Community Networks and Political Participation:
Developing Goals for System Developers

Kimberly Gregson
School of Library and Information Science, Indiana University
written for 1997 annual ASIS proceedings - May 1997


24 participants designed and created projects for a local community network related to a political issue that interested them. It was determined that even politically active respondents did not directly transfer their level of activism from real world to the digital. People with little Internet experience needed training and experience online before they began to discuss more active forms of participation that they could do on a community network.


It seems to be taken as a given in the literature on community networks that they have a positive effect on many aspects of community life including political participation. A report by the Center for Civic Networking predicts that these networks can revitalize civic institutions and decrease bureaucracy and can increase informed political decision making and community building. by providing arenas for discussion and debate on important issues before elections. These discussions are how people share their views and develop tolerance for views other than their own. (Civille, Fidelman, Altobello, 1993) Beamish (1995) identifies improving democracy as one general goal of community networks, accomplished by creating a more informed citizenry with access to more types of information. Schuler (1994) identifies increased civic participation as a possible good that can come from community networks. He includes an entire chapter in his recent book (1996) on the ability of community networks to enhance political participation and so strengthen democracy by providing another way for citizens to communicate with government officials and to access government information. However, there is little research on how these networks accomplish this goal.

This paper reports on a project designed to develop hypotheses for future study on the effectiveness of community networks in affecting political participation and a set of research-informed suggestions for community network developers. The existing research does not answer several interesting questions.

The project demonstrates that these networks can have a positive effect on political participation in a community, especially if the network provides training, development tools, and models of appropriate behavior.

The first part of the paper presents a review of the literature on political participation, using the Internet to increase political participation, community networks, and how these networks can be used to increase political participation. The second part describes the project's design and participants. The final section discusses the findings, suggestions for developers of community network developers, and concludes with ideas for further research.


Verba & Nie (1987) define participation as "activities by private citizens that are more or less directly aimed at influencing the selection of governmental personnel and/or the actions they take." (p. 2) Conway (1985) defines it similarly as "activities of citizens that attempt to influence the structure of government, the selection of government authorities, or the politics of government. These activities either may be supportive of the existing politics, authorities, or structure, or they may seek to change any or all of these." (p.2) Few people in the United States do more than just vote, and, with each election, fewer people are doing even. Verba & Nie (1987) found that 72% of eligible voters voted in the national election but only 47% participated in local elections. Only 15% of their survey participants engaged in two types of political participation. Very few did more than two. This low level of participation has been accepted as normal by some theories of democracy. (Pateman, 1970) Increased participation by groups in society that may not share the same values and norms as the majority can cause discord and decrease system stability. Participation, in this view, should be limited to elections; citizens can control their leaders by voting them out of office, but they should not make any efforts to influence policy between elections. Pateman (1970) argues for a higher level of political participation by all groups in society because political participation serves to educate citizens about interests above and beyond their own personal interests. To increase political participation, citizens need training in democracy in other spheres of their lives, such as education and employment. As participation increases, people feel a stronger sense of belonging to the community and of support for the political system. In this respect participation creates a self-sustaining political system. It is this positive view of participation that is expressed in the goals and mission statements of the community networks.

Participation can be divided into several types: active versus passive, conventional versus unconventional, symbolic versus instrumental. (Conway, 1985) Active participation can include voting, writing letters to government officials, working on a campaign by donating time and/or money to a candidate. Passive participation can include being aware of political issues, attending ceremonies or other meetings supportive of the government, following political campaigns, and being aware of government actions and decisions. The examples in both of these categories also are examples of conventional participation. These types of activities are accepted by the existing government and the majority political culture as appropriate. Unconventional activities might be legal but are not considered appropriate, such as participating in a protest march. Illegal unconventional means of participation include burning draft cards, bombing government buildings, and repressing other people's participation. Symbolic participation serves to strengthen people's belief in the legitimacy of the government and includes saluting the flag and singing the national anthem. The citizen does not expect to receive benefits from the actions. Instrumental participation is active participation motivated by the citizen's desire for a specific personally rewarding outcome and includes voting based on a candidate's stated stand on a specific issue that personally affects the citizen such as capital gains tax cuts or the draft or local zoning issues. (Conway, 1985)

