What is the contribution and significance of virtual communities in the collective assessment of the social impact of ICTs in Latin America and the Caribbean? This article briefly describes the scope and lessons learned in MISTICA , the Methodology and Social Impact of Information and Communication Technologies in the Americas. MISTICA’s innovative methodological tools and deep values built up a collaborative framework based upon effective on-line communication and active transparency, key elements in the construction of social capital in virtual environments.
A networked environment is fertile ground for community bonding and building up of social capital. Enough ethnographic research suggests that social networks, more than physical location, are key to understanding how communities organize around issues of common interest. At the same time, Internet-related communication technologies make it relatively simple to communicate with each other at reasonable costs. So one could expect the blossoming of interactive networks that, acting synergistically, give voice to civil society organizations and individuals in the search for a more equitable social agenda at global, regional, national and local levels.
However, reality is quite different. The “black holes” of the information society described by Castells1 are quickly dispersing all around the world, regardless of the corresponding North/South coordinates. While much emphasis is put on connectivity to solve the “digital divide”, much more attention is required to address the issues of equitable access, meaningful use and social appropriation that would make Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) useful tools for people to solve their concrete problems. This discussion was common ground for more than 200 social activists and researchers who, since the end of 1998, have gathered in MISTICA to interact in many different ways around the social impact of ICTs in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC).
NOT A MYSTICAL BUT A SOCIALLY RELEVANT EXPERIENCE
Coordinated by FUNREDES
(Dominican Republic) and supported by PAN
Global Networking (International
Development Research Centre,Canada) and Fondation
Charles Léopold Mayer pour le Progrés de l’Humanité
(France), MISTICA’s major goal was:
To experiment with novel methodologies for virtual communities that fully integrate information and communication tools in order to overcome linguistic barriers (offering simultaneous translation in 4 major languages: English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish) and reduce information overload while accommodating on-line distance participation in face-to face meetings.
The strengthening of a social group was implicit in the project’s vision and therefore it was articulated in the methodological objectives. As a consequence, the following set of values and ethical considerations were paramount to MISTICA since they are fundamental for collaboration, solidarity, diversity and gender balance in virtual environments:
The figure below schematically illustrates the main components of MISTICA.
Mistica’s Virtual Community (VC) : the Means and the End of this Experience
Mistica’s VC is the most important component of the project since it does not only justify the process but keeps continuously reshaping it. This discussion list is open and moderated and by August 2000, 215 people had subscribed to it, increasing at a slow but steady pace since then. More than half of the participants is male (65%), which follows the trend of sex-aggregated data of Internet usage worldwide. The majority of the participants are young people (more than 50% below 38 years of age and more than 25% below 30 years) which is quite remarkable considering that many of the participants are actually ICT experts. MISTICA is a moderately active list. Since it started, the list receives on average about 2 messages a day with the characteristic peaks of activity (flames) followed by periods of relative calm. All messages are stored in MISTICA’s virtual memory that can be sorted by author, date or subject.
The Ingredients of MISTICA: Communication, Information and Action
The COMMUNICATION component of MISTICA is characteristically democratic, respectful, and focused on some issues of common interest for the group. A strong emphasis was made at the beginning of the experience on the protocols or “netiquette” necessary to achieve this remarkable on-line communication environment that resulted in a very cohesive and disciplined VC. Also aware that virtual communities do not replace but complement f2f communication, the coordination scheduled a couple of small meetings in Dominican Republic that served as the opening and closing of the project and took place in 1999 and 2001 , respectively. The first of these meetings was of paramount importance to consolidate the e-discussion about the different topics of general interest for the whole group. A very comprehensive document (Doc-Sam), written in a pedagogic style that resembles a hypothetical letter sent to a friend, tells the story of this rather complex process. The second of these meetings aimed at creating a friendlier environment for the transition between MISTICA and OLISTICA, the regional observatory.
MISTICA is much more than just a virtual community. Central to the project is the structuring of INFORMATION relevant to the social impact of ICT in the region. So the project’s website offers more than 70Mb of information in 4 languages available in more than 700 pages stored in FUNREDES’ Internet public site. Statistics from this site indicate that until August 2000, MISTICA had been hit more than 1,000,000 times (currently, the site receives more than 8,000 hits a day). In addition to individual contributions and collective documents, MISTICA has also designed a database or clearinghouse (Metasitio) with information about the social impact of ICT that includes a list of researchers, activists and organizations interested in this topic, related projects, a calendar of events, etc.
ACTION was the third and perhaps the most ambitious ingredient of MISTICA. The strengthening of a human network that has been since the very beginning in permanent dialogue is in fact a powerful form of action. In addition to this, the personal bonding that has occurred during the implementation of this project has also contributed to the creation of social capital outside the VC. Furthermore, Yanapanako (also called pilot applications) was conceived as a novel small grant funding modality supportive of action-research projects. The VC evaluated 9 projects and funded 7 of them (about $10,000 each). Thus, pilot applications in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela had the opportunity to explore a very rich thematic diversity related to the social impact of ICTs in the LAC region: children’s rights, indigenous communities, public health, e-governance, development issues and telecenter activity. Yanapanako, which in Quechua means “helping each other,” was envisioned as a truly collaborative process. Communication among these applications was facilitated in order to encourage horizontal interchange, but without much success. Being a key aspect of the envisioned collaborative work platform, the project OLISTICA will focus more on this important component, proposing and testing more appropriate mechanisms that invite collective virtual action.
…And the Meta-Ingredients: EMEC and PAD
EMEC, or the methodology for Effective Management of Multilingual Electronic Conferences, was first conceived by FUNREDES and ENDA-CARIBE back in 1997 and fully tested in MISTICA. It aims to reduce the information overload by providing subscribers with syntheses of their original contributions translated into the 4 working languages of the electronic conference. The original messages are automatically translated and posted on the web while the summaries are translated manually for higher quality. The human component is key to this methodology since the better the accuracy of the synthesis the higher the resulting performance, especially when these syntheses are translated into different languages. As a result, the cost is considerably high but the automation of some mechanical processes related to the flow of information within EMEC resulted in about a 50% decrease of the original costs. The lessons learned brought about an updated version of EMEC that can now be tailored to each user according to his/her personal needs and preferences.
The Participation at a Distance (PAD) is a methodology that uses e-mail to fully articulate a traditional f2f meeting with an electronic conference, allowing those in a remote location to engage synchronously in the process. The main components of this methodology are the PAD-out (the human interface that gathers the information in the f2f meeting and directs it to the e-conference) and the PAD-in (the human interface that receives the information from those in remote locations and passes it to the f2f group). Focused interaction, size of the interacting groups and clarity of the outputs expected from the process are some of the issues that should be taken into consideration when implementing the PAD. Two pilot tests performed by MISTICA were not sufficient to achieve the desired level of interaction.
MISTICA’S ON-GOING AND SELF-EVALUATION
Self-evaluation is a key aspect of MISTICA’s idiosyncrasy. A series of open-ended questionnaires were distributed electronically throughout the whole process in order to gather people’s opinions, who therefore had the opportunity to have a direct influence on the coordination and directionality of the project. In many cases the response level was not very high so the coordination is seeking more direct evaluation mechanisms. MISTICA was thus categorized as an original, creative and ethical process but rather theoretical, and a bit messy. In a first evaluation, both the decentralization of the coordination and a more pedagogic style were suggested in order to increase the value added to the social interaction. Respondents highlