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This item was written by Roger Seeney
Digital Communities for an MSc Information Studies in 2001

1.0 Introduction.
At the dawning of a new millennium, Computer Mediated Communications are heralding new technologies, which may alter the way we live our lives in a variety of ways. The technological advances of Cyberspace and the Information revolution are sweeping across our culture and society with a devastating rapidity. Online communities are at the forefront of these sweeping changes, offering a fresh opportunity to resurrect a sense of communality through the monitor of a computer interface, while imbuing the isolated individual with a rejuvenated sense of well-being and self worth.
These latter comments are what advocates of CMC technology would like the general populace to believe, but is it possible that the isolated process of logging onto a personal computer can bring about the salvation of a cultural landscape? Likewise, what happens to the identity of the individual in Cyberspace and how can the Digital Community and Information Technology provide its users with a fresh opportunity to revitalise the cultural, economic and social aspects of isolated communities in Great Britain?

This report will seek to explore the possible ramifications of Digital communities, placing particular emphasis upon the relationship between the Digital Community and how it perceives itself in relation to the ‘real’ community. As the title of the dissertation project suggests, the primary objective of the dissertation is to analyse whether the Digital Community can re-establish the traditional links between the ‘real’ community and the individual. The dissertation therefore assumes that traditional links between the community and the local populace in the United Kingdom have weakened in recent decades. Such a decline can be attributed in part, to vast improvements in communication and transportation across the world, but also unemployment has proved to be a major factor in severing the individual’s ties with the local community. In Yorkshire, for example, the sense of community that prevailed for so long in the region has slowly been eroded over time, with the decline of the mining and manufacturing industries. It is the objective of this dissertation therefore, to determine whether the Digital Community can help to restore the individual’s faith in the community, or whether the Digital Community is simply a mere fad of the Information Technology revolution.

1.1 Aims and Objectives.
The specific aims and objectives of the dissertation are:

(1) to discover to what extent the Digital Community can re-establish the traditional links between the community and the individual.

(2) to understand some of the social and economic problems that face the local communities in terms of re-education, in the wake of a new technological era.

(3) to identify the major problems that the digital communities face, which are
specific to that particular community.

(4) to analyse the various age, gender, social and ethnic groupings of participants, in
order to identify disaffected groups in the respective communities.

(5) to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the respective digital communities,
with the intent of discovering whether social isolation of an Information
underclass is a foregone conclusion.

The broad stages of the research are as follows:

(1) A literature search. This has involved a detailed search for books, journals and relevant web sites. The subject of the Digital Community is a prevailing topic, and a wide range of material is currently available, which will give the dissertation plenty of scope in terms of the theoretical considerations.

(2) A selection of digital communities to provide both a comparison with other communities in the country and a contrast in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, social and geographic groupings.

(3) Conducting interviews with a number of digital community leaders in Yorkshire and across the United Kingdom, via electronic mail and face to face interviews.

(4) Analysis of interviews from the digital communities, with the intention of identifying certain key factors that are representative of the Digital Community network, while also analysing data to satisfy the key aims and objectives of the dissertation.

Literature Review.
2.0 Introduction
This literature review seeks to explore the possible ramifications of Virtual communities, placing particular emphasis upon how the identity of the individual is transformed in the ‘Virtual’ environment. The related question of social exclusion of the individual in the Virtual Community will also be raised, critically analysing a selection of relevant literature in the chosen topic area. Essentially, the literature review will seek to highlight the theoretical aspects of the dissertation topic, which will be discussed in greater depth in the respective case studies and findings sections.

2.1 Defining the term ‘Virtual Community
The first task is to define the term ‘Online or Virtual Community’, which contains a multitude of meanings, all of which are equally ambiguous with a wide range of different contexts. For the purposes of the literature review, the term Online or Virtual Community will infer any individual or a group of individuals who are joining together with other like-minded people, with the intention of meeting online for social reasons. As stated in Virtual communities as communities, which will be discussed at length later in the report, the authors state that virtual communities can be defined as ‘social networks spanning large distances’, encompassing computer-supported social networks, such as electronic mail (e-mail), bulletin board systems (BBSs), Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), newsgroups and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) (Gulia, p.169, 1999).

As stated in Hosting Web Communities, a member of a community feels part of a larger social whole, while there is also the opportunity to form relationships with other like-minded individuals. Such communities will also encourage ongoing discourse between members of the community on a wide range of commonly related issues, personal to themselves, which help binds the community together, while establishing a communal identity relating to all members (Figallo, 1998). While Figallo’s book primarily concerns itself with the creation of a Virtual Community, the initial chapter of Hosting gives an excellent outline of the attributes of Online communities, effectively setting the scene while tactfully avoiding the more detailed theory of the Cyberspace phenomena.

Michael Mulquin’s Internet article Putting People First expands upon the definition of the Virtual or Digital Community by stressing the importance of Community Networks in ensuring that everyone in society should be given the opportunity to utilise Information and Communication technologies. The article is particularly useful in that it seeks to define the basic characteristics of a Community Network and briefly highlights what kind of services might be useful in a Community Network environment. However, while Mulquin also attempts to predict future developments in this field, his predictions are based on little more than speculation and there is little evidence to support his arguments.

Cohill and Kavanaugh’s Community Networks provides the reader with an inside look at the town of Blacksburg, Virginia in the United States. Since half the population of Blacksburg are now connected to the Internet, Community could be perceived as an excellent manual for those individuals, wishing to create their own Virtual Community. The book is also useful for the I.T. theorists however, although the major criticism of Community is that it tends towards a factual approach and does not seek to analyse people’s reaction to this new technology in any real depth. Nevertheless, Community is a useful book to examine, since it gives the reader a useful look at how a Digital Community has developed over a five-year period and is a good comparison for the Communities that exist in the United Kingdom.

In Shuschen Tan’s article No Agoraphobia in Amsterdam City, we can given a snapshot view of a Digital Community in action, as Tan conducts an in-depth interview with Marleen Stikker, the ‘mayor’ of Amsterdam’s Digital City. The article is a useful source of reference, detailing how the digital city went online, what particular attributes and services made it successful and the rocky relationship with Amsterdam’s municipality owned cable system, KTA. The article gives an excellent overview of the problems that face a Digital Community, while also successfully highlighting the positive aspects of the Community Network phenomena.

2.2 Virtual Environment and the Individual.
To begin with, we shall examine Tim Jordan’s book Cyberpower, which effectively concentrates on how society and the individual are altered in the cyberspace environment (Jordan, 1999). For those people who are intrigued by the concept of logging on to a computer and existing in a virtual reality, Jordan’s book successfully illustrates how the digital world of Information Technology can liberate and dominate the individual simultaneously. While the book is heaped in technological jargon that makes heavy reading, Cyberpower is an invaluable source that seeks to illuminate the reader by stressing the contrasting relationship between human and ‘virtual’ relationships in cyberspace. While Jordan is clearly advocating the advancement of Online communities, there is plenty of scope for others to give a more critical assessment of Virtual technology.

Such concepts are discussed in Richard S. Rosenberg’s book The Social Impact of Computers (Rosenberg, 1997). In one particular chapter on the Information Society, the making of the Virtual community is discussed in-depth, stressing the inherent dangers of Online communities, composed of people who will probably never meet in real life. One such concept that is propounded with nightmarish tones within the chapter is the possible emergence of a ‘hive mind’ when users go online, which over time might produce “ humans as drones unthinkingly serving a single-minded goal ” (Rosenberg, p.434). While the Orwellian overtones are prevalent in the chapter, Rosenberg’s estimations of the power of the Digital community appear accurate and timely. Other ideas that are successfully engaged are MUDs (Multi-User Dimensions) and the important question of gender is raised, as men and women attempt to disengage from the pressure of cultural stereotypes by expressing their ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ sides.

2.3 Social Exclusion in the Virtual Environment.
While Rosenberg is keen to explore the extent to which the isolated can become a part of a greater consciousness through the user of Information Technology, Brian D. Loader primarily concerns himself with the difficult problems of policing the Internet. He also examines the consequences of cyberspace in relation to social divisions and social inclusion (Loader, 1997). In the first of two books edited by Loader, The Governance of Cyberspace raises several questions, such as urban social polarisation and Virtual culture, as extrapolated by Roger Burrows, and Ralph Schroeder’s chapter on social realities within a Virtual world.

In Burrows’ chapter, the author dismisses the concept that cyberspace and the world we live in are two separate environments and concurs with the argument that the two societies co-exist, both complementing the other. While Burrows perceives the creation of Cyberspace as a device that will one day restructure society in its entirety, Schroeder takes an adverse perspective, arguing that prolonged time spent in cyberspace may only succeed in further isolating the individual. Schroeder does however concur that the social embeddedness of electronic mail and the world of computer-mediated communications may set limits to the extent that technology transforms social life.

