Updated on 5 november 1996 by ausweb97@scu.edu.au

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The Meaning of the Web

Jim Falk, Department of Science and Technology Studies [HREF 1],
University of Wollongong [HREF 2], Northfields Avenue, Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia.
Phone +61 213 691 Fax: +61 213 452. Email: j.falk@uow.edu.au. Home Page: Jim Falk [HREF 3]
Keywords: WorldWideWeb, Community, Sociology, Science and Technolgy Studies, Political Economy, Culture, Meaning, MOO, Virtual Communities


If we can judge from its rate of growth, the World Wide Web is currently an extraordinary success.[1] But what is the significance of that success in the context of a rapidly changing world?

The Web is one of the frontier developments in the Internet (the "Net"). Given this, if we were to take seriously some of the claims made for the net, then the transforming potential of the Web must be enormous. For example, Hahn and Stout (1994) writes:

The Internet is, by far, the greatest and most significant achievement in the history of mankind. What? Am I saying that the Internet is more impressive than the pyramids? More beautiful than Michelangelo's David? More important to mankind than the wondrous inventions of the industrial revolution? Yes, yes and yes.

The above is of course little more than hyperbole, where the Net is seen as an invention completely out of the context of all other developments in communication, culture and social organisation which have preceded it and made it both possible and necessary. But it is quite hard to even characterise the Net. Is it the full set of protocols through which computers may communicate with each other, together with the hardware links, or merely the set of hubs through which they communicate, or the set of computers which are connected to those hubs? From the users point of view, of course, it is none of these things. It is the communication style, and resources and experiences which it makes available which provides the Net with its distinctive character and attraction.

Communicating through the Web is certainly a distinctive experience. The Web is based on a system of servers of information through which documents formatted in hyper-text markup language can be read by means of general purpose browsers. The use of hyper-text embeddable addresses enables the browsers to be directed almost seamlessly from one piece of information to another, wherever they may be located in the Net. And the architecture of both the browsers and the protocols they interpret enables the information to include text, graphics and sound. The result is that the Web provides a graphic user interface which is remarkably easy and attractive to use. In this way browsing the Web is a particularly accessible, easily comprehensible, and transparent way of traversing a significant part of the Net.

However, the distinctive communication experience provided by the Web entails more than just ease of use. Although text is usually dealt with linearly, the use of hypertext links enables any word (or a graphic) to be linked to any other point in Web space, laying out a multi dimensional space. Through that space thematic pathways may be defined by series of links, and through their interconnection surfaces also are laid out. As suggested by the many connotations of landscape that are used in describing the experience of the Web (for example: the browser Netscape, "surfing the Net", etc.), the result of browsing the Web is to experience movement over an information terrain, mapped not by geography solely or even particularly, but also by a multi-dimensional set of categories and themes.

If the Web is considered as a landscape it is very clearly one that is under construction. In a less obvious sense this is also true of most geographical discoveries. Christopher Columbus encountered an inhabited landmass, which was then constructed in the minds of the Spanish Monarchy and the rest of the European aristocracy as the "discovery" of a new land. After much contest over what meaning this land was to connote it eventually stabilised (even in the minds of many 'native Americans') as modern "America". But exploration in the Web emphasises the dynamic nature of such "discovery". By utilising "hot lists", we may construct our own maps and landscapes of what is important. By publishing those hot lists we make the new territories available to others. By adding in links to our own documents, home pages, and supporting pages and resources we further shape and embellish our conceptions of what matters and embed that in the Web as new territory to be discovered and colonised by others.

Thus to use the Web effectively we have to be prepared to explore. This makes clear a central point which is also true of the Net. Neither Web nor Net is just a data space. The Web is both an environment, and a mode, or set of modes of interaction between people. In order to use it we need to discover the sites of interest to us. Because of its complexity effective personal use of the Web requires us to interact socially. Much of what we do in the Web is to bounce off each other's discoveries and utilise them to construct our own maps and signposts. This depends to a considerable extent on the interaction between individual people. A social network is necessary to bind together the nodes of the Web. "The Web" is thus embedded both in a technological Web (the protocols, data lines, modems, computer hubs and computer terminals which constitute the Internet) and a Web of social interactions which construct and shape the understanding, use, and thus usefulness of it.

