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Making Networked Communities Work

Ikuyo KANEKO <>
Jun MURAI <>


This paper attempts to clarify the characteristics and new social and organizational roles of what we call "network communities." We also explain how Internet applications are being used in network community activities. Then we propose a new technological issue which would greatly enhance these activities. We also present some of the activities of VCOM, a research project on voluntary communities based on the Internet.



In the early days of the Internet, the whole social world on the Internet was regarded as one big "community." People on the Internet voluntarily helped each other, held the principle of information-sharing in common, were willing to donate time and energy for operations and administration of the Internet, and united their efforts to solve problems. Some tools were prepared to smooth their cooperation: e-mail, NetNews, FTP, WWW, and so on. These tools were used on the common premise that users considered the Internet a common resource. For instance, people did not send lots of meaningless e-mail that might cause traffic jams, and when they received data via FTP, they tended to do so from the nearest host and when the line was vacant. Relaying e-mail and setting up FTP services were voluntary activities and they did not intend to make money for doing so. These services were provided by "community members" to make their community a better place.

As the Internet grew in both quality and quantity, users who were not interested in Internet technology itself but merely wished to use the Internet as a convenient communication or business tool increased in number. These users are from business firms, governmental organizations, educational institutions, and individuals who are interested in moneymaking, publicity, propaganda, and so on. Their primary motivation is to make use of the Internet for their own benefit and not for the betterment of the Internet. As a result, the social world on the Internet is no longer regarded as one community. The Internet has become a place which resembles a "free market" so to speak, i.e., a place for isolated individuals or organizations each pursuing its own self-interest. Using terms from economics, we can say that free riding and other behavior based on the "opportunism" have become a common exercise in the Internet.

The present state of the Internet is probably somewhere between a community and a complete free market. We can still find some evidence of the social world on the Internet functioning as a mutually helping community. Information about security and software bugs is regularly circulated voluntarily among the communities of system administrators via mailing lists, WWW, and NetNews. A vast quantity of useful freeware is still being distributed. On the other hand, people using the Internet are expected to act at their own risk. In the old days, when one wanted to find a home page about a specific topic, one could ask an appropriate news group of the NetNews or mailing lists and chances were that someone would take the trouble to furnish the answer for it. Today, we are expected to use search engines. The number of crackers with malice and the damage caused by their mischievous or malicious behavior increased rapidly as the scope of the Internet grew. These cases are perhaps the inevitable consequence of diversification and increase of Internet users.

Using the terminology employed by social scientists, we can characterize the process of change in the social world on the Internet as one caused by a decrease of "social capital (1)." Social capital is capital provided by a good relationship among community members to "make things easy" for community members. This concept has been used often in the context of comparing the economic or political performance of local communities. The Internet used to be equipped with abundant social capital. Now, one has to "pay" money for obtaining information or technological facts and has to protect oneself or the network which one uses from possible attack or mischief by unknown users.

Technical know-how about network administration used to be "not for sale." It was to be had by the community. An attitude of reciprocity was a common thing. The decrease of social capital causes the increase of various costs for using and sustaining the Internet. It is in terms not only of money but also of trust among users. People tend to furnish their know-how and information more readily when there is trust among members.

In Japan, the "marketalization" of the Internet has been accelerated by the rapid growth of Internet service providers. Many arguments about netiquette, morals, and ethics of the Internet have been brought up. Most of them are aimed against the "newcomers" by those people who know the "old days." However, it is interesting to observe that a new kind of movement toward forming "network communities" has been emerging.

The network principle

Network communities are communities of interest based on voluntary participants. Members of a network community tend to have a high degree of interaction with one another, share information, and make relationships dynamically. Originally, "community" meant a group of members who shared regional characteristics in common. Computer networks which have surmounted regional boundaries now provide new virtual places where people get together and communicate with one another. Though this does not mean that all network communities, as we call them, use computer networks, it is the fact that computer networks have the potential to become a powerful tool for organizing network communities. The characteristics of network communities are as follows:

  1. Members of network communities participate of their own free will;
  2. Members share information and processes;
  3. A network community is a self-governing organization; and
  4. Communication among network community members is often based upon the use of computer networks.

In traditional regional communities, community members shared various "commons," i.e., they shared common resources such as land, water irrigation systems, agricultural products, and so on. As technologies grew and the administration systems by states became commonplace, the regional commonalties and a need to help each other were lost. In a sense, economic development brought about a situation such as is seen in the tale of "tragedy of commons." That is, people obtained means of living independently and their motivation for seeking one's own merit became more prominent than the merit of helping each other in the regional community.

However, as the economist Hayek hinted some 50 years ago(2), information vital to running the society and making the society prosperous emerges when various information is distributed to, exchanged with, and connected to one another. This interaction can be more easily done and tends to be more effective when it is done within a network community. And at the same time, an effort to create, exchange, and feedback information increases a community's utility. In this respect, the resources of the network community are not only information but also relationships which create new kinds of "dynamic" information among the community members. These activities make collaborative and creative work easy; however, such effort for exchanging information may be inefficient in some cases of formal procedure.

The motivations of a participant in network communities are based on a person's own will. People tend to participate in the activities of mutual interest with the aim of sharing information and establishing relationships among the community members. Since network communities are not hierarchical organizations and since they have no holding organization or complement authorities, decisions about management and activities of the network community are made by participants of the community themselves. However, there are some difficulties in managing network communities voluntarily. It is permitted in network communities that members participate in community activities with various degrees of commitment, and it is not appropriate that things are always decided in a completely democratic manner. The characteristics of voluntary participants may also cause communication accidents called flaming. Allocation of work may change dynamically in proportion to the degree of members' voluntarity and commitment. Therefore the rules for discussion, decision making, and work allocation should not be fixed a priori, but should be fixed to suit to the occasion.

Members of network communities can communicate regardless of difficulties of time and place. However, it is indispensable for them to share a "place" that has a favorable atmosphere for sharing valuable information among the community members. It does not mean that one's opinion should be accepted by all members all the time, but it is important that no one finds fault with the member expressing his or her own opinions, refuses to hear his or her opinion with the intention to hurt the person's dignity, or completely ignores opinions expressed. Especially important is protection of such private information as the person's physical or mental condition. The rule of thumb is that the person who makes his or her information public should have the rights to change or delete the information from the network. Moreover, to utilize the community to its advantage, "dynamic" information that appears in a process of interaction among community members should be accumulated and reused.

When network communities act as social entities, they need to be understood, have their activities supported, and be trusted by people or organizations outside the communities. They use the Internet as a tool for communication and presentation of their activities. However, it is difficult to place trust in each other without any certificate. Moreover, it's hard to authenticate virtual network communities as social entities because they tend not be certified by authorities such as government, bank, or any other certification authorities. Indeed, they do not have to be certified hierarchically, but have to be certified by persons or communities with whom they want to collaborate.

Network communities in Japan

In the Great Kobe Earthquake of 1995, more than 6,000 people were killed. More than one million volunteers are said to have been engaged in various voluntary activities to help earthquake victims at disaster areas. Interestingly, there was a new breed of volunteers. Hundreds of users of computer networks, who are called "information volunteers," exchanged and shared information such as the safety and whereabouts of victims, items needed by the victims, and the condition of stricken areas. The information was provided and circulated via PC networks and the Internet. This is the very first time the PC networks and the Internet were used in this manner.

Main activities of the information volunteers included

  • Exchanging various information via mailing lists, PC nets, and grass-roots BBS;
  • Inputting into WWW mailing lists and BBSs information regarding the safety and whereabouts of the victims and items needed;
  • Gathering information about specific areas which needed volunteers from mailing lists and NetNews and inputting them into the WWW;
  • Organizing volunteer teams which were to be dispatched to disaster areas;
  • Bringing portable PCs to disaster areas with them and reporting conditions of the disaster areas;
  • Communicating with volunteers in disaster areas to provide information; and
  • Maintaining the links for various resources about disaster on the WWW.