Editor Brian D. Loader continues with his examination of cyberspace and the Information Society in the book Cyberspace Divide, which is more concise in its examination of cyberspace than Governance (Loader, 1998). The book attempts to identify certain key factors of social exclusion from cyberspace and successfully examines the key characteristics of identity and social interaction in cyberspace. Essentially, Cyberspace Divide is a useful source of reference for those scholars and students interested in Digital communities, while the only criticism of Governance is that it is somewhat broader in its aims and ambitions.

In particular, Mike Holderness’ chapter on the world’s information poor in Cyberspace is particularly illuminating, arguing that many of the social determinants such as the state of one’s bank balance and their geographical location are still as important in cyberspace as they are in the real world. Holderness also applauds the efforts of Digital and Virtual sites for isolated communities, stressing that this is the only means by which I.T. access can be extended to all sections of society. In another chapter within Cyberspace, identity and gender are once again discussed, as Alison Adam and Eileen Green argue that the question of identity in cyberspace throws into question “ essentialised identities and dualistic sexual categories “, which again posits the question of the identity of the individual in cyberspace (Loader, p.96, 1998).

In his book, The Wired Neighbourhood, Stephen Doheny-Farina continues this debate on the identity of the individual in cyberspace (Doheny-Farina, 1996). Doheny-Farina argues that Digital and Virtual Communities should be less important than geophysical communities, since the latter type of community is bound by place and includes the “ continuing, unplanned interactions between the same people for a long period of time “ (Doheny-Farina, p.36). K. Appiah neatly counters this argument in his article Developing Participation in the Global Information Society, which takes a more holistic approach to the subject matter of Online communities (Appiah, 1998).

Appiah stresses the need for the dissemination of information and communication technologies to lesser-developed countries, arguing that these nation states have as much right to ICT as countries in the west. The article examines the issues that lie at the heart of ICT, such as strategy design to determine greater access for developing countries. While the article can be criticised for its overly broad view of the Virtual Community , Appiah’s article gives a good account of the challenges facing the global information society and by contrast, the plight of the individual in ICT.

2.4 Future Ramifications of Virtual and Digital Communities.
While Appiah perceives a globalised network of Virtual communities as the way forwards for the western powers and developing countries alike, Burrows, Nettleton and Pleace’s article entitled Virtual Community Care? appears to be caught in two minds about whether Online communities and ICT can be construed as a positive step forwards (Burrows, Nettleton, Pleace, 2000). Initially, Virtual Community argues that social policy in Britain may be altered beyond recognition, due to the emergence and growth of internet use in the United Kingdom, stressing the negative aspects of such a sudden transformation in British society. The authors are however, also extremely keen to establish how the Internet is being used for self-help and social support for the underprivileged in Britain.

Virtual Community is particularly useful, because it presents a multitude of data on patterns of home based internet use in the U.K., while issues such as empowerment of the individual, the rise of self help groups and social exclusion are discussed in brief. The article itself however, is inconclusive and fails to discuss the issues raised in greater depth. In Phipps’ article New Communication Technologies, issues such as social inclusion and self help groups are examined with greater analysis (Phipps, 2000). Phipps concentrates on 40 digital projects based around the U.K. that are using new technologies with an intention to mitigate disadvantage and create fresh opportunities for the underprivileged in Britain.
The article draws together many relevant themes, such as how to define social exclusion and whether the Information Society may only exacerbate existing problems by creating new forms of social exclusion. Phipps can also be congratulated on focussing her research on Western Europe, instead of comparing and contrasting the new communication technology of Britain with the United States, which has been widely researched by a wide variety of scholars in this particular field.

Amitai and Oren Etzioni’s article, Face-to-Face and Computer Mediated Communities follows a similar line of study to Phipps’ research, but also attempts to combine the perspectives of sociology and computer science. The article seeks to analyse whether, hybrid, CMC, or face to face communication is most suited to forming and sustaining isolated communities.
Such analysis appears somewhat ambitious, but the article does provide the reader with an excellent definition of ‘Community’, although New Communication can be criticised for being too generalised in its scope of subject, assuming that the reader knows little about the world of CMC and Digital Technology. The authors also refrain from opting for one form of communication, choosing instead to argue that CMC technology has the potential to outstrip face to face meetings in a number of ways, but stressing that this has not yet been achieved on more than an experimental basis.

2.5 The Altered State of the Individual.
In the book Cultures of Internet, edited by Rob Shields, a wide variety of themes are raised. One of the most relevant is Heather Bromberg’s treatise on whether MUDs (Multi-User-Dimensions) can be defined as virtual communities (Shields, 1996). The article never really seeks to answer its own question, but instead, becomes preoccupied with the altered state of the individual and the reasons for why the user will return to the virtual community. As Bromberg argues, ‘in a virtual community, a combination of computer and verbal skills equals high status and prestige’ (Shields, p.149). Thus, mastery over the virtual environment and the erotic appeal of the medium, such as no longer being constrained by the limits of the body and physical realities, plays an important role in why the user will return once again.

In relation to isolated individuals who are seeking solace in a Virtual Community environment, Bromberg makes a concise point about the nature of Cyberspace and its participants:
‘ if someone is spending a large portion of their time being sociable with people who live
thousands of miles away, you can’t say they’re turned inward. They aren’t shunning
society. They’re actively seeking it. They’re probably doing it more than actively than
anyone around them ‘ (Shields, p.147).

This is a view that is propounded by Jon Alexander and Dan Thu Nguyen in their article The Coming of Cyberspacetime in which the authors discuss a future age where the Internet and Virtual Communities will help reinvent a new form of society. Nguyen’s article stipulates that there is a patent contradiction between the coming Information Society, spear-headed by the Internet and the liberal democracies of the Western world. Their main argument for this collision between Virtual Communities and face to face communities is that with the onset of increasing surveillance, social behaviour decreases. Alexander and Nguyen continue to argue that it is only when tangible barriers are placed between people, such as through a computer interface, that they feel secure enough to become themselves (Shields, p.104).

In relation to both Alexander and Nguyen, and Bromberg’s articles, the Virtual Community may prove to be the one salvation of the technological age, such is the enthusiasm and respect with which authors’ approach the subject matter. If one were to criticise the excellent articles in Shields’ Cultures, it would be to highlight the bland portrayal of reality, as contrasted with the Virtual one, which leaves the reader mildly exasperated. Shields’ book is not uncommon in that it imbues the world of Cyberspace with unbridled optimism, while perceiving the real world in a less whimsical fashion.

In the article Virtual communities as communities, authors Barry Wellman and Milena Gulia provide the reader with a more balanced and constructive debate, arguing that Online relationships are based more on shared interests, rather than shared social characteristics and foster developed feelings of empathy and mutual support with their fellow participants. It is clear that Wellman and Gulia feel that the Virtual Community has not been given a fair hearing by the world’s press, stating that the majority of critics are concerned that life in a Virtual Community might detract from ‘real life’, while also devaluing virtual relationships, because of the concern that it might draw people away from ‘real life’ in-person contact.

A salient point is made by the authors however, that few people in New York for instance, would have more than a dozen close friends or relations and maybe up to a hundred acquaintances. In a Virtual Community, Gulia and Wellman stress that a participant would base his online relationships on the basis of shared interests and not on social characteristics such as gender or socio-economic status (Gulia, p.186). Therefore, Gulia and Wellman argue that social exclusion and isolation of the individual are not an issue in the Virtual Community, since the traditional elements that would isolate the individual in the real world, do not apply in Cyberspace.

The authors also make a valid point that those critics who are concerned that virtual community can never replicate the traditional concept, are simply confusing the pastoralist myth of community for the real thing. Since Gulia and Wellman argue that the traditional concept of community died long before the Virtual Community was envisaged, criticism can be levelled at the authors for failing to look beyond the short term perspective. Thus, as the authors themselves assert, the answer to where Virtual Community technology is leading can not be determined, since Information scholars and professionals are only now beginning to formulate concise questions that need to be asked in order to achieve this.

As has already been mentioned previously, identity of the individual in Cyberspace is a key issue amongst Information scholars and professionals involved with the development and analysis of CMC technology. In This Abstract Body, authors Paul James and Freya Carkeek seek to analyse the phenomenon of technologically mediated sexual relations. The article seeks to analyse and chart the extent to which technological incursions have taken a hold on the human body, exploring the capitalist culture’s ardent fascination with the human form. Perhaps the most adroit element of Abstract however, is the correlation between the Virtual Community and a conversation via the telephone.

