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Pattern number within this pattern set:61
Communities often lack the information and communication infrastructure needed to: a) 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 b) enable effective organisation, planning and enactment of local campaigns when threatened by external agency.
Whilst network technologies present interesting opportunities to support community networking activities they are not, in themselves, community networks. Furthermore, the dominant ICT agenda of both public and commercial sectors is often hostile to the mutuality, collaboration and communicative processes required for utilising ICT in support of community networking (Day & Schuler, 2004).
Building, organising and sustaining active relationships within the social, cultural and economic networks of the community requires appropriate and effective strategies. Building and sustaining community networks requires strategies that facilitate the community appropriation of communication technologies in support of community networking.
This pattern is intended as a contribution to, and perhaps even as a catalyst for, a dialogue about community (ICT) networks. Dialogue participants should include: 1) community members; 2) local activists; 3) practitioners (community developers and community technologists); 4) community researchers; 5) policy makers; 6) local businesses and community economic developers. Whilst not exhaustive, the list illustrates the diversity and levels of knowledge and expertise needed to plan and develop community (ICT) networks that empower and strengthen community relationships and processes through democratic communications.
It is interesting that community networks are frequently referred to as technological artefacts (Wikipedia, 2006) and appear to be understood in terms of the connectivity they give to ICT rather than the links they facilitate within communities. Yet 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).
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 community. Generating knowledge of what shapes and energizes community life by making connections and interacting with people of diverse values and belief systems 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 community networks is illustrated by the Community Network Analysis (CNA) project in the Poets Corner community of Brighton and Hove, UK. Early in the project a community profile (Hawtin, Hughes & Percy-Smith, 1994) was conducted to develop a picture of community assets, community needs and community relationships. Interestingly, the 104 groups, clubs, associations, centres, organisations, etc 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.
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 places of worship. Affiliation appears to be based around organisational support mechanisms and the availability of physical space. A number of isolated nodes or didactic networks were also identified, e.g. the two schools are exemplars of a didactic network, although both are keen to develop stronger ties within the community.
Informal network structures in the community are altogether more open and dynamic than their formal counterparts but are also transient in nature. Familial or friendship ties usually predominate and networking often occurs in public spaces, e.g. Stoneham Park, local pubs and coffee shops, or serendipitous street meetings. This agora effect provides opportunity for knowledge exchange, comfort and mutually supportive transactions.
Informal social network exchanges tend to be self-organising and mutually reinforcing, falling into one of two categories. 1) Spontaneous, e.g. someones 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 others houses for coffee and a chat reinforcing and developing social bonds. 2) Organised but with 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.
Our study reveals that both network types play a significant role in developing relationships of trust and social cohesion in the community. The communication technologies that people feel comfortable with are increasingly being used to support both network links and exchanges. If community networks are to support the diversity of social realities in community then they must provide safe and welcoming spaces that encourage and facilitate participation and engagement. Enabling people to tell their stories and interact with one another in ways meaningful to them and in comfortable environments is central to effective community networking.
A prototype community communication space (CCS) being developed as part of the CNA project attempts to create such spaces. By working with the community to build both the context and the content for the CCS we have been asked to support video and audio podcasting, digital story-telling, digital art, poetry and music. Local communication forums are being established to support the face-to-face forums of community development/building activities. Blogs, wikis and other social software such as social networking applications are also being explored for potential community benefits.
The graphic , draws on Rogers diffusion of innovation theory (1995) to illustrate current stages of the CCS diffusion in Poets Corner.
Working from the centre outwards the first ring represents the Poets Corner Residents Societys (PCRS) invitation to CNA, and the subsequent invitation from their 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 enthusiastic project advocates emerged as CCS innovators. With their assistance the project became grounded in and supportive of community activities and needs.
Slowly but surely trust and respect developed between the partners. A number of community groups displayed interest in the project and began collaborating. The second ring 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. The third ring illustrates the resultant increased involvement from the community infrastructure and the beginning of some involvement from local residents. We describe this as second stage early adoption activity.
During the project 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 what Rogers would describe as the trial and evaluation phases of community assessment. Whether or not the CCS will be adopted, and can be sustained beyond the funding of the project will depend largely on the community themselves. The CNA team will continue to collaborate with the community, but our long term objective has always been to design and build a prototype CCS in participation with the community and to explore how the community will take ownership of and sustain that space.
The potential scope for ICT to support, enhance and sustain community communications is immense but effective community networks can only be built through meaningful and mutual partnerships of knowledge exchange. Communities are contested spaces rich in diversity. They embrace or reject technologies at their own pace and in their own way. These processes cannot be rushed and must be respected. Accepting that they might have to step out of their community comfort zone' in order to embrace 'new' technologies can be threatening . Achieving willingness to participate requires patience and dialogue. Community engagement will only be sustained if the community understands the benefits to community life. If community networks are to emerge as significant components of modern community life, external partners must understand this in context and content. Only then can they contribute in a meaningful way.
Verbiage for pattern card:
Community Networks must help support two capabilities. The first is supporting and sustaining the social networks of clubs, organizations, associations, groups, agencies, families and individual citizens. The second is enabling effective organization, planning and enactment of local campaigns when threatened from outside.
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