Jump back to the town commons for a minute. Imagine a vibrant social jumble filling the square, drawing everyone in with its buzz, diversity and wonder. There is the bazaar with small producers and craftspeople hawking their wares. In the buildings surrounding the square, there are the shops, restaurants and offices. Beside the marketplace, there is a small park filled with kids from the local soccer league kicking the ball around. There are also people debating and pamphleteering around the public lectern. And underlying it all is the town square itself — owned in common and maintained by the town government.

The town commons weaves together commerce, civic participation and community building. As in the rest of society, we need all of these pieces to make the Internet whole. In some regards, we already have them. We have the bazaar and the businesses lining the square. We’ve certainly no lack of recreational activities. And you may even find someone up on the lectern if the issue is something like cyberfreedom or privacy. But that’s it. The more general public and civic parts of the Internet town square are missing.

Luckily, this is starting to change. Smart governments and non-profits are starting to see that commonspace was made for them. If your job is to serve the public, why not sieze a technology that lends itself to the common good? And if your role is to encourage democracy and accountability, who better to join forces with than the collective mind of commonspace? Clearly, the Internet lends itself to civic pursuits.

The Tortoise and the Hare

Government pursuit of the public commons online is much like efforts of the hare in the old fable: going fast, but getting nowhere.

The civic world was there at the start of the Internet race. The U.S. government actually invented the damn thing (although for all the wrong reasons, and even then probably by accident[1]). Non-profits were on the scene quickly thereafter, starting up global computer networks like the Association for Progressive Communications by the mid-1980s and using online communities to organize for events like the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. But despite this early start, both the government and non-profit worlds have dragged along like the tortoise.

Part of the problem is that traditional non-profit organizations and governments are by-and-large conservative animals. They tend to be averse to risk and are rigid adherents to their own notions. Plans are made in advance and then processed  to the point of blandness. Governments and NPOs are full of control freaks. And we all know what happens to control freaks in commonspace.

Governments are especially susceptible to this disease. There has been plenty of rhetoric about open government and improved customer service in government. But this is more often than not just wishful talk (or cynicism, take your pick). There are few jurisdictions where you can even register for your driver’s license online, to say nothing of connecting with your elected officials. In a 1999 G8 publication on democracy and online services, the Government of Canada’s main webmaster reflects on how most bureaucrats respond to the Internet:

A standard pattern of questions awaits departments and agencies, as they open their storefront on the information highway. Should they plan for two-way traffic? Are there tools that allow for public participation without hijacking resources? Can departments avoid having their Web sites become soapboxes for organized interest groups?[2]

The timidity of this approach would have you believe that any attempt to fiddle with the Internet might accidentally unleash the four horsemen of the apocalypse. It’s not as though they might want to use technology to actually encourage participatory democracy or anything!

The good news is that at least a few elected officials and the bureaucrats are passionate about the democratic potential of the Internet. And the non-profit world has some real visionaries who get the power of the collective and are running with it (they tend to be the non-profit activist types). Like the tortoise, these folks are plugging away in a solid, honest effort to build a public commons online. And they’re headed for the finish line first.

10 Downing Street, Online

The first thing that comes to mind when you ask people about the civic use of the Internet is governance. Democracy. Access to decision making. Access to the people we elected, remember?

The ‘online democracy’ experiments that have garnered the biggest public attention tend to be ‘talk-to-the-politician forums.’ While the approach varies, these are basically Internet-based dialogues between the people who make decisions and the people who elected them.

The classic example is Tony Blair’s BBC television appearance in 1998. As special guest on Sir David Frost’s weekly interview show, Blair opened himself up to questions sent live via an Internet chat room. While this is still pretty distant by Internet standards, it seemed to come from a genuine desire to open up a mass dialogue. Blair really seemed interested in finding out what would happen if he threw himself out into commonspace. Unfortunately, most of the questions were of the ‘What do you eat for breakfast?’ variety that fill the Fleet Street tabloids.

