Humans interact with other humans in patterned ways. The web of affiliations may be loose or strong, widespread or concentrated, bound by conventional social structures or voluntarily formed. One of the ways such interaction patterns have been studied is through the metaphor of networks.
Networks have generally been described in terms of certain characteristics of individuals or groups, such as kinship, status, political affiliation, employment, and so on. Recently, however, the process by which networks form is being increasingly focused on. Those who wish to create positive changes, both at the personal and societal levels, have been acquiring skills in networking.
One of the ways networking is being facilitated these days is through computer communications. In the past fifteen years, global networks of linked computers have sprung up, bringing into play a powerful new medium for social discourse and the diffusion of innovations. Many social change activists are starting to make use of computer networking to help in the grassroots empowerment of social movements, the medium having significantly reduced the resources needed to effectively network large numbers of people across great distances.
Between 1986 and 1989, there were two projects that were being concurrently implemented by members of the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University in Toronto, Canada. Both projects had the aim of bringing about positive social change through the establishment of active networks of people.
The Native Computer Communications Network (NCCN) Project focused on using the latest innovations in computer communications technology to link Native organizations together, while the York/Habitat Networking Initiative (Y/HNI) used the more traditional networking technique of face-to-face interaction to link people involved in the field of human settlements.
A third project was an offshoot of the Y/HNI that incorporated the technological aspects of the NCCN. This was a project to create Habnet, a computer network for the human settlements field. Its aim was to enhance communication through the use of electronic mail, file transfer and computer conferencing among the network of contacts created by the Y/HNI.
This paper describes these projects and provides an analysis of their results. In the discussion following the recounting of each project, there is an attempt to make explicit the lessons learned. This is to provide the reader with a greater awareness of the factors and processes that must be taken into account in using computer communications as a networking tool.
The York/Habitat Networking Initiative (Y/HNI)
In 1986, the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) relocated its Information Office for North America and the Caribbean to the Faculty of Environmental Studies. In an attempt to promote new methods of dealing with global issues, York/Habitat scheduled a series of meetings to bring together the various constituencies presently concerned with human settlements. These included: academics, NGOs, private sector organizations, government bodies, and funding agencies.
An expected outcome of these meetings was the creation of a multi-disciplinary working group whose main purpose was to raise awareness of the nature of global problems, conduct research, develop joint projects, and share information and resources.
Another aspect involved the individual projects of the four graduate assistants associated with the project. These included: researching and creating institutional linkages between individuals, organizations, and programs involved with community development and urban management in Canada; researching and creating a database of human settlements projects in the Caribbean; exploring the potential use of video case studies of development projects as an educational tool; and the creation of Habnet, a computer communications network for the human settlements field.
The Initiative made use of a number of traditional networking techniques including: inviting people to special events; a mass mailout survey questionnaire; developing a listing of contacts; attending conferences; and face-to-face group meetings.
The goal of establishing a multi-disciplinary working group of people involved in human settlements was not achieved. This was primarily due to the fact that projects that would ensure active, ongoing collaboration among the participants were not established. The networking process did succeed in bringing together people, who might not have otherwise had contact with one another, to reaffirm that the integrated approach was a good ideal. It also allowed them to come up with a number of ideas for future collaborative activities, which presumably could have been implemented once the resources were found.
The Native Computer Communications Network (NCCN) Project
The Native Computer Communications Network (NCCN) Project was begun in December 1986 by the Native/Canadian Relations Theme Area of the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. It was designed to test the feasibility of creating a Canada-wide computer network linking together microcomputers in the offices of native Canadian organizations.
The network created was decentralized, with people at each site having the full capability of accessing, adding, and deleting items from the information base that was commonly stored on the computers at each site. This was in accordance with the 'native way' of political interaction.
The computers communicated with each other via public telephone lines and allowed computer conferencing, electronic mail, and file transfer. An additional goal of the project was the creation of a database containing abstracts of the 5,000 articles in the Native/Canadian Relations Theme Area's Resource Library.
