Excerpt from a workshop at Virtual CivicNet 97

On the Network or In a Room?  All entries made by workshop leader John S. Niles. Interactive comments by participants are not included here.  
Workshop Podium    
14-JUN-97 15:49

In this workshop, let's collaborate to increase our understanding of how people working together in community development, community networking, and other civic processes can optimize the mixture of face-to-face (ftf) and telecommunications-mediated remote interaction (e.g., electronic messaging like we are doing in Virtual CivicNet).

1:1) 16-JUN-97 1:50  

Workshop process
I am a newbie at using an asynchronous computer conference to coordinate a workshop, but I have opinions about what works that I am going to act upon. Please bear with me. If anything I do irritates or frustrates, let me know (jniles@mcimail.com)
This first item is a podium where I enter my presentation. There are a number of subsequent items for questions, observations, and interactive discussion in response to a framework I provide. I have included an "all other" for any response by you that does not fit under the existing list of items.
I did not set up a "tell about yourself" item because I'd like you to do that in the conference-wide place for self-description. That's where you can find out about me, for example.

1:2) 16-JUN-97 1:55  

I am going to try to keep this workshop focused on ftf versus electronic interaction in goal-directed human activity aimed at    community development and other civic processes. Except where insights are transferable to civic activism, I want us initially to try to put aside the modes of people's interaction for purely personal, social, counseling, recreational, entertainment, employment, basic K-20 educational, shopping, medical, and service delivery purposes. So we are not focused here on how one finds a lover or a job or a customer or a new stereo on the Internet, unless it also bears on the topic at hand (which it might!).

1:3) 16-JUN-97 2:00  

What are community development and civic activism? What community networks try to focus on. Increasing community participation. Building awareness of a community problem or issue. Changing the political process. Collectively changing some physical aspect of public space like the parks, libraries, public schools, or streets. Getting government to do something different. Helping disadvantaged citizens. Volunteerism.

1:4) 16-JUN-97 2:04  

It is my impression that telematics (one word for the merger of computers and telecom) and the time cost of travel is pushing   society vigorously toward relatively more remote interaction and relatively less face-to-face interaction. (A hypothesis. True or not?) There is a vast technology-driven movement aimed at implementing ever-more sophisticated remote-interaction tools, of which a community network on the Internet is just one example.

1:5) 16-JUN-97 2:19  

My starting premise on which I invite discussion is that civic activity can be factored into types of tasks, some of which work very well over a network, and some of which work less well. Putting out information to a lot of people in a hurry works well over a network. Counseling the ineffective performance of a dedicated volunteer who lives across the river on the other side of town works better in a face-to-face meeting. I claim (to start the workshop discussion) that the goal of an effective pattern of network-facilitated civic activism is to allocate tasks to the networking or to the face-to-face domains as appropriate. Many of the discussion items below are aimed at collecting your experience-based stories on what has worked or not worked in this allocation.

1:6) 16-JUN-97 2:24  

Philosophy: In thinking about any human social process, I am always looking to understand the "natural path" which happens more or less automatically as a function of dominant cultural patterns, and, on the other hand, the needed, newer "policy-driven paths" that occur when we learn more about the extra work and knowledge-based leadership it takes to make more good things happen. I think that at the moment the "natural path" is to seek more and more ways to use the new electronic technologies to involve more and more people. I think the natural path for electronic networking advocates in the tradeoff between f-t-f and electronic networking is now leading toward excessive reliance on networking; that there are some tasks for which electronic networking is inadvisable. So this workshop is about uncovering those things which require face-to-face, to establish the optimum mix of face-to-face and electronic interaction.  Okay?

1:7) 16-JUN-97 2:30  

What's coming from me later: Report on some research showing which tasks work better for f-t-f; I'll also summarize the report on electronic networking causing Balkanization. What I hope is coming from you: some looping back to points made in other parts of this Virtual CivicNet event that I may have missed.

1:8) 16-JUN-97 3:04  

So please add your questions and discussion as responses to items 2 through 6 !