Despite the shallowness of the Frost interview, it seems that Blair and his people were bitten by the commonspace bug. The Number 10 Downing Street Web site <www.number-10.gov.uk> now includes two heavily used discussion spaces. The first section, called Speaker’s Corner, provides an open free-for-all on some two dozen political issues. The second, called Public Forum, opens up specific questions (women, parenting, transportation) for a period of time, and then provides a follow-up paper from the Prime Minister or a member of Cabinet. While this isn’t direct politician-to-citizen contact, it sure beats the commonspace endeavours of most other governments. Both the White House site <www.whitehouse.gov> (not <www.whitehouse.com> which is, amusingly, a particularly tawdry porn site) and the Government of Canada site <www.gc.ca> limit their citizen interaction to ‘contact us’ sections where you are encouraged to send ‘questions and comments’ to the government. Screw that. While Blair is pointing the way, other politicians are slow to follow.

Open the Committee Room Doors

The more interesting and concrete examples of the civic use of commonspace tend to be lesser known and focus on lower levels in the decision-making process, such as municipal referenda, communications regulations and local elections. In addition, the successful examples of citizen engagement online usually involve a mix of government, citizens’ groups and business. The people behind these efforts know that creating a public commons means creating synergies between all sectors of society.

One good example is the 1998 new media policy hearings held by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (the equivalent of the FCC). The purpose of these hearings was to gather industry and public opinion on the future of Canadian communications regulations within the rapidly changing context of new media. Given the topic, it seemed appropriate to open up the proceedings to people via the Internet.

Normally, CRTC hearings are formal, rigid affairs held face-to-face, somewhere in an office building across the river from the nation’s capital in the City of Hull. As a result, these hearings tend to be the domain of paid policy wonks who are already located in Ottawa and corporate lobbyists with big travel budgets. In addition, there are enough rules and regulations surrounding attendance to make a citizen’s head spin. Anyone who wants to can speak at one of these hearings, but would they actually feel welcome? It’s unlikely. ‘Average citizens’ are rarely seen in standing in front of the commissioners sharing their ideas.

The CRTC tried to change this by setting up Internet discussion forums to include as a part of the public record of its 1998 new media hearings. Held over the course of two months in the fall of 1998, these forums provided any Canadian with Internet access an opportunity to offer their ideas to the CRTC. The CRTC’s press release announcing the hearings said this about the online forums:

In addition to these formal procedures, the McLuhan Program E-Lab will host a New Media Forum website on behalf of the CRTC to enhance and extend the means whereby the public can engage in the discussions[3].

While this shouldn’t be taken as an indicator of mass, Internet-enabled democracy, it is certainly a far cry from a version of democracy that relies on rigid meetings in the capital city, or even from Tony Blair talking about his breakfast.

The interesting thing is that it wouldn’t have happened without the involvement of independent citizen’s groups and, to a lesser degree, businesses interesting in supporting the process. While the online portion of the hearings was included in the public record, the Web forum was actually run as an arm’s-length event by two organizations with an interest in media policy. The byDesign eLab and the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology set up the forums and facilitated the discussions on a donated server in Toronto. Both of these organizations believe strongly in the value of the Internet in democratic decision-making. As a result, and because of their track record for running other online forums, eLab and the McLuhan Program convinced the CRTC to let them run this semi official forum.

At a technical level, setting up a Web-based discussion forum is easy: just install the software and customize it a little. It’s a few days work, maybe. But getting a government body and a non-profit to agree on the civic ‘rules of engagement’ is a much more complex matter. Culture, not technology, is the real stumbling block.

The CRTC hearings had to deal with another problem — how to manage the online forums. The CRTC’s normal procedures are quite rigid, whereas Internet communication is quite fluid. Coming to an agreement on how to run the forums that met the needs of both of these cultures was a challenge. How would the discussion be moderated (minimally)? Who would be able to post (anyone)? To bridge the two cultures, the people at the eLab developed a set of ‘civil rules’ to guide the forum:

  1. This space is intended only for the discussion of new media policy issues.
  2. Contributors are solely responsible for their messages.
  3. When you post messages, please stay on topic.
  4. Advertising is not allowed.
  5. Forum moderators are responsible for facilitating discussions.

From the perspective of an Internet user, these rules seem like common-sense netiquette. From the perspective of a government policy discussion, it’s actually quite a radical step: they are fairly loose rules that open up alot of space for conversation. It’s steps like these that bring us closer to the creation of a public commons online.

