September 1996

Putting the Community into Community Networks

by John Monberg

Book Review: New Community Networks: Wired for Change
By Douglas Schuler
Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1996
528 pages
ISBN 0-201-59553-2

Douglas Schuler has written an excellent guide for developers and participants of community networks, and at the same time he lays out a compelling argument and vision that provides an alternative to the predominately commercial initiatives that shape existing media. The book covers three general areas: the definition and importance of strong democracy and community, particular network uses such as education, health and economic sustainability, and the technical aspects of these networks. This book is an excellent overview of where community networking stands at the moment and of the best practices of these networks.

Schuler's book has two important strengths. First, drawing upon key political thinkers, the book stands as a forceful statement of what a more fully democratic society requires and might look like. This alone is crucial in an era when the glib hype of democracy is easily stretched to fit the latest AT&T commercial, and where bright and shiny new technology too often focuses our attention on the latest Java trick, limiting our horizon of thinking about what the community enhancing benefits of technology might be.

Second, through a rich description of his own experience with Seattle Community Network as well as the experience of scores of others across the country, Schuler conveys a treasure trove of practical advice, guidelines, warnings and checklists of the ways that these networks can contribute to community ties. These experiences are richly described and serve as jumping off points for further thinking and discovery. The examples are drawn from networks that serve the needs of many regions, classes, special purposes, and ethnic communities. The book doesn't always integrate these examples, but the role of technology is always integrated into the broader perspective of putting community first. The extensive list of organizations, documents and bibliography make this volume a working document that can direct the efforts of those seeking to develop community networks that would strengthen the social ties of their own neighborhoods.

Schuler is neither euphorically optimistic nor unduly pessimistic about the role of communication technology, but instead raises some hard questions surrounding community networking. He offers no magic bullets, and some of the hard questions (about, for example, moderating discussions, censorship, and the sustainability of networks) are not fully answered, but at least these questions are raised. But this is not a vice of the book, for like other democratic forums, there are no easy answers; we must rely on only the long, messy, and often contentious practice of members working toward common goals. Schuler's book provides not a destination but a guide through the as yet undermapped wilderness of community enhancing communication technology. [TOC]

John Monberg ( is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Copyright © 1996 by John Monberg. All Rights Reserved.

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