December 19, 2011 By Wayne Hanson
In 1994 an Enterprise Community grant was awarded to create an electronic community information network in St. Louis. At about the same time, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) began hosting the World Wide Web Consortium to create standards and help develop the Web that would soon transform the nation and the world. Sonya Pelli, who is manager of St. Louis’ Internet services, said the collaboration of the city, MIT and others resulted in the St. Louis Community Information Network.
Since access was a major hurdle at the time, the network partnered with Morenet, part of the University of Missouri system charged with deploying the state's Internet backbone. Morenet, through the Missouri Express initiative, helped establish community networks throughout the state. The St. Louis Community Information Network then helped provide dial-up access to community groups and nonprofits. The project also began helping neighborhoods establish a Web presence, to be managed by community residents. The network began training community members in the creation of websites, and later held a “webfair."
“We had Web developer volunteers, and community volunteers, and the community college made their computer facility available,” said Pelli, “and in one day, 54 neighborhoods were online, all in one big shot.”
The neighborhood websites continued for a decade or longer. Community participants learned the ropes, and then branched out, using new IT tools as they evolved.
Now, in a time of nearly universal access, mobile devices and social media like Facebook with hundreds of millions of participants, Pelli is exploring strategies to take the network into the future.
What differences does Pelli see between community networking 1.0 and 2.0? “If I look back, we organized around a group willing to work collaboratively, a shared purpose, and a method to share information," she said. "In the mid ‘90s that looked like a server, HTML, working regularly with community groups, with the intent to provide information generated by the community themselves. For the city, the value was the opportunity to provide and tell the story of the city through the eyes of the citizens.”
While social media alters the landscape somewhat, some things remain the same, Pelli said. “Identifying a shared purpose is part of the exploration [as is] figuring out the method, the social networks, the social media to use. But it will still require a strategy to figure out how to use what’s available to pursue a purpose and derive a value.”
Pelli said she sees social media being used by cities and corporations mainly to distribute existing information. “I have not necessarily seen a very good example where the network generates something new.”
There’s nothing wrong with disseminating information, said Pelli, but one gets the sense that she expects much more from a community network. “How do we define purpose and drive value? You can find us on Twitter, Google Plus or Facebook, and mostly it puts out information — as an extension of PR, which is valuable. But there are many entities that do that already. You have neighborhood groups that have their Facebook page or even the departments may have Facebook pages. This is another way to tell you what we are doing, or to come to our events, or let other people know that something is happening.
“I’m not knocking that; I think it is valuable but … what we did in the ‘90s did add value — it added something that did not exist before: a neighborhood’s way to market itself. I believe they played a role in the emergence of the city and the revitalization of our neighborhoods. They were on the map, they could be found. Real people that lived there told their stories.”
As Pelli wrestles with version 2.0, she says that collaboration done right should lead to the creation of new ideas — not just the dissemination of old ones. “If the purpose is to try to leverage collective intelligence — and I really believe that’s what mass collaboration can lead to — you really have to work on a strategy and a plan, and then look at which social media solutions are better suited to accomplish that.”
"One intriguing idea," she said, "would be how to seize on a problem or an issue or a goal, then leverage these different tools to bring different people on board, start generating ideas, strategies or plans. Address them together.”
And social media can help filter ideas, she suggested. “Google Plus has a lot of features that allow fast ways to make decisions about something; also Facebook has the ‘like’ feature. … And so we would use that as a fairly quick method, to generate ideas and generate feedback from those ideas, through a method of filtering the bad from the good ones. And then you have a way to select those things that have traction versus not.” Otherwise, she said, the collective intelligence can descend into a free-for-all, where it’s difficult to figure out priorities.
As part of a formula for 2.0 success, Pelli says that some of the same 1.0 groups must be included — such as neighborhood associations, housing corporations, business associations and others — that have an interest in the city, contribute to it and help keep it strong.
Pelli said that the 1.0 organizing principle was for neighborhoods to tell their own stories. Now, however, they have branched out and gone in different directions and are doing good things on their own. “To coordinate neighborhood presences, like we did in the ‘90s and 2000s, I don’t think is realistic.”
For the city to be involved, she said, there must be a value to it, some success in solving problems.
“One of the things the city unveiled in the past year was a citywide recycling initiative," she said. "I think it’s been successful, but to maintain that so that it will continue to work, there should be a way to leverage social media to help monitor trouble spots, for the city to then intervene.”
St. Louis also has an effective neighborhood stabilization initiative, said Pelli, and city staff are assigned as ombudsmen between community groups and the city. “People involved in the community and involved in social media,” she said, “could host public meetings."
Pelli says face-to-face meetings are still essential for neighborhood initiatives regardless of the technology employed. But turning meetings over to the public is difficult for some cities. "It might be a little scary for a city, because you’re losing a little bit of control. And it takes a little faith that it will work out," Pelli said. "Cities by their nature are hierarchical, controlling the message, controlling the process,” she said. “And in some ways, what social media asks for is really letting go of that.”
“Social networking is a tool to accomplish certain things,” Pelli said, “but devoid of a vision and strategy, it’s not going to do you much good.” Consequently, she said, she would leave the social media solution for last and, instead focus on purpose.
So are community networks still relevant for the well-being of cities and regions, or are they mere historical artifacts, submerged in the flood of social media? To comment, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org