Network: There's a caring and sharing cyber-community out there

Communities and help groups are sprouting up every day - in cyberspace.
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The Independent Culture
Around the world, in busy cities, groups of people gather in silence, their fingers tapping away, calming themselves on 21st-century worry beads. They stare, hunched on high chairs, peering into a glow much brighter than the softened light of the room.

These are not new adherents to some pre-millennial cult; they are ordinary people - office workers, schoolchildren and off-duty nurses. You will find them congregating in cybercafes, university computer labs and school classrooms. And, together, perhaps unawares, they are involved in an extraordinary revolution that is shaping the future of the commercial use of the Internet and, perhaps, society itself.

Whiteleys shopping centre in central London has a popular cybercafe squeezed between themed restaurants and a cinema complex. Peer over the shoulders of the clientele. Why are they so engrossed by the glow, happy to leave their cappuccino froth to cool and sink?

Read any Web-hype - in magazines, newspapers or trade journals - and you might expect that these eager, wired citizens to be "surfing" in hope of self-improvement or tracking down virtual bargains - ordering books, buying insurance, booking holidays.

But look more closely. All these people are communicating - getting in touch with other people "out there". E-mails are being sent, bulletin boards are being read and "chat" rooms are noisy with the many-threaded text conversations.

Surveys of Internet usage confirm the importance of community and communication. In the most recent GVU poll (April 1998), 94 per cent of respondents rated e-mail as "indispensable" and many said they felt more connected to others through their use of the Internet.

All this time-consuming, simple cyber-communing seems to be a long way from the shiny, clinical commercial dreams of some major corporations. Where is the "friction-free" capitalism that was promised by Bill Gates?

The friction-ful reality of the Net is enough to make some big businesses scale down their Web plans. Nobody has ever made money out of the Web, they say. Some, though, have seen the potential of vast sums if only they can tap into the Web community ethos. Early leaders were the digital companies - such as HotMail and Geocities - which offered free Web-based e-mail and homepage space as long ago as 1995.

The idea was simple: if users could get access to a Web browser they could send and receive e-mail. The first subscribers were business travellers and digitally literate tourists. Now, some travel guides devote more space to Internet access than post office locations. It may be a lonely planet, but if there's a cybercafe around the corner, you are not alone. The services had a wider appeal, and subscriber numbers grew rapidly. Today, GeoCities claims 2.8 million users, and HotMail tops this with 9 million.

Free e-mail, though, is old news. What are grabbing the attention of service providers are new, sophisticated services. In August, Excite - a major search engine provider - announced its "Communities" concept. Since mid-September, the services have been available to anyone. Subscribers (a loose term, as the services are free) are given their own set of Web- based communication tools. Using these, they set up a virtual meeting place - a sort of electronic village hall - and communities are sprouting every day.

"Excite recognised an untapped opportunity on the Web to help groups of users with a common interest - a family, a Cub Scout pack, Beanie Baby collectors - who have no technical skills, to create a unique place to share on the Web", says Joe Klaus, Excite's co-founder.

Members of a "community" connect using any computer with a Web browser. Messages can be exchanged in real time, community messages can be posted on shared noticeboards; and there are even group scheduling capabilities so virtual meetings can be arranged.

Excite started a trend that others have begun to follow. Yahoo announced its "clubs", while other popular sites, such as the Internet bookseller, are exploring the potential of community appeal.

But why are these companies spending so much money on providing free services? Simple: these freebies are user magnets. Web users can choose from millions of websites; by 2003, the number is likely to be around 100 million. Attracting users to your site is a difficult thing to do; community services, though, seem to be doing just that.

Websites with large numbers of loyal visitors can do what every business wants to do on the Web - make money. Yahoo, Excite and others can collect high rents from advertisers for small parts of their Web pages. Community- enabling sites can also lead to carefully targeted audiences using registration information. The price you pay for these "free" services is a little bit of your privacy.

Real world companies - high-street names - also want to be popular. Take Dixons, the consumer electronic retailer. In September, it unveiled FreeServe to provide Internet access, e-mail and other facilities. All this is free: unlike traditional Internet service providers such as AOL, there are no connection fees and no monthly rental costs. According to Dixons, 450,000 people have signed up already.

The benefits to the user are obvious, but what about the company? The aim is to develop that marketing Holy Grail - a customer relationship. Community facilities are cyber equivalents of the loyalty card. Each time a user returns to the company's site to send an e-mail, chat with friends, or read the noticeboard, they will think about their generous patron. Then, when it's time to buy whatever the company sells - TVs, books, insurance - hopefully they choose the company that has been so helpful to them in the past. And to make things even simpler, the purchase is likely to be done online.

Web communities seem set to transform Web consumerism. But their impact is much more profound. They will change the real communities we live in - for better or worse. Internet-based groups have been around for a long time, but only now are facilities available for any group of people to set themselves up easily in cyberspace. The Web communities we decide to build and join will effect our participation in the real world.

So what choice do we have? The possibilities offered by Excite alone seem bewildering. In three months, the Excite directory has grown to hold over 10,000 entries. Already, a wide diversity of interest groups meets, using the Web. Browse through the listings and you'll encounter a mix of ordinary, intriguing and strange communities. There's Todd's Family Community (just for members of that family to keep in touch); the Positively Optimistic & Pleasant Group (a "Wellness place for Balance"); and, the Rainbow Circle (for those who wish to "reintegrate tribal values", escaping "today's ways", while, ironically, remaining on the Net).

But which of the virtual communities are "good" for real-life society and which may lead to problems? Theologians, psychologists, educationists and law-enforcers have all expressed worries about the most virtual of communities. These are places where users can be anonymous, choosing to be whoever or whatever they wish. Users can change genders (or even species), take on new personalities and play out fantasy roles (a kind of digital Dungeons and Dragons).

Concerns have been voiced over the distortion of reality caused by these places: will participants lose their ability to engage with the physical world? Speaking at a conference on morality and the Information Society, organised by the Institution of Electrical Engineers, the Bishop of London, Richard Chartes, argued: "Face-to-face communication is vital to the development of a moral persona capable of informed discernment."

Most people, though, are much more positive about the self-help and special- interest Web communities. Since the first few computers were connected to the Net, academics have communicated and collaborated electronically - sharing problems and publishing successes. Now there are numerous worthwhile support communities - if you have a specialist hobby, or a child with a rare disease, there will be others out there willing to listen to and help you.

Of course, certain special-interest groups - racists and other hate- based causes - are unhealthy. Harold Thimbleby, a professor of computing and member of the Church of England's working party on IT, opined: "In the real world, narrow-minded individuals are visible and can meet opposing views; this is good for all of us. But on the Web, they form single-minded communities, perpetuating their ideas.

"With the easy availability of encryption, they can hide everything that they say and think from the rest of us. Once isolated within their communities by the technology itself, their ideas may get increasingly unrealistic and unrelated to the rest of us."

"Community" Nets seem to provide a good balance: harnessing the power of electronic communication to support the real places we inhabit. In the United States, there is a good number of these networks. Residents of small districts use the Net to keep in touch with what's happening in their local area. In the UK, too, enthusiasm is growing. Last year, Microsoft wired up 23 households in a London street, giving them access to a community bulletin board called MSN Street. Today such community spirit is possible without the help from a Microsoft special project team.

On the Net, there are heroic stories of cures found, suicides averted and problems solved by and for people separated by thousands of miles. We, too, we are told, can join this caring global community. But what about the person who lives two doors away? Their needs may go unheard. Geographically based Web communities ground the exciting possibilities of communication in the reality of our everyday lives.

Once upon a time, community life meant jumble sales and sports days. Community in the Internet age is much, much more. We will build up relationships with people all around the world, but as we immerse ourselves in the glow of the new world, let us ensure we do not drown. Let's keep sight of reality, using the Net to make our real lives and communities better.

The writer is senior lecturer in Computing Science at Middlesex University