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The Wired Neighborhood

Doheny-Farina, S. (1996). The Wired Neighborhood. New Haven: Yale UP.

Doheny-Farina examines the social effects of virtual communities, coming out on what he calls the “middle ground� between utopian views of virtual worldwide communities as the answer to a wide range of problems and alarmist views that virtual communities tend to be damaging and isolating. His middle ground, however, sounds more pessimistic than optimistic. He states: “… I argue that we do not need electronic neighborhoods; we need geophysical neighborhoods, in all their integrity. The revolution that must be joined is not one that removes us from place but one that somehow reintegrates the elements of our dissolving placed communities� (p. xi). Throughout the book, he examines both the positive and negative effects of virtual communities within the arena of geophysical neighborhoods; specifically, the benchmark he uses in evaluating the effects of virtual communities is the ability to uphold, indeed advance, geophysical neighborhoods.

Yet, he is careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. He recommends “not shunning the net but steering it� (xii), and within this framework, he proposes “civic networking.� In his words civic networking describes “limited, focused, carefully applied efforts that attempt not to move us into cyberspace but to use communication technologies to help reintegrate people within their placed communities� (xiii). That is, avoiding blind acceptance of the continued “virtualization of everyday life� (ibid), and instead, adapting those technologies or applications that uphold or advance geophysical communities.

His hopes for a “wired neighborhood� begin to be outlined in chapter 9: The Communitarian Vision. Here he explores what constitutes community and builds on community nets. He reiterates that development of the net, with its tendency to isolate and abstract humans, is nonetheless inevitable. Those who wish to remain part of the culture will have to participate. However, there is a way to take control: “Given the inevitability of the net, the most fruitful path is to participate in it in ways that benefit our localities� (p. 123). Of course, this is no easy feat. In later chapters, he describes several community networks that have been ineffectual. Thriving networks, ones that benefit localities, not only have to be funded, built, and maintained; actual participation is crucial, and it is not a given. These networks, according to Doheny-Farina, must represent contemporary community life for potential participants to become involved. The argument becomes rather circular here. He seems to be saying that, to be valid, community networks must act like physical communities.

He ends with a call to action, listing 10 general guidelines to shape the net from a 1995 Morino Institute report. The last sentence of the last chapter summarizes Doheny-Farina’s stance on virtual communities: “Take part in it [the net] not to connect to the world but to connect to your city, your town, your neighborhood� (188).

Written at a time (1996) when there was mass of loud and relatively uncritical support of virtualization, Doheny-Farina’s attempts at reigning in the utopian view was perhaps a necessary and even noble effort. He states: “In immersing ourselves in the electronic net, we are ignoring our real, dying communities� (p. 8). Yet, one may wonder whether the benchmark he uses in promoting civic networking is as paramount as he makes out. His arguments for the superiority of physical communities, at times seem more personal than academic, and lack the rigor of the critique focused on virtual communities.