The Net thus fits well within the currently popular approaches to the problem of describing and explaining the evolution of technological and social systems by considering them as systems of seamlessly interpenetrating social and technical components, often described in terms of socio-technical systems or networks.(Bijker et al 1987) As Abbate (1994) has recently shown, the social process which has produced the protocols which underlie the Net is usefully dealt with from this perspective.

The Web provides a graphic illustration of the most basic insight from this body of theory (see for example, Summerton 1994, p. 3) - that the technical and social cannot be firmly separated. Technologies are social, because they are produced by, facilitate, and shape human interaction. Correspondingly, the Web is a technology with social and technical dimensions and implications. And, consistent with this theory, it mediates and contributes to social as well as technological change.

The Web is a prime example of a socio-technical network, not only in this respect, but also because its meaning is so obviously under construction. In the language of the "new sociology of technology" each actor entering the Web draws upon both external and existing Web resources to construct new "actor worlds" which jostle for position and legitimacy with the existing actor worlds which are constituted in the Web. It is difficult to predict with any confidence the likely result of this interplay. Many players have yet to enter (in particular, commercial players) and so the dominant actor worlds have yet to emerge and stabilise. In this sense, the Web is both a product of agents of change, and an agent of change in itself. And like the components that make up the Web, the Web itself is a component in a broader socio-technological network whose form and meaning both shapes, and is shaped by the Web. Most broadly, it is an inextricably intertwined part of a rapidly changing world system of intermeshed social relationships and technological components.

The Web as Symptom - A Changing Global Context

One simple illustration of the value of considering the Web (and Net) in their social context, is provided by simply examining the reasons behind their phenomenal growth. To understand that we have to take into account more than simply the technical features. We also have to understand the social reasons the entire assembly of computer technology is developing so fast. In particular, we have to understand the intimate relationship between the development of information technology and global political, cultural and economic change.

The central consideration is of course that global social, political and economic structures are constently being extended in ways which require more elaborate communication systems. I deal with this in far more detail elsewhere.(Camilleri and Falk 1992) Here I will confine myself to pointing to four central trends in the extraordinary way in which global social and technological structures are being transformed:-

i) Industrial organisation increasingly extends beyond national boundaries. We have seen a remorseless trend towards increases in organisational scale and scope over the last century. As a consequence many production systems have become integrated at a global level--it no longer means much to talk about 'our' products or 'their' products.

ii) As a result governments increasingly have been forced to create supra-national organisation. First the role of national government instrumentalities has grown steadily (with a corresponding reduction in the power of regional administrations) in order to regulate the infrastructure and activity of this increasingly global network of ever larger organisations. And, the trend has taken us well beyond that. Thus, we see the emergence of larger multi-national regions (such as the European Community), the increasing size and scope of transnational corporations, and indeed the emergence of a global market. In all of these developments large scale organisation plays an ever more important and overt role.

iii) Technological impact increasingly extends beyond national borders. Because of both the increasing scale, scope, and technological power of this activity, technology and its impacts (weapons systems, acid rain, money, and much else) also cut across national boundaries. For example, the enhanced greenhouse effect caused by the output of gases through modern industrial and agricultural production (see for example, Falk and Brownlow 1989) threatens to change the climate of the entire planet. Frequently the outcome is as much national policy being reshaped to accommodate the requirements of the transnational technical systems, as the national government shaping the technology.

iv) As a consequence governments now find themselves one of many actors in what is increasingly a single, integrated world market. In it they compete with other actors (for example, trans national corporations), some of which have equivalent, or greater, economic power.

In short we are living at a time of rapid social transition, whose effects and dynamics are global in reach. The entire world is undergoing a transformation which is simultaneously economic, political, cultural and technological in character. The emergence of this world system is both powered by, and has required, the development of a corresponding global system of communication. The communication system is required to allow economic organisations to communicate internally over global scale, to facilitate the global market which can serve global production systems, and to allow the regulational infrastructure to monitor, organise and enforce the necessary preconditions for economic activity to succeed physically and socially.

