How the Net can serve society

Going online may appear a solitary activity but it is creating new communities, says American author Howard Rheingold. By Tamsin Todd
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The Independent Culture
Howard Rheingold matches the sofa. He's wearing a cardinal-red blazer with a canary-yellow shirt, purple trousers and moon-spangled boots he painted himself. The sofa he's sitting on is red with yellow criss- crosses, and the hotel lobby carpet is purple. Did he dress to match the decor in some kind of publicity stunt? Or does he dress in parrot colours every day - always the brightest thing in the room? It isn't how you'd expect Rheingold to dress. As a founding member of the pioneering Internet community, the Well, and author of many books and articles on the subject of virtual communities, he spends more than a few hours of every day online. Virtual communities meet in virtual space. They don't see each other - and so, in general, members don't pay much attention to style. Why does this cyberspace pioneer dress to meet the eye?

But for all his flashiness, Rheingold is soft-spoken and thoughtful in conversation - to ask about his clothes would be crass. So instead we talk about his subject.

He speaks frequently about virtual communities (he's in London to give the keynote address at BBC Online's conference on virtual communities, and earlier in the week he gave talks in Helsinki and Amsterdam), yet he's no proselytiser. He answers questions with questions. How is communication technology changing the way we relate to each other? How can citizens get better informed about important issues? How can we change the way we use tools such as mobile phones and the Internet to promote community? He would like to encourage people to think about the ways new technologies impact on society, for better and for worse. In the past, he says, people weren't very conscious of the "significant impact" that new technologies such as the car, the aeroplane, the telephone, television and printing press had on communities. "It's important to look at the ways community changes in relationship to changes in communications technology," he says.

This relationship has interested Rheingold ever since he figured out how to use a modem and joined the newly formed Well in the mid-Eighties - an experience he chronicles in his 1993 book The Virtual Community: Homesteading at the Electronic Frontier.

The Well started in the spring of 1985 with about 800 members (there are many thousands today), of whom many were, like Rheingold, San Francisco Bay-area journalists and writers. For a small fee, Rheingold found himself connected to people interested in having intelligent conversations about issues ranging from politics to parenting. By 1986, he was a Well conference host, and the Well was a big part of his everyday life.

Though his subject is virtual communities, it's clear that he's equally interested in how virtual communities help build geographical communities where people meet, listen, talk, eat - and look at each other's clothes. Rheingold's interest in community-building has its roots in the cultural revolutions of the Sixties and Seventies. He spent his childhood in Arizona, where his "compulsion to read books" was not approved of. Later he found a welcoming community at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, which has a reputation for intellectual discourse and creative thought. He lived in New York and Boston before returning to the West Coast, this time to Sausalito, just north of San Francisco, where he lives today.

The Well was based in Sausalito, and its founder Stuart Brand had been at the centre of San Francisco counterculture in the Sixties.

Besides publishing the alternative lifestyle Whole Earth Catalogue, Brand was "on the bus" with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, described in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Early Wellites viewed the Well as a vehicle for social change. That sense of social responsibility comes across when Rheingold talks about commercial attempts to build online communities. He criticises commercial sites that do not put enough resources into fostering community. E-retailers often start chatrooms to attract customers without realising that community does not just happen. "There's a certain amount of centrifugal force online because people don't know each other, can't see each other, can't hear each other. You need to do some work to keep conversation going."

He recommends that sites hire people to monitor the talk; that communities determine their rules carefully; and that commercial enterprises be honest about their business goals. "Customers will have no loyalty to a community they think is too tightly controlled."

Given Rheingold's counter-culture roots, it's no surprise to find that he'd like to see virtual communities foster social change. Specifically, he has hopes that virtual communities will revitalise democracy. "We now have leaders whose primary talent is communicating very well on television - Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan." The Internet, on the other hand, is a many-to-many medium where real discussion can take place.

"Every computer connected to the Net is a printing press, a broadcasting station, and a place of assembly. The question is, will citizens take up the challenge to use this structural inversion of power to communicate and pump some life into the public sphere? - or will the Internet be shaped by money and power?" He points to the city of Amsterdam, which has "an extremely lively civic life" as well as "a digital city of 100,000 people that's very active". Amsterdam is "an example of how virtual communities can help people in the same city or neighbourhood restore civic life".

This vision of responsible civil societies supported by vibrant virtual communities may seem far-fetched. Yet the day Rheingold arrived in London, the Henley Centre, a consumer consultancy, released a report concluding that "the Net looks set to cause as great an impact on society as the development of factory processing did in the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century."

If the Internet is going to bring on a cultural revolution, Rheingold wants to make sure that it takes society in a positive direction. Looking like an unmissable warning flag in his bright outfits, he's here to make sure that the Internet is a force for, not against, civil society.