The Making of a Community Website
The idea for Annandale Online, the thesis project for my Master of Liberal Studies degree from the University of Minnesota, originated during my 1997 fall class "Computers in Culture" with Professor Peter Lock. Prior to that time I had considered my final thesis to be an ethnography of Annandale, the small town where I have lived for almost 30 years. But while an ethnography took advantage of my strong interest in my community, I was dismayed by the idea that the product of my labors would sit on a shelf somewhere, never to be read or used by anyone. So when I discovered the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV), the community website for Blacksburg, Virginia1, I realized that a dynamic information resource for and about Annandale was what I wanted to do. A living ethnography.
Creating Annandale Online for my MLS thesis project has enabled me to combine my strong interests in computers and in Annandale while serving my community. I was inspired by the report from Blacksburg that people were using the BEV to
Even if the positive effects of the BEVs enhancement of community life were exaggerated, to the extent that a local website might strengthen and reinforce the ties within a community, I was convinced that creating a community website in Annandale was a worthwhile endeavor. Annandale Online came into being as a result of my desire to serve and support my own town and my feelings about small towns in general.
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Living in a small town is a unique cultural experience. It is special in a number of ways: the solidarity of community identity, a heightened sense of caring, knowing one another's business, and having large extended families all living nearby. Everyone has networks of personal contacts, including metro residents, but in a small town there are more overlapping networks.
My personal experiences in Annandale confirm that regular face-to-face contact reinforces community solidarity and caring about each other. Because there is one high school, one post office, one major grocery store, one bank, and a Main Street, there is a stronger shared sense of community.
I am most aware of this small town network and community because it is such a contrast to my own hometown. I am from a suburb, a place that didn't exist a generation before I was born, so there is no possibility for deep roots or traditions. Annandale, my adopted home, is like many other small towns where deep roots and extended families living nearby create a shared history. More newly created communities like suburbs will not have such history for a long time, and a place like Sun City, Arizona, will never have it .
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Douglas Schuler, author of New Community Networks: Wired for Change, states that "Before computers took center stage, the term 'community network' was ...the web of community that described how news traveled and how social problems were addressed in the community. New computer-based 'community networks' [community websites now] are recent innovations that are intended to help revitalize, strengthen, and expand existing people-based community networks much in the same way the previous civic innovations have helped communities historically."3
Annandale Onlines Mission4 states that the two most valuable outcomes of a community website are strengthening the community and increasing the connectedness within the community. It can also give local residents control over their time in their social interactions and support the democratic process by providing a platform for communication with government officials and community leaders. There is already greater connectedness to family and friends in a small town than in larger areas. This is one of the strengths of the community. While it might seem unlikely to use the Internet to communicate with folks that are so close, it can be viewed as just another means of communication, one that gives people better control over their time while providing interaction with family and friends within the community as easily as those far away. In that respect it is like the telephone, just another means of communication. Using the Internet to "chat" in Chat Rooms ignores one of the most valuable features of Internet communication, its asynchronicity. When users can check out information stored on websites and send and receive e-mails on their own time, they gain control over their time. Both VCRs and voicemail give users similar control over their time. TV watchers can tape programs and watch them when they want to in the same way that voicemail lets telephone communication take place at a convenient time for each speaker.
Another practical value of a community website is using e-mail links to interact with elected officials. Governmental bodies such as the city and school are currently required to publish minutes of meetings in a newspaper, and they will probably be required to provide information to the public in electronically in the future. A community website is the ideal vehicle for this purpose.
Parental involvement has often been cited as a key factor in educational success, and ease of connecting home with school using e-mail will increase communication. Connecting via telephone is difficult considering parents busy schedules, and entrusting students to take home notes from their teachers can be very unreliable. The School Staff E-Mail Addresses in the E-Mail Directories5 section will contribute to students educational success. According to Ann Beamish, author of "Communities On-Line: Community Based Computer Networks," research shows that "if one wants to increase the attachment of residents to their community one way is to provide ways to increase informal interaction between residents and participation in commercial organizations."6 The Chamber of Commerce in Annandale takes on this role in events such as the Business Expo. Although the Expo is face-to-face interaction, the website fills a similar role in cyberspace. Community websites are designed to increase interaction between residents and commercial institutions and organizations, both electronically and physically, and interaction strengthens a community. In Blacksburg, Virginia, when 83% of the households were online, residents said they "feel closer to others in the community now that the Internet is part of the local social fabric."7 Beamish also says that "community networks' role as providers of information and communication may be secondary to their role as animators for creating a sense of place and community."8
Annandale Online also exists to serve Annandales Second Community, the group defined on the E-Mail Directories page as "people with ties to the community that are geographically away, such as AHS graduates, seasonal residents, and families and friends of residents."9 College-age students are already using the E-Mail Directory section with enthusiasm. What in past decades was a resort population in Annandale has become a seasonal population of people who have summer homes here and permanent homes elsewhere (usually the Twin Cities) during the other three seasons. These people contribute significantly to the economy in the summer months, but many also enter into the life of the community. There are many marriages of locals and "cabin-kids."