The Net and the Web are clear symptoms (as well as facilitators) of this development. Born of a perceived need to develop a communication system between computers that was robust in the face of global weapons systems, developing through the need for government and academic organisations to exchange information at increasing scale, the Net is relentlessly being shaped towards servicing the wider needs of the broader global Web of commercial and regulatory activity.

Because the Web is constructed by and serves a set of people and the institutions to which they belong it incorporates the things they regard as being useful information and the links they construct between that information. The articles, data, discussion, pictures, songs, and commercial interchange which it supports provides both a picture of the world, and signposts of what is believed to be important, for the communities that construct and utilise it. In this sense it tells a story about the world as these users currently conceive it. That is, it is just one possible map of social and technical reality.

Currently the map or reality which the Web assembles is very partial and incoherent due to the selectivity of the information it contains. But that is changing rapidly. The meaning of the Web is in the process of being constructed. The sort of reality the Web will create will be shaped by the extent of usage, the social and economic character of the communities which participate in and are constructed in its use, the uses made of it by those communities, and the common frames of reference, patterns of discourse and stories that they adopt about themselves as communities and the "world" in which they exist.

It is to be expected that the map which the Web provides will tend to evidence the same stresses and clashes in understanding which the communities who use it are experiencing as the world around them transforms. But because it is a cutting edge technology, operating globally and involving the community most acclimatised and empowered to use it, it tends to bring out some of the more problematic aspects of contemporary reality in a particularly stark and magnified form.

The Challenge to National Identity

From the point of view of political theory, one of the great challenges is the erosion of a tidy picture of the world which has served reasonably well over at least two centuries. This is the view of a world partitioned into largely autonomous sovereign states. In particular, the central idea of the sovereignty model - that national governments can be "sovereign" - with supreme power to shape what happens within their territorial domains - is increasingly challenged by the developments of which the Web is part symptom and part agent.

The central direction of the market is to increase world trade in mass goods, whether physical or cultural. It divides communities, playing off one section against another for economic gain. Community boundaries become transparent to communication media which mediate social interaction on a scale that far transcends that of the national community. The large, regional, or global electronic media corporations cast their services according to a logic which pays little attention to the search of any particular national population for political and cultural community.

For example, the integration of national markets into a complex play of world commerce has undermined the ability of the people in England to see themselves as either merely nationals of the UK, or inhabitants at the centre of empire . Instead they must now also see themselves as members of a broader more complex European community.

The result is a world of communities which can no longer be well understood, or understand themselves, in simply national or nationalist terms. Rather than a national community shaped by the autonomous rule of a sovereign national government, the world is increasingly composed of communities which experience shifting and conflicting allegiances, new forms of identity and who experience and participate in overlapping tiers of jurisdiction." (Camilleri and Falk 1992, p. 256)

Australia provides an interesting example of one region transforming within the dynamics of a world in transition. It is a particularly difficult time to pick the direction and boundaries of current developments, let alone to sharply define an alternative. The need to establish and shape the community's political identity is a product, in part of the tremendous transformations which are occurring in the world and its regions.

It certainly no longer seems credible for Australians to see themselves as part of Europe. And the growing importance of regional economic alliances across the world, and the rapid growth of economies in the Pacific basin at the same time force them to re-think who they are and could be - to reconstruct their sense of identity, their goals as a community, and their sense of place. In particular, the Australian community is faced with discovering in the countries with which it is increasingly linked economically (eg. China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea) which communities within them share common other goals and values with communities in Australia, sufficient to form the basis of extended communication and collaboration.

Australians, as a collective national community, thus face the challenge of discovering how to understand themselves as part of a larger world where problems are more widely shared than just within the national boundary. There is a need to know how to act effectively in a world in which the state is becoming just one actor in interplay with global corporations, transnational non-government organisations, supra-national governmental organisations and much else. And there is a need to discover how to rebuild and revitalise local community in a world where the former roots of national community are steadily being eroded by the process of globalisation.(Falk 1995)

The Web and Community Fragmentation

The above puts the often over-stated transforming potential of the Web, and indeed the Net, in perspective. The Web is both symptom and agent in the changing nature of world politics and culture. And clearly, in relation to dilemmas posed by the relentless process of integration, the Web or any other communication system can at best only be part of the solution. At the same time, because the Web represents the cutting edge of some of the central integrative and transformative processes, it is also part of the problem.