According to a report supplied by VCOM(3), these activities sustained a personal level support which could not be covered by the local government, at least for the first couple of weeks. For example, the following episode shows a level of interaction which was common.

A victim who lived in a disaster area wanted information about a public bath near his house via a PC network. His house was partially destroyed and so he and his family were looking for a public bath which was open and accessible. It was difficult for him to find this information on his own. The person who answered his question was not a resident of the area; in fact, he lived in Tokyo, about 500 km from Kobe. This information volunteer searched through the networks and found the appropriate information for the victim looking for the bath. It turned out that the public bath which was located close behind his house was open. This episode exemplifies that as far as information goes, distance is not an obstacle: faraway people could contribute easily.

The computer networks could also help the victims by listening to their candid opinions. Many victims became nervous due to the shock of the earthquake, loss of their family, and environmental change. Mental treatment could have been helpful but most victims did not have access to the proper treatment. Also, volunteers working in the disaster areas could hardly afford to listen to them because life-support activities such as provision of meals, quick medical treatment, and distribution of fresh water and other emergency goods had priority. The report by VCOM, mentioned above, also tells that in some cases, interactions via computer networks offered an opportunity for the victims to heal their mental conditions. In practice, we could find many messages from victims on the Internet and PC networks and it was pointed out that they felt relieved at the thought that many people were willing to read their messages and share their experiences and feelings. Interestingly, many of the victims felt that support from anonymous people in a network was more helpful than support from their relatives and friends who tended to be impatient or too worried.

The Great Kobe Earthquake and the ensuing voluntary activities, which surpassed, in part, relief activities initiated by the government or business organizations, showed the great potential of the network community in Japan. As community activities at the time of the disaster evidently showed that network communities have an effect of creating and restoring the social capital which has been lost in the modern age, they could also be effective in creating social capital in the Internet which has lost its social capital due to the rapid growth of itself.

InterVnet is one of the activities which support earthquake victims and volunteers helping the victims via computer networks via NetNews. InterVnet provides an Internet-based device for sharing information among many networks. InterVnet connects many of the major commercial PC networks in Japan. The same information can be read by any of the participating PC networks, and posting an article at any of them automatically sends the article to all of the other PC nets. In this way, InterVnet can be accessed by several million PC users in Japan.

There are many other network communities in Japan. A self-help group of people wishing to quit smoking was formed on the Internet. The results are astonishing. More than half of the participants were reportedly successful in quitting smoking. The going success rate in Japan in the case of regular hospital visit type treatment is supposedly 10% or so. A regional network community for helping the elderly has been established by more than 2,000 local residents and its community succeeded in founding a highly successful daycare center in cooperation with the local government. This grass-roots effort enables a very efficient use of monetary resources of the local and central governments.

We do not discuss whether the Internet can help or heal people: The point is that the Internet is a new "place" where people can get together and work, forming roughly bounded network communities which have great potential to act as social entities. However, the availability of these network communities also refers to the fragility: network communities with rough consensus have the potential to be hurt by malicious behavior which is difficult to exclude without strict rules.

Network communities as grass-roots NPOs

In this part, we will describe the present state of network communities supported by VCOM(4)(5), an experimental research project run by authors of this paper and associated volunteers. The second author is the head of the project, while the first author is responsible for the VCOM system, and the third author is a member of the steering committee. VCOM was founded in May of 1995 so that it extends an effort made by InterVnet into a wider range of voluntary and civic networking community activities.

