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Information cities

Making Information Cities Livable

No one says, "I live in Manhattan because it contains so much information" or "I was really happy to move out of Elmtown because it contained so little information." Information is but one part of what makes cities lively and livable. Designers and policymakers focusing exclusively on the information component of information cities miss the fact that much of what makes physical cities desirable places to live and do business in, as well as just to visit, is the interactions among people. Social interaction is organized in many ways, including social and civic groups, religious institutions, sports clubs and leagues, hobby groups, neighborhood groups, and family and friendship groups. To be sure, information is produced and exchanged in these settings. But social interaction in the physical world involves much more than producing and consuming information.

The Net today offers numerous examples of organized social interaction, including hundreds of thousands of interacting groups supported by such applications as Usenet, listservs, AOL forums, multi-user domains (MUDs), object-oriented MUDs (MOOs), Web-based discussions, Internet relay chat, and instant messaging. Information city designers must design for social interaction, as well as for straightforward information consumption. Here, we explore the relationship between information and participation in electronic communities on the Net today. Whereas most such communities are global in reach, local information cities are tied to and embedded in their physical counterparts. We explore how electronic participation in a local infocity might affect everyday lives in local communities in the physical world.

Participation in electronic communities often begins with a search for information. Rarely does anyone wake up in the morning and say, "I think I'll join an electronic community today." But the results of a search for information often lead individuals to them. Today millions of people worldwide participate in hundreds of thousands of voluntary electronic discussion groups and communities. People certainly report receiving information benefits from their participation, including facts, solutions to problems, learning, and insight. These benefits are derived from personalized information, rather than the depersonalized or authoritative information found in official databases and documents. One member of an electronic support group for people with hearing loss said, "It's one thing to visit a Web site or read about hearing issues. It's something quite different to read words composed by individuals with hearing impairments who aren't professional writers and not motivated by profit" [1].

In addition to information benefits, participants also report two additional broad classes of benefits—social and emotional—from their participation in electronic groups and communities. Active members report deriving social benefits from interacting with other people: getting to know them, building relationships, making friends, having fun [8, 9]. Active members also report deriving emotional benefits from their participation [1, 4]. There is pleasure in helping others, solace in discovering "I am not alone," comfort in affiliation, and increased self-efficacy through group identification. Although these benefits can be described separately, their most compelling power derives from reinforcing one another in ongoing interaction. Active participation begets benefits that increase participation that begets yet more benefits. People merely consuming information in these situations derive only limited benefit.

Harvard University professor Robert Putnam has documented a decline in civic and social participation in physical communities throughout the U.S. over the past 50 years [6]. Voter turnout is down. Informal social interaction with family, friends, and neighbors is down. Church attendance is down. Time for clubs and other voluntary organizations is down. Membership in bowling leagues is down. Up is the privatization of leisure activities—bowling alone, rather than in leagues, for example—including television viewing. By the mid-1990s, the average American was watching television roughly three to four hours a day. Decreased social and civic participation decreases citizen awareness of public issues and official awareness of citizens' views. Decreased volunteer activity decreases the efficacy of social institutions. Decreased engagement in community life decreases social capital. These negative consequences accrue to the entire local community as a result of decreased community participation by its individual members. If electronic participation in local infocities can slow or even reverse this decline, local communities as a whole, in addition to their individual members, would certainly benefit [7].

The benefits of electronic community participation have generally been studied as accruing to individual participants, even though, in some cases, such as those involving open source software, the community as a whole also benefits from individual contributions. Focusing on individual benefits sometimes makes sense when the electronic community has no physical-world counterpart. But when the electronic community is tied to and embedded within a physical city, one can speculate as to how the physical city might benefit from its residents' participation in its virtual extension. The argument is that if people can easily "meet" each other online, discovering common interests and concerns, they will have more incentive to participate in physical-world organizations that address the same interests and concerns [5]. One of the most well-designed local community computing experiments, the Blacksburg Electronic Village, has documented that increased use is associated with increased face-to-face interaction among people sharing common interests [3]. The Association for Community Networking ( estimates that in 2003 approximately 150 local electronic community or civic networks were active in the U.S.

