From Community Media to International Networks

This blog entry proposes to briefly explore the transformation from the local context of community media to the creation of national and international information networks. This move from traditional community-based forms of media expression to digital, computer mediated communications systems foreshadows not only a shift in social processes, but a profound change in social structure. My objective will be to suggest possible approaches to research in the transitional areas that encompass what we now describe as virtual communications and for which neither our governments nor our lawmakers have developed clear policies. I believe that we need to develop a new agenda of research about exemplary community-based communications systems (of which FreeNets are excellent examples). The research has to be historical, theoretical and pragmatic in orientation. We need to account for the synergistic relationship between the history of people’s lives in communities and their use of a variety of technologies to communicate with each other and with the outside world. This research agenda should combine an intimate knowledge of the social and interpersonal processes that have made it possible for members of different communities to work together, with an analysis of the political context of participatory democracy.

I would like to propose that urban (and in many cases, rural) FreeNets and community-based networks, of which there are many in Australia, Canada, the United States and Europe, have generated a radically different public sphere, whose structure and organization presage a profound realignment of what we have traditionally understood as community and as local communications. Shifts of the kind that I am discussing here are never as dramatic as one would assume from the more general claims made about the technology itself. To translate the potential of locally-based digital forms of communications into action and to have some effect, requires the same kind of time and commitment which has always been a characteristic of earlier forms of community activism with and without the media. However, the potential for inter-connection is now so much more developed and profound that the orientation of community activism is more directly linked to the use of media and communications tools.

The effects of this change on the policy environment and the ways in which citizenship is defined in an information-oriented society, will have a significant impact on the democratic rights of individuals and communities to pursue their visions for the future. Conventional notions of advocacy, community work and planning will alter as the practices and efforts of community activists become more and more dependent upon a variety of digital and virtual tools of communication. It will be essential to both recognize and analyze the fact that community activists are making use of a variety of mediums and that each of these mediums has a set of characteristics that both influence and shape the nature of the communications process.

Community oriented digital networks developed as a response to the lack of access to traditional broadcast media provided to community members, but also because of a desire to increase the quality of communication between citizens of different communities who shared similar interests. However, the process moved far beyond its initial objectives into political engagement, as community networks became the home of activism and information exchange about social, political and cultural issues. This has implications for how we think about structuring the policy and regulatory environment. The issues of political and commercial control as well as the ability of community members to freely engage with new forms of communication and emerging technologies of information and interaction means that conventional regulatory policies will have to change. How does one respond to material that may be controversial? How does one define local and national interests in the light of community needs? What are the boundaries between regulation, freedom of expression and the priorities of the community?

Community-based networks are defined by a spirit of volunteerism and a dedication to the common good. There are similarities between radio stations on university campuses, community television channels, cooperative radio stations and computer-mediated forms of communication such as FreeNets. In Canada, electronic bulletin boards evolved out of the first thrust of Internet development in the middle of the 1980’s. FreeNets developed from bulletin boards and now a variety of web-based interfaces exist alongside previous efforts to promote grassroots participation in the community. In general, regulatory bodies in Canada have been running behind the rather fast-paced evolution of these networks. In particular, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has tended to see the use of emerging technologies for communications from the rather jaundiced eye of regulatory policies that are based on broadcasting models. Although the CRTC has recognized the fundamental redefinition of communications processes brought about by technologies such as the Internet, it remains focused on issues of globalization and Canadian content. “The advancement of communication technologies, along with the abundance of information in today’s knowledge-based society, is creating a new, integrated ‘global’ information society. While globalization offers vast opportunities for marketing cultural products, it also provides regulatory and policy challenges that demand new approaches to support domestic cultures. Achieving a successful balance between the demands of the open market, and the need to maintain and promote cultural sovereignty and national identity, reflecting Canada’s cultural diversity and linguistic duality, will be key to maximizing gains from the global information society.

Yet, the community-based use of digital forms of communications is not necessarily in competition with global interests. Nor is the orientation of these networks defined by commercial gain. The CRTC tends to bundle the entire communications infrastructure into one rather homogeneous whole. The assumption of convergence, in this case, the combination of a variety of different communications industries, obscures the urgent need for the grassroots to define its own mode and modality of interaction. The CRTC is a good example of what can go wrong with regulation in the Internet age. Its policies reflect a desire to sustain and encourage the development of Canadian content. At the same time, it has no understanding of how digital forms of communication transform content and introduce new and unpredictable political and social alignments. These cannot be defined through the use of the traditional parameters of nation and locality. Community in an information-oriented environment can mean people getting together from many different nations through common interest and common cause. It is about spontaneous linkages that create networks. Some of these networks sustain themselves over time and others disappear. The underlying policy framework for this process has to be defined by a recognition of its fluidity. We have also have to recognize that the freedom to communicate does not come without costs. In saying all of this, I am not advocating a free- for-all strategy. I am suggesting that the conditions upon which new kinds of policies can be devised are being changed on a continual basis by the activity of networking. At the most fundamental of levels, the Internet should allow if not encourage the continual development of innovative approaches to communication and policymakers will have to reflect this level of innovation in their efforts to create flexible regulations. To do this, they will have to alter their research agenda. They will have to ensure that the “freedom to communicate" is not decided upon by the telecommunications giants while at the same time encouraging more and more communities to take responsibility for what they say and how they use the networks they are building.