The European Institute of Communication and Culture is engaged in a long-term investigation into understanding the problems and possibilities of electronic networks in democracies. The second in a series of seminars on this topic was held in October 2002 in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Then, some 60 scholars from across Europe, North America and Australasia convened and presented papers related to a single overriding question: In what manner and to what degree can electronic networks contribute to a more informed and politically active citizenry?

Many of the papers presented at this event are being revised for publication in four journal theme issues, scheduled for release during the course of 2003.1 This issue of JCMC brings together the first collection of articles from this event. It is no coincidence that three of these six articles are concerned with facets of community networks, which is one of the potentially most fruitful arenas for implementation of electronic networks designed for democratic purposes. The other three articles in this issue consider the theoretical grounding of electronic democracy, the predisposition of discussants to search out the like-minded while online, and the implications of virtual communities for e-citizenship.

The issue leads off with a contribution by Teresa Harrison (University of Albany, SUNY) and James Zappen (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York) who lay the methodological and theoretical groundwork for an action-oriented, design-supportive study of a community network initiative in Troy, New York.

Leigh Keeble (University of Teesside, UK) examines the effect of a project aimed at increasing participation through information and communication technologies (ICTs) in community groups. Her aim is to determine whether community informatics projects impact on individual and community development in areas with high levels of social and economic deprivation. Based on a case study of a community network project in the UK, she argues that the rhetoric and policies of such projects are seldom grounded in the realities of the everyday lives of the individuals and groups in the community. As a consequence, she expects the impact of such networks will be limited.

Tanja Oblak (University of Ljubljana, Slovenia), after a theoretical elaboration on electronic democracy, examines the main obstacles that discourage Internet users from more direct involvement in political life. She explores the possibilities for creation of a more interactive and open form of political engagement. Although computer-mediated communication may be a starting point for expanding and strengthening participation in political processes, Oblak argues that the solution is not in the technology.

Christina Prell (University of Leeds, UK) reports on an ongoing dissertation project of a community network in Troy, New York. She considers various measures of social capital as developed by social network analysts and applies them to hypotheses related to individuals involved in the development of this community network. Her paper shows that popular people, that is those with whom actors like to interact, are also people holding the strategic positions in the community. More specifically, she demonstrates that government agency employees are the most popular and powerful actors in the network.

Jennifer Stromer-Galley (University of Albany, SUNY) takes as her starting point the debate as to whether people choose to interact online with the like-minded or those that are different. Based on interviews with online discussants collected from a larger project, the findings suggest that people perceive themselves to be interacting with those who are different. Overall, the respondents in this study note appreciation regarding the diversity of people and opinions encountered online.

The concluding article in this theme issue is prepared by a team of scholars under the direction of Barry Wellman: Anabel Quan-Haase, Jeffrey Boase, Wenhong Chen (all from the University of Toronto), Keith Hampton (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Isabel Díaz de Isla Gómez (Open University of Catalonia, Spain), and Kakuko Miyata (University of Tokyo). They, first of all, review findings from a series of studies related to the role of Internet-based communication in transforming or enhancing community. This work suggests that the Internet is used for connectivity on a local as well as global scale, although the degree varies for different countries. Internet use, this team argues, is supplementing other forms of communication, rather than replacing them. This and other findings may have consequences for civic involvement.

As mentioned at the beginning of this introduction, other events are scheduled to follow the Euricom Colloquium held in October 2002. First, a preconference is planned at the International Communication Association in May 2003 in San Diego. Also, preparations for an international comparative research project, entitled Internet and Elections, are in an advanced state of development. This group hopes to hold a panel at the Association of Internet Researchers conference in Toronto in October 2003, and a special training workshop about Web archiving and analysis in Singapore in March 2004. At about the same time, a revised and edited selection of the papers originally prepared for the two Euricom Colloquia will be published in the book series Euricom Monographs available from Hampton Press.

All of these activities are related to what has come to be known as the Euricom Project. One of the main objectives of this project is to undertake research concerned with the societal implications and impacts of electronic networks on democratic institutions and practices during the coming decade. Central to this objective is the need to develop an ongoing working group, including both young and established researchers, concerned with the enactment of this agenda through long-term exploration of electronic networks. The above-mentioned project, Internet and Elections, is a step in that direction and the organizers welcome hearing from interested researchers.2

In closing, I wish to thank the institutions that made the 2002 Euricom Colloquium financially possible: the European Commission program for High-Level Scientific Conferences, the Ford Foundation, the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, the Amsterdam School of Communication Research, and the University of Nijmegen, which hosted the event. I also wish to thank Michelle Camps and Marian van Bakel for their onsite logistic support during the event. Special words of appreciation are due to Marieke Jansen who was responsible for the organization of the post-colloquium virtual meetings and for the editorial preparation of these articles. Sameena Shahid, staff member of Bodies Electric in New York, the company that developed the Internet meeting software Unchat™, assisted members of the Euricom Colloquium in holding two virtual meetings with this software; we are grateful for her support. Finally, I would like to thank all of the participants in the Euricom Colloquium for their contributions to this long-term scholarly endeavor at investigating the relationship between electronic networks and democracy.

  • 1

    The other three journals are: Communications: The European Journal of Communication Research, Javnost/The Public and the Electronic Journal of Communication.

  • 2

    Interested persons should contact Randy Kluver, general coordinator of the project.