing, computers are moving towards more flexible applications which can be tailored by individual users to their specific needs. This is bringing about a change in our perceptions. While computers are still becoming more technologically advanced inside, at the user end - on the outside - they are now seen as a domesticated tool used for work and pleasure in our everyday lives.
The technical advances in both hardware and software, is allowing computer to be put to more creative uses, a change which has attracted many non-technical people, especially women. Many of the factors which put people off computers, (such as their formality and fixed programs), can be overcome when people are in a "computer rich" environment, supported by "flexible and powerful programming languages, and encouraged to use the computer as a expressive material ."
The InfoZone can be seen as a move in this direction, and may lead to more people using computers. The claim that this technology will lead to a more democratic society was not substantiated in my discussions with the respondents. The InfoZone is not being used and was not planned as an instrument of democracy. However, it is evident that those who use it feel it enhances the present community, and enables everybody to participate in the discussion groups. It provides a forum for communication which can obscure the differences between individuals that are so powerful in public life. These personal differences, such as gender, age, and status, are not invisible in electronic communication, since you can usually tell gender from the name or content of the message.
The InfoZone seems to be a medium used for discussion rather than decision-making, and there was no noticeable government or official presence. The InfoZone is more of a domestic rather than an institutional technology. The users and founders of the project see it as something to strengthen and improve the community, and to help it progress. The technology is presented as a representation of the values of the community.
In studying the relationship between the InfoZone and the real community, it was found that some people are reluctant to get involved with the technology due to the image of technologies in general. If this technology is going to succeed in becoming a medium which all people use to express their opinions, then all people must have equal opportunity, access, and incentive to use such technologies. An investigation of this problem, could involve an analysis of the users of the community, but also and more specifically, an analysis of the non-users to discover the reasons behind their non-participation.
The sample population of this study was not entirely representative of modern, westernized societies. The location, size, and demographics are all unusual. Although this does not invalidate the study, it cannot be assumed that the results will be replicated elsewhere. Similar studies of different populations using a community network are needed in order to determine whether there are any differences caused by factors such as location, size, and demographics.
It is taken for granted that computers and the Internet are going to become an established part of our future society and many assumptions are made about the impact this will have. However, there is often no real basis for these speculations. The world of information technology is very fluid and rapidly changing. The Internet itself may not exist in its present form a few years from now, and continual research needs to be done in order to evaluate these changes.
Alice McInnes received a BA (Hons) in Communication Studies from Queen Margaret College in Edinburgh.
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3. See, for example, P. Nichols, 1991. Social survey methods: a fieldguide for development workers. London: Oxfam.
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Copyright © 1997, First Monday
The Agency of The InfoZone: Exploring the Effects of a Community Network by Alice McInnes
First Monday, volume 2, number 2 (February 1997),