In a world which is integrating rapidly, identity becomes a problematic issue. Again taking the example of the UK, whilst in a world of sovereign states its inhabitants may have tended to imagine themselves primarily as "British", in the emerging world there is a tendency for this national identity to slip down as other identities (eg. Welsh, European, environmentalist) emerge more strongly to challenge it.

Benedict Anderson (1983) has described in detail how print technology was important in creating the pre-requisites for the concept of the national community. It gave rise to the development and spread of the national print media, and the emergence of monoglot reading publics which could read them. This played a crucial role in allowing people within the national borders to imagine themselves as having something in common with each other (both in terms of a collective history, and joint present) - enabling them to constitute themselves in their collective imagination as a single national community.

Similarly, the Web and Net and their future incarnations provide the basis for the construction of new senses of community which transcend the nation state, both reflecting and reinforcing the changing challenges of identity The reading public is now geographically world-wide, although, as we shall discuss later, it is far from universal.

The Web represents a further step in the fluidity which challenges the singular construction of the national community. In this world in which national identity is in contest, the contest becomes more visible in the more fluid socio-technical space of the Web. In the Web, nations and their populations have no particular privileged position. Pages portraying national descriptions (eg. Malaysia [HREF 8], New Zealand [HREF 9], Japan [HREF 10], or the UK [HREF 11]) vie for attention and legitimacy with pages representing very different communities (eg. environmental communities [HREF 12]).

The communication space of the Web has the potential to be simultaneously more universalist and more particularist and this mirrors a world in which national boundaries are becoming more permeable. Thus, for example, the Web emphasises universalism by making available a picture of a world which is unconstrained by time delay between different locations. And the global spread of the Web, as with the print media that came before, encourages a monoglot reading public which is now world-wide. Because the dominant users and providers use English it encourages the further development of both a resource base and audience which communicates through English. The Web does allow the development of "foreign language" sub groups. But the Web is likely to further reinforce and emphasise a dominant trend, with the critical mass of English amongst providers and users driving the usage inexorably towards monoglot English.

There is thus a sense in which the Web will continue trends toward universalising community. But in another sense it is likely to also reflect, and perhaps even worsen, the fractures within geographical communities between rich and poor, and the highly educated, and those deprived of advanced education. It is important to remember that in most places the Internet is still available to only a small but select fraction of the population. Indicatively, for example, 93.8% of Internet bytes flowed into only four countries (the US, Canada, the UK and Australia) in 1993. India, by comparison, accounted for only 0.01% of usage, and China so little it did not appear in the statistics.[2] Simple considerations of the level of infrastructure currently available in countries like China and India suggest that it will be a long time, if ever, before the bulk of the world have access to the Net. So the community provided by the Web is likely at minimum to be a very constrained one: drawn from the rich and educated, in the rich countries. And in the others, the bulk of the population will be waiting for a telephone number. In short, the Web reflects, and perhaps makes even more starkly polarised, the deep divisions created in the pattern of world political economy. Worse, by appearing to be universalistic the Web actually hides its non-representativeness, in the same way that "world news" appears global in scale but gives priority to particular regions, sub-groups, and issues. In this sense the Web reinforces an ideology of universalism for the communities which have access to it, which masks some very particular and elite characteristics of those same communities.

Beyond this sort of fracture which is structured into the political economy of the Web is the more fluid nature of community. Whilst there are universalising tendencies, at least amongst the whole community of users, the communities which are constructed themselves have a tendency to mirror the modern world - with all the characteristics of fluid membership, and overlapping allegiances, which are emerging within it. For example you may simultaneously identify yourself with the communication between your professional group, those like you with an environmental interest, those with an investment interest, and so on. The Web provides the possibility of inserting and extracting yourself from a vast range of overlapping communities at will.

