(This was a position paper I wrote in advance of giving a talk at TPSA in Warsaw on 21 May 2004 - one year ago today.)
The internet was initially conceptualised as a way to overcome the
limitations of geography. Pioneering researchers of Life Online continued the trend of thinking globally about the network, enthusing about everything that is new about the internet whilst ignoring the nodes - that is, ignoring the fact that each node on the network is a person who is intimately connected to the geography around them. Evidence continues to grow that, instead of using the internet to act globally, many users today are more interested in using the internet to make new local connections or to supplement existing communication between themselves and people they are already familiar with. This paper will further explain the background to my argument and explain why I believe that researchers and those running web based services need to begin thinking more about the local aspects of the Internet.
In 1957, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a research body set up by the Pentagon, created ARPAnet, the precursor of today's Internet. The popular myth is that the purpose of the project was to build a computer network which could survive a nuclear attack. This, however, is false. ARPAnet was originally commissioned so that early mainframes, often occupying the floor space of a large room, could be shared by a number of universities, research centres, and defence contractors. (Hafner and Lyon, 1996, p. 19)
Although academics and hobbyists have been using computer networks for around 50 years, it was only in the mid-1990's that social theorists and academic researchers, primarily in North America, began to take notice of a relatively new social construct: the virtual community.
In 1993, Howard Rheingold was the first social commentator to define a virtual community when he explained that a virtual community is "A group of people who may or may not meet one another face-to-face, and who exchange words and ideas through the mediation of computer bulletin boards and networks." (Rheingold,1993, p.58)
In the years immediately following, a rapidly increasing number of
researchers and social theorists began to write about the Internet. Some were pessimists, worried that the Internet would cause us to loose part of our identity, harm our communities, or lead to greater levels of government eavesdropping and control. Furthermore, many viewed computer usage as something only "pencil-necked nerds, totally lacking in social skills" would be interested in. (Rheingold, 1998).
Others were unashamedly positive about the possibilities afforded by
internet communications. For example, Sandy Stone at the University of Texas suggested that anonymous text based communications gave people new opportunities to explore the meaning of gender as well as "trying on" a different gender (Stone, 1995). MIT's Sherry Turkle's work suggested that anonymous online communications allowed people to explore aspects of their identity that they might not feel comfortable exploring in the offline world (Turkle, 1995)
Even US Vice President Al Gore got in on the action when he said, in a 1995 conference speech:
These highways -- or, more accurately, networks of distributed
intelligence -- will allow us to share information, to connect, and to communicate as a global community. From these connections we will derive robust and sustainable economic progress, strong democracies, better solutions to global and local environmental challenges, improved health care, and -- ultimately -- a greater sense of shared stewardship of our small planet.
In 1985, I first began using computer bulletin boards (BBS), usually a
stand alone computer managed by a System Adminstrator (SYSOP) as a hobby or money making venture. One of the most interesting aspects of BBS's for me was that I was able to play simple games with other users and leave messages for friends I'd never met face to face.
The World Wide Web (WWW), created at CERN in 1990, was first made accessible by the Lynx browser although rapid increases in the number of users didn't occur until the introduction in 1993 of Mosaic, the first browser with a graphical interface. (Hafner and Lyon, 1996, p. 257-8)
In the early 1990's, early adopters of the Internet often used it to
seek information and social connections in distant places. The Internet, being a global network, allowed users to more easily transcend the boundaries of time and distance with greater ease than ever before.
In the late 1990's, the Internet exploded into public consciousness. As
the cost of personal computers and internet plummeted, the number of users increased exponentially. The dotcom boom also fuelled the popular imagination, making the Internet "cool" for the first time.
I've often thought that Internet doesn't allow people to do anything
they couldn't do before, just to do familiar tasks with greater ease and efficiency. Similarly, although the internet is a global network and many users use it to make connections with distant people and places, the fact remains that most of us still have more in common with our geographical neighbours than we do with someone many thousands of miles away. This is why I believe that instead of thinking of the internet as just a globally distributed network, we should instead focus upon the nodes - each a person connected to a geographical place and a moment in time. That is, those studying the internet, or developing new digital services, should try to think and act locally.
There is a growing amount of evidence that internet users are in fact
using the internet in a local way which is more relavent to them. Most internet search engines and directories, for example, allow users to select whether they want to view pages only in their country. This helps them to find the information most relavent to them more quickly. Online dating sites are another example of people using the internet to make local connections. Most users don't spend time and energy trying to get to know other dating site users in far flung
locations, they simply tick a box for their city or county and find people with whom they probably not only have more in common with because of their local origins, but whom it's also more realistic for them to meet and build a relationship with. For something even more revealing, take a look some time at your own email outbox. Who have you emailed the most? Probably friends and work colleagues who you know face to face, many of whom will live in the same town or work in the same office as you.
Some local communities have built digital networks to link the homes of inhabitants with local government services and businesses. Others, like a community I used to live in in Manchester, use email distribution lists to discuss local problems and issues such as crime, litter, and socio-economic changes to an area. The BBC's 42 "where I live" sites offer users opportunities to post locally oriented messages, comment on an article about an important issue, submit their own reviews of local venues, and chat with a local politician or opinion leader.
Every since they became interested in the internet and online
communities, social scientists and theorists have thought almost exclusively about how the Internet is different than other mediums. They've concentrated on what the wires allow us to do. Of course it's exciting that anonymous online communications allow people to experiment with aspects of their selves which may be inflexible offline - gender, identity, and desire. But most people don't use the Internet in that way so, I believe, it's important for those of us researching or running online services to change our thinking and start thinking about how people are using the Internet to supplement other forms of
communication and to act in a way which is locally relevant to them.
Forget the wires, it's the nodes that are important, each one a real live person connected not just to the network but, more intimately, to a geographical place.
Hafner and Lyon. 1996: Where Wizards Stay Up Late
Gore, A. 1994: Speech to the international telecommunication union in
Rheingold, Howard. Misunderstanding New Media Feed Magazine 26 Oct.1998.Online: http://www.feedmag.com/essay/es102lofi.html
RHEINGOLD, H. 1993b: The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the
ElectronicFrontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.
Rheingold, Howard. Misunderstanding New Media Feed Magazine 26 Oct.1998.
Stone, Allucquere Rosanne. The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age. London: MIT Press, 1995. [Visit Author At:
Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.