VCOM consists of several "case projects," each of which is an effort to create or support a specific and real-world voluntary network community. The VCOM case projects are grouped into the following five groups:

GROUP 1: Information Community Concerning Handicapped Persons
VCOM-CHIME project
CWF (Challenged Working Forum)

GROUP 2: Information Community Concerning Women's Issues
WOM(Women's Online Media)

GROUP 3: Networking of Local Communities
Citizen's Participation to Local Governments Through Internet
Project to Offer Financial and Other Macro Data of Tokyo

GROUP 4: Information Community of NGOs/NPO
GOOD (Guide Operated Online to Doing GOOD)
C's (Information of NPO Legislation)

GROUP 5: Other Information Communities
Citizen and Music
Electronic Embassy Network
Disaster Information Network

The following is an explanation of some of the network communities of VCOM.

WOM(6) is a network community for sharing women-related information. WOM contains several special interest groups including one on working mothers, marriage, gynecology information, nurseries, and kindergartens. Most of WOM members are working mothers and each of these groups gathers information that is needed by the members. WOM home page is considered to contain some of the best women-related information in terms of volume and quality in Japan.

CWF(7) provides a virtual place for various people and organizations interested in expanding opportunities for physically handicapped people. CWF is a "meeting place" for handicapped people who want to work, potential and present employers, government officials, and various NPOs on the issue. Some of these players tend to possess conflicting missions and opinions about how the handicapped might be supported. CWF, partly because of its virtual characteristics, and partly because it is run by a neutral research group, is successful in putting these people together in the spirit of sharing information for the common cause and objective, i.e., to provide more opportunities for the handicapped to work and earn their livings.

Since the Great Kobe Earthquake of 1995, grass-roots NPOs have attracted considerable attention as one of the legitimate forces to run society. An act which would enable NPOs to become incorporated has just passed the Diet (Japanese Congress). C's, which runs one of the case projects of VCOM, is in the vanguard group of this movement. The style of activities of a grass-roots NPO is that people who are keenly interested in the issue form a voluntary relationship with one another and make social activities involving people around them. Since voluntary will and relationship are the important assets for grass-roots NPOs, the Internet which was originally developed by voluntarity and relationships has an affinity with those NPOs. To be concrete, the following characteristics of the Internet make activities of NPOs more effective:

  • Anyone can participate
  • There is no hierarchy
  • It provides a good collection of tools for information sharing
  • Everyone can provide one's original service (open architecture)

Interestingly, the present status is that most of the large-scale NPOs in Japan with strong ties to the government and which tend to supplement governmental work do not utilize the Internet, and small, non-incorporated NPOs with scarce resources tend to be more eager to use the Internet. VCOM supports some of these small but active groups by providing them with free Internet connectivity and other network resources.

Essential activities and tools developed

The utilization of the Internet is more than helping to make existing communities' activities more efficient. A network community which has no organizational entity in the real world emerges from VCOM and other similar projects. It used to be that maintaining office space and office staff was costly and many small voluntary groups could not afford it. Now, such a constraint is gone. In fact, network communities of VCOM such as WOM and CWF which we discussed above are such groups. They heavily use mailing lists and the WWW for almost all activities including daily communication among members, decision making, presentation of the results, etc. Real-world meetings are held, of course, but only occasionally. However, to support and enhance activities and communications of network communities described above, tools which have particular characteristics are called for. Since network communities are different in principle from business or governmental organizations based on hierarchical structure, tools must be developed suited to network communities. In this section, we describe four essential activities of network communities and three tools developed by VCOM based on these activities.

Decision making

Since it is permitted in network communities that members participate in community activities with various degrees of commitment, it is not appropriate that things are always decided in a completely democratic manner. Rather, it is often more appropriate that opinions of those with deeper commitment are treated more favorably. Therefore, an evaluation system about such commitment is expected.

Information sharing

When distributing information among the community, it becomes a problem how to ensure that the information is distributed among appropriate members. To solve this problem, we must clarify who should satisfy the requirements and to whom the sender wants to distribute the information. Dynamic clustering of members with respect to various conditions some of which may not appear members' property database.

Cooperative work

Allocation of work among members may change dynamically. Who has the rights to finalize the operation and which operation should be permitted are decided dynamically through interaction among community members. These aspects have not been considered seriously in the study of group work, which so far has always taken a coherent environment and a higher degree of control for granted.

Reputation system

Network communities formed by a grass-roots NPO need to be understood and have their activities supported by people or organizations outside the community because the significance of the existence of the network community is that their activities are regarded as socially important. Environmental problems, providing care to the elderly, promoting rights of handicapped people, publicizing gender gaps, etc. are not only the problems of those involved but the problems of the entire society. They cannot be solved without the effort and support of those who are not directly concerned with these problems. Thus it is essential for these network communities that their achievements are evaluated by a general public at large. Particularly, NPOs are not evaluated by the "bottom line" or the amount of profit they make. Thus, it is imperative that NPOs establish and maintain a sound reputation system among people at large.

VCOM has developed and made public three tools to support network communities.

Web-ML Conference System

Web-ML Conference System is a device developed by VCOM combining mailing lists and an archive function of the WWW as a tool to promote information sharing and discussion for network communities. E-mails posted to the mailing list are sent to and registered in the associated home page automatically, and mail sent via a form provided by the home page is automatically delivered to the mailing list members. In the case of mailing lists, messages are delivered through e-mail so that users need not access the WWW or other systems in order to read messages. On the other hand, information embedded in a weakly structured e-mail system cannot be classified easily, thus making mailing-list-delivered mail not easy to reuse. Also, members of network communities vary in their commitment to the community and while some members with a deep commitment need to read all the e-mail in the mailing lists every day, some members with less commitment may find it cumbersome to automatically receive e-mail by the mailing list on a regular basis. Web-ML Conference System gives one solution to this problem. Members who only want to occasionally check what is going on in the mailing list can use the option of not being registered in the mailing list and can look only at the home page archive associated with the mailing list. Web-ML is also a convenient tool for new members to browse past mail in the mailing list.

Voting system and reputation system

One of the major drawbacks of an electric conference system, such as BBS, NetNews, and WWW conference device, is that it only shows opinions of those who take time to actually post their opinions. Often times, opinions or sentiments of the "silent majority" or ROM (Read Only Members) are crucially important and sought after. This is often true in hierarchical systems, but is imperative particularly in network communities. VCOM has taken part in a project in which citizens and city officials "get together" virtually to discuss various issues of the city. In the city of Fujisawa (home of the Keio University campus to which the three authors of this paper belong), a system called "Community Maker," which provides conference rooms and a kind of reputation system on the Internet, has been used. This system has been developed by the Editorial Engineering Lab and NTT (Nippon Telephone and Telegram) in cooperation with VCOM. By using this system, users can express their opinions and feelings not only by posting messages, but also by clicking one of the buttons corresponding to a sentiment such as "I agree," "I disagree," "I want more discussion," etc. This one can be done for each message submitted, the entire conference room, or a WWW home page submitted to the system. This device provides a simple but significant tool to reflect, at least in part, the sentiments of the "silent majority." In a study of Nifty-Serve, the largest PC network in Japan, ROM is about ten times the number of those who actually post messages in an electric conference room. Thus, this simple tool helps people to participate in an informal popularity voting. More exactly, it helps build a reputation within the community. Community Maker also provides a voting system in which users of the system are authenticated so that each could vote only once. This voting system is used, for example, when a motion is submitted by one of the members to close the conference room or to recall the chairperson of the conference room.


The Chime Service Project (8) is a network community which provides numerous classified links of disability-related information on the WWW. These links are classified by members of the Chime Service Project into three different aspects: by districts of the group providing the information, by objectives of the home page, and by information provider. However, there are some difficulties in sharing information and maintaining links among the members. Members of the Chime Service Project use a mailing list for information sharing. Thus, some members may overlook new entries, or it is difficult to see the classification of other members and/or other categories. Moreover, because the members maintain links manually and because the number of new entries is increasing rapidly as the use of the Internet among handicapped people grows in Japan, the time and energy needed to the maintain the link and classification have become so great that it goes beyond the manual collaboration. VCOM-CHIME(9), one of the case projects of VCOM in cooperation by the Chime Service Project, developed a database to solve the problem. New entries are registered to RDB automatically and members can easily browse unclassified lists of each category. This system not only reduces time and labor but also makes cooperative work efficient.

