Governments around the world are struggling for a meaningful role in the information age. Until recently it was clear-cut.
Individuals and companies paid taxes to the government, who used the money to look after the country, its people and national resources. In democratic countries decisions are mostly made by elected officials.
The internet undermines this role by allowing individuals access to large amounts of information enabling them to make decisions previously reserved for government bureaucrats.
The 1989 “Velvet Revolution” that swept through the former Czechoslovakia and eastern Europe was driven by students with an ability to communicate. The students used modems to establish electronic bulletin boards where messages were posted to co-ordinate activities throughout the country.
This informal communication network was used to circulate manifestos, declarations of solidarity, rumours, and riot news. Unrest grew steadily and by mid-November, the communist regime was displaced from government by, among others, an online community.
In a similar way the internet now makes it possible to create virtual communities that have no particular geographic location but stand together as a force to be reckoned with.
The Harvard Business Review is one of numerous publications that proposes the online community as the route to commercial success on the internet. The internet however, has much more going for it than commercial success.
Individuals around the globe are using the internet to group together and improve aspects of their lives which their governments have been ineffective in addressing.
Environmental activists on five continents work together in online communities to combat industrialists flouting environmental laws. Teachers exchange lesson plans with colleagues rather than waiting for new ideas to be fed down from government education departments and parents debate the best way to raise their children.
One of the best examples of an online community is the WELL. The pioneering work of Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant resulted in the foundation of the Whole Earth Lectronic Link or WELL in 1985. Initially the WELL started as a dialogue between the fiercely creative and independent writers and readers of the Whole Earth Review, but has in recent years grown into numerous communities and interest groups.
Founded in San Francisco and now scattered around the world on internet servers, the WELL, with in excess of 10 000 members from all parts of the globe, is a valuable role model for internet communities.
On Monday, 26 June 1995, Time magazine published a cover story about the proliferation of pornography on the internet. The story was based on the unpublished research of Martin Rimm, a 30 year old electrical engineering undergraduate at Carnegie-Mellon University.
Members of the WELL community heard about the story before it was published and being concerned that the research had not been exposed to the necessary amount of academic peer review, decided to do something about it.
The community conducted their own research which disputed Rimm’s and eventually led to Philip Elmer-DeWitt, senior editor at Time Magazine and author of the story, admitting that he did not conduct sufficient “journalistic due diligence” before publishing the article.
The online community at the WELL were instrumental in highlighting the inaccuracies of the article. This in turn has affected the internet censorship debate in the United States.
The internet allows us to create communities such as the WELL with relative ease. Improved communications allow us to be in contact with like-minded persons anywhere in the world.
As individuals grouped together in virtual communities, we have more power over our destinies than ever before. It is up to us to exercise this power and govern our own lives rather than wait for someone to do it for us.