People participate or not for different reasons. People with specific individual needs will contact government officials to get their needs taken care of. People with fewer unmet social and economic needs have little need to be involved in politics. Participation activities are not all equal; they have different opportunity costs for citizens. Citizens with limited time or financial resources may not be able to participate as much as they would like. Some people have been brought up with attitudes that support political participation or they are in social situations, such as being members of service organizations, where some types of political participation are expected. The use of direct mail to solicit funds, organized "get out the vote," and voter registration drives is increasing. The media's coverage or lack of coverage of certain topics and their endorsements of candidates can stimulate citizen interest in elections. An election perceived as close will generate more interest and participation because voters think that their vote really counts. (Nimmo & Ungs, 1967; Conway, 1985)


Community networks are computer bulletin boards or internet based systems, increasingly delivered using the World Wide Web (WWW). The developers focus on the local - local users, locally driven content, local issue forums, local services, and they often emphasize communication within the community. (Odasz, 1996; Reid, 1994) Community networks usually strive to increase access among underserved groups within the community by providing low-cost memberships, free-use public terminals, training, and the ability to start discussions and put up web pages at no cost. However, they are not just internet service providers, and instead may offer only text access to dial up customers. This encourages development of local internet businesses that can support community network users as their need for access deepens. (Beamish, 1995; Schuler, 1996)

Much of the existing literature on community networks are reports comparing several networks. ( Avis, 1995 ; Beamish, 1995; Bonchek, 1995; Geffert, 1993; Guy, 1991; Lunin, 1994; Maciuscko, 1990; Molz, 1994 ) These works give the reader an idea of the types of models used for organizing the networks but with out the detail necessary to draw conclusions about the reasons for success or failure of a particular network. The articles do point out some of the difficulties in working with these networks. Molz (1994) observes that "the networks have no consistent method of counting [their users]" (p. 54) Geffert discusses the implementation of a Freenet in a specific library. The success or failure of the project depended more on the attitudes of the library staff than it did the merits of the community network. Other work, such as those by out-spoken supporters of community networks such as Doug Schuler and Steve Cisler, are even more general and discuss their potential for many positive effects in economics, education, as well as political participation with examples but not research results. (Cisler,1995; Schuler, 1996)

Not every web site or BBS about a city is a community network. Commercial sites that merely provide information about the business are not community networks. A community network might include these sites if the members of the community believed that there was a need to know about these businesses. Networks established by city governments to make it easier and more cost efficient for them to broadcast information to citizens are not necessarily community networks. Their content may be local but if the decision on what to post is not driven by community needs but rather by bureaucratic interests, then it is not a community network.

HoosierNet currently claims the position of the local community network. It was created by local representatives from social service agencies such as United Way, and by representatives from the local business community such as the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce. HoosierNet's goals include providing access to a variety of local, state, and national organizations and information, to e-mail service, and to the Internet so that Bloomington's citizens become more informed and more connected with each other and with other Internet users. (HoosierNet, 1996) However, it has a small subscriber base, limited content, no membership directory or other means for users to find each other, and no local forums or discussion groups. It serves primarily as a tool for local social service agencies, the primary funding source, to communicate with each other and to electronically publish agency descriptions and manuals. No training is available through HoosierNet for users or for content providers.

Many community networks include as a goal in their mission statements increasing political participation. For example, Charlotte's Web in Charlotte, NC aims to provide citizens access to resources that will promote participation in civic life (Charlotte's Web, 1996) The mission statement from the Boulder Community Networks states, "The BCN provides online access to local and national information for the general populace in order to promote civic participation, educational excellence, economic vitality and community involvement." The Capital Regional Information Service of New York says that it "enables all levels of government to be more accessible and responsive to the people they serve."


Several features of community networks contribute to the effect they can have on political participation. Community networks provide new ways for citizens to converse with each other and with government officials and so increase their understanding of local political issues is one way that community networks can increase political participation. (Covi, 1995; Reid, 1994; Strangelove, 1993) Their local focus means that the network can focus on providing information about local issues to help people participate in local decision making. Local community members can communicate with each other about local issues; they can join discussions with other citizens and government officials; they can find information about issues and upcoming elections. Their dedication to increased access increases the voices participating in community discussions; the more people participating, the more points of views can be discussed. Not all systems provide all these different types of information, services, and communication capabilities. For example, systems patterned after the Cleveland Freenet have a government information center with information to supports passive participation and which typically includes (Reid, 1994; Strangelove, 1993)


Volunteers were solicited who wanted to become more politically active and to learn how to use the Internet for political activities. Messages were posted on both general and politics-oriented university newsgroups. E-mail messages were sent to politically oriented student groups. One early participant suggested the name of a social studies teacher at a local high school to contact to see if her students would want to participate.