Another seasonal group is the older local residents who have freedom from jobs and children and adequate resources to winter in the South. They are even more likely than the summer residents to check a website from "back home" because of their deep roots here. All of these groups are likely to want to connect with friends and family in their second communities using the Internet, and Annandale Online can fill that need.
Cheryl Davis, director of WinonaNet, the community website in Winona, Minnesota, says that if people wish to maintain the local community identity, to "retain the characteristics that make them interesting and safe places to live, then communities must invest in local community solutions with a measure of local control."10 Annandale must not relinquish its identity in the 21st century, and a community website is a step in that direction. When considering consolidations in rural school districts and mergers in the business community plus the globalization of culture and the economy, it is apparent that Annandale's identity could be in jeopardy. It is solid now, but it could easily slip away, and it is worth preserving.
The time for a community website is now. Andrew Cohill, director of the BEV, says,
Annandale is still is one of those small, tightly knit communities that others are trying to recapture, and it behooves us to appreciate the value of what we have and do what we can to encourage its vitality.
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There were several major tasks to accomplish on the way to launching the website.12
I had been gathering information for my dry ethnography for several years before I created Annandale Online, but my formal study of Annandales social infrastructure took place during a directed study class during winter quarter 1998. I studied community journalism, particularly the local weekly newspaper, the Annandale Advocate, and created a searchable database of information contained in the paper from 1990 to 1997.
Develop Technical Expertise
Before I could build a community website I had to learn how to do it. Lacking any skills in website authoring I bought the tutorial book Dummies 101: FrontPage 98. Using Microsoft FrontPage 98 software I learned how to create pages and hyperlinks, edit pages, and publish to the Web. I used my new knowledge to create a website for a womens organization, the Annandale Improvement Club, and it was published October 15, 1998, at www.lkdllink.net/~improv/.
Develop a Plan
My second directed study class during fall quarter, 1998, was the development of "A Strategic Plan for a Model Community Website in Annandale." It included Mission, Rationale, Objectives, Budget, Organization, Timeline, and a Sample Home Page that became the template for the overall structure of the actual website.
After I created the Plan and gained rudimentary expertise to implement it, I showed the Plan to Annandales city coordinator, Mary Degiovanni. She presented it to the Annandale City Council, and on January 4, 1999, they voted to adopt the Plan and sponsor (finance) a community website.
Publish to the Web
In early 1999 I built the website, and Annandale Online was launched to the Web at www.annandaleonline.com on March 20, 1999. The Home Page included 12 categories of local information.13
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The issue of control of Annandale Onlines content is addressed in the Organization14 part of the "About this Website" section.15 It is still too early in the websites history for any serious controversies to have arisen, but the issue of censorship came up at the first meeting of the Website Steering Committee meeting on March 30, 1999. Concern was expressed that public sponsorship of the website necessitates the inclusion of all organizations in the community, even a KKK chapter. While no solution to that issue was found, the group was generally satisfied with the organizational structure that says: "The city holds the ultimate authority on policies and decisions, but recommendations of the Website Steering Committee will be respected in most instances."16 They also accepted the role of the coordinator as the front line of decision-making; she initially inputs all of the content to the website without consulting either the city or the committee.
