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~ my current rant ~

My view on community-based web presence

Kat Black, 23 October 2001

There's a great deal of attention being given to community-based web development in Australia, and rightly so. The web has the potential to empower communities in a way never before possible. What I'm not so thrilled about, though, is the way it's being done. The rapid proliferation of centrally-controlled online-building type templated portals is of deep concern to me. Millions of dollars of public funding has gone into the development of such online communities, some of which have already ceased to be, taking the "sites" built on them into the black hole of dead cyberspace with them.

I am fully supportive of what the academics call "endogenous development" - to the rest of, let's call it community-driven development. I'm all for empowering communities to build their own websites. My issue is that I feel passionately that they should also CONTROL those sites, in every sense of the word. This is simply not the case in most examples of "community portals" - even though it's certainly possible.

At the core, one of the main issues is the fundamental conflict between private enterprise and public interest. In the case of IT development, the rate of change has been so fast that the mechanics of public service is struggling to keep up, and as a result has no option but to partner with private enterprise. From the private company's point of view, maintaining control of the sub-sites is essential to protecting their business interests.

The model I support is one of an overall portal linking to self-contained and locally-controlled websites. For the sake of consistency, I think it's essential to develop guidelines for "member" sites - in terms of navigation, functionality and even style. Beyond those guidelines, however, I think that the building and control of the site should be in the hands of those responsible for the content.

I know that some online-building sites HAVE been developed by local communities, and with the very best intentions. Their goal was to make building a website as simple as possible, in order to be inclusive of people whose web-building skills were minimal. Since the development of WYSIWYG software, though, building a good website has had nothing to do with programming ability - the significant issues in my opinion are factors that a "simple" online sitebuilder doesn't make any easier. For example, how to treat graphics appropriately to make them small and fast-loading, but without affecting the quality.

I'm not suggesting that making a good, functional site is an easy matter - there are a lot of issues to consider and skills to learn. With the rate of development of the web, keeping up to date also needs an investment of time. To me, any community considering developing a web presence cannot escape these requirements, though, regardless of HOW they build the site.

Just as being able to use Word Processing Software doesn't mean you can write a good book, being able to use Web Authoring Software doesn't mean you can make a good website. We need mechanisms to establish a standard for sites within a community group. The group needs to identify and define just what makes a good site, appropriate to the needs of their communities.

I'm keen to develop online resources to empower people to learn how to build good sites; mentoring systems so that people can share skills as they acquire them; agreed guidelines on the characteristics of their communities' sites.

Aside from that most important issue of actual control of each site being with the community and not the "parent" portal, there are other advantages to communities developing real, stand-alone sites:

Each site has it's own identity. It can be promoted individually in the wider web community, not just within the context of the portal/group in which they're established. This means that the community can promote it's own site as much as it wishes - the more effort they put in, the more traffic they're likely to receive. This onus to promote and market their own community is fundamental to the whole movement towards endogenous development. That's not to say the "parent" portal can't also be marketing the communities as a group, but that would be with a different (albeit complementary) strategy. A local site could even be a member of multiple "parent" portals - for example, being linked directly from both a general regional portal and a statewide tourism portal.
Longevity. Locally-controlled sites, somewhat ironically, are less likely to be threatened by political and economic factors. Both dot-com companies and government-funded projects have shown the tendancy to disappear overnight. If a change in government policy or an international economic downturn means that a parent portal ceases to be, stand-alone sites can continue on regardless - whereas dependant sub-sites would die with the parent. Perhaps the communities may suddenly have to pay their own hosting costs and for updating the site if their sponsor disappears, but those issues are within the means of small communities.
The skills required to build a good site are marketable. If people in local communities become competent web-builders, they'll become an asset to their community. Just about any business or community group can benefit from a web presence, and so the more people who can build (good) sites, the better for the community. With e-working, those skills could even be marketed outside the local community, thus having the potential to bring extra resources into an area.
People tend to value things more if they've invested in them personally. If they're just "given" a website, for example a simple template that they just drop in a few details, then there is little sense of ownership. I recently saw an example of this where a local community's sub-site on a government-run templated portal contained text such as "you put information about your local community here" and "you put information about your training courses here".
The skills-gap between the city and rural or remote areas can be lessened by moving the responsibility for sites to local communities, instead of having those skills centralised as is the tendancy with large integrated web projects. To me, this is an important socio-political issue. There's a degree of chicken-and-egg about skills development, and at first it could well need city-based consultants to get the ball rolling - but if there's an incentive and opportunity to develop such skills, the potential ability is certainly there in the bush.
Keeping it simple keeps down costs. IT companies often convince clients that a complex, dynamic site is essential in all cases. The maintenance costs on such sites can turn out to be far more than intended. Functions can cease to work inexplicably, often involving expensive diagnostics in addition to the programming costs required to actually fix the problem. The more simple a site is functionally, the less likely it is to have problems and the easier any problems will be to rectify. Call me cynical, but maintenance work is how a considerable proportion of IT companies' income is generated, so is it really in their interest to provide simple, robust sites?
Diversity. A true community-based website should be a reflection of the community it represents. To me, generic templated sites will always be struggling to convey that sense of community. Although there should be a degree of consistency within a group of sites covered by one parent portal, the criteria should allow enough scope for the uniqueness of the communities to show.
Community involvement. A site developed locally can be more responsive and involve the community on a much deeper level than a simple templated site. For example, an art competition could be held to design graphics for the site; special-interest groups could develop their own subsites from the local community site; mentoring relationships could be developed within the local community to spread the skills developed.
This rant is still under development, and will probably develop into a whole project of it's own as I get the time.


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