Effectively James and Carkeek argue that whereas embodied sex could be perceived as distracting and feculent, disembodied sex promises AIDS-free interaction, safe sex, and allows ‘one of the body’s senses to be separated out as a one-dimensional extension of the whole’ (Holmes, p.109). Thus, what James and Carkeek argue in Abstract, is that instead of Virtual technology provoking an identity crisis in the respective users, CMC technology actually enforces and reaffirms the identity of the individual. Indeed, in one of the authors’ case studies, a woman known only as ‘Abbey’ stated that she preferred techno-sex, because she wished to be desired as an abstract thing and not objectified as in ‘real life’(Holmes, p.108). Abbey’s statement could be synonymous with any participant who interacts within a Virtual community environment. For, while the Cyberspace environment does allow participants a means of escapism, it also imbues users with a renewed sense of their own identity, thus allowing the user to truly be themselves. In a Virtual Community, James and Carkeek stress that everyone begins as an equal, because of the lack of social criteria by which we gauge one another in ‘real life’.

In the book Communities in Cyberspace, editors Marc A. Smith and Peter Kollock have collected together a series of articles that seek to examine elements of the Digital Community phenomena, such as identity, social control, community structure and collective action. Wellman and Gulia’s article has already been discussed, while Judith S. Donath’s article Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community seeks to analyse the ambiguity of identity in the Cyberspace environment, arguing that due to the lack of a physical body in Cyberspace, a convenient definition of identity is missing. While many advocates of Digital Technology might consider the ambiguity of identity as one of its most alluring features, Donath argues convincingly that discussion-based systems should be redesigned to allow for better communication of social cues. Donath does admit however, that there will always be new ways of establishing and disguising one’s true identity in the Virtual environment.

In Britney G. Chenault’s article, Developing personal and emotional relationships via c-m-c, the author makes the claim that there is a fair degree of inherent emotional content and that emotional ties over the Internet are indeed possible. Chenault makes use of a wide range of references, to highlight both the positives and negatives of the individual’s search for other like-minded individuals in Cyberspace. In her debate about whether the Virtual Community can sustain long term personal relationships, Chenault argues that CMC technology can help people find one another, but that it may be inadequate, due to the lack of non-verbal clues, such as the use of body language that is non-existent in Cyberspace. She does however, point to the use of emoticons to make up for the lack of human senses available to the user online.

A valid argument is also made for finding true love via CMC technology, with Chenault proclaiming that if love primarily exists in the mind of the person, then it can transpose itself into a virtual world. One of the strongest elements of Chenault’s article is that she is not afraid to highlight the darker and more negative aspects of the Virtual Community and CMC, such as violations of privacy, sexual harassment and even virtual rape. Essentially however, Chenault makes the strong assertion that the majority of people who surf the Internet are in search of social interaction, rather than sterile information, and it is a difficult argument to discount easily.

The theme of sexual harassment on the net is continued by Mindy McAdams’ electronic article, Gender without bodies, but disagrees with Chenault’s assertion of virtual rape, arguing that rape cannot take place in a realm only inhabited with the mind. Nevertheless, McAdams does stress that an identifiable female gender in a Virtual Community can place the woman in danger. The argument is forward by McAdams that the hiding of gender online is a common occurrence, with women posing as men, men posing as women, and even children trying out adulthood online. As Mcadams states, discussions in Cyberspace are ‘no longer a matter of physical attributes, identity is made intelligible through the art of self performance’ (McAdams, 1996).

While raising a wide range of salient issues however, McAdams fails to delve deeper into the questions of identity, merely satisfying herself with scratching the surface. Nevertheless, McAdams does conclude by posing the question of androgyny in the Virtual environment, asking whether it could be possible that we be neither man nor woman online, but rather a person without gender. Such a possibility may well cause as many problems as it solves, but it is a prevalent question, since the question of identity in the Virtual Community is a relevant one. Like many researchers and scholars writing in this particular field however, it is difficult to critically analyse the ensuing scenario of Virtual Community relationships online, since such technology is still in its infancy. Instead, all those researchers who are fascinated with this particular technology must watch and wait, and see what the future holds.

2.6 Conclusion.
It is clearly evident then that there is a wide range of literature in this particular field, whether the term used is Community Networks, Digital or Virtual Community or simply Cyberspace. The Digital Community is a relatively novel concept, but it is something that has caught the imagination of social scientists and information scientists alike. Nevertheless, academics that study in this field appear to be divided about the long-term future of the Digital Community. It is with this purpose in mind that we will now turn our attention to the case studies.


3.0 Introduction.
The aim of this project is to establish to what extent the Digital Community can re-establish the traditional links between the individual and the community. The project aims to identify how the primary objectives of the digital community differ from their traditional counterparts and what advantages the Digital Community might hold over the traditional community set up. The project also seeks to identify the representative sections of the community who are actively participating in the online communities and asking whether the act of logging onto a digital community and a personal computer might be considered a communal act, rather than the actions of an individual.

Since the pace of Information Technology is developing at a rapid pace, a great deal of the literature available on digital communities was either not relevant or was out of date. Since it was imperative that the project should benefit from an insider’s perspective, a number of face to face and e-mail interviews were conducted, gathering opinions from experts and employees who work within the digital community network. Thus, the decision was taken to visit a selection of Digital Community leaders in the Yorkshire region and interview these people accordingly. To complement these interviews, a number of e-mail interviews were also conducted with digital communities across the country. This was necessary to gauge the well of opinion across Britain, but also because funds were short and this was the cheapest method by which to gather the necessary information.

3.2 Discussion on Choice of Methodologies.
In regard to this type of research, there were a number of different and useful methods, which could be utilised. Some of these methodologies are discussed accordingly.

3.3 Survey Research Methods.
As ascertained by researchers Busha and Harter in their book Reseach Methods in Librarianship, survey research methods are the most suitable techniques available for library research (Busha & Harter, 1980). Essentially, the methods of survey research allow the investigator “ to gather information about target populations without undertaking a complete enumeration “ (Busha, 1980, p.54). This is achieved by selecting a smaller sample or proportion of the population. The results of the research are then broadened and findings generalised to encompass the larger group. It is evident then, that survey research techniques can ultimately save a great deal of time and money. All that is required on the part of the researcher is to obtain information directly from the participants through the drafting of a range of questions, which are used to obtain three types of data.

The types of data that Survey Research Methods are used to obtain are:
a) Information about incidents and developments in the field of Librarianship and Information Studies.
b) Information about distributions and characteristics of a subject group.
c) Information about generally known rules and statuses.

The questions can be presented through an interview (orally), through a questionnaire, or a combination of the two. Both questionnaires and interviews are types of survey and tend to be the most common form of research method. Face to face interviews are probably the most useful method for administering relatively unstructured interviews, allowing the interviewer to implement a semi-structured approach. A great deal of information can be gleaned from the interviewee, if the interviewer is prepared to allow his subject to branch off into useful tangents. Face to face interviews tend to be more expensive than other methods. The telephone interview can be less expensive, but inhibits a developing relationship between interviewer and respondent, which would suggest that telephone respondents would be more inhibited and self-restrained, leading to a short and succinct interview. Mail and electronic surveys and interviews can also be used to varying levels of success, but the interviewer must ensure that the questions and instructions are phrased correctly, so that the respondents do not misunderstand the intentions of the interviewer.

3.6 The Interview.
It is generally recognised by academic researchers that interviews are a useful means of obtaining information and data. The interview is best implemented in a face to face session with the respondent, eliciting a number of questions and answers between participants. In qualitative research, the interview is far superior to the mail questionnaire, because it allows a great deal of verbal communication in relation to the research topic and therefore, elicits more complete and thorough answers to questions. The interview also allows the participants to digress from the structured interview basis and explore related themes with more freedom than a questionnaire, although care should be taken to ensure that the interviewer does not lose track of the primary objectives of the interview.

The three basic types of interview are structured, semi-structured and unstructured. As the name implies, the structured interview is basically a set of pre-defined questions, which are asked and recorded accordingly. The unstructured interview is the antithesis of this approach, where the interviewer seeks to discover the respondent’s personal viewpoint on the respective research issues. While more flexible than the structured interview, the unstructured model is best implemented in the early stages of a research project, but less useful when wishing to focus on a precise theme or topic. The semi-structured interview allows for a certain degree of flexibility, based around a structured set of pre-defined questions. The major advantage of the semi-structured approach is that the participants can digress from the structured approach, and additional information can be gleaned as a consequence, but the interviewer always has the option of returning to his set of structured questions, when he deems it appropriate.

The advantages of the interview then, are that interviews are generally more adaptable than questionnaires and it is possible for the interviewer to gain useful insights from the respondent through body language, facial movements and from what is said and not said. It is evident also, that the questions can be answered with a greater depth and more rigorous information can be obtained, due to the immediacy of the interview and due to the fact that the interview benefits from the personal touch that questionnaires in their anonymity lack. Since the researcher is effectively seeking to acquire information from subjects in their everyday lives or work environment, the personal aspects of the interview can encourage the respondent to discuss their personal experiences, attitudes and opinions on the designated research topic.

3.9 The Questionnaire.
The major instrument for the collection of data in a carefully developed survey is the questionnaire. It enables the researcher to test specific hypotheses and answer relevant research questions through the gathering of valid and reliable information. It should be noted that both quantitative and qualitative data can be gained from questionnaires, but the questionnaire has to be able to transpose the research objectives into specific questions.

The most common types of questions that are applicable to the questionnaire format are factual questions, self-perception and information questions and opinion and attitude questions. Factual questions are the most straightforward type of question, while information questions seek to measure the respondent’s knowledge about a respective topic.

The two types of questions most commonly used in accordance with a questionnaire format are open-ended and structured questions. Open-ended questions seek to allow free responses from the interviewee and are useful for research that is in its explanatory stages. As a matter of course, open-ended questions tend to be more difficult to analyse than their structured counterpart. Structured questions, otherwise referred to as closed questions seek to limit the responses of the interviewee to selective alternatives. Depending on the structure of the questionnaire, a variety of responses could be implemented, such as a checklist of possible replies, a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response, or a numbered scale indicating degrees of preference.

Some of the advantages of the questionnaire are that it allows a greater economy of effort and allows for a wider range and distribution of the sample survey interview method (Busha, 1986). Qualitative data can be easier to collect and background information can be gathered about participants, if the questionnaire is designed appropriately. Due to the fixed format of the questionnaire, there tends to be less confusion in the questioning process and it helps to eliminate variation. The questionnaire can also aid in eliminating interviewer bias, while it is also clear that it provides the respondents with an opportunity to give honest and frank answers to the apparent anonymity of the respondent. The questionnaire can also be sent to a wider geographical area than an interviewer could travel to and is more cost effective.

There are however, several disadvantages that should be taken into account when considering the use of the questionnaire format. Most importantly, the mail or e-mail questionnaire precludes personal contact with the respondents and cannot be designed to discover the causes or reasons for the participants’ particular attitudes and responses. There also tends to be a low response rate to mailed or e-mailed questionnaires, due to the impersonal manner in which they are delivered. This leads onto the possibility that a percentage of potential respondents might not appreciate mail surveys, while poorly worded or direct questions might only serve to arouse further antagonism in the minds of the potential respondents. Finally, there is a strong possibility that opinionated respondents may be more likely to return the questionnaires, thus raising the question of non-response bias.

4.1 Quantitative Methods
Quantitative research tends to involve counting or measuring data and applying the gathered data to subsequent statistical tests, with the researcher using these results to determine or confirm trends (Slater, 1990). Quantitative research tends to deal in mass data and provides more accurate pictures and results, depending on the greater the number of cases studied. Quantitative research operate at its best within a controlled framework where the participants have few options or answers to choose from, operating within pre-supplied answer categories. As scholar Margaret Slater states, “ if one wishes to measure how often something happens and describe its occurrence in very strictly controlled terms, then the qualitative approach will suit your project “ (Slater, 1990, p.110).

4.2 Qualitative Methods.
Unlike its quantitative counterpart, qualitative methods are less interested in measuring how phenomenon occurs and more interested in why. Qualitative research seeks to view experiences through the eyes of those participants who are directly involved and consequently the method is often more time consuming and requires a great deal of effort on the part of the researcher. The end product however, can be extremely rewarding. As scholar Jane Ritchie states, “ a significant element of the contribution qualitative methods can make is enlightening policy makers about the lives and experiences of those for whom policy is formulated “ (Slater, pp.111-12). Qualitative methods have been employed increasingly over more recent years in the field of Information Science and other disciplines. For areas of research that involve case studies and histories, individual reactions and social interaction, qualitative research methods can be an invaluable research tool.

4.3 Interview Methods and Critical Case Sampling.
The method of interview chosen was a semi-structured interview, which allowed for more digression and improvisation on behalf of the interviewer, but allowed the respondent a fair amount of scope to elucidate on a wide range of questions and themes. Aside from the pilot study, four face to face interviews were conducted with Digital Community Leaders in Yorkshire, which will be discussed in more detail in the respective case studies. In all cases, the interviews were carried out successfully, while the few hitches from the pilot study, such as secondary questions and whether to take notes or use a dictaphone, were no longer an issue that needed to be contended with.
In the pilot study, a dictaphone had been used to record the interview, but in the following interviews with digital community leaders, a decision was taken to take notes. This was so as not to inhibit the respondents and also so that the interviewer might make comments about any discernible body language or other miscellaneous points. As a consequence of discarding the dictaphone, it was found that the respondents appeared more open to discuss the questions at greater length and in a more relaxed fashion. Thus, it was easier for the interviewer to implement a series of secondary questions that came from the respondents’ desire to elaborate on certain questions.

4.4 E-mail Questionnaires.
Essentially, the decision was taken to interview Yorkshire Digital Community leaders and make use of homogenous sampling techniques through the use of an e-mail questionnaire, which was a structured model, but an otherwise identical format to the face to face interviews. To make a comparison between the digital communities in Yorkshire and other areas of England, e-mail questionnaires were sent to thirty-five digital communities across the country. These questionnaires were identical in all respects to the structured interview questions that were used during the face to face interviews. The e-mail addresses of the digital communities were obtained from the Communities.Org website (see bibliography), which is a leading source of information on digital communities in this country and abroad.

Of the thirty-five questionnaires, four were returned to the server with unknown addresses, which were double checked by the sender and found to be correct. This left thirty-one questionnaires, of which seven were returned completed, while the remaining questionnaires were not returned. Reasons for why the majority of questionnaires were not returned are difficult to surmise. Certainly, a fair proportion of the respondents probably decided that they did not have the time to complete the questionnaire, while others might have found certain questions difficult to understand or misleading. A certain proportion of the respondents who failed to respond might also have done so, because they have no particular interest in the project topic.

The percentage return of e-mail questionnaires is far higher however, than the majority of questionnaires sent by post, which may point to the accessibility of Information Technology, relating to the individual. Since social isolation in the Digital Community is one of the themes of the project, the high return from the e-mail questionnaires was extremely enlightening. Even more encouraging however, was that the returned e-mail questionnaires were filled with a wealth of information that could not have been obtained in a face to face interview, without a personal computer to hand. For example, several of the e-mail respondents had answered questions and then pasted a website reference to reinforce their answer, which gave the questionnaire greater scope and depth than was originally intended.

The e-mail questionnaires were of such a high quality and it was clear that the respondents had gone to some trouble and time to answer, that the decision was taken to use two of the questionnaire communities as case studies and use two of the face to face interviews, which had been conducted previously. This approach was taken, because it was important to examine Digital Communities that were representative of the United Kingdom as a whole. It was also important to ensure that different types of Digital Community were represented (see introduction to case studies) as befitted the definition given in the introduction.

While it should be made clear to the reader that no two digital communities in Britain are alike, there are broad characteristics that the majority of digital communities share. Therefore, the four digital communities that have been chosen for use in the case studies are considered to be representative of digital communities in this country at the turn of the new millennium.

Case Studies.
5.0 Introduction.
Since the nature of the project was to examine Digital Communities in the United Kingdom, the decision was taken to investigate four communities across Great Britain, which would give plenty of scope for comparisons between the respective projects. The Switched On project in Leeds was chosen primarily, because it gives a good example of a government funded Digital Community, whose primary goal is to re-educate the local community by teaching I.T. skills to the local community. The Southcote Digital Community is similar in this regard, but is also seeking to re-establish a traditional sense of community within the local area. Hebden Bridge Digital Community has no designs for teaching I.T. skills to the masses, but like Southcote, the Hebden site does seek to empower the community through local social and political issues, while the cultural elements of the Hebden site are perhaps its most alluring feature. Finally, the Caithness Digital Community in the Scottish Highlands, seeks to reduce the sense of geographical isolation by building an I.T. business that will involve the local community and revitalise the Highland town’s troubled economy.

5.1 Switched On, Leeds, W.Yorkshire (www.switched-onorg.uk)
The ‘Switched On…In The Community’ programme is an innovative digital community that is barely six months in progress and has recently gone online in the last month. The community itself is based in the city centre of Leeds and is primarily concerned with supporting young adults and their creative role in the present and future of the Internet. Through a careful process of collaboration with the public, private and community sectors, Switched On is seeking to actively promote the creative uses of Information and Communication Technologies by young people within the urban areas of Leeds, and attempting to develop an on-line community of young people who have the skills, ideas and facilities to initiate communication, content and profile in an I.T. environment. In the words of Lynne Connolly, a founder member of the Switched On Community site, the primary objectives of Switched On is to raise peoples expectations of themselves and to broaden the notion of community, thus presenting fresh opportunities that would not have been otherwise available.