Electric Politician Tricks

Another worthy example is Minnesota eDemocracy <www.e-democracy.org>. MinnesotaeDemocracy is an independent citizen’s organization whose goal is to facilitate dialogue between voters and politicians. Started during the 1994 elections for Governor and for the U.S. Senate, the organization set up a number of e-mail-based debates and citizen-to-citizen discussion forums. Given the fact that broad public use of the Internet was still in its infancy at the time, these discussions were extremely successful. Candidates and citizens chatted back and forth in e-mail on the major issues — taxes, crime, state’s rights. More importantly, people used the project’s mailing lists to talk to each other about what was going on in the debates (and the election in general). This communication created a broad dialogue about the election issues and helped people on opposing sides to understand each other. In turn, politicians gained access to a complex pool of ideas they could use when they moved into office.

As eDemocracy organizer Steven Clift observes, citizens are not only disconnected from government; they are also disconnected from each other[4]. This social fragmentation creates polarization and weakens democracy. In the Minnesota experiment (which has continued with all elections since 1994), adding commonspace to elections helped overcome some of this citizen-to-citizen disconnection. Much like the idea of connecting customers to each other in the business world, conversations in civic spaces are much more useful if people are talking as peers. Like businesses, politicians and government officials would do well to get down off their big horses and join the conversation. Get it, Kemosabe?

The Digital Divide

So: creating the public commons online means connecting citizens to each other. The question is, how?

The first part of the answer, especially for governments, is to stay out of the way for a while. Commonspace is an organic phenomenon. If experiments in civic commonspace are left to grow on their own, many of them will become bricks in the public commons. Most of these experiments are still in their infancy. We need to step back and let them grow. But active involvement from government and non-profits at some stage is essential. The commons will not emerge completely on its own.

One key factor in all of this is what’s known as ‘the digital divide’ — the gap between those who are connected and enfranchised online, and those who are not. Increasingly, governments (and some private foundations) have started to see a role for themselves in bridging this digital divide. If this role is thought through properly, it’s a good role for government.Many citizens — and sectors of society — will connect themselves. But assisting people with limited resources is essential to the broader goal of connecting citizens to each other.

The problem is that many governments are stuck on the simplistic notion that bridging the digital divide is mainly about connecting people to the network. As with the rest of commonspace, the connections that matter here are not just technological. Social connections — the expertise and support needed to make commonspace useful — are just as important. So in order for non-profits, rural people, and low-income people to really benefit from commonspace, they will need tools to transform their organizations, their businesses and the ways they make a living.

Amidst the hubbub of the mid-1990s Internet explosion, U.S. Republican representative Newt Gingrich quite seriously promoted handing out laptops to schoolchildren as the solution to poverty. In Canada, a ‘Connecting Canadians’ strategy has been at the core of national government policy since at least 1998[5]. For the most part, the Canadian program focuses on hooking up basic connections. For example, the Community Access Program, which operates within the ‘Connecting Canadians’ strategy, provides money for rural communities to set up public access Internet sites in libraries and other public spaces. Similarly, the VolNet program funds the purchase of basic computers, modems and dial-up Internet connections.

While these efforts are well-intentioned, they miss the point. If the last hundred years of media history means anything, we can be fairly certain that the market knows how to get basic media devices into the hands of almost everyone who wants them. They know that media devices like television and radio are excellent methods of getting messages to markets. For all its commonspace potential, the Internet will inevitably be a mass-marketing tool as well. This in turn means it’s pretty likely that everyone who wants access to the Internet will have it within reasonably short order. Internet access in Canada has jumped from 23% in 1996 to a projected 70% by the end of 2000[6]. Whether filling in the other 30% happens in 5 years or 15 is not important. Ubiquitous network connections for all who want them will happen, at least in North America and Europe. In this context, handing out hardware and connectivity is pretty much wrongheaded. It will neither bridge the digital divide nor will it connect citizens to citizens in any meaningful way.

People Not Wires

The real opportunity to bridge the digital divide comes at the level of the people. As we have seen, the civic sector is vital to the buzzing, socially-connecting energy of the town commons. Yet most non-profits do not have the resources needed to move the little-league soccer schedule or the pamphleteering or the delivery of community services onto the electronic commons. They need resources and advice to help them take what they do and make it work online. This means developing applications, training people in strategy, and animating community involvement. It involves people and the connections between people.