Twenty four people finished the project. Sixteen of the participants were males, eight female. Seventeen were still in high school, six were in college or had graduated from college. The high school students were all in American history classes taught by one teacher who chose this project from a list of available projects designed by that teacher to fill a class requirement. They worked in groups of three or four on projects that they chose. The college students answered e-mail messages sent to a variety of groups with web pages on the University web site. For example, several members of the College Democrats participated, but no one from the College Republicans responded. Similar messages were sent to groups with web pages on the local community network but no one replied. One of the college graduates and one of the college students represented a local social service agency. Several reasons for using this particular group of people are discussed in the section below on problems in the project.

The participants were, for the most part, already very politically active, with more than 40% of them having done 3 or more types of participation listed below in the next section. The most frequently chosen forms of participation were writing to a government official (14), signing a petition (12), trying to persuade others to vote (11), volunteering on a campaign (10). The high school students were not old enough to vote which explains why that particular activity is not in the list. They expressed high levels of interest in politics too - two thirds said they have some or much interest in politics. However, eight of the high school students had little or no interest in politics. Since this project was described as a "political participation" project, the self-selected participants' interest in politics seems natural.

The majority participants (17) had little experience with computers and the Internet. Seven (5 of the 7 males, 4 of the 7 in high school) had much experience with computers and the Internet. None of the participants knew that the local public library had an terminal that they could use to browse the Internet at no cost to themselves. Only two of the participants had heard of the local community network, and these were representatives of a local service agency that has a connection to Hoosiernet provided by the local United Way. The college students participants had more exposure to the Internet, had used e-mail, and had some knowledge of the Web. Three of the college students and one high school student knew how to create web pages before the project began. Only one participant, a college student who had the most Internet experience of anyone in the group, had used any of the on-line government publications. None of the participants knew about databases of usenet newsgroup postings or e-mail listserv information which they could search to find resources and people with similar interests. The project was described in the e-mail and newsgroup posts as a way to learn more about the Internet and the Web, so it may have attracted more people with little computer experience that it would have otherwise.

The aim of the project was to introduce participants to a variety of resources typically available on community networks that they could use to support different forms of political activity. After these introductory sessions, participants were able to work on a project of their choosing.

During the first session, each participant was given a written survey with basic demographic questions, questions taken from the Verba and Nie (1987) study, and questions about their previous experience with the community network, current methods of obtaining political information, current level of awareness of local political issues, and current level of political participation. The questions asked about the following types of political participation taken from the types of political participation included in the Verba and Nie (1987) study. All of the questions dealt with conventional activities because that is the type of participation that the community networks have set as their goal to support.

Each of the seven groups received a training sessions on each of the following topics: using the Web to search for information and finding discussion groups and listservs of interest, and several sessions on creating web pages using HTML. Through initial discussions with each of the seven self-formed group of participants and two individuals, we determined that they wanted to produce web pages to electronically publish information about a political issue that interested them and so needed to learn several skills: web page creation, use of Usenet news, use of internet search engines and directories. During the project they discussed their political interests within the groups and as a group designed their web pages, found sources, and put them online. The groups worked on the following topics: promotion of a student environmental action group, providing information about abuse of women and promotion of the community women's shelter, raising awareness of the destruction of the rainforest, promoting anti-drug positions, promoting anti-assault weapons positions, satirizing the Dole campaign, and providing a means of sending issue-based form letters to elected officials.

At every opportunity resources that they could use for their topic were pointed out, and discussions were held on how else participants might use the Web for a variety of political activities since many of them were not old enough to vote in the 1996 election. During the project they discussed how their group project might help other people be more politically active and how best to transmit their chosen political message. They had access to a reference page created for the project that contained sites of interest to each group, HTML resources, and general Internet references.

