Community Networking Movement Faces a Corporate Challenge

By: Steve Outing

Local online community guides are hot. As I've written about frequently in this column, businesses with deep pockets like Microsoft, Digital City Inc. (owned by America Online and the Tribune Co.), CitySearch, AT&T, regional telephone companies, cable companies and others are entering local markets to create online guides. This tremendous interest in local content has emerged just in the last year, and the business is getting truly competitive even before most of these ventures get off the ground.

But local online community guides are really nothing new. What many of us may forget in this time of hoopla over the online community guide business is that a "community networking" movement has been steaming along since about 1987. Hundreds of cities, particularly in the U.S., have had an online community guide in place for some time. But it's been a non-profit entity, formed by the cooperation of government and the private sector.

A good example is Boulder Community Network, a non-profit cooperative online community guide serving Boulder, Colorado, created by local educational, civic and corporate entities, and maintained by a paid staff of two and a small army of volunteers. BCN provides information on topics ranging from weather and ski conditions to city and county government regulations. You'll find access to BCN at local libraries, and the local schools use it as a laboratory of sorts, with students from the University of Colorado and the Boulder school district participating in production of the site.

Mission: Community access

Many of the community network projects provide public access (free or very low cost) to the Internet as part of their charter, as well as serve as an online information clearinghouse for their communities. Now that Internet access is readily available from many sources, some of the community networks are backing away from providing access, or working out deals with local Internet service providers to offer discounted access accounts. However, there are still dozens of "Freenets" around the world providing public access to the Internet. (For a comprehensive list of Freenets as well as community network sites, see".)

Steve Cisler, manager of Network Outreach for the Apple Research Laboratories in Cupertino, California, and an expert on the community networking movement, says that the new commercial online community guide ventures will cause the non-profit community networks to re-evaluate what they're doing. A well-heeled corporate competitor will force the non-profits to be flexible and possibly alter their mission.

Much of the activity of the community networkers is non-commercial, and Cisler believes that the corporate giants won't cover all the ground in a local market that a non-profit entity can. The corporate sites by their nature will be less democratic, he points out, so existing community sites will survive by serving the various community groups better, Cisler believes. Most of the community networks have strong and broad advisory boards, making them receptive to community interests. Cisler doubts that the corporations will be so open to serving all of a community's diverse needs. A spokesman for BCN said she doubts that a corporate entity will be willing to provide an online presence for a battered-women's safehouse, for example, while a non-profit online venture has that as part of its charter.

Not so, says Tom Millhoff, vice president of community content for CitySearch, which is setting up online community guides in Chapel Hill-Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; Austin, Texas; San Francisco and Pasadena, California; and other as yet unannounced U.S. cities. CitySearch is giving a basic Web presence on its local sites to any non-profit group, and discounting its rates for non-profits that want a more robust online presence.

Millhoff says that local CitySearch sites endeavor to include a broad range of community content, such that what they offer will include what's presently on the community network sites. The safehouse will have its free home page, where it can be found by CitySearch viewers using the search engine, he says.

Millhoff says that CitySearch hopes to work with the community network sites when it encounters them. In San Francisco, the company's approach has been rather to work with non-profit organizations like The Management Center and the Support Center for Non-Profits, to get their member groups on the local CitySearch site. In Austin, Texas, the company has been in discussions with the local Freenet. Millhoff says his company approaches all potential partners about non-exclusive relationships, and treats each community it enters differently, depending on what community resources are already online. It doesn't need to re-invent the wheel, he says.

Unanswered questions

Microsoft won't comment yet on whether it is involving community networks in its "CityScape" strategy. (But the company reportedly will be ready to make some more information available about the project in about one month.) And officials of Digital City Inc. weren't available for comment.

Whether the commercial online community guide companies utilize the work of the community networking movement is still an open question, then. But for newspapers that opt not to partner with the corporate city guide companies, an alliance with a community network in their cities can be worth investigating. A media alliance might even give a community network site the advantage it needs to survive as corporate competitors arrive on the scene.

Whether the corporate community guide sites will succeed is up for debate. Apple's Cisler says that such sites are incredibly labor intensive. The community network sites have the benefit of volunteers to keep them going, but commercial sites have to be efficient enough to provide an information-deep content pool without burning up too much money.

Cisler also questions the corporate sites' understanding of the community networking movement. He says that when earlier this year he invited the CEO of one of the major online community guide companies to a community networking conference, it became apparent that the company had not come across the non-profit community network world during its market research phase.

Contacts: Steve Cisler,
Tom Millhoff,

Where have all the BBSs gone?

Emery Jeffreys, managing editor of online services at the Daytona Beach News-Journal in Florida, just got back from the One ISPCON conference in San Francisco, produced by BoardWatch magazine. He reports:

"One ISPCON was a real abrupt change from One BBSCON. It seemed like the organizers abandoned what made the five-year-old event click -- neighborhood and small electronic bulletin board systems. Instead, they've (organizers) decided there is no future in a BBS. BBS operators should abandon their bread and butter and become Internet Service Providers. There were very few displays aimed at BBS operators. Everything was aimed at Internet Service Providers.

"It offered me a lot of great information. There were a lot of disgruntled BBS operators who felt they had been shoved to the side. And many vendors who came to sell equipment to BBS operators in transition to becoming ISPs wondered where their potential customers were."

A chance to offer your opinion

University of Westminster (UK) post-graduate communications student Laura Remigi is looking for comments by newspaper professionals on the impact of electronic publishing on journalism. If you can answer the following questions, for inclusion in her thesis, please send her an e-mail response.

* What is your opinion on the debate concerning whether journalism, as a profession, urgently needs to adapt to the new media technologies and, if so, how?
* What substantial changes (if any) did working editors and journalists have to adapt when their newspapers were placed online?

Contact: Laura Remigi,

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