Much of the gruntwork of building bridges over the digital divide comes directly from communities themselves or from civic organizations. For example, the Center for Civic Networking and small businesses in rural areas of Hawaii, North Carolina, Ohio and New Mexico, has set up a collaborative retail site called The Public Web Market <development.civicnet.org/webmarket>. The aim of this project is to create a platform that bridges the gap between small rural businesses and people in urban areas. The vendors on the site offer a huge variety of ‘regional bounty’ — gourmet pickled peppers, specialty pasta, Navajo clothing, Hawaiian pareos, hand-crafted pens and euchre sets, miniature wooden vases, museum-quality gourds, family-farmed macadamia nuts, Kona coffee, and rare books. Through the Public Web Market, the people who create these products gain access to urban markets all over the U.S., and even all over the world. Thus the Center for Civic Networking has been able to link up rural people with large markets — which is a heck of a lot more useful than free laptops.

Luckily, there are a few governments and foundations who understand the difference between hardware and people-ware. One example is an Ontario government program we’ve worked with called Volunteer @ction.online[7]. V@O focuses on the applications and projects that connect volunteers and non-profits across organizational boundaries. It has supported collaborative online marketing by art galleries in isolated parts of the province. It has also helped to fund an Oracle-based system to aggregate bird-sighting information from thousands of volunteers into a solid, up-to-date picture of bird migration patterns. In addition, it has supported the development of collaborative workspaces for people who do on-the-ground training with micro-enterprises. The common thread in all these projects is a people-to-people focus that creates real social impact.

Meanwhile, a number of other governments and foundations are devising people-focused programs to bridge the digital divide. At the national level, Canada has the Community Learning Networks program which funds ‘people networks’ interested in education, employment and economic development. And the Connected Canadians people are slowly starting to talk about applications. In addition, the Markle Foundation in the U.S. has started giving support to digital democracy and online civic space projects. Internationally, the Soros Foundation (yes, that’sGeorge Soros) has been funding the civic use of the Internet for years. Hopefully, this wave will continue. The fact that a couple of huge foundations called us up recently to say ‘Everyone is doing the connection thing. How do we address the need for applications?’ is probably a good sign.

Supporting the development of commonspace applications for non-profits and economic development won’t instantly eliminate poverty. But then, neither will giving laptops to poor schoolchildren. The reason to attack the digital divide problemfrom a people-and-application perspective is is to build the public commons and create a vibrant democratic sphere online. In the long term, the weaving together of business, government and civil society will help us to solve broader social problems.

Self-Interest and the Common Good

Governments and non-profits are huge producers of information. At the same time, the information they produce is notoriously hard to use — both online and off. Similar information across multiple government departments is never in the same place, and government information across jurisdictions is completely disconnected. Non-profits, on the other hand, will often share information with each other but don’t usually have the resources or know-how to do so effectively. The result is that most of the information needed in the public commons is hard to get to and difficult to use when you find it.

The obvious solution is to aggregate all such information in a way that makes it more accessible. In the private sector, convincing people of the value of aggregation requires a business rationale (of which there are many). Sharing your information needs to make sense from the perspective of profit. But in the government and non-profit worlds, everybody has the same goals — get information out to serve the public interest. In this environment, aggregating to improve access to information should be a no-brainier, right?


Despite the fact that information aggregation offers both governments and non-profits a chance to improve what they do, most resist the idea. It comes down to the same problem we’ve seen with many commonspace opportunities — the tension between self-interest and the common good. Even in the government and non-profits worlds, people get stuck on the self-interest (or organizational interest) side of the fence. They see information as their prime asset and the sharing of information as a devaluation of this asset. They fail to realize that when information is shared and aggregated, it gains value.

One place where people understand the self-interest/common good balance is community information centres. Started well before the public explosion of the Internet, community information centres are essentially non-profit organizations that aggregate information about social and community services. Using print directories and telephone hotlines, they refer people to libraries, hostels, food banks, health services and so on. In cities that have community information centres, finding information about social services becomes easy — across jurisdictions, across organizations, across departments.

The Internet and online information aggregation are a perfect venue for community information centres. In Canada, centres are rushing online at a furious pace. Once online, they immediately mount a electronic, searchable version of their directories. By doing so, they also create a new version of themselves. They can make mini-Web pages for the organizations listed in the directory and give these organizations the power to maintain these pages. They can create sub-directories that focus on a particular sector or service area. The result is three services instead of one — a central online directory, multiple thematic online directories, and automated web sites for non-profits. In addition, the process of updating these information products becomes automated and distributed.