Such a sentiment is echoed in the consultation procedure that was initiated on Switched On’s sister web site Pavilion (see www.pavilion.org.uk) . When the design of the Switched On community site was initiated, Pavilion successfully conducted a major consultation with 170 young people within 4 urban wards of Leeds to allow a wealth of input into the design of Switched O, over fifty percent of whom were from ethnic minorities. Indeed, the community site’s apparent attraction to the ethnic minorities of Leeds, who so often live in the less affluent areas of the city is mirrored by the project leader’s assertion that there are certain groups of people who are, at present, excluded from active participation in society and will be further disenfranchised through a lack of meaningful access to new technologies for creative, educational and employment purposes.

Perhaps in keeping with the heavy stress on the educational functions of the community project, Switched On does receive funding from a number of different bodies, such as the European Social Fund and the local county council. Perhaps more importantly, the range of Information Technology (I.T.) skills and courses that are taught to the participants of the Switched On project are recognised by several project champions, such as Leeds Training and Enterprise Council, Leeds College of Art & Design and the two Leeds universities.

Although the digital community has only been online for just over a month, Switched On has been running a variety of courses for underprivileged youngsters, between the ages of sixteen to twenty-five over the last six months. Initially, the first production and training courses were for more rudimentary I.T. skills such as e-mail and use of various computer packages. The next step was to move participants onto a concentrated I.T. course for ten weeks, with the end result concluding in the participant designing his or her own website.

Perhaps one of the most innovative aspects of the community project however, is the means by which the young participants initially signed up to the Switched On. When the digital community was still in its preliminary stages, Leeds City Council invited and encouraged young people from across the city to give the project a try, with encouraging results. As Lynne Connolly made clear, over half the participants of the project had no access to computers, while schools provided the main access to facilities and none of the participants had access to the Internet in their own homes.

What was made apparent, was that the majority of the young people involved in the project were enthusiastic about using the Internet and perceived that there was a real ‘value’ in being involved with I.T. technology. Lynne Connolly also suggested that although the project was geared towards teenagers and young adults, that it was only a lack of funding that prevented Switched On from seeking to attract older generations to the digital project. While there were people in housing projects who were unimpressed by the service that Switched On provided however, what was most surprising was that there was little participation from the disabled.

Indeed, this final point is a salient issue, since the disabled have much to gain from active participation in Information Technology and Digital Communities where the physical gulf between the able and disabled becomes something of a level playing field. It is clear however, that the Switched On digital community is actively seeking to re-establish the traditional links between the community and the individual. Not only is Switched On helping to train a vast number of individuals in I.T. skills, but it has also become the catalyst for drawing the various strands of society together in a common cause. The HSBC Group for example, donated 100 computers and is committed to the development of a long-term partnership with the Switched On project, which is partly funded by the city council. Plans have also been drawn into place for the Switched On ICT Business Liaison Co-ordinator to work alongside ICT/Internet design companies to develop ‘live’ projects and to offer placements for young participants of the Switched On project. Such initiatives can only help to enhance the participants’ employment prospects, while also enhancing the reputation of the digital community itself.

5.2 Hebden Bridge, W.Yorkshire (www.hebdenbridge.co.uk)
In a striking contrast to the Switched On project in Leeds, the Hebden Bridge Digital Community that is run by Chris Ratcliffe, does not seek to educate the local populace in the surrounding areas. The primary purpose of the Hebden site is to promote the local interests of the town to the outside world and to provide a key point of reference for the local inhabitants who reside there.

Known as the "Pennine Centre", Hebden Bridge takes its name from the Packhorse bridge over Hebden Water. In the eighteenth century, the town was heavily dependent on the textiles industry, but it was not until the Industrial revolution and the emergence of the railways and canals that Hebden Bridge began to grow significantly. Today, the textile industry no longer flourishes in the town and tourism is a major source of income for Hebden Bridge in the wake of a new millennium.

In a sense, the Hebden Digital Community relates to the tourist ethos, and any visitor to Hebden Bridge could not help but be impressed by the wealth of information that is available through the web site. The history of the town is just one of the many avenues that the user can explore when examining the site, while local figures of note, such as poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath share pride of place in the site index. The digital community does however, tackle serious issues that are prevalent to the local populace, such as the closure of the town cinema.

When the local council announced plans to close the cinema due to lack of funds, the Hebden Bridge Digital Community opened a number of notice boards and chat forums within the site, so that the local people could voice their opinions on the subject. There was substantial opposition to the closure of the cinema, which Chris Ratcliffe was able to direct towards the local newspaper and the council itself.There was a great response from the ex-residents of Hebden Bridge, who remained in touch with what has happening in Hebden Bridge through the Virtual Community website.

In fact, this is one way in which a Digital Community such as Hebden Bridge can actually provide a useful for the indigenous community and yet extend the borders of that community to farther afield. As Chris Ratcliffe was keen to state, rather than Information Technology heightening the peoples’ awareness of geographical isolation, Digital Communities can succeed in imbuing the individual with a feeling of self worth, since they can actively participate in a forum or chat room where their opinion counts, regardless of gender, race or social background.

This important point was one that Chris Ratcliffe was keen to consider when first setting up the Hebden Bridge Digital Community, five years before. For, unlike the Switched On digital site, Hebden Bridge is completely independent of external business interests and as Chris Ratcliffe stated, in relation to the Digital Community, “ we perceive ourselves as social entrepreneurs with a set of morals and loyalty to the community, environment and the arts “. For champions of the Digital Community phenomena, as Chris Ratcliffe undoubtedly is, it is this democratisation of Information Technology that is one of its most appealing qualities.

Essentially, the idea for the Hebden Bridge site lead from the webmaster’s intention to build a book publishing site on the Internet for local authors in the area and the digital community grew from there. Now, Chris Ratcliffe has every intention of extending the boundaries of the Hebden site, wishing for more interactivity to thrash out local issues, such as the recent closing of the cinema and also to hold an election forum in 2001. He also wants to extend the history site, with a view to offering the user audio and visual samples, while Chris would also prefer for the Hebden Bridge community to have more information input on local issues.

For the most part, Chris Ratcliffe is generally optimistic about the future of Digital Communities and Information Technology, but he does have some reservations. For example, if we take the Hebden Bridge guest book, about thirty five percent of the users who visit the site are women, which Chris Ratcliffe is keen to rectify. He is also of the opinion that while the Hebden bridge site may to some extent have brought the local community together, there are still disaffected groups in the community who have no access to Information Technology. Mr Ratcliffe is also concerned about the acceleration of advertising over the Internet over the last five years and is particularly worried about the danger of big business seeking to erode the marked independence of community websites such as Hebden Bridge and whether these small sites can hope to survive, if the equality of the Internet is compromised.

5.3 Southcote Information Technology Experience (SITE), Southcote, Berkshire,
The Hamlet of Southcote lies to the south-west of Reading in Berkshire and is a particularly interesting case study, since several comparisons can be drawn between Southcote and the previous case studies of Hebden Bridge and the Switched On project in Leeds. If a user were to access the Southcote Digital Community for the first time, one would undoubtedly notice the marked similarities between the Hebden Bridge site and Southcote. For, like the Hebden Bridge site, Southcote appears at first glance, to be an extension of the Hamlet, offering information on Southcote’s colourful history, local events and news, employment opportunities in the region and so forth. The major purpose of SITE however, is twofold.

As one of the Southcote administrators, Chris Swaine stated, the major purpose of the Southcote Digital Community is to help tackle social exclusion by providing FREE computer and Internet training to the local community, in an informal and supportive learning environment. Run by volunteers, SITE’s primary aim is to target those members of the community who have been, or are currently excluded from the opportunities that computers and the Internet can offer. Southcote Website (www.southcote.net) has been active since January 1999, while the SITE project itself (www.southcote.net/thesite.htm) has been up and running since 1st May 2000. SITE is located in Southcote Youth & Community Centre and is no more than 10 minutes walk from anywhere in Southcote, thereby making it a truly local facility.

Like the Hebden Bridge and the Switched On sites in Yorkshire, the primary objectives of the Southcote Digital Community are admirable. Through SITE, Chris Swaine and his team seek to tackle social exclusion, but also to promote the many advantages of Information Technology, such as online shopping, e-mail, and chat rooms. They also hope to ensure that all I.T. training is free, thus removing any barriers to learning, while placing special emphasis on attracting those members of the community who might be disabled, alone or elderly. In one sense, Southcote hopes to ensure that its users will gain the facility to communicate and interact with others, such as family and friends, while in a more practical capacity, SITE aims to give people the skills and confidence to apply successfully for jobs.

What is also similar to the Hebden Bridge site, is that Southcote’s administrators are working with limited resources and a small budget, with little help from local businesses. Unlike the Hebden Bridge site however, SITE has attempted to attract funding from local businesses and been met with indifference. Ironically, the original funding for the Southcote project came from the company Microsoft, who donated thirty five thousand pounds to Reading Borough Council. Southcote submitted a bid to the council and was successful and was also given a fifteen hundred-pound community grant from Reading Council to assist in the running of the facility.