Many civic and social organizations operating today were founded at the beginning of the 20th century when work, commerce, and leisure activities were all organized locally. Even today, civic and social organizations typically organize people's voluntary participation in two- to three-hour blocks of time at prespecified times and places. Contrast this structure with that of electronic communities in which people participate at any time and from any place. Can we support local civic participation in physical communities through organized voluntary participation in information cities? What might that support look like? Would it be worthwhile if we did so?

Designers of infocities must look beyond providing information to providing support for the active participation of residents in the life of the city.

Many local volunteer organizations use their Web sites to convey information, and some encourage electronic discussion. But rarely do local organizations ponder how to blend electronic and face-to-face participation in real or near real time. Consider an example based on youth scouting, a worldwide community organization founded in 1908 in England and brought to the U.S. in 1910 with the founding of the Boy Scouts of America. Most youth scouting troops meet in the afternoon or evening once a week for two to three hours in a designated physical location. The meeting time, place, and duration preclude adults who work or are homebound during these hours from volunteering as troop leaders. Indeed, the peak membership year for adult scouting leaders was 1958, with a steady decline ever since [6].

Some fraction of today's non-volunteers might volunteer to participate electronically if they could do so easily and effectively. Assuming everyone has good access to networked computing at work or at home, ways to integrate electronic participation with face-to-face participation would be helpful. Here are some suggestions for ways to get people to interact online on behalf of a scout-troop community beyond simple information sharing and discussion:

  • A facility for troop activity awareness, so electronic and face-to-face members, both scouts and adults, could share participation information;
  • A facility for capturing face-to-face troop meetings so electronic-only members could participate in real time, if feasible, or asynchronously, if not;
  • An interactive troop calendar, including project reporting and management features, so scouts and leaders could report and coordinate activities; and
  • An annotatable neighborhood map the troop could use to display electronic or face-to-face interactions with neighborhood residents.

Computer tools supporting these facilities have probably been invented. But they have not been assembled in ways that make it easy for local volunteer organizations to use them. Moreover, computer tools alone are insufficient. Support for such activities also requires social tools—norms, roles, and procedures—that are understood, accepted, and practiced by members. The more that local organizations and activities use these social tools in concert with computer tools to support electronic participation, the more people will become habituated to them and they will transfer from one organized activity to another. Here are some examples of social tools integrating electronic and face-to-face participation:

  • Net-based volunteer fairs. Local organizations can promote their programs; members can electronically describe opportunities and answer questions; members can electronically solicit new members; potential volunteers can ask questions; and local companies can offer financial contributions or in-kind donations to match electronic pledges of volunteer hours.
  • Norms and procedures. How should members treat virtually present and physically present volunteers during meetings? Whether members are physically present or virtually present, all can be asked to write reports, take on assignments, accept praise for their work, and be allowed to vote on motions.
  • Participant obligations. Norms must be established for meeting length and obligation to participate at meetings. For example, a face-to-face meeting might last two hours, while the electronic extension continues for another 22 hours. All members would accept the obligation to participate at some time during the 24-hour meeting period.

A potential negative consequence is that people participating face-to-face might be lured away from these venues to the more comfortable and convenient electronic forms of participation.

Such computer tools and social mechanisms could potentially increase the number of volunteer leaders. Moreover, scouts whose troops participate both electronicly and face-to-face are likely to eventually take for granted this blended form of participation as they grow up.

The scouting example is based on an organizational form that has existed almost 100 years. Other types of electronic participation are not necessarily tied to particular social organizations or how they might enrich the local community. For example, financial contributions could be donated to local charities or service organizations through local click-and-give sites or as a percentage of sales through local e-commerce sites. Some sites today make it possible for customers to rate local businesses. Residents could also provide service ratings of local government offices and agencies, as well as of local businesses. Public officials or employees who are rated may find such rating services problematic, of course. But a community dialog on who gets to contribute what kinds of information for what purposes is likely to be energizing. Residents could provide Net-based homework help or electronic mentoring for local school children who themselves could provide electronic grandchildrening for local senior citizens. Meanwhile, peripatetic citizens with wirelessly networked computers could contribute information on wildlife sightings, missing street signs, and traffic counts, or participate in other ways to map public spaces.