The next step, of course, would be to aggregate the aggregators. If community information centres could connect their online directories together, it would be easy to find information not only from all sorts of non-profit organizations but also from various jurisdictions. All of a sudden, it would be possible to have a system where a person looking for a specialized counseling service near the city of Newark could look in both New York and New Jersey with a single search.

One of the ongoing debates in the community information centre world is whether this kind of aggregation should be centralized or decentralized. Some organizations believe that the best approach is a single database for all non-profits and all jurisdictions. Others believe that there will inevitably be many different databases and that what’s needed is a way to search across all of these database at once (using XML). While both approaches would produce similar results, one relies on heavy centralization. As we have seen in the business world, decentralization and the ability to deal with diverse systems is the most likely path to success within commonspace.

Swimming With Government

Obviously, the value of this kind of aggregation extends just as much or more to government as it does to non-profits. The one project that seems to get the opportunities that commonspace presents is the FirstGov initiative <www.firstgov.com>. Slated for a fall 2000 launch, FirstGov will be a single online source for information from across the entire U.S. Government. Instead of burdening users with the near-impossible task of guessing which department or agency has the information they need, FirstGov indexes everything in a single database. From the site, people will be able to quickly find all the documents related to car emissions whether they are from the Department of Transportation, the Department of Health, the Department of Energy or the Environmental Protection Agency.

The people behind FirstGov not only understand the value of aggregating all government information into a single pool is, but they also seem to know that the best way to succeed online is to invite others for a dip in the same pool. The FirstGov index database will be open to other portals who want to provide access to government information. So people will be able to search some or all of FirstGov from Yahoo, AltaVista or Joe’s Local Portal.

US Government
Web Sites

Joe’s Local Portal

With this model, territorial information boundaries disappear between government departments and between government and the outside world. The information moves from where people aren’t (government Web sites) to exactly where people are (everywhere else). Despite the silly bureaucratic tone of the pilot Web site, it sounds as if FirstGov is the real commonspace McCoy.

Unfortunately, other attempts to aggregate information across government departments and jurisdictions don’t take this boundary crashing tack. In addition, they’ve been deadly slow to emerge. The Canadian Government took a shot at it in a pilot project called Access.ca and has promised to launch ‘the real thing’ in coming years. But we’re still waiting. And the private sector has stepped up with solutions like CivicLife <www.civiclife.com> which promise to ‘eliminate the red tape, long lineups and other traditional barriers we normally experience while interacting with the civic world.’ But up to now, it’s still vapourware. Hopefully, the promises will become reality in the near future. For this to happen, governments will need to follow the FirstGov model, loosen up a little, and learn a little from the more fluid approach of non-profit community service providers. We’re all in this together. We all want this. Chill out. Relax.

Opportunities for an Electronic Commons

The success of civic commonspace isn’t just about governments opening the committee room doors and easing access to its data pools. Creating the public commons online will more likely be driven by hundreds of much smaller opportunities, especially on the non-profit side of things. These might look something like the following:

Connecting Citizens

A quick sampling of the 2300 forums under the heading ‘politics’ at eGroups.com suggests that most forums are filled with people who meet online in order to agree with each other, such as the ‘Kee for Congress’ list or the list for people who support Al Gore in Oregon. Evidently, there is little discussion between people holding opposing views and virtually none where politicians are directly involved.

For democracy to flourish online, we also need space where people who disagree can talk openly and respectfully, and where politicians can join in as peers. How do you make this happen a practical way? Who knows? It probably has to do with politicians becoming more humble and taking a few risks, and (inevitably) learning first-hand the true meaning of being flamed. For that matter, it probably means that the average Internet chat user has to develop some social and rhetorical skills that will allow them to hold their own with politicians. Experiments are essential. Through these experiments, we get closer to the public commons.

Organizing Communities

Recall the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization in 1999 <wtoaction.org>. The headlines read something like ‘Net-Savvy Activists Shut Down Meeting of Clueless Trade Bureaucrats.’ True to a degree, but the real story is more interesting. Organizers used the Internet to bring together a huge diversity of political organizations in Seattle — environmentalists, unions, liberals, anarchists, even hackers. They knew that commonspace was one way to bridge the gaps between these disparate groups. Whether you agree with the protesters or not, you have to admit that this was a very impressive feat.

Community and political organizing is probably one of the most successful civic uses of the Internet. With all the online community strategies that have developed over the years, organizers can truly pull in the power of the collective. The groups involved in the WTO protest used Internet organizing as a way to surprise their opponents (Yes, there’s still more than one side to politics in commonspace).