Content inclusion/exclusion is one half of the control issue, and the other half is content placement, especially on the Home Page. The twelve sections on the Home Page include two commercial entities, the newspaper, The Annandale Advocate, and the ISP, Lakedale Communications. I made the decision to put the Advocate on the top of the page as a conscious effort to dispel any potential element of competition between the two main community communication media. The Objectives state the need for the website to be a collaborative effort with all communication media in the community.17
The issue of control will be more complex when more people are controlling their own pages and Annandale Online merely links to them. This is a good problem, however, one that is evidence of community involvement. Currently, other than the school, the newspaper, and the ISP, the only local organizations with links from Annandale Online are St. Johns Lutheran Church, The Improvement Club, and the Heart of the Lakes Triathlon (HOLT).18
The Internet itself presents a challenge to Annandale because of its potential negative economic impact on small towns. There are worries that small town citizens may choose to shop online, and "cyberspace [may] finish off what Wal-mart started."19 Annandale Online can encourage small town loyalty to buy locally, a factor that doesnt enter into metro economics.
From a personal standpoint I have found the many aspects of mastering website administration to be technically challenging, from learning to build the website using the new software to transferring it to the Web. Another personal challenge is using diplomacy to handle the small town dynamics of overlapping networks and interests.
At this early stage of Annandale Onlines existence there have been no significant barriers. Once the city agreed to sponsor the site, only my lack of experience and expertise in creating a website has slowed its progress. Barriers to access to the Internet are usually thought to be only financial, but research has identified other barriers as age and computer-phobia. To address these I regularly teach a Computer First Timers class through Community Education, including one session specifically for seniors. Public access to the Internet is available at the Public Library, the Community Education office, and the high school media center, but very few people know about these locations since none of them are advertised. I have and will continue to regularly encourage the publication of these resources.
Another barrier to usage of Annandale Online is merely not knowing about it. I recently started an aggressive campaign to increase the listings in the E-Mail Directories. As I contact people to ask for permission to put their names in the directory I have requested that they forward my message to others. Those that know about it have shown interest, and there will be more overt advertising later to inform people that Annandale has a community website.
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The structure for Annandale Online is in place, and it has considerable breadth with some depth in its 50 pages. But as a virtual representation of the physical community, a community website is a dynamic thing, unlike a traditionally published work, and it must grow and change regularly.
Improve the Home Page
I intend to keep the structure of the Home Page essentially constant but to improve its appearance. It should be interesting, attractive, and informative of the whole website's contents without having to click in. Right now it is functional but boring. The local print shop is currently working on a title graphic with blue waves under the word "Annandale", a variation on the logo that is used by the city and Chamber and which appears on our water tower. There will also be a small line map of the state with "Annandale, Minnesota" inside the map.
Increase Content and Usage
Annandale Onlines content must be current and accurate to be usable, therefore, my first priority is to maintain it well. My second priority is to increase it, both in depth and breadth. Usage will increase as the content grows, so my early emphasis has been to increase the content in 3 areas: Calendar20, E-Mail Directories21, and Civic Groups22. Being part of the website will give people ownership in it and increase its usage. Adding listings to the E-Mail Directory will generate interest in the website and is a high priority. On May 5th the hit counter registered 265 hits. On May 7th I sent a message to 59 students about the E-mail directory, and on May 10th the hit counter registered 377 hits. I will break AHS students and graduates into class years when I have more of them, and later on I will include class reunion information.
I'll be soliciting Calendar listings from civic organizations, their fund-raisers and important events. I know that they will be eager to be included on the website that way. Putting every organizations events in the calendar will generate use by the members of those organizations. At this time only 3 of the 23 civic organizations have their own pages, but I intend to make a page for every civic organization later. When there is sufficient content on the website I will advertise in the newspapers and on the electronic kiosk. A good time would be Labor Day when many summer residents will be in Annandale to see it.
Community Input and Participation
My biggest challenge of all is to draw the community into contributing to the process of growing and maintaining Annandale Online, not just using it as a reference for information. The Mission statement says that the website is "by, for and about" the community. Presently it is "for" and "about" the community, but "by" me alone.
Two civic groups have already expressed an interest in controlling their own pages which they will transfer directly to the server. When more pages are controlled by community members and not by me, then Annandale Online will be more of a network, a many-to-many communication medium rather than a one-to-one broadcast medium like a newspaper, radio or TV. The numerous e-mail addresses on the website for commercial, public and civic organizations and individual people also enable Annandale Online to be more than a reference resource, a real community network.