1:9) 19-JUN-97 15:59  

Andrea and others: Thanks for visiting this workshop. I hope you will react to the following:

It has always been clear to me that electronic networking is not a natural tool for interaction within bounded geographic communities, because it offers easy pathways to communication with people elsewhere. To me, the power of the work of Richard Civille, Miles Fidelman, and others at the Center of Civic Networking has been their counterintuitive policy thrust that the Internet can (if we try) be applied to strengthen local communities even though this local use of networking is not natural.

You might ask: Not natural?

Yes, the Internet technology lets us turn our attention from our neighbors in a new and unprecedented way to let us easily find and interact with people and ideas and places that are more appealing than what we can find across the street, down the block, or in a metro region.

This dynamic I think applies at all scale levels, to wit:.

I live on a residential block in Seattle in a neighborhood called Magnolia. My office is in Magnolia too.

The net makes me think more about Magnolia, than about my neighbors on the block.

The net makes me focus more on Seattle, than it does on Magnolia.

Civic networking on the Internet draws me more to a central Puget Sound metro level of attention than to city of Seattle.

Facilitated by the net, I have colleagues in California who take more of my time than colleagues in Washington State.

The net inserts me more in national and world activities at the expense of activity in the Western U.S.

And so on.

The best articulation I have ever seen on this power of the Internet to stretch our horizons in dysfunctional ways lies in the academic paper described in the next response in this podium item.

Civic networking is about taking local action to use a powerful tool -- that can easily weaken local communities -- in new and different ways that will instead strengthen local communities.

I think the choice of how to mix electronic and face-to-face collaboration is at the heart of the matter. Making all civic networking interaction remote and electronic puts your neighbors in competition for your attention with all the other people in the world. Ftf interaction is a differentiation that builds preferences and focuses attention. Because ftf is much more feasible on a local level than on a global basis, it is important to mix it well and thoughtfully into local civic activism.

1:10) 19-JUN-97 16:01  

Excerpts and reaction to a marvelous paper available as a PDF file for downloading at http://web.mit.edu/marshall/www/Abstracts.html

Electronic Communities: Global Village or Cyberbalkans?
by Marshall Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson
Tel: (617) 253-2970 Tel: (617) 253-4319 FAX: (617) 258-7579
MIT Sloan School 50 Memorial Drive E53-308 Cambridge, MA 02142
March, 1997
marshall@mit.edu ebrynjo@mit.edu
Copyright 1996 Alstyne and Brynjolfsson

Author's Abstract:

Information technology can link geographically separated people and help them locate interesting or compatible resources. Although these attributes have the potential to bridge gaps and unite communities, they also have the potential to fragment interaction and divide groups by leading people to spend more time on special interests and by screening out less preferred contact. This paper introduces precise measures of "balkanization" then develops a model of individual knowledge profiles and community affiliation. These factors suggest conditions under which improved access, search, and screening might either balkanize or integrate interaction. As IT capabilities continue to improve, policy choices we make could put us on more or less attractive paths.

Excerpt from Preface


In this paper, we show that an emerging global village represents only one outcome from a range of possibilities. It is also possible that improving communications access through emerging technology will fragment society and balkanize interactions....

The general argument is fairly simple. If IT [information technology] provides a lubricant that allows for the satisfaction of preferences against the friction of geography, then more IT can imply that people increasingly fulfill their preferences. A preference for contact that is more focused than contacts available locally leads to narrower interactions. Thus local heterogeneity can give way to virtual homogeneity as communities coalesce across geographic boundaries.

We do not argue that increased balkanization must result from increased connectivity. On the contrary, we believe that the Internet has enormous potential to elevate the nature of human interaction. Indeed, we find that if preferences favor diversity, the same mechanisms might reduce balkanization. However, our analysis also indicates that, other factors being equal, all that is required for increased balkanization is that preferred interactions are more focused than existing interactions. Thus, we examine critically the claim that a global village is the inexorable result of increased connectivity....