Since then however, Southcote’s vain attempts to involve local businesses involved have failed dramatically. In June of last year for example, Southcote hosted a ‘Business in the Community’ ‘Seeing is believing’ visit, for local businesses to come and view the project and to donate sums of money if they so wished. The ‘Business in the Community’ visit was however unsuccessful, with less than two hundred pounds donated to the site as a consequence of the ‘Business’ initiative.

To help generate income, SITE runs a café three times a week to coincide with the cybercafe mornings, which generates a small amount of income, while additional functions such as community discos and jumble sales are also organised to generate more revenue. The SITE facility is also hired out to local schools on a Wednesday morning, as part of an LEA set-up for young people who have been excluded from school, which generates about ten pounds a week during term time.

In relation to ethnic minorities, Southcote is just starting to attract members from the Asian and Black communities, but like Hebden Bridge, the ethnic-minority population in Southcote is very small. However, Chris Swaine is keen to encourage ethnic minorities to participate in the project, regardless of age, gender or skin colour.

What is particularly interesting about the Southcote project however, is the high concentration of men and women over the age of fifty five who use the site, while women appear to form the majority in terms of gender. The section of the community that appears to be least attracted by SITE’s service are younger adults in their late teens and twenties, particularly males, which seems somewhat strange considering the digital community’s physical location, which is a youth and community centre. Despite the lack of funding and the apparent indifference of the local businesses however, Chris Swaine is still optimistic about the future of I.T. and the Digital Community. He believes that it will provide another mechanism to negotiate the traditional social barriers and allow individuals to interact with the local community, rather than remain isolated and alone.

5.4 Caithness, Highland, Scotland (www.caithness.org)
Caithness is a town in the Scottish highlands, and may rightly lay claim to being the one of the most isolated geographical communities in the British Isles. Traditionally, Caithness has relied heavily on farming and the fishing industries as its chief means of employment for the local populace, but with high unemployment in the region, the prospects for the majority of the populace appear bleak.

Through the creation of the Caithness Digital Community however, project leader Bill Fernie is attempting to re-educate the people of Caithness, while also seeking to create a competitive I.T. business that supersedes geographical location. Bill Fernie’s business initiative focussed on training local people to build web sites and open up access to the Internet for the populace of Caithness and surrounding areas. The intention is to establish a business that will eventually train and employ a percentage of disabled people and become part-training company and part normal business venture. The Caithness project has been running for eighteen months and it is Bill Fernie’s intention that the project should be self-supporting within three years of inception.

In fact, the Caithness Digital Community is already a good indication of the resolve of the local people to ensure the success of the venture. As Bill Fernie states,
Caithness.org is able to put up lots of information and make it available to the local community and everyone else around the world, offering services to local groups that they could not afford to purchase. Recently, the Caithness site had a great deal of success when it published photos of a local Gala, which tripled the number of hits on the website to nearly four thousand. Aside from helping to promote the local area in terms of tourism, which can only be good for the local community, the digital community is also helping a number of churches and other organisations to get their existence publicised. The group newsletters that the digital community is publishing on a weekly basis are also beginning to gain a wider audience.

In relation to the people who use the site, it appears that males between thirty and forty five years of age make up the heaviest concentration, although interest from women is also high. The women of Caithness appear to be initially more adept at learning I.T. skills, but the project leader believes that this is because a local call centre has employed a lot of local women over the last two years and that this is driving up the use of computers in the local female population. Once again, older men beyond the age of sixty appear to be embracing the new technology in a similar manner to which the pensioners of Southcote seem to emulate. Older women of comparable age in Caithness however, appear to be indifferent to the services offered, while Bill Fernie is attempting to encourage poorer sections of the community to participate in the project by putting computers in local stores in the area, which connect to the Caithness web site, so that information is more accessible. The problem however, is that these machines are not manned, so it requires some knowledge on behalf of the user for any benefit to be gained from the exercise.

Nevertheless, interest in the Caithness project appears to be on the increase. In the short time that the Caithness project has been running, Bill Fernie and his project team have built the largest database of local information that is currently available on the Internet. As a consequence, many agencies are now using the Caithness site as their primary information source, while the photography that has been published on the Community web site is proving to be extremely successful.

Perhaps what is most interesting about the Caithness site however, is that the lack of any real capital has meant that labour is provided on the basis of exchange, which means that Caithness gets its work done and its volunteer work force gets I.T. training. Incredibly, the training for all volunteer recruits from day one is on the live web site, which means that the local community gets to see the mistakes, developments and improvements on the site, which may sound a novel concept, but the agreement between the two parties appears to be working remarkably well and it would be interesting to see if other Digital Communities follow suit.

Primary Research
6.0 Introduction.
At the beginning of the twenty first century, the United Kingdom is currently making provisions for the wonders of the Information Society and the dawning of a new technological age that is fast approaching. The Information Society is the coined phrase that is used by so-called information professionals to describe the technological revolution that is currently transforming information-rich nation states such as the United States, France and Great Britain. Indeed, it is the dissemination of information to its many users, which is of primary importance. For, without the relevant knowledge to access the computer networks and the relevant tuition to learn how to operate it, there is the distinct possibility that a section of Britain’s populace might lose out in this new technological age that so many information scientists have predicted.

As Haywood reveals, “ there is much evidence that…UK workers are less skilled on average than those in the rest of Europe…that they also lack the general skills obtained from basic education that are necessary for further training “ (Haywood, 1995, p.250). This worrying claim is one, which the current Labour government appears to be taking very seriously. On the official government website, Number 10 (1999), the British Prime Minister Tony Blair stated quite categorically that three hundred million pounds would be spent on training to help update their I.T. skills, while the government aimed to ensure that the majority of pupils would be computer literate by the year 2002.

The present government’s affirmation that the U.K is currently experiencing an information revolution appears tremendously exciting for those who can consider themselves information-rich, but is a worrying prospect for the information underclass who have little or no I.T. skills to draw upon. This information underclass, or what Manuel Castells refers to as “ Fourth World “ citizens, face an uncertain future (Castells, 1998, p.357). For, whatever else the future holds, the U.K’s manufacturing industries are losing out to an increasing number of competitors overseas, particularly in south-east Asia and China. These latter regions are where the manufacturing capitals of the next century are likely to be based, while future British governments look set to place particular emphasis on the service and leisure industries of this country, replacing the more traditional manufacturing industries of the past.

Information experts such as Castells and Haywood also predict that there will be ‘enforced’ leisure time for the individual, and fewer opportunities to engage in full time employment, with a steady increase of part time employment across the service and leisure industries, that will rely heavily on information literate employees. Yet, despite the realisation that the U.K is experiencing the advent of a new technological era, the local communities are intent on doing their utmost to ensure that they can keep up with the rapid pace of the Information age. The Virtual or Digital Communities are a primary means by which the communities of Britain are attempting to achieve this goal, but can the Digital Community maintain the traditional links between the community and the individual? Or is Castells and Haywood’s pessimistic vision of an information underclass a foregone conclusion?

6.1 Disaffected Groups and Social Divisions.
To begin with, we shall attempt to analyse and identify the disaffected groups who feel isolated or intimidated by Information Technology. Part of the problem, as most Information scientists would agree, is that there is still a palpable lack of I.T. provision in the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. As scholar Dave Carter argues, using electronic highways as an I.T. metaphor:
“ while the ‘superhighways’ are being constructed, there are not enough ‘slip-roads’
being built, there are virtually no ‘cars’, let alone public transport, in mass production
and insufficient ‘driving lessons’ available in order to support people in exploiting the
opportunities which the ‘superhighway’ offers in terms of speed and capacity “
(Loader, 1997, p.138).
Such an observation would appear to be accurate, since Information Technology has advanced at such a quickening pace, that it is difficult even for Information scientists to keep pace with developing technology.

Nevertheless, while some blame may be attributed to a lack of I.T. provision in this country, Digital and Virtual Communities around the world are reliant on the local community utilising that technology and learning to control it. As an example, Blacksburg, Virginia, U.S.A. is home to a digital community has been online for over five years and has been an incredible success, claiming the coveted title of America’s most wired town.

More than half the population of Blacksburg are connected to the Internet and this has enhanced their lives in a number of ways, such as the ordering of shopping online, viewing the local art gallery in your own living room, or discovering what time the next dance meeting is on the dance group’s home page. Such an experiment might appear to be a distant vision, in relation to the U.K., but it is not Information Technology or the Digital Communities that are at fault here. In most case, the British Digital Communities offer just as many services and options as their American equivalents. What can be criticised however, is that not enough is being done by the government and local councils across the U.K. to publicise the Digital Communities as a serious I.T. venture.

