John Coate speaks on Civic Media

John Coate spoke to the Center for Future Civic Media yesterday about the relationships between online and physical communities, and his experience with related projects he was involved in pioneering. The focus of the presentation was the importance of fieldwork, practical applications and face-to-face networking in the process of constructing civic media technologies and online communities. He illustrated this by connecting his time with travelling communes and activists in the 1960’s and ’70s to his later work in helping to launch landmark online communities such as the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link).

The WELL is one of the oldest surviving online communities. Its success was attributed by Coate, a member of its original management team, to accessibility, a democratic environment of user involvement and “above all, relationships – personal and professional.” He believes that “a key aspect of its significance” was its explicit identification of itself as a community.

Coate continued to incorporate this idea into his account of his work with SFGate, one of the earliest online localized news websites, which he co-founded. He described how his prioritizing of community relations played into the democratic forms being adopted by then-emergent digital culture, leading him and his colleagues to introduce interactive, community-based and audiovisual elements into the site. These included searchable archives, a live sports webcast and a public forum–features that were revolutionary at the time. This led into a brief rundown of other online projects Coate has been involved in, including Habbo Hotel (a virtual community somewhat akin to Second Life), and Net Squared (web tools for social benefit organizations).

The second part of Coate’s presentation focused on his activities in the 1960’s and ’70s, which he spent traveling across the United States in a commune, engaging in political activism, playing in a rock band and even starting a free ambulance service in South Bronx. He said that these formative experiences taught him the skills that enabled him to successfully spearhead his later online initiatives. These were the skill sets that he emphasized throughout the talk–social networking, the willingness to “go beyond the chair and into the field,” and focusing on practical applications of the community’s talents.

Coate concluded with a brief mapping of the landscape of civic media today, characterizing it as an ideal platform for responsible journalism and defense of the individual and the community’s rights without necessarily having to resort to partisan politics. He also provided some instances of what he believed to be successful models of civic media. Among these were specific sites such as Climate Frog, toolkits for communities to monitor climate change, and Nabuur, a site devoted to aiding developing communities, along with larger multi-purpose platforms such as WordPress and Drupal. Throughout his talk, he reiterated the importance of being proactive in the face of social problems, as opposed to waiting for corporations and governments to act. “The important thing is what is true and right,” he said.