Robust and Ephemeral Community

It is not unreasonable at this point to ask more carefully what we mean by community. Clearly contemporary discourse about communities does not restrict itself to the traditional concept. This concept of community, deriving from sociologists such as Tönnies can be expressed as "a sense of interrelatedness and shared experiences among people living in the same locality."(Tönnies 1957) This sort of definition is useful in that it evokes some benchmark of community deriving from the (perhaps romanticised) coherency, stability, and commonality of the historical understandings, beliefs, communication and social relationships between the members of a pre-modern village or tribal community. If this is taken as a bench mark it becomes possible to discuss how various social and technological developments (for example, the advent of large cities, the breakdown of the extended family, the development of the detailed division of labour and knowledge, the fracturing of the nuclear family) has fragmented and eroded community. It has also been useful in beginning to understand the process of imagination that has taken place to allow those concepts of community to be projected upon the diverse population making up the nation, and then to discuss how that "national community" is challenged by changes in both political economy, and in communication technology, including the advent of the Web.

It seems inappropriate in discussions of either the modern world or the Web to restrict the concept of community that we use to purely community structured around locality. Here Martin Webber's concept of non-place realms which concentrates on the "city as a communication system" as opposed to the city 'as place' may provide a helpful beginning.(Webber 1968a and 1968b; Little 1993) But extending the concept does not excuse us from answering some of the same questions that were relevant in the past. That is, what features of what we regard as important to traditional community are able to be constructed within the new non-localised social spaces so clearly highlighted by the Web? And beyond that, what new important features of community can be invented and developed within these spaces?

This sort of consideration suggests a very simple question, but one which will not have a straightforward answer: to what extent is any particular community created in the web, or more generally in the modern world, robust?

This question clearly invokes the notion that there are certain characteristics which we can agree are desirable in a community whether it be locality based or based upon some other basis of technologically mediated cohesion.

To my mind a robust community is one in which the members have not only a sense of interrelatedness and shared experience, but also share common ideals and believe that through by virtue of belonging to their community they can make greater progress towards achieving their objectives than through belonging to other communities. Members of a robust community will invest personal resources, energy and commitment into it because they consider it stable, growing, supportive and effective. As a consequence at least most members of a robust community will gain broad emotional and intellectual support from the community, and associate with it their ideals and aspirations. And, when disaster strikes, a robust community will react with renewed effort to rebuild and recapture that which they have lost. In these senses, the nation state, albeit developing as a result of both new technologies and imagination, has generally proved to be very robust.

In contrast ephemeral community is unstable and transitory. Its population may change rapidly, and interact chaotically, with little confidence that its members share common ideals, or could realistically advance the possibility of attaining them through the community. Relationships within an ephemeral community, whether emotional or intellectual, are likely to be partial, satisfying only one or a few of the members' needs. Members may share some interests in common, but their world views and historical perspectives may conflict markedly in other ways which are important to them.

I will not pretend that the above criteria do more than sketch what I have in mind for each of the various parameters which may begin to describe the extent to which a community is in various ways either robust or ephemeral. But it does seem to me that many of the communities which have been constructed in the Web, so far, lack key qualities which would render them as robust.

Personal Identity and Community Roots

Traditional community depends for communication almost entirely on face-to-face interaction. The oral culture transmits the stories, beliefs, ideals and interpretations through which members make sense of their collective life and collaborate in living it.

By comparison while the texts and graphics of the Web are very elaborate, this is achieved through very limited, and in that sense simplified, forms of interaction. If we are to build robust community then it will be necessary to increase the depth of this and to at least give us some of the qualities of "real life" communal interaction.

Further, whilst access to any place in the Web, wherever located, is marvellously simple, navigating the Web is far from straightforward. The vast complexity of the network of information confronts the simplicity in accessing any particular point. And, whilst the access to points may simplify a little, since the number of nodes is growing exponentially, the complexity is growing super-exponentially.

There are search engines [HREF 14] which are useful if the users know what to look for, and have a lot of time to search the lists that result, often dealing with a lot of redundant material before finding what is needed. But, as noted earlier, navigating the Web remains a socially mediated experience, depending on other modes of communication between colleagues to determine the useful/cool sites. As the complexity of the Web grows the need for such guidance is likely to increase - requiring rapidly increasing elaboration of the social architecture which supports effective navigation through it.