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All of society is impacted by the new technology, the Internet, but small towns have more to gain and lose as a community. They can gain access to the outside world, but in doing so they risk the loss of the precious community connectedness that they have and others desire. A local website can help to offset that risk by strengthening the social infrastructure and interdependence that is so legendary in small towns. I am proud to have had the opportunity to contribute to the realization of that potential by creating Annandale Online.
While Annandale Online has only been on the Web for only a few weeks, the early responses have been very supportive and positive. The secondary community has been especially appreciative of a way to connect to Annandale online. One local businessman expressed that he was glad that the community website is being done by a local person rather than someone from outside Annandale with just profit in mind.
Building a community website has been a challenging and rewarding process that has added a new dimension to my connection with Annandale. That it is the capstone of my MLS degree is almost a secondary bonus. I look forward to building it further and maintaining Annandale Online in the future. The Internet is an exciting new communication medium, and I am glad that my new avocation lets me be part of it.
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1 The town of Blacksburg, Virginia, was the site of an experiment begun in the early 1990s (before the Web) to see how a highly linked community would behave. Blacksburg now offers training to other communities to start their own community websites. Visit the BEV (Blacksburg Electronic Village) webpage at (http://www.bev.net/).
2 Rajiv Chandrasekaran, "A Web Grows in Blacksburg," Connect-Time June, 1997, vol.1 no.8, insert in Minneapolis StarTribune.
3 Douglas Schuler, New Community Networks: Wired for Change (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1996) 25.
4 See Appendix III-1 for Annandale Onlines tertiary page, "Mission"
5 See Appendix II-2 for Annandale Onlines secondary page, "E-mail Directories"
6 Ann Beamish, "Communities On-Line: Community Based Computer Networks," masters thesis, MIT, 1995, 4.8.
7 Andrew Cohill, Community Network Briefing Book (Blacksburg, Virginia: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1998) 10.
8 Beamish 7.8.
9 See Appendix II-2 for Annandale Onlines secondary page, "E-mail Directories"
10 Cheryl Davis, grant report, "Developing a Community Information Network" (1996): 10.
11 Cohill 12-13.
12 See Appendix III-5 for Annandale Onlines tertiary page, "History"
13 See Appendix I-1 for Annandale Onlines "Home Page"
14 See Appendix III-4 for Annandale Onlines tertiary page, "Organization"
15 See Appendix II-9 for Annandale Onlines secondary page, "About this Website"
16 See Appendix III-4 for Annandale Onlines tertiary page, "Organization"
17 See Appendix III-3 for Annandale Onlines tertiary page, "Objectives"
18 The webpages for St. Johns Lutheran Church, www.lkdllink.net/~stjohns, The Annandale Improvement Club, www.lkdllink.net/~improv/ , Heart of the Lakes Triathlon, www.lkdllink.net/~holt/, [moved to www.holtri.org ] are pages off of the ISP, Lakedale Link.
19 Reed Karim, "Technology and Its Discontents," Civilization, May/June 1995, in Charles P. Cozic, ed. The Information Highway: Current Controversies (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996).
20 See Appendix II-1 for Annandale Onlines secondary page, "Calendar"
21 See Appendix II-2 Annandale Onlines secondary page, "E-mail Directories"
22 See Appendix II-3 for Annandale Onlines secondary page, "Civic Organizations"
I. Annandale Online Home Page ( http:\\www.annandaleonline.com )
II. Annandale Online Secondary Pages
(pages reached by one click from the Home Page)
II-A Calendar ( http://www.annandaleonline.com/Calendar )
II-B E-Mail Directories ( http://www.annandaleonline.com/Directories )
II-C Civic Groups ( http://www.annandaleonline.com/Civic )
II-D Government ( http://www.annandaleonline.com/Government )
II-E Business ( http://www.annandaleonline.com/Business )
* Annandale Advocate ( www.annandalearea.com )
II-G Education (http://www.annandaleonline.com/Education/education.htm)
II-H Health Care ( http://www.annandaleonline.com/Health )
* Lakedale Communications ( www.lkdllink.net )
II-J About this Website
* Weather (http://www.intellicast.com/weather/msp/ )
*Three of the twelve sections on the Home Page do not link to pages that are part of Annandale Online, they are external links to websites outside of Annandale Online.
III. Annandale Online Tertiary Pages in the "About this Website" section
III-F Content Guidelines
III-G Technical Stuff
III-J Future Developments
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