The tools supporting these scenarios exist on the global Net today. Enlisted for local communities, they could further increase social connections within them. The spirit behind all these examples is that designers of infocities must look beyond providing information to providing support for the active participation of residents in the life of the city.

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Research Issues

Broadening the focus of a community's Net-based infrastructure from providing information about a particular community to supporting participation within it raises a host of research issues for designers of both computer tools and social tools. Here, we raise four policy issues. The first is the question of how open or closed infocities associated with local communities should be? In physical communities, verification of residence is required in order to receive some public services but not others and to participate in some community activities but not others. For example, anyone can use the reading rooms in municipal libraries, but only residents can check out materials, and only residents who provide proof of age can check out certain materials. Anyone can attend political rallies, but only residents can vote in local elections. In many electronic communities, people are not required to offer proof of identity in order to participate. On the global Net the fact that people who share a common interest will probably never meet face-to-face helps create a sense of psychological safety that allows them to talk openly with strangers. Paradoxically, tight controls on registration and verification of identity and residency may be necessary for creating the psychological safety zone needed for local electronic participation. Consider again the scouting example. What level of proof of identity might be required to make parents feel comfortable with electronic scouting activities?

The second issue is the size or granularity of an infocity associated with a physical community. In the physical world, people inhabit multiple, nested, partially overlapping local communities and neighborhoods. The same is probably true in an infocity associated with a physical community. How can these different, but related, spaces be represented and navigated? Returning to the scouting example, all municipal residents should probably have electronic access to a small amount of basic troop information, but only scouts and their leaders should probably have access to internal troop projects and activities. What about the parents of scouts? How far inside the electronic troop should their access extend?

The third issue is the digital divide. Conventionally, it has been framed in terms of access to computing technology. However, even when unequal access is no longer a significant concern, the digital skills divide may still be a concern. Research documenting the skills divide among residents of a local area highlights the importance of the issue [2]. A local community providing Net access for all its residents may still find substantial inequality of participation based on differential skill in using the Net.

The fourth issue is the relationship between physical city participation and infocity participation. We have described some benefits that may accrue from making it easy for people to participate electronically in local communities. If they can and in fact do begin to participate electronically in local groups, they may become more motivated to do so in the physical world as well. Meeting people electronically, they'll see that their electronic participation makes a difference. A potential negative consequence of providing support for electronic participation is that people participating face-to-face might be lured away from these venues to the more comfortable and convenient electronic forms of participation. The history of technology and social change is full of unintended consequences. That would probably be a bad one.

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Many interesting social consequences associated with the Net follow from connecting a world of strangers in order to build on their common interests. We may also generate interesting social consequences by connecting strangers from the same town in order to build on their common interests. This will not happen, however, if infocities are designed only to deliver information. They must be designed to support active participation as well.

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1. Cummings, J., Sproull, L., and Kiesler, S. Beyond hearing: Where real world and online support meet. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice 6, 1 (2002), 78–88.

2. Hargittai, E. Second-level digital divide. First Monday 7, 4 (Apr. 1, 2002); see

3. Kavanaugh, A. The impact of computer networking on community: A social network analysis approach. In Proceedings of the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference (Alexandria, VA, Sept. 27–29, 1999).

4. McKenna, K. and Bargh, J. Coming out in the age of the Internet: Identity 'de-marginalization' from virtual group participation. J. Personal. Soc. Psych. 75 (Sept. 1998), 681–694.

5. Millen, D. and Patterson, J. Stimulating social engagement in a community network. In Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (New Orleans, Nov. 16–20). ACM Press, New York, 2002, 306–313.

6. Putnam, R. Bowling Alone. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000.

7. Resnick, P. Beyond bowling together: Sociotechnical capital. In HCI in the New Millennium, J. Carroll, Ed. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA., 2001, 647–672.

8. Rheingold, H. The Virtual Community, rev. ed. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2000.

9. Wellman, B. and Haythornthwaite, C. The Internet in Everyday Life. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, U.K., 2002.

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Lee Sproull ( holds the Leonard N. Stern School Professorship of Business at the Leonard N. Stern School of Business of New York University.

John F. Patterson ( is a Distinguished Engineer in the Collaborative User Experience Group at the IBM Watson Research Center in Cambridge, MA.

©2004 ACM  0002-0782/04/0200  $5.00

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