We already see the beginnings of the elaboration of this with the publishing on the Web of numerous indexes of "cool sites" and "hot lists" (eg. HOTWIRED [HREF 15], The Complete Marathon Collection [HREF 16], The Creative Internet Home Page [HREF 17] ), the appearance in hard copy of the various Internet magazines (eg. Internet Australasia 1995) and indeed the proliferation of Web conferences. For this reason, it is also naive to assume that the advent of the new communication options of the Web will necessarily lead to less face-to-face communication. It may actually generate greater desire for such communication. The phenomenon of "flesh-meets" where electronic acquaintances meet up in real life may well be a harbinger of what is to come.

In fact the textual approach of the Web is not particularly good for interaction. The attempts such as CyberSight Real-Time conversations [HREF 18] and The Sociable Web [HREF 19] are so far rendered quite clumsy by the constraints of hypertext, compared with other systems of interaction on the Net which more closely simulate face-to-face interaction. These include E-mail and the newsgroups, and more particularly Internet Relay Chat (IRC) [HREF 20], its new voice analogue Internet Phone (Wright 1995), and the descendants of the game-playing spaces - the MUDs (multi-user dungeons) and their successors - the MOOs (MUDs-object oriented).

MOOs [HREF 21] seem to be the closest representations of traditional real-life communities on the Net. Players meet, and talk face to face, or in groups, in various textually described rooms and places of their own devising. Movement between locations may be instant ("teleporting") and players may remotely page each other, if desired. Players may furnish their rooms with many different textual objects, take off and remove clothes changing their self-descriptions, and "emote" by performing actions like smiling, crying and hugging. MOOs such as Lambda MOO [HREF 22] have elaborate systems of social regulation based on citizen-initiated referenda.

The MOOs have two key features which leads to their attractiveness. The first is that players may communicate either publicly in groups, or in private. Second, the players enter with a high level of anonymity. Even the e-mail addresses of the players are masked from each other, and the self-description which a player utilises (from gender to real-life location, to age, to looks) may be changed at will.

These two ingredients lead to heady mix in which people may reveal to each other deep personal secrets, and play out desired acts and roles, which they would not easily admit to in "real life". Not surprisingly, a great deal of what goes on in MOOs relates to exploring across boundaries (marriage, gender identity, age prohibitions) which would normally be constrained by traditional community norms.

There is much that could be said about this. An exploration of the MOOs will reveal many stories of people who have explored into what is for them new territory of human relationships. Yet the net effect of this is to create desire for something more "real". The usual progression beyond this is towards closer forms of interaction - telephone chat - and sometimes face to face meetings. The range of results from this are those that you would expect from a party where people have let their inhibitions drop - marriage, divorce, one-night stands, a great discussion about an area of professional interest, the development of deep and perhaps loving friendships, and waking up the next day and wishing you hadn't.

Thus the MOOs do provide a much better simulation of face to face interaction than do the normal pages of the Web, but ironically by replicating the more ephemeral aspects of normal community. They challenge the constraints and norms which structure traditional community, opening up the possibility of movement and fluidity in relationships.

The exception are the special purpose MOOs (such as Biomoo [HREF 23]) which are based around a specific technical theme and other MOOs replicating institutions (such as the virtual university MOO Diversity University [HREF 24] whose strengths and weaknesses may be compared with those of the less interactive but more textually rich Globewide Network Academy [HREF 25]). It can be argued these "workplace" MOOs merely provide a space in which an existing de-localised professional or semi-professional community may interact in an additional or enhanced way. Whilst this is useful it is at best consolidating rather than constructing new robust community. If MOOs are to provide the glue for the formation of new robust community their role will need to be developed in ways which are not yet obvious.

Constructing Robust Communities

The Web is a dynamically developing network of vast numbers of pages of text, graphics and sounds, many of which are themselves quite transient, with locations being shifted, altered, or erased at individual whim. In this sense, so far, the groups that form within it are probably even more mobile and fluid in membership than those of the MOOs. In the web groups identity is largely obscured identity, and there is no real catalyst for focussing commitment. In this world no single community can serve all needs, and so the communities interact and overlap in dynamically shifting and changing patterns.