The number of neighbors with whom one interacts is unlikely to exceed a few dozen in a typical day; even in a lifetime, few people have significant relationships with more than a few thousand others. As long as human information processing capabilities are bounded, electronic media are unlikely to dramatically change this total. When geography no longer narrows interaction, people are able to select their acquaintances by other criteria such as common interests, status, economic class, academic discipline, or ethnic group. The result can easily be a greater balkanization along dimensions which matter far more than geography.


The paper goes on to formally prove five propositions in mathematical language:

1. Without bounded rationality constraints, global access minimizes balkanization. [Bounded rationality, a term coined by Herbert Simon in the 1950s, means a limit on the human capacity for calculation and attention.]

2. Virtual communities increase balkanization relative to geographic communities given bounded rationality.

3. Under global access, relaxing the bounded rationality constraint does not reduce balkanized affiliation unless agents seek information outside their original topic areas.

4. Mild affinity preferences increase balkanization. If an agent prefers more associations of one type than an average sample from the local population, then balkanization increases. Stronger preferences lead to greater balkanization. Corollary: With greater connectivity, a taste for randomness or diversity unbalkanizes interaction.

5. Quality differentiation in virtual communities leads to stratification....Agents at a source might wish to affiliate with agents at a destination but if agents at the destination have already committed their channels, the destination community is closed. Veto power at a destination can balkanize communities despite preferences for diversity at a source.

The paper is marvelously readable despite the mathematics, and is spiced with anecdotes and examples.

A brief version appeared in the 11-29-96 issue of Science (pp. 1479-1480) under the title "Could the Internet Balkanize Science?"

1:11) 20-JUN-97 21:27  

As background for this workshop, I recommend all participants read the transcript of Richard Lowenberg's workshop Information Ecology, which concluded recently and is now "read only." There are some challenging ideas in the presentation by Richard and the responses, and I hope somebody can relate them to the ideas in this workshop.
Thanks, JN

1:12) 23-JUN-97 2:42  

The effectiveness of remote electronic interaction between people depends on what you are trying to do.  

Research over several decades (in various organizational contexts) has revealed the most effective tasks for electronic media. Here are two example studies:  

1. Ranking of activities for appropriateness by users of four audio and video teleconference systems in Canada, 1975, ranked in satisfaction from highest to lowest:  

giving or receiving information
asking questions
exchanging opinions
giving or receiving orders
decision making
generating ideas
problem solving
getting other on one's side in an argument
resolving disagreements
maintaining friendly relations
resolving conflicts
getting to know someone  

Source, Short, Williams, and Christie,
The Social Psychology of Communications, John Wiley, 1976  


2. Results of research on the effectiveness of remote electronic communications conducted at Fujitsu in Japan were reported as follows in 1994:  

Remote electronic means of communications are more effective at the top of the hierarchy, and less effective at the bottom of the hierarchy.  

Hierarchy of Communications Purpose  

   Transmission: Sharing of information and knowledge from informed person(s) to uninformed.
   Coordination of activities
   Decision: Selecting one course of action from a number of options
   Creation: Creating information or knowledge from scratch
   Persuasion/negotiation: Action on a person  

Source: Nakamura, Kiyoh; Yuri Masuda; Keijiro Araki; Zengo Furukawa; Yukio Kiyokane.
"Role of Multimedia Communication in the Teleworking and Telelearning Field,"
Proceedings of the Pacific Telecommunications Council Sixteenth Annual Conference, January, 1994.  


These results combined with observations by many participants in CV97 imply that electronic networking has limited effectiveness in many community development processes -- especially persuasion and negotiation -- and should be considered as an adjunct to face-to-face communications.

1:13) 23-JUN-97 2:56  

Beyond Being There  

There is a school of thought that says that the use of electronic media (like computer conferencing) should not be thought of as replacements for ftf, but as supplements that provide communications environments that are better than ftf.  

Ftf is still there to be used when it is the best way to communicate in particular circumstances.  