Of course, the point is not that the Internet is a good way to stop a trade delegation from meeting (although this seems to work :-)). Rather, it is that online collaboration is an effective tool for political organizing. And obviously, political organizing and debate are key to feeding an active democratic system.

Lobbying and Advocacy

In September 2000, well known environmentalist David Suzuki launched the Click For Clean Air web site <www.clickforcleanair.org>. This site had only one aim — to get as many people as possible to pressure the Canadian government to live up to its commitments on the reduction of greenhouse gases. Everyone who came to the site was encouraged to fill out a Web form that would then be faxed to the appropriate politicians. The aim: build enough momentum and pressure with online action to get politicians to change their tune at the UN environment summit later in the fall.

As sites like this demonstrates, the Internet has the potential to help advocacy-based non-profits do what they’ve always done best — bring people together around an issue. Historically, this has meant pulling thousands of people out onto the street for protests. But except for rare flare -ups like Seattle, the protest march is dead. It’s being quickly replaced by commonspace, with its ability aggregate voices and fuel the conversation.

Delivering Services

On the more mundane side of the public commons is service delivery. The opportunities here are clear: use commonspace to make government services more people-friendly and make it easier for non-profits to deliver services.

Industry Canada’s Strategis <www.strategis.gc.ca> and Ontario Business Connects <www.ccr.gov.on.ca/obcon/welcome.htm> are some early examples of attempts to create people-friendly service online. Both sites offer online business registration services and other resources to support small business.

The problem is, these sites are so siloed and isolated that that they are almost impossible to use. The business registration services on Strategis are completely disconnected from the private firms that do name searches, yet the online registration process requires electronic name search receipts from these businesses. Moreover, Business Connects uses proprietary online forms that crash all but the hardiest of browsers. The ‘security features’ of Strategis lock out anyone with a dynamically generated IP address because the site can’t determine that you really are who you say you are. (Heaven forbid that a PDF of The Canadian Consumer Handbook should fall into the wrong hands!) The good news is that governments seem to be learning from their mistakes. Business Connects plans to move to a more open XML-based system that will allow it to integrate with related systems in the private sector.

For non-profit groups, the Internet creates opportunities to collaborate service delivery. A good example is WorkInk <www.workink.com>, an online employment-counseling service for people with disabilities. With WorkInk, unemployed people with disabilities log onto the site and enter a chat counselling session in real time. The counsellor asks questions about work interests, experience, past problems finding jobs, and all the normal counselling stuff. The interesting thing is that the counsellor could be from any of half-a-dozen non-profit groups cooperatively running the site. Linked by a common mandate to deliver employment counselling, these organizations figured they’d be better off joining forces  to run one national service than they would be running separate sites on their own.

Collaborative Fundraising

Non-profits and political groups can also take advantage of commonspace to do collaborative fund-raising. Similar to the example of small used bookstores sharing an online marketing and fulfillment infrastructure, collaborative fundraising provides a shared platform for like-minded people. Collaboration not only reduces the cost of infrastructure (actually, plain-vanilla online fundraising is becoming quite cheap), but it also provides an opportunity for shared traffic building and marketing. It’s especially useful where there is a galvanizing issue or idea linking the fund-raisers, so that people move beyond just asking for cash and into community building.

A great example of this is a site called MoveOn <www.moveon.org>. Started in response to the Clinton Impeachment campaign, MoveOn aims to ‘bring ordinary people back into politics.’ To do this, it both aggregates donations from many of small donors (‘ordinary people’) and brings together organizations with a common political concern. For example, it’s ‘We Will Remember’ campaign is aimed at ousting unresponsive politicians who are addicted to partisan politics. As a part of this campaign, over 25 politicians running against dug-in incumbents are using MoveOn as a fundraising platform. As of August 2000, the campaign had raised over $13 million towards the fall 2000 election.

While this kind of collaborative fund-raising is fairly rare — and the connection of online fundraising to real issues even more so — it is starting to grow. There are rumours of online donation services with a strong focus on aggregation and joint marketing starting up in the near future. Whether or not these rumours are true, it is likely that those who will succeed in the future of online fund-raising will understand collaboration and commonspace.