Given the limits of the Web, it is not surprising that the attempts to build community utilising the Web often contain (usually inelegant) gateways into IRC and the MOOs. The most developed form takes the movement towards more robust community by structuring in the possibility of real-life face to face interaction. (For example, E Cafe [HREF 26]) However, as a strategy for the Web this is clearly limited, since the creation of community around such a theme constrains the important face to face interaction to those who have access to a particular geographic locality.

The distinction between robust and ephemeral community reminds us of what may be a more important distinction between the two. To the extent that overlapping allegiances may conflict, a world of communities whose members possess diverse overlapping allegiances is disempowered. The strategy of divide and conquer has been celebrated for many centuries. And, as the Web and Net demonstrate, ease of communication does not in any way assure its opposite, the strength that flows from unity of purpose and collaboration.

In short, the form of the communication meeting places is not an adequate recipe for robust community. Rather, form and community must develop together. So at a time when national community is eroding, if we seek to find the basis on which equally robust new community can be forged we need to look for not only the emerging technological basis but also the social basis for these new forms.

It is not easy to find the models, of delocalised, robust social formations, which can make use of these new technologies and provide the basis for equally robust community. One is the community which has been held together by a strong history of shared beliefs. Examples would include scattered ethnic groups - for example the scattered Chinese or Jewish communities. Another is the professional occupational community - chemists, biologists, cosmologists. These are existing communities which may be reinforced through the use of new communication technologies.

An emerging model is the transnational corporation. These are undoubtedly the basis for a sort of community which is delocalised, but the nature of membership - as consumer or employee - is highly restricted, and very disempowered.

The other new style of development, over the last few decades, which has been propelled forward by the tendencies towards global integration is the phenomenon of the development of the "new social movements". Examples are the women's, peace, safe-energy, environmental, civil rights, and animal rights movements. There are many more.

The distinguishing feature of these movements is that they represent networks of social interaction stretching out from local community not infrequently on a global scale. They are motivated by not only the face to face interaction, and the sharing of communication, but also by common ideals, a sense of empowerment, and a desire to reshape the future to common purpose. Some of these networks are very informal, and others have given rise to global organisations which are very tight knit - such as Greenpeace.

The Web, and more broadly the assembly of communication systems which constitute the Net are as relevant to constructing these new communities as they are to the more formal world of business and supernational government. Thus, already we find Greenpeace with a world BBS system (Greenlink) and a Greenpeace home page [HREF 27] on the Web.

In short, if we are to look for the construction of new robust communities, then we need to look for the synergies between the roots of robust social organisation and the new developments in communication. Already we see some developments which attempt not merely to allow the existing networks to communicate more effectively, but to provide new communication spaces for their further development. One such example is Communications for a Sustainable Future [HREF 28] which seeks to combine web pages, bulletin boards, and a gate-way to a MOO into a electronic meeting place for the consolidation of interaction around environmental issues.

In conjunction with colleagues at Macquarie University and the EPA (NSW) and Sydney University I am pursuing a similar experiment developing a prototype Environmental Education Information and Resource Clearing House [HREF 29]. In its developed form it is intended to integrate Web pages, e-mail, Listservs, and citation databases together with more traditional fax, telephone, hard-copy and face to face contact at a physical centre to help impart greater shape and mutual assistance to the potential community of those concerned with environmental education in Australia. A central feature of this proposal is to make that community more visible by requiring users to register not only their names but also environmental skills and interests, these being displayed on a Web page which will be accessible to those who have registered.

But these are small and very preliminary ventures into the project of community building. The central point is that robust community cannot be built out of technology alone. It must build also on the roots for robust community which can be identified as developing in the social order. Community without purpose will remain ephemeral. Community will only become robust when its activities, and the technology which supports them, can be seen to be enhancing its ability to achieve its purpose. And, it goes perhaps without saying, that if its objectives are not good ones, we would be better without it.