The work was divided into two phases: the Development Phase and the Pilot Phase. In the Development Phase (December 1986 to September 1987), the conceptualization of the network was established, potential users of the network (including those to be in the Pilot Phase) contacted and consulted, appropriate hardware and software found and tested, abstracts created and put into the database, and information gathered on a number of conferencing topics. In the Pilot Phase (October 1987 to March 1988), selected sites in Southern Ontario were supplied with computers, the personnel there trained in network management, the manuals written, and the promotion of the network carried out.
Though technically successful in that the computer communication technology was developed and the network of computers functioned fairly well, the project did not succeed in creating an interactive, purposeful network of people. The main reason for this was that the major application of resources went towards creating the technology and its peripheral enhancements. The work done on establishing interpersonal networks was both sporadic and diffused among too many disparate groups. It was another case of the people not having any concrete interactive activities around which to communicate. There was little reason to form an interpersonal network on the basis of the sharing of new technology.
Comparison of the Y/HNI and the NCCN
The Y/HNI and the NCCN were both attempts to create new networks of people for the purpose of facilitating positive social change. The former used the networking technique of loosely structured face-to-face meetings while the latter focused on developing the new technology of computer communications.
In both cases, the participants were very busy with their own activities. Though there was interest in the idea of the potential network, there wasn't a strong enough incentive for them to become actively involved on an on-going basis.
The Y/HNI process could not sustain the pace of interaction necessary to form a working multi-disciplinary network, nor were there the resources there to carry out joint projects. The NCCN concentrated primarily on the technology and overestimated its effectiveness at stimulating interaction.
Habnet was an attempt to merge the new technological advantages offered by the NCCN with the traditional networking techniques of the Y/HNI. Its goal was to create an 'online' interactive network of human settlements people, with the rationale that computer communications would alleviate some of the logistical problems faced by the Y/HNI of having to bring many busy people together to the same place at the same time on a regular basis.
To avoid the NCCN's maintenance problems of a distributed network, it was decided that Web, a centralized national computer communications system for the non-profit sector, would be the 'host' of an online conference called 'habnet'. Habnet was to be the means whereby those whom the Y/HNI were making contact with could maintain ongoing communications.
The experiment succeeded in getting most of the core members of the Y/HNI project team using e-mail, file transfer, and computer conferencing, but there were not enough resources to expand its membership to the point where it became viable. After a year of gradually decreasing use, it ceased operation.
Many lessons were learned from this project. Some of the main ones were the same as those of the previous, related initiatives. The perceived benefit wasn't sufficient to induce people to join, especially if they were large organizations facing the major hurdle of acquiring the needed technology and learning to use it.
If unrealistically high expectations of ease of use and potential ability to make contacts were given to new members of the online network, they became more easily frustrated and discouraged when faced with the inevitable limitations and difficulties associated with the development of new technologies. Another lesson was that it is important for one's computer network to have interconnections with other such networks, in order to maintain links with colleagues.
The York/Habitat Networking Initiative showed that traditional networking techniques of face to face meetings require a great deal of resources to deal with distance and time barriers, especially in the creation of trans-disciplinary networks. The Native Computer Communications Project developed a communication technology, in the form of a computer network, that could help minimize the resources needed to overcome such barriers, but this in itself did not ensure the formation of a network of people.
Habnet tried to combine the accomplishments of the Y/HNI and the NCCN with the expectation that the new technology would make it easier for the forming Human Settlements network to develop. This expectation wasn't realized because there were not enough resources or available expertise to ensure Habnet's continued growth. Habnet did, however, provide an opportunity to explore the dynamics of 'online' interaction.
Computer networking is still in its infancy. Over the next decade, many more people will start using computers to communicate. This new medium's capabilities will make it increasingly easy for widely dispersed, large numbers of people to form new, socially-active networks.
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