I believe that the interest expressed in the project among the participants and others in the community who for a variety of reasons, including lack of time on their part and limited training space, indicates that people want to learn new tools for political participation. This should encourage researchers to conduct further studies and system developers to actively pursue these users. Participants with less Internet experience chose a passive project - very standard design web pages. They expressed a need for more time to search the Web and more instruction on searching. The projects were not symbolic. They encouraged others to take action by providing links to sources of information and postal addresses for important organizations or individuals involved in their topic. Because of the lack of active forms of participation chosen for projects, it can be concluded that providing introductory training and exposure to political information is not enough for new community network users. Participants with more political activity were able to describe projects that they would like to see done on the community network to support their cause or group but they were not aggressively pursuing options for those projects. However, they too thought that more training, targeted to the needs of political activists would be helpful. The participants with both high levels of political participation and Internet experience did think of more comprehensive projects involving setting up distribution lists and complex forms and e-mail applications that they are following up on their own outside of the project.

At the end of the project another written survey was administered which included questions about their political participation activities and asked for any suggestions for improving the project.
When asked if they believed they could now use the Internet to inform others about opinions, send e-mail to politicians, research an issue, find political information, and send a letter to the editor via e-mail everyone answered yes, except one person who didn't think they could research an issue and one who didn't know how to send e-mail to the newspaper editor. Some types of political participation, primarily passive, were increased through the project. Everyone said that they had found resources they could go back to for more information on their chosen topics. All but one high school participant said that they believed that they could use the Internet to research an issue. Two people sent e-mail to a politician for the first time. Other more active forms of participation, though, were not attempted. Some groups expressed plans for future projects, including more active forms of participation such as discussion groups and e-mail lists for action alerts. These were discussed as a way to create a stronger sense of belonging among members of a group and as a way to attract new members to the group.

The high school students, in particular, did end the project with a much broader definition of "political participation". At the beginning of the project, they limited their definition to voting. At the end, they also included more active forms of participation that would involve them in face to face activities in their community.


The results suggest several things for developers of community networks developers who want to see that the network survives and is successful in the goal of increasing political participation. A variety of politically-oriented content and services are currently provided by community networks with no concern for the subsequent measurement of success or comparison of results produced by these different services. Perhaps the features that encourage political participation would be attractive enough to bring in paying subscribers and paid-sponsorships from political organizations.

The first suggestion, perhaps specific to communities with a new or underdeveloped network, is to make sure that community members know about the community network and what tools and services it has available for them to use. In this case, only two people know about the community network. The politically active participants had missed opportunities to use the network during the 1996 presidential campaign.

The second suggestion is that people may not be able to automatically transfer their experience with political participation to the community network. They need to gain experience with the new types of participation made possible by the community network. They need to see what information is available and what people with the same interests are doing in other communities. Developers can work with activists to develop model projects, to set up discussion areas, and to tailor training to help them with their own projects. They can provide resource guides -online lists of Internet resources related to particular political interest groups active in the town; these guides save the activists time and gets them started exploring in a very productive manner.

Passively viewing and discussing the new tools is not enough; citizens also need training. Community networks need to offer regularly scheduled basic training classes on topics such as how to be a good community network user, how to find information, what information is available on the community network. Highlighting the activities of the more politically active members of the community network may help educate the less experienced members and thus increase the chances that they will become more politically active. During the project, the participants with less experience in political participation often asked those with more about those experiences. To attract people who are not already politically active, the community network could provide information on issues of interest to the community. Becoming better informed about political issues was one thing that all of the participants said they could do using the Internet. Providing tools to help the inexperienced Internet users find pertinent information is important, too. Space needs to be made available for groups on all sides of a local political issue to publish their views and background information.


Beyond the implications about increasing political activism, this study indicates that people do not automatically transfer their activities from the real to the digital world. They may need time and training tailored to their interests to make the connections. This has implications for developers of many on-line systems including digital research libraries.

Two variables in this project seemed to most affect the findings - amount of political interest/experience and experience with the Internet. The following observations can be made about these variables and this project's participants. Because of the short length of time that this project ran and the limited variety on other variables in the participant population, these observations need to be tested in a larger study. Results in a community with a thriving active community network may also differ from these results.