Oct 18, 2008

Social Capital, Community Activism - Web 1.0

Recently I had a chat with a young Web 2.0 enthusiast who had bemoaned the failure of WCC & community groups in the Illawarra to utilise Web 2.0 e-technology tools. He and fellow UOW Informatics students had prepared assessment tasks, where they drew conclusions on the failure to use such e-tools in community engagement. It struck me that in fact many E-tools had been used over the previous 25 years, however this may have largely passed under some people's radar.

Personally, I felt as a WCC Councillor in the late 1990's, that WCC's Web started out as corporate spin - "pretty graphics"web pages, that really lacked substance. It seemed to be in marked contrast to its self styled "City of Innovation" tag. I used to describe this as Emperor's New Clothes Syndrome. The local business community remained sceptical in 1998, when I suggested that local tourism could be marketed on the Web. Although by the 2008 ICAC Inquiry into WCC, business's e-reticence had clearly evaporated.

Wollongong has been described as "a big country town", with nearly everyone connected to each other through family, education, workplace, sports and/or social activities. Often they were in more than one network, so it was not hard to achieve a tightly networked system across the region, in Social Network Analysis speak. Many community groups embraced early Apple computers' word processing capability by 1984 & subsequently bulletin boards, Usenet-Listservs, fax machines etc. From late 1996 in the very early days of the Internet, activist groups began the Great Leap Forward to Web 1.0, way ahead of WCC. Sydney escapees, such as Les Robinson, who had done a seachange to the south coast, provided inspiration. (Les also operates in the SME corporate sector, promoting the concepts of social capital & social entrepreneurs. Interestingly ONA thought leaders, such as Laurie Lock Lee, extended this concept later to the larger corporate sector.)

By Y2K, individual groups were getting "joined-up" more formally to create a broader social movement, instead of the earlier isolated/fragmented groups. These groups were able to share knowledge and experience at an explosive rate - email traffic was heated at times, both within groups and with WCC. I had seen the Net's potential for the community from 1997, although for many local government councillors it would have been daunting to set up their own web page then - needing to learn HTML. But thanks to past uni assignments in Fortran, Pascal & C languages, I was able to pick up some basic HTML & set up my own web pages. They enabled communication with more in my community, sharing knowledge, disseminating information much faster.

But WCC didn't seem to "get" this new coalition antagonist. This social movement's members quite capably created their own communication media, when they felt locked out by the mainstream channels. In doing so, this social movement was creating significant precursors for its use of Web 2.0 when WCC found itself sacked in March 2008 eg

Despite WCC axing its official community engagement committees, aka Neighbourhood Committees, many continue to function highly effectively, but now outside WCC's umbrella. Today, post WCC ICAC 2008, new groups are emerging, eg WAG (Graham Larcombe) & Reform WCC (Arthur Rorris). They have developed a new charter of Governance for Wollongong, and are currently running a John Hatton Essay Award competition , with the theme - How would I best create democracy in Wollongong? They are building a new civic space, which respects governance and community democracy priniciples, utilising Web 1.0/Web 2.0 tools. Even the Illawarra Business Chamber has got into the act with a code of conduct for its members - to be honest I am amazed that they didn't have one already - but good to see they have now.

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