Note that the essential activities and tools developed do not correspond one-to-one. The reason is that each essential activity should be presented to be put together as real activities. For example, to build a network conference system, we must consider information-sharing activity and decision-making activity. We emphasize the fact that the tools outlined above have been developed based on the real needs of VCOM network community activities.

When considering these essential activities and tools, we can find out that they share the same kind of problem -- the authentication problem.

Authentication for constructing trust

When network community members share information which may include personal matters, an appropriate method is needed to ensure that a trust relationship be created among the members. This issue is essential for making network communities work.

When it comes to network community activities -- be it decision making, sharing information, reputation, or working cooperatively -- it is necessary to define membership of the network community. Only when one can identify the membership can one determine who should participate in what activities in the network community. However, network communities are based on the voluntary participation of members. It differs from principal systems like employment, school registration, or resident registration. It is based only on the free will of each member. Moreover, the degree of commitment of participants will vary. For instance, in network conference rooms there are several kinds of members such as those who lead the discussion meditating on activation of the conference room, those who write messages actively, and those who are called "ROM: Read Only Members." Since these varying commitments depend only on the participants' voluntary will, it is difficult to distinguish which member should be classified in which category in a traditional way. There is a keen demand for a system by which participants can see the degree of trust for network communities to be regarded appropriate places for sharing information and working cooperatively. To determine the category of members who participate in each activity is regarded as a new kind of application of authentication.

The authentication problems also occur when network communities appeal their activities to the public; it is necessary to show how far the community is trusted because network communities do not always depend on any outside authority. This trust and guarantee are also not given by outside authority, but are determined dynamically through communication and reputation. Static trust given by properties like assets or social status has no sense for activities or commitment. It comes to the same thing when network communities collaborate or cooperate with each other. For example, one may use resources or join the discussion of other network communities only when one has an endorsement of a network community to which one belongs. This is not based on the hierarchical tree of authentication which is currently used, but is based on the mutual authentication and trust among each group of network communities. Thus mutual and relationship-based authentication model for network communities is highly expected.


This paper sought to clarify the characteristics of network communities which have been emerging on the Internet. Network communities have a potential to create new roles and rules in society, offering a possibility of "organizing" autonomous activities which cannot be found in traditional organizations such as business firms and governmental organizations. Some of the network communities act as grass-roots NPOs which are considered as one of the legitimate forces to run the society. We discussed some cases in which network communities surpass in some specific parts existing organizations. The Internet has a potential to expand activities of network communities greatly. Several information systems are implemented on the Internet; however, most of them are either tools for individual use or tools for worldwide information distribution. Both of them are not appropriate for information sharing among the network community. VCOM has provided several tools which support communication, decision making, cooperative work, and reputation for network communities. According to the experimental result of VCOM, there is a need for a new kind of authentication model that defines membership in a network community. Since network communities are based on participants' voluntary will, the hierarchical model of authentication is not appropriate. A relationship-based authentication model will be addressed at the INET conference through the experiment of VCOM. This model should not only be helpful for Internet applications but also become a new organization model which will play a major part in the next post-capitalism society.


  1. Putnam, R.D., Leonardi, R. "Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy," Princeton University Press, 1992
  2. Hayek, F. A., "The Use of Knowledge in Society,"  The American Economic Review Vol. XXXV No. 4, 1943
  3. VCOM project "Annual report of VCOM 1996," VCOM project, 1996 (in Japanese)
  4. Shoko Miyagawa, Ikuyo Kaneko, Genta Inaoka, Ken-ichi Shimizu, "Constructing and Operating An Internet Site Supporting Network Communities," IEICE Internet Workshop '98, 1998

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