The Blur of Democracy

Just as we are walking all over the traditional boundaries between customer and corporation, the walls between government and citizen are also starting to crumble. The conversation has started, and we want in. As this happens, we’ll be less and less reliant on the experts in traditional non-profits to represent us from ivory towers. We’ll want to be treated as partners in the civic process — as part of the collective expert. To deal with these changes, governments and non-profits will need to make fundamental changes about who they are. Like business, they will need to become organizations with commonspace in their blood.

This will only happen when the civic world learns to think outside of its old containers and frameworks. Traditional ideas of the non-profit and even government aren’t going to work any more. New, hybrid, paradigm-shifting ways of thinking and doing civic life are necessary.

We see the hints of this new world in the open source movement. On the one hand, it owes its roots to a highly politicized movement headed by a formal non-profit foundation (Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation <www.gnu.org>). On the other hand, it’s fuelled by big public companies who do everything from selling support to providing free resources back to the open source community (i.e. VA Linux underwrites Slashdot and SourceForge). In between are all sorts formal and informal, commercial and non-commercial endeavours. Is open source about a sense of community and (online) civic values? Or about making money? Both, neither, and it doesn’t matter. Open source and a lot of other commonspace endeavours don’t respect these traditional boundaries.

The people most involved in the non-profit world’s use of the Internet also understand that boundary-hopping imperative. For example, Web Networks and other NGO ASPs in the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) have been mixing grassroots organizing and entrepreneurship for years <www.apc.org/english/ngos/business/buscase>. At their core, APC members are grassroots organizations dedicated to putting Internet technology into the hands of non-profits. But in order to sell Internet services just above cost to keep afloat, they steal a lot of their best ideas from business. They rely on private sector partners to help with service delivery. They listen to their users like customers (in the good sense). They know you need to provide real value to thrive, even as a non-profit. The result is a group of organizations that look like a weird blenderized mix of activist values and business smarts.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Tao Communications <www.tao.ca> has developed a model of civic organizing that throws out formal non-profit-ism in favour of the pure anarchist ethic of the Internet.  With affiliates around the world, Tao is a loose federation of people connected by a playful mutual interest in hacktivism, the environment, gay rights, marijuana, labour, anarchist politics, Linux and stopping globalization. Most of these issues are the traditional turf of formal, single-issue non-profits. As such, you’d rarely find them on the same Web site much less with in the same ‘organization.’ Not so at Tao. By eschewing traditional organizational models and letting any link-minded cluster of people ‘join,’ Tao hacks down old barriers and creates what feels like a new kind of civic entity (the post-governmental organization?[8]).

Tao’s Matrix Project Web site <matrix.tao.ca> is the best example of this. Using the same software that runs the Slashdot site, the Matrix Project connects together a constellation of almost a dozen virtual activist organizations. Each group feeds into content using RSS/RDF. Each group shares in posting and moderating content. Each group is highly represented and promoted on the site. Whether or not your agree with Tao’s politics, it’s hard not to be impressed by the fact that all of this happens without any formal organization or agreements.

Rave in the Town Square

Looking around at these examples, it’s clear that tortoise is coming along. She’s learning a whole bunch of new tricks. She’s hopping around in a hyperactive, twisted, creative dance that looks like the future of the public commons — and of the civic world in general. It’s a world where things move fluidly between what we used to think of a commerce, government and civil society. And hopefully, it’s also a world where earnest protests can be replaced by a rave in the town square.

[1] The Internet — or ARPANet — was originally invented for use by the US military.
[2] Elisabeth Richard, “Sustainable Interactivity For Government Web Sites”, G8 Report on Democracy and Government On-Line Services, <www.statskontoret.se/gol-democracy/canada.htm>, 1999.
[3] CRTC, CRTC surveys state of new media, Press release, July 31, 1998, < www.newmedia-forum.net/news/pr.html>.
[4] Steven Clift, A Wired Agora Minneapolis, Citizen Participation, the Internet and Squirrels, 1999, <publicus.net/present/agora.html>
[5] <www.connect.gc.ca/en/100-e.htm>
[6] Angus Reid survey, July 2000 <www.angusreid.com/media/content/displaypr.cfm?id_to_view=1061>.
[7] < www.gov.on.ca/MCZCR/english/citdiv/voluntar/vao-brochure.htm>
[8] The ‘post-governmental organization (PGO)’ was discussed at the Next Five Minutes 3 conference in Amsterdam, March 1999. <www.n5m.org>


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