Friday, June 21, 2002
Lessons learned as the Carlisle Community Center web site closes
by Betsy Fell
The four-year experiment by Lotus researcher Dr. John Patterson will end when the Carlisle Community Center web site shuts down at the end of the month. Patterson recently reflected on the project with the Mosquito.
The web site was inspired by the work of Harvard political science professor Dr. Robert Putnam. Putnam had challenged computer scientists to use the Internet as a tool to increase social cohesiveness, or "social capital." Social capital is built up through the many interactions and joint decisions involved in community social and volunteer activities. (For more about Dr. Putnam and social capital, see Priscilla Stevens' article, Improving our civic and personal lives in Carlisle, in the June 7, 2002 Mosquito.)
Patterson developed three features he believed would be important to a community-building web site:
1. The school, library, clubs and volunteer organizations would be supported, as well as political and governmental organizations.
2. Anonymity and pseudonyms were prohibited. Online discussions would more closely resemble face-to-face conversations with neighbors, when users knew the true names of those with whom they were conversing.
3. Access was restricted to verifiable Carlisle residents and town employees.
On his web site, Patterson wrote, "As a researcher I want to know whether the three principles mentioned above are the critical ones. I want to know what townspeople will expect from a community web site. As a Lotus employee, I am interested in knowing how our technologies can and should be used. I am interested in discovering new services to deliver over the Internet. Finally, as a resident of Carlisle, I am interested in obtaining more ways to understand my town and the people in it."
The web site was modeled on a building, with rooms and corridors. The user first entered the lobby, which contained several lists of comments, organized on various topics, including: Help Wanted, Town Issues, Wildlife, and General.
Other main rooms included an area for reviews of books, films and restaurants, a "Swap Shed," and a training room. Other rooms were divided into broad categories by the corridors: Organizations, School, Town and Events. Clicking on a corridor would bring up a screen showing the rooms available under that heading. Specific groups requested a room, and provided a volunteer to help manage it. These administers could control access to the room, write the room's welcome message, manage the message board and store old messages or documents in the room's file cabinet. Usually rooms were open to all community center members. However, a teacher set up a few rooms that were reserved for student and parent use.
Graphics and images were kept to a minimum to make it easier to use with old browser software or slow Internet connections. Toward the end of the project, Patterson improved the capabilities so that users could post images as well as text, but the feature was not widely used.
"It sorta worked."
One aspect of the experiment that worked very well was keeping the conversations civil. Patterson saw no abusive language which, he felt, was due to users having their true names attached to each message.
Patterson wondered if an unintended side effect of using true user names was to curtail conversation on controversial topics. One person posted about children with disabilities in the school, but no one responded. No one started conversations about Town Hall or election issues. Patterson said there needed to be a discussion moderator, and as the experimenter, "I wasn't willing to take on that role."
"The thing that really worked, was the sharing of everyday information." Things like who to hire for carpentry or plumbing work emerged without anyone moderating the discussion.
Patterson said, "Getting more members was really the biggest problem. That and getting more activity at the site. These are related, but not the same." Only a small fraction of the users posted a lot of the messages. He thought it was important that fresh messages be posted frequently. "Seeing something new is your reward for coming to the site." If you don't get a reward when you visit, eventually you stop visiting the site.
Patterson didn't know how many users would comprise critical mass. Over the course of the experiment, between 400 and 500 people signed up for membership. When he studied the usage later on, he found there were about 60 "regulars" who visited every week or two. Others visited sporadically, or not at all.
The rooms devoted to small organizations weren't as popular as the main lobby. In some cases, the volunteer administrators stopped maintaining a room, but didn't ask to have it removed from the corridor. The trails committee had one of the more active rooms, with 92 visitors and 485 visits logged between March of 2000 and June of 2002. The lobby, in contrast, had 347 visitors and 10,746 visits during that time. Patterson said, "When you have a small group of people, you want all the conversation in one place," and perhaps it would have been better to delay implementing separate rooms until there was a larger base of users.
Patterson found himself wearing many hats: besides being the designer, implementer and researcher, he found himself with the jobs of site moderator and promoter. People had warned him that building a community web site was not enough to ensure high usage, but he was reluctant to advertise it heavily, or encourage on-line conversation by posting messages himself. He preferred to observe the experiment, and hoped that other townspeople would step forward to lead discussions, administer the rooms actively, and help design improvements. At one point an advisory group was formed which did give him some ideas.
Administering the accounts took a lot of time. Patterson verified everyone's identity, and for those with unlisted phone numbers, he sometimes had to drive to their houses to check their identity in person. Identities were rechecked when people lost their passwords, and he wished he'd had a way to automate that process without loss of security.
He admitted that the lengthy questionnaires required to open an account may have turned some potential users away. He was interested in demographic data for his experiment. But in hindsight, said that potential users had no way to be sure that the data would be kept confidential by Lotus. To protect privacy, the demographic data is stored separately from the user names.
Nine users were polled about their experiences. The group included active participants, room administrators, and casual users.
Participants liked the site, and said they gained useful information from it. One said that it was fun to go and see what people in town were talking about.
Users especially enjoyed the wildlife observations, and the recommendations for home repair service, limo drivers and the like. There was a risk seen of the recommendations including rumors, unless a moderator limited postings to first-hand experiences.
The automatic update option received high praise. It allowed users to be notified by email automatically when a room was updated. Other features users liked included the prohibition on pseudodyms,access restricted to Carlisle, and the "filing cabinet" for on-line archiving of an organization's minutes.
The users agreed with Patterson that the site lacked critical mass, and room administrators were disappointed with the low traffic to their rooms. The interest of some dropped off, when there didn't seem to be much "action" on the site.
Other internet options
Now that Patterson's web site experiment is finished, he suggested the discussion group, "villageinthewoods," as an alternate site for Carlisle residents to hold on-line discussions. Villageinthewoods is open to anyone on the internet. There is a link to it from www.carlisle.org, run by town resident Ed Fields. Like the Carlisle Community Center, Carlisle.org provides information about a variety of town boards and organizations, as well as links to other web sites.
Many town groups now use email to update members, and instant messaging (IM) is a popular way students communicate with friends. With IM, messages are not stored on a web site, but are immediately transferred between two users who are both on-line. A common IM system is AOL IM (AIM), available for free.The Carlisle public school now has a web site, http://www.carlisle.mec.edu, and the school librarian, Sandy Kelly, has developed a web page, http://users.rcn.com/carlisleschoollibrary/, useful for students doing research projects.
Last but not least, Carlisle residents can stay current by reading the Mosquito online at www.carlislemosquito.org. Besides the stories, the site has extra photos, photos in color, and a searchable archive of old newspaper articles.
Recommendations for the future
Though www.carlisle.org comes closest, none of these other internet facilities offer all the same services provided by the Carlisle Community Center web site.
When asked how the town might someday build a similar on-line community center, Patterson said first, "get the experiment and Lotus out of the picture. Don't even start unless you have a group of people who are willing to moderate it, and generate activity to stimulate the conversation." Later he said that if enough people became interested, "I'm willing to help the town figure out how to get something going."
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito