Social and Civic Participation
in a Community Network
John M Carroll
Mary Beth Rosson
Community networks are ensembles of locally oriented Internet services and content; for example, web sites of local businesses and churches or e-mail lists of volunteer associations and recreational clubs. As with other social uses of the Internet, community networks allow people to transcend logistics with respect to their participation in discussions and activities. Thus, a community member can send an encouraging e-mail to her softball team even when a business trip takes her out of town, a father can browse projects in a high school science fair web site even if he gets home too late to attend the science fair itself, or a senior citizen can post a comment about a zoning proposal even when icy weather keeps him from attending a town council meeting.
Many studies have described and analyzed the social and civic benefits of individual participation in community associations (Homans, 1950; Edwards & Booth, 1973; Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swindler, & Tipton, 1985; Putnam, 2000; Kavanaugh, Reese, Carroll, & Rosson, 2003). The network of connections among community members in their various associations enriches the social fabric of the whole community. Indeed, a key claim in the design rationale for community networks is that Internet discussion and interaction can facilitate social and civic engagement and participation in one's local community. The argument is that the e-mail remotely sent to the softball team increases the member's commitment, perhaps increasing the likelihood that she will show up for the game next week when she is home from her trip. Similarly, by visiting the virtual science fair web site, the father becomes more involved with his daughter and with her school and is perhaps more likely to attend a Parent–Teacher Association meeting. Likewise, the senior citizen feels more connected to his community by participating in the zoning discussion—he is less isolated by inclement weather. Perhaps he will be more likely now to read tomorrow's newspaper account of the town council meeting or to attend the next meeting in person.
But it could be otherwise. For example, a plausible alternative view is that despite all good intentions, community participation is a zero-sum tradeoff. Perhaps when the out-of-town softball player sends an e-mail, she feels that she has made her contribution, and she is accordingly somewhat less likely to show up at the game next week than she would have been had she never sent an e-mail at all. Perhaps the father feels that he has participated in his daughter's science project even though no one—perhaps not even his daughter—knows