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Introduction to Conference Proceedings Electronic Networks - Building Community 2002

Graeme Johanson, Larry Stillman, editors

For those who attend a conference, the proceedings are a second byte of the fruit, an opportunity to review what was presented and discussed face-to-face. For those who did not attend, the refereed and non-refereed papers and presentations provide a snapshot of the status of and thinking in the field of knowledge about community networking in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. The proceedings act as a record of contemporary activities and events related to the field of electronic community networks, and they offer insights into who are leading innovative developments. They show just how far the Community Networking Conferences have come since their inauguration in 1996. We are no longer novices.

The variety of offerings is broad and the content is rich, demonstrating that solutions to working with communities are infinite. Technology is only the starting point, and in some cases, the end point of work that people do in dealing with issues in their community of interest, be it virtual or geographical, or a mix of the two (Williamson, Manaszewicz et al). Different levels of analysis in the presentations mix theory and practice, reflection and planning, longitudinal research and day-to-day reactions to problems, and they suggest methodological and active solutions. The contents are fresh and hand-picked.

A summary of the enclosed coverage cannot do justice to individual efforts, but it is worth distinguishing a broad trend in interest in community networks, as evident here as it is worldwide. Accountability is a universal catchcry. Many networks have already been operating for years, many are now accessed by millions of users, many cater to the fundamental needs of niche groups, many are grafted successfully onto different types of larger networks, many are integrated well onto other organisational processes, many have adopted novel interfaces and processes. Some struggle to meet these criteria for success. Most of them are challenged by the process of evaluation and re-evaluation.

Many are struggling with issues about ongoing redirection and sustainability. All of them are undergoing evaluative scrutiny ­ from their user base, from their creators, from their funders, and from their managers. The resounding question is: what benefits will continuing support of community networks provide? Is what is accepted as valuable and worthy by a funder (frequently government) also accepted by community? Is electronic technology an adequate substitute for direct service and personal networks (Foskey, West)? What is an acceptable level of technical knowledge by generalist staff in community and non-profit agencies (Gieselhard and Burkey)?

As answers are emerging they offer constructive strategies to cope with a collective struggle for the justification of the value of networking for the whole community and third sector, all too-often bound as it is to the whims of government. These proceedings offer a sort of stethoscope for listening closely to the individual throbs behind this enormous pulsing effort.

A notable strength of the field of community networking is its commitment to collaboration and idea-sharing in contrast to purely commercial operations. Perhaps this is self-evident; the degree of daily international connectedness of people interested in networks is sufficient of itself. Yet in addition, focusing together at conferences as in these proceedings is reaffirming and supportive. Described projects originate in Perth and rural NSW in Gunnedah, in urban and rural New Zealand, in Saudi Arabia and Canada.

In Australia, one of the most highly urbanised countries with its population concentrated in relatively few cities, we are still faced by the problem that as Goggin puts it in his paper, we "are not blessed with world's best practice in geography," and this continues to have an impact on government investments in telecommunications infrastructure and investment in ITC projects, not always to the majority's best advantage. Some projects are centred in high density, low income high rises, others dispersed across the vastness of Australia where women's networks are critical (Hopkins et al, Lennie), and issues of knowledge management in the community sector are observed through a study of a women's organsation (van Polanen & Tanner). In contrast, many of the New Zealanders presenting have shown the strength of community and social capital in overcoming severe resource restrictions in a situation where government has generally deemed it not its role to invest in electronic equity.

There are tensions in developing publicly funded programs which demonstrate that there is an ongoing need for a much more flexible system to account for both the intended and unintended conequences of networking activity (Thompson). We are dealing with an open, interactive and global system, a great challenge to more hierarchically, risk-averse oriented purveyors of information and service delivery (Lacey, Wright).

There is a strong desire to share reactions to assessment, post-implementation and redevelopment of community networks wherever they are, to assist all of us to gain further understanding, even if it is after this event by means of these proceedings. In here we find a strong dose of realism, where all manner of stakeholders submit to public gaze their weaknesses along with their strengths, their limitations as well as their very admirable successes.

Perhaps this is because presenters are fresh from the realities of their daily workplaces. They are well-attuned to real-life dilemmas. They come from many backgrounds. By design many types are represented at this conference: academics, research students, artists, social dreamers and lobbyists, politicians and radical activists, banks, all levels of government, and especially municipal interests, various commercial enterprises, philanthropists, non-government organizations, non-Western cultures, disadvantaged minorities, large and small institutions, mainstream systems developers, counsellors, project managers, rural groups, regional developers, primary funders, libraries, teleworkers and telecentres, network users from all age groups, teachers and learners, care-givers and advocates for sick, homeless and underprivileged, and so on.

The proceedings is a wonderful mix of very diverse content, dedicated presenters, and well-articulated viewpoints, a practical and intellectual feast for any sort of reviewer of the field, whether from inside the networks or outside them.