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A Manifesto for Online Communities - and digital inclusion (1999)

David Wilcox on March 9, 2010

While looking at an old site I set up back in the 1990s I came across A manifesto for online communities, written by a group of us back in 1999, and published by the BBC as part of its Webwise campaign. It’s a sort of early unofficial digital inclusion plan.\

In the week of the National Digital Inclusion conference, and following the recent launch of the National Digital Participation Plan, it seemed fitting to look back at how far we’ve come over the past ten years. Or not. In 1999 we didn’t have UK online centres urged in the manifesto … and easy access to the Web was only five years old. Well, not that easy since we were mostly on slow dialup connections (many in rural areas still are, of course). Here’s the manifesto summary:

If we believe that the Internet and development in cyberspace should enhance rather than restrict democracy, enable us to be active citizens - and that everyone should have an opportunity to participate - these are draft proposals for a manifesto for online communities.

  1. Every citizen, regardless of their economic circumstances, should be able to share the benefits of the Information Age - including better communications, greater participation, electronic life long learning, and e-commerce. To achieve this they should have access to local community technology centres, plus public online forums and services to create an online community. The centres will provide technical support and help ‘on the ground’, the forums will be ‘virtual spaces’ for online communities related to\ localities.\
  2. Centres and online communities should be easy to find - signposted locally, and through a national gateway.
  3. Public support should be available, particularly in low-income neighbourhoods, where the market is unlikely to provide facilities on a sustainable basis without public funding.
  4. Development of centres and online communities should be piloted through pathfinder projects, with community participation.
  5. There should be a network and support for the local champions and partnerships who will develop the centres and online communities.
  6. A virtual resource centre should be developed to provide sources of advice for local champions and partnerships, and a neutral space online for discussion of the development of centres and online communities.

Full manifesto here

You can read more here about the background to the manifesto, and the action plan we promoted to put it into practice. Former BT futurologist Dave Greenop developed some cyberspace scenarios. I think you’ll recognise much of today’s world in them.

The Draft principles for cyber-realism also seem relevant today.\ 1 New media technologies are not neutral - they will change our ‘real communities’ for good and ill.\ Increasingly we will live our lives partly in the real world and partly in the virtual communities of cyberspace. These online communities - or cyberplaces - will provide facilities for shopping, gaming, socialising, debating and doing business. Who gains and who loses by this will depend substantially upon four factors: who has access to cyberplaces, who design and constructs them, who controls them, and who has the skills to use them.\ \ 2 The main construction of cyberplaces will be commercial.\ Much of the fabric of our towns and cities has been constructed by private developers, and the same will hold true for cyberplaces. Once we get beyond basic email and ‘do it yourself’ web pages, the major places visited on the Net are being created for business purposes. Investors are nurturing online communities by free services and other attractions so that these communities can be sold to - or sold on to others. They must provide returns to shareholders. These pioneering efforts can provide us with great benefits as consumers - but not, on their own, as citizens.\ \ 3 In cyberspace - just like real space - position matters. Increasingly this will be privately controlled.\ In one sense cyberspace may be limitless. There are few forseeable limits on the ability of individuals, groups or companies to create their own cyberplaces, in some forms. It is as if land were (almost) free, and without planning controls. But where you are will matter more and more - because people will find cyberplaces through search engines, gateways, portals and other devices controlled mainly by private interests. Position will be allocated primarily to serve those interests. Individuals and groups will continue to create good cyberplaces, signposting and gateways - but without some action in the overall public interest they may exist only on the margin.\ \ 4 Access is not enough.\ Providing poorer people with access to the Internet, and training in the use of computers, is essential for social justice and overall economic wellbeing - but it will not in itself combat social exclusion and improve people’s lives. For that to happen the cyberplaces people can find and use - whether they are poor or not - must be designed to meet more than their needs as consumers. They should be designed with the participation of users. In addition, training and support must go beyond technical issues to include information literacy and the skills needed to participate in online communities.\ \ 5 Digital television and Internet developments will transform cyberspace within a few years.\ The speed of the Internet will increase tenfold for many ordinary users within a year. Within a few years more all television sets will be digital, providing additional access. Cyberplaces will increasingly be multi-media - a mix of text, audio and video. All media will converge. The control of that media will lie in fewer and fewer hands.\ \ 6 Information is not power\ The Internet and other media will increasingly provide access to vast amounts of information. But that information is useless if it is not structured - or structured only in ways which suit certain interests. The ability to create content on the Web is merely vanity publishing if no-one can find it.\ \ 7 Size matters.\ One of the great attractions of the Internet for early enthusiasts and activists was that individuals and small groups could - apparently - create cyberplaces to rival those of large public and private interests. This may still hold good - but only the large will channel and attract large audiences. Only the large will have a loud voice in cyberspace.\ \ 8. Understanding technology should be an essential component of global citizenship. (from the techno-realism principles)\ In a world driven by the flow of information, the interfaces - and the underlying code - that make information visible are becoming enormously powerful social forces. Understanding their strengths and limitations, and even participating in the creation of better tools, should be an important part of being an involved citizen. These tools affect our lives as much as laws do, and we should subject them to a similar democratic scrutiny.\ \ 9 Public cyberspace should be central, not fringe, and of high quality.\ In the UK at least, we accept that parks need to be in the centres of towns and cities, and that public transport should be available to all at reasonable cost. Increasingly we expect that our public and community facilities which serve us as citizens should match that of the shops we use as consumers. Public cyberplaces should be at the centre of our online lives, and they should be good.\ \ 10 Cybercitizens should be involved in the development of cyberspace.\ Without the innovation and investment of the private sector we will not have a world class digital ecomomy - and without that we will not have the wealth and public resources needed for a socially inclusive Information Society. But we cannot just leave it to corporations and Government to get it right. In the ‘real’ world the case for community involvement in major developments - and neighbourhood change - is entirely accepted. We expect our MPs and councillors to represent our interests, developers to submit planning applications, and a range of meetings and other methods to give us a say in things which affect our lives. We have a National Trust for special places, and a Civic Trust to champion good design. We should not stiffle the innovation that has characterised the Internet by simply seeking to transfer 19th century institutions to cyberspace in the 21st century. We should, however, urgently debate the nature and requirements of public cyberspace.\ \ I’m not sure if the manifesto had much impact at the time … and the burst of the dot com bubble soon gave everyone a sharp reality check.\ \ Do you have memories of the early days of digital inclusion?\ \

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