6.2 Community Support.
If we return to the Blacksburg experiment, there are several recommendations that could be applied to ensure that the traditional links between the community and the individual are maintained in the Cyberspace environment. One of the most apparent reasons for Blacksburg’s success, for example, is the clear Community support that hails from all segments of the population in the American town. From the findings that were collected as part of the primary research, it is clearly evident that is not the case in any of the Digital Communities in the U.K.

If we take Shipley in West Yorkshire as an example, women over the age of thirty to pensioner age are well represented as users of the Digital Community, while older participants of seventy and over are also well represented. There is however, little active participation from teenagers or from men in their forties and early fifties, despite heavy unemployment in the region, due to the decline of local industry, or perhaps because of it. When project leader Paul North was asked about why this was the case, he felt that it was because most unemployed men in Shipley over the age of forty believed the Digital Community had nothing useful to offer and did not want to admit that they lacked the type of skills that Shipley’s Digital Community was keen to provide.

Shipley is not alone in this apparent indifference to their services. Virtually every digital community that was examined, either appealed to teenagers and young adults or mature adults and pensioners, or strongly favoured one gender over the other. Neither are these findings particularly surprising. As Kollock and Smith claim in Communities in Cyberspace, due to the lack of any physical markers in Cyberspace, it was naturally assumed that social categories such as race, gender, status and age would prove irrelevant (Smith, 1999, p.10). In terms of Digital Community participation in the U.K. such findings would appear to prove otherwise. Nevertheless, one means by which a Digital Community might ensure social equality is by basing the project in a public library or a place of learning where community network education is of primary importance.

6.3 Public Libraries as a Focal Point for the Digital Community
As an example, we should examine the Trimden 2000 project in County Durham. This community project is one of the Labour government’s flagships for the development of the Digital community. Trimden lies in Tony Blair’s constituency and suffers from high unemployment, due to the decline in the mining industry that was prevalent in this specific region. What is most interesting however, is that the digital community is run by the local villagers of the parish at the central library and not only seeks to educate the local community to become information literate, but also to rediscover the sense of lost purpose in the community.

In contrast to many other digital communities, the number of local people participating in the Trimden 2000 is relatively high and there is a fair representation of all age groups and genders. Essentially, this is because the public library is able to act as a primary focal point for the community, not only online, but in a physical and geographical sense. It also ensures that I.T. provision is available to the entire community, so that all sections of society in the village are represented. If we take the Southcote Digital Community in Berkshire as an example, the physical site for the project is based in a youth centre, which might not attract all sectors of the community, since it probably lacks the funds to heavily promote its presence and intentions to the local population. In many cases, there may be a wide range of potential participants in the Southcote district, who are simply not aware of the digital community’s existence.

Shipley Digital Community in West Yorkshire finds itself in a similar position, but this project does at least stretch across a number of community centres in the area. Since the Shipley project places a strong emphasis on the educational elements of the Digital Community, Paul North and his associates have also been able to extend a drop in service at schools around the region. This facility allows parents to take their children to school and then enter a classroom and log onto a computer, which is readily available and convenient. As the cases of Blacksburg and Trimden highlight however, the public library appears well suited to being the primary focal point for this type of project. In addition to the salient points that have already been mentioned, a public library should, in theory, be able to successfully compete for funding from a host of possible sources. This leads us onto the question of funding as a whole, since some digital communities have chosen to be self financing in order to preserve their own independence, while other digital communities have trodden a more conventional path.

6.4 The Question of Funding.
It is clearly evident from the case studies alone, that no two digital communities are alike. In fact, while some are designed purely for educational purposes, there are others that simply wish to put the local community on the map, or ensure that the respective community is represented in the Virtual environment. The question of funding is however, a primary focus for contention for all concerned, particularly the digital communities whose main emphasis is focussed on educational needs. As is argued in The Wired Neighbourhood, “progress towards an equitable Information Age will not be measured by the number of people we can make dependent upon the Internet…It will be measured by the number of local systems we can build, using local resources, to meet local needs” (Doheny-Farina, 1996, p.125).

While Doheny-Farina’s argument provides an accurate summary of Information provision across Europe and the United States, what it fails to take into account is how external influences such as the government or big business might affect or influence the Digital Community in its infancy. As an example, let us examine the Kirkstall Digital Community, which was primarily designed by Matthew Guy and his associates to promote the local history, ideas and local businesses. Everything on the site is done on a tiny budget and in the creators’ spare time, which as Mr Guy states, is “ part of the beauty and democracy of the Internet ”. When approached by the Morrisons supermarket chain and offered a fair amount of sponsorship, Matthew Guy turned the offer down, because it was felt that Morrisons supermarkets did not truly represent the local community and they were generally suspicious of any involvement from big businesses. This is a notable point, since it is possible that the role of the individual in the Digital Community could be compromised by overt influence or interference from an external source.

In a similar comparison, the Hebden Bridge and Glastonbury sites also prefer to remain independent of external funding. In Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, Chris Ratcliffe considers that he has a commitment to the community to ensure that the digital community remains independent. Like the Kirkstall site, Chris Ratcliffe funds the Hebden Bridge digital community by shop window advertisements for the design of web pages, while the Hebden site also advertises web directory listings, for which patrons of the site pay a small maintenance fee.

In digital communities such as the Switched On project and the Shipley Digital Community in Yorkshire, both of which seek to provide I.T. skills for the local community, funding from a number of external sources is an integral part of the process, if the projects’ service is to benefit as many people as possible. Both the Switched On and Shipley digital sites benefit from a number of funding sources, such as the European Social Fund and local council grants. Such monies do not come with certain conditions however. In the case of the Shipley Digital Community, Paul North and his associates have to show evidence to the European Social Fund that a certain amount of people in the region are gaining new I.T. skills, which can be utilised in practical working conditions as a direct result of Shipley’s I.T. initiatives.

6.5 Working with External Organisations.
Like Shipley and the Switched On project in Leeds, Manchester’s Digital City project is also seeking to empower the local community. In the search for funding however, Manchester has sought out the assistance of the City Council, the local universities, the voluntary sectors of the community information services and local businesses, in order to attract greater economic activity and to maximise access to the Internet.

The purpose of Manchester’s Digital project is ambitious and wide-ranging, seeking to provide “ training, advice and technical support and develop new employment opportunities through support for tele-working and electronic trading networks “ (Loader, 1997, p.144). Indeed, MCIN offers a wide variety of links to such services as housing, disabled support, business services and sports and recreation. There is also a wide range of education opportunities available, while provision has been made for a wide range of cultural initiatives, such as the Bangladesh House Telematics and Telework Centre.

One of the problems that MCIN faces is how to prevent an Information underclass in its own backyard, if the Manchester Digital City can truly be said to represent the people of the city and reach its full potential. It is a dilemma however, that many information and social scientists have considered, and the majority seem to consider that a divide between an information underclass and the information literate is an inevitable occurrence. As Frank Webster proclaims, “ the prospect for the ‘ informational city’ is one of increasingly marked social disparities. As the ‘global city’ consolidates its position as a centre of information management and control…so does it create the ‘duel city’ that is marked by exceedingly sharp class polarisations “ (Webster, 1995, p.204). Such an argument is far from conclusive however, and the major dilemma that faces the leaders of the Digital communities across the United Kingdom is how to battle against the apathy and indifference that is sure to surface amongst the Information underclass, if the benefits of Information Technology do not become clearly apparent in the next few years.

In fact, the Manchester Digital Community gives a good example of how the majority of digital communities in the U.K. are seeking to collaborate with external sources, in order to provide a better service to the community. However, it is generally perceived that one of the purposes of a digital community is to link that community with the outside world. With a smaller digital community such as Kirkstall or Trimden, this is an important factor in the digital community’s creation, but through the case studies and interviews, there is evidence to suggest that a smaller community is more assertive in maintaining its sense of identity. If we take Kirkstall as an example, Matthew Guy stated quite categorically that the main purpose of the digital community as he interpreted it, was to publicise and promote the local issues of the community.

For larger digital cities, such as Manchester or Newcastle (see NewNet), more is at stake. Most people in the U.K. for example will at least know that the cities of Manchester and Newcastle exist, but this is not necessarily the case with a small digital community such as Trimden or Caithness. For cities and towns, one of the primary advantages of a digital community is that it may attract big business and employment to the city, so the digital community must be approachable. In future years, digital community might actually become the primary reference point for foreign companies or employers, who are seeking to relocate to the U.K. It seems logical therefore, that digital cities such as Manchester (see MCIN) and Newcastle’s NewNet digital community work with and involve local businesses in the region.