A review of the Bellcore Beyond Being There project is at http://www.useit.com/alertbox/beyondproject.html  

1:14) 25-JUN-97 22:34  

Concluding Statement from Workshop Convener

Thank you all very much for stopping by the workshop "On the Network, or In a Room." This workshop is now frozen and read only.

I've gone back and read the whole transcript of what was presented in this workshop and the ensuing interaction, and have also dipped in to other discussions in the CivicNet Circle area to find some concluding points relevant to the workshop.

Here are the conclusion I would draw from what I read:

1. Community networking means two very different things:

Type I community networking means people spread over any geographic distance who have shared interests, and who want to interact electronically and to become (as an interactive group) more closely bound into a community-like group, taking on more and more of the characteristics of a local community of friendly neighbors. Type I is about creating a new form of community. I would not call this kind of community networking civic networking even when civic networking is being discussed by the participants, as is the case in Virtual CivicNet 97.

Type II community networking means people who live in a local geographic area (a small town, a big city, a metropolitan region) or a political jurisdiction of any size (a state or country or union of countries) using the growing capabilities of the Internet for civic purposes in a way that supplements and adds value to other community development and activist processes that are focused on the same issues in the same geography and jurisdiction. These processes usually involve a lot of face-to-face interaction. Type II networking is about improving existing geographic and political communities.

2. Type I community networking is perhaps more personally appealing than Type II, since one pursues personal interests in a novel way, but Type I arguably leads to cyberbalkanization as described in the workshop. People who like Type I on a worldwide scale probably would find it more pleasurable to engage in Type I even in a local geographic area where Type II is indicated as necessary to be effective. But Type II takes more work and more skill and more resources.

3. These two forms of community-building are only superficially alike. I would claim that they are like oil and water.

Type I community networking involves people who are on the Internet and who like to use it for communicating.

Type II community networking involves working with people who care about public issues in their community or jurisdiction, some of whom use the Internet, but many of whom don't use the Internet because they are have nots (poor), can nots (unskilled), want nots (unmotivated), or need nots (wealthy or powerful).

4. Any individual can do both Type I and Type II, just like a person can both snow ski and water ski. But to be effective at one takes quite different skills and focus, not to mention location, than the other.

The face-to-face extension of Type I is a natural follow-on to the Internet part. You click around, you follow your interests, you interact, you pick and choose, groups coalesce, the members like each other more and more, and they then want to eat together, play together, and touch. Because distances are great and travel/time options are limited, focusing occurs naturally onto special occasions.

Ironically, even though the distances are small, the face-to-face component of Type II takes much more planning and effort than in Type I. Type II involves existing players and established ways of doing things. It involves diverse people coming from many points of view around deeply felt issues who happen to be located in the same place. It involves dealing with issues of power and wealth distribution and making changes. Where? Who? Why? arise. Since Type II takes place over a limited geographic area which is easy to reach, there are many many options for face-to-face interaction from which to choose.

7. It is very clear that Type II community networking can be used to add value to local civic processes that are traditional and involve people who are not Internet enabled. For example, planning the agenda for face-to-face events, disseminating information simultaneously to many people quickly and efficiently, and collecting inputs from many people and databases, including resources from beyond the geographic community that will be helpful inside the community. There were many good examples in the workshop. We presented information on tasks where face-to-face has a comparative advantage over remote networking.

8. But the ease with which the Internet facilitates Type I communications with likable and like-minded folks living way outside the local community requires that civic networking advocates pursuing Type II be very self conscious about maintaining and strengthening their relationships with local community players who need to be part of the civic improvement process even though they are not on the Internet. This requires skill in achieving a mix of interaction that is on the net, in offices and meeting rooms, on the phone, over the fence, and on the street.

Thank you again, and good luck to you.

Addendum: Very interesting work from 2003 on the topic of face-to-face versus network interaction by William Davies at  the iSociety programme carried out at The Work Foundation in England is posted at http://www.theworkfoundation.com/research/isociety/social_capital_main.jsp

This item is frozen.  No more responses may be added.