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Building Real (Not Virtual) Community

Cyberspace is full of “virtual communities”-groups of people linked by common interests. You’re as likely to exchange views with someone in Australia as with a person living down the street. Austin Free-Net and similar computer networks foster the old-fashioned kind of community-that is, a group of people defined fundamentally by physical proximity.

One big problem with the early community networks is that they did not actually represent communities in any tangible sense-they were typically just a cheap way for people to get online. When the cost of Internet access plummeted, that rationale evaporated for many customers; nonprofit community networks could no longer compete. Moreover, even community networks that developed locally oriented resources, such as online car pools, directories, and political information, wound up appealing primarily to people already online who manage to find their way to the community network and then decide to linger.

The concept of geographic community is often much stronger and more tangible in low-income areas than in more affluent locales. Poor people spend more time in their own neighborhoods because they are less mobile, and the economic boundaries of such places are often their most distinctive feature. In such communities, the Net would best serve to help cement the bonds that already exist, rather than to link individuals to a vast, faraway marketplace.

A community network can enhance the efforts of residents already grappling with the myriad problems in poor neighborhoods. Senior citizens in East Austin, for example, are starting to explore how to use Austin Free-Net to stay in touch with one another. Area churches are beginning to offer computer classes, and their members are developing Web pages that provide a guide to church-related activities. Through the work of the Austin Learning Academy, mothers taking classes leading to high-school diplomas are learning how to use computers, as are their children in after-school programs-strengthening both literacy skills and family bonds.

The benefits of the Free-Net in East Austin are particularly apparent among young people. Explains Jay de la Garza, a 14-year-old computer whiz: “My parents wouldn’t let me out at night because it’s dangerous where we live. There are drug dealers and criminals. But they let me go to Free-Net sites to do what I love to do most, which is help teach people the Internet.” Jay has been accepted to a school for gifted students, and works for Free-Net as a volunteer.

One problem with encouraging low-income users to explore the Internet is that few resources on the Net come from urban ghettos, poor rural communities, or other places familiar to low-income rural and urban users. Despite the rhetoric about shedding labels of gender, race, and social class upon entering cyberspace, the Internet reflects the culture of its principal inhabitants-upper middle-class white males. Thus the global network is dominated by the culture, tastes, preoccupations, styles, and interests of the affluent. A network isn’t much good if you don’t know anybody who has e-mail; an online shopping mall holds little allure to someone lacking money and credit cards.

Thus the organizers of the Austin Free-Net are seeking to lay a virtual environment over real geographic places, to supplement existing connections between people, institutions, and programs with electronic ones. We are producing a web of network links and communication patterns that resemble those one finds in the community already. This approach gives community leaders a reason to use the technology, apart from mere curiosity. Free-Net terminals are being introduced into community police centers, recreation centers, public housing projects, job training centers, and church facilities; the latter includes a new training center for multimedia housed in a building owned by Austin’s oldest Catholic church, Our Lady of Guadalupe. A Free-Net volunteer, Harry Williams, a lay minister and engineer, and his wife Marilyn began a computer lab in their church, New Lincoln Baptist. These computers help nearby citizens learn to use the technology.

Residents of East Austin identified key community assets such as training centers, churches, schools, performing arts centers, recreation centers, and nonprofit organizations, and created an online database of people, programs, calendars, and events. This “Neighborhood Net” database re-creates-in electronic form, on a Web page-the networking that already exists in the community. The Web page includes a map that shows the physical layout of the community’s resources and provides links to other pages with additional information. Eventually, this online database may become a unique encyclopedia of information about the neighborhood.

The Austin Police Department is exploring the use of the community network to strengthen the links between police officers and neighborhood associations, nonprofit groups, and public housing managers, to enhance community policing tactics. Ricky Davis, an Austin Police officer who staffs the community police center at Ebenezer Baptist Church, says he gets between 400 and 600 calls per month requesting information. For example, he says, “people who want to move into a particular apartment want to know the crime statistics for that building. I have to look up the address on a map, then look up the area in our quarterly crime statistics report, which is a big notebook.” Davis recommends putting this information on a Web page accessible to everyone.

Davis would also like the network to allow residents to report abandoned vehicles, drug houses, broken lights and windows, and other problems, to enable the department to enhance its community policing efforts.

We’re trying to move beyond responding to individual complaints to anticipating problems,” Davis says. “But to do that we really need a thorough knowledge of the community, and we can’t develop that by ourselves-people in the community have to be involved. The Free-Net could be a big help.”

Links between the online and off-line worlds can help connect people and organizations who would otherwise not interact. Timika Mitchell, for example, uses the network to discover how to make a name for herself as a poet. Mitchell looked at a Web-page map of East Austin and came upon a picture and description of the Victory Grill, a historic African-American performing arts theater and cafe. She has since visited the Grill and arranged to read her work there. Mitchell is now part of a network of local artists.

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