For the individual’s role in the Digital Community, collaboration with external organisations may well become a positive factor in years to come. As Dave Carter argues, the concept of the Digital Community must cross over into the mainstream, before representative structures and global capitalism begin to dominate and transform what are essentially philanthropic ventures in the first instance:
“ the essential starting point must…be a commitment to creating services and
applications that are easy and cheap to use, that grab people’s interest and imagination
so that they want to use them and that , having used them, they become part of their
lives enough that they would fight any attempt to limit them or take them away “
(Jordan, 1997, p.151).
This is a crucial point and one, which is currently being addressed by digital communities across the country in some shape or form. As an example, Cambridge Online City is an initiative that was originally established by the Labour Member of Parliament in 1995. The main reason for this initiative, as stated by the Cambridge Online project leader, was to increase access to public information through the use of the Internet. In the five years since its creation however, the Cambridge project has flourished and is now considering adopting sponsors and advertising as a means to expand the digital site. The Southcote Digital Community (SITE) has also recognised the need for sponsorship but having failed to attract local businesses to the project, Chris Swaine and his team is seeking alternative sources of funding.

6.6 So What Does the Future Hold for the Digital Community?
One of the problems that face Information Scientist when researching technological phenomenon such as the Digital Community, is that no-one can quite predict what will happen over the next twenty years in I.T.. Such is the technological rate of development in our society that it is quite possible that our only contact with personal computers as we know them today will be in a museum twenty years from now.

The future of the Digital Community is equally confusing, since it is a relatively new concept, but all of the Digital Community leaders interviewed, were unanimous in the belief that the Digital Community will continue to gain public support and evolve at a steady pace. As futurologist David Greenop states “ the focal idea of the Digital Community is to engender a new type of partnership between all stakeholders in the local community “ (Greenop, 1999). Indeed, such an opinion is widely supported amongst the number of Digital Community project leaders who were interviewed. As an example, The Community Leader of the Switched On project, Lynne Robinson, stated that the Digital Community will complement existing institutions, but over time, there will more complex networks and links with groups online. Like the majority of Digital Community Leaders, Ms Robinson believed there will always be a need for personal face to face human interactions, but her belief in the power of Information Technology as a means to advance human communication was quite clearly evident.

As Matthew Guy from the Kirkstall Digital site also declared, one of the advantages of Digital technologies such as the Digital Community is that it allows people from a variety of social backgrounds to communicate over great distances and form Digital Communities that are based on common interests, such as American Football, the poetry of Sylvia Plath (see the Hebden Bridge website), or something more serious like an unusual illness. In fact, the potential of the Digital Community is enormous, but it still requires people to take advantage of Information Technology, so that Digital Communities and their users will become the norm, rather than the exception. This is why projects such as the Shipley Digital Site, Caithness and Switched On are so important. For, as a means to empowerment, information technology might succeed in re-invigorating the community and the individual with a sense of self-worth and fulfilment, but it is reliant on the Digital Communities and the present government to fulfil their pledges, in order for the potential of community information networks to succeed in the Information Age.

There is no doubt that information technology bears great potential in empowering the ordinary citizen, but it is still uncertain as to how this new technology will develop and at what pace. As social scientist Yoneji Masuda argues, “ it is not the forecasting of the state of a future information society, but our own choice that is decisive…we cannot allow the computer…to be used for the destruction of the spiritual life of mankind “ (Burton, 1992, p.vii). It is clear however, that information technology could prove to be a godsend for people with special needs, such as the elderly and disabled, low-income families and for those who live in rural and inner-city areas and regions where local government services and transport are negligible.

Information technology can empower ordinary people and their communities, but it requires a concerted effort from all those concerned, including the participants who are bound to gain from the communities various initiatives. Only time will tell, as to whether all sections of the British public will seek to take advantage of the new Information revolution, or whether those individuals and organisations that influence its development will seek only to utilise information technology for their own gain, rather than ensuring that I.T. is available to all sections of society. The commitment displayed by the project leaders of the Digital Communities that were interviewed is encouraging however, and as the I.T. skills of the British people develop over coming years, interaction within the realms of a digital community may become as widespread and popular as the use of electronic mail as a means of communication.

7.0 Conclusions.
By analysing and examining the respective literature and case studies, it is clear that the Digital Community may have a prevalent role to play in maintaining the traditional links between the individual and the community. As we have discovered in the case studies and the primary research, there is clear evidence that the digital communities are placing a particular emphasis on educating their local populations in respective I.T. skills. As the project leaders of the Caithness Digital Community would no doubt argue, such skills may in time help many people in the local community to find jobs, but the main benefactor of the Digital Community is the de-facto community itself.

As social scientist T.S. Eisenschitz claims, “ education teaches us how to think and to reason through a decision. This entails an appreciation of communal belief: what is one’s place in society and obligation to others? “ (Tamara S. Eisenschitz, 1993, p.95). Eisenschitz’ statement bears great merit, for what is the point of creating an excellent virtual community from scratch, if the general public remains ignorant of its existence, or lacks the relevant I.T. skills to access the site. Digital communities across the country are taking this consideration seriously and that is why a high proportion of the digital communities in the U.K. offer a wide range of free I.T. classes, ranging from the use of electronic mail and Microsoft packages to more complex web design skills, such as H.T.M.L and Javascript.

For those individuals who are already ‘I.T. conversant’, the vast opportunities for social interaction appear endless. There is however, much discussion amongst Information and Social scientists about whether social interaction over the Internet is necessarily a good thing. Does it for example, divert the individual’s attention from the more mundane and extraordinary aspects of everyday life? Such an accusation may have some merit, but it is likely that the Digital Community and the Internet are mere means of escapism, not dissimilar to watching a movie or reading a book.

It is plainly evident from the findings of the literature review that the majority of scholars in the field of Information Science, consider social exclusion of online individuals to be a relatively minor concern. While the underlying argument of escapism on the Internet and the Digital Community is validated, it is clearly evident that the majority of sources reviewed consider the social implications of the Digital Community to be more far reaching in scope.
Social exclusion cannot take place, so it is argued, in a Virtual environment where the traditional social precepts no longer apply. In a sense, the patent equality of the Digital Community is something which even scholar and historian Karl Marx might have approved of, if it could be arranged so that all of the world’s population could have access to I.T. technology, which will probably never happen. Essentially, it must be stressed that finding friends or people with similar likes to you in Cyberspace is far easier than in ‘real life’. All that is required for the individual is to find areas or interests that he or she has in common with other like-minded individuals. They do not have to worry about how to dress, while the socio-economic background is irrelevant over the Internet. All that is required is the rudimentary use of certain computer packages and the individual can speak to whomever he or she wishes.
The question of identity in the Virtual Community appears to be somewhat vague and confusing in comparison. While one of the obvious attractions towards communication online is that the individual can try out new identities, such novel concepts of role-playing do not bode well in relation to social isolation. An argument could be put forward for example, that the transformation of identity in the Virtual Community does not help the individual in dealing with ‘real life’ relationships. If anything, it can only serve to isolate the individual still further from making contact with like-minded people in ‘real life’.

The likelihood is however, that such concerns of social isolation in the ‘real’ world, as a direct consequence of prolonged time spent over the Internet are unfounded and exaggerated. As scholar Heather Bromberg states
‘ if someone is spending a large portion of their time being sociable with people who
live thousands of miles away, you can’t say they’re turned inward. They aren’t shunning
society. They’re actively seeking it. They’re probably doing it more actively than
anyone around them ‘ (Shields, p.147).

Bromberg’s argument makes some valid points and her views are in accordance with the Digital Community Project Leaders interviewed, who would argue that I.T. technology has given birth to a wide ranging form of social interaction. Nevertheless, the barrier that prevents us from answering this question in relation to the Digital Community is simply that the Digital Community and Information Technology in general, is still in its infancy.

The majority of I.T. scholars and scientists can only speculate as to how Information Technology will evolve over the next twenty years. Thus, the Digital Community is something of an enigma in the midst of the I.T. revolution, with Information professionals unsure whether the Digital Community is little more than a footnote in I.T. history or a precursor to a new information age (see Blacksburg). What is certain however, is that the government of the day must ensure that the population of Britain becomes ‘information rich’ in I.T. skills. This can be achieved through promoting and funding digital communities across the country, so that cities, villages and towns are all given the opportunity to participate in the I.T. phenomenon that is becoming a part of everyday life for millions of people across the world.

As Information Technology develops, so more job opportunities in I.T. will become available and the Digital Communities could become an integral part of the government’s objective in training the British workforce in I.T. skills. In conclusion then, the Digital Community has the potential to maintain the traditional links between the individual and the community, but for the Digital Community to prosper, it needs the full co-operation of external organisations such as the government and local businesses to ensure that it reaches its full potential. The Digital Community may be the best means of re-educating the masses in Information Technology, while offering the ‘real’ community an opportunity to maintain its own identity over the Internet and in the ‘real’ world. It is the democratisation of the Internet that may ensure a niche for the individual and the community, as the evolution of the Digital Community and Information Technology continues ever onwards.

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9.0 Appendix


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