More broadly, in terms of the new sociology of technology we may put the main conclusion this way. We cannot understand the potential of the Web or Net in isolation. The potential of the web exists only in the context of the potential of society. Each can help the other work for a more attractive future. The Web is a system of information which tells a story. Who will tell that story, its themes, emphases, and direction, will be a matter of contest. The central issue is to provide the social mechanisms and the technical support to try to ensure that the story is both helpful to large numbers of people, reflects and helps achieve their aspirations, and has a happy ending.


[1]According to one survey of browsing services [HREF 4] by the Internet Society, over December 1993 - December 1994 the number of Web browsing services had grown at an exponential rate from an estimated 225,000 to over 3 million. In a study of traffic [HREF 5] by Mathew Gray (Matthew Gray, mkgray@netgen.com, Growth of the World Wide Web, 24 Feb 1995) more data was passed over the NSF backbone port 80 (the standard Web port) in December 1994 in one day than over the whole of 1993. Over the same period the amount of information travelling per month over the Web rose from 200 to 3,000 gigabytes. Naive extrapolation suggests a usage of 10 million times that flow by January 2000 (see Internet Society projections [HREF 6]. Again according to Internet Society statistics for Net connections [HREF 7], over the same period the number of nets connected to the Internet more than doubled. (Rising from 21,430 (Dec 1993) to 44,689 (Dec 1994).

[2]Calculated from Internet Society Statistics [HREF 13].


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Hypertext References

http://www.uow.edu.au/public/faculties/arts/sts_www/stshome.html - Department of Science and Technology Studies Home Page
http://www.uow.edu.au - University of Wollongong Home Page
http://www.uow.edu.au/public/faculties/arts/sts_www/jfalk.html - Jim Falk Home Page
ftp://ftp.isoc.org/isoc/charts/90s-www.txt - Internet Society
http://www.netgen.com/info/growth.html - Growth of the World Wide Web by Mathew Gray
ftp://ftp.isoc.org/isoc/charts/90s-www.txt - Internet Society Charts
ftp://ftp.isoc.org/isoc/charts/90s-nets.txt - Internet Society Charts
http://www.jaring.my/ - Malaysia
http//www.cs.cmu.edu:8001/Web/People/mjw/NZ/MainPage.html - New Zealand
http//www.ntt.jp/japan/index.html - Japan
http://www.cs.ucl.ac.uk/misc/uk/intro.html - UK
http://envirolink.org/ - The Enviro Web
ftp://ftp.isoc.org/isoc/charts/93--ctry.slk - Internet Society Charts
http://home.mcom.com/home/internet-search.html - Search Engine
http://www.hotwired.com/ - Welcome to HOTWIRED
http://www.amug.org:80/~marathon/ - The Complete Marathon Collection
http://www.galcit.caltech.edu/~ta/creative.html - The Creative Internet Home Page
http://cybersight.com/cgi-bin/cs/ch/chat - Cybersight real time chat
http://big-sleep.media.mit.edu/SocialWeb/SociableWeb.html - The Sociable Web
http://mistral.enst.fr/~pioch/IRC/IRC.html - The IRC library
http://http://www.cm.cf.ac.uk/User/Andrew.Wilson/VR/sites.html - Internet VR Sites
telnet://Lambda.parc.xerox.com:8888 - telnet to Lambda MOO site
telnet://bioinfo.weizmann.ac.il:8888 - telnet to BIOMOO site
telnet://moo.du.org:8888 - telnet to Diversity University site
http://uu-gna.mit.edu:8001/uu-gna/ - The Globewide Network Academy
http://www.ecafe.org/~ecafe/ecafe/ - E Cafe Home Page
http://www.greenpeace.org/ - Greenpeace Home Page
http://csf.colorado.edu/ - Communications for a Sustainable Future
http://www.cs.su.oz.au/~gary/env/ - Home page for prototype Environmental Education Information and Resource Clearing House (under development)


Thanks to Sue Rowley, Linda McDonald, Brian Martin and Stan Aungles for reading the draft of this paper and offering useful suggestions.


© Jim Falk, 1995. The author assigns to Southern Cross University and other educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author also grants a non-exclusive licence to Southern Cross University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and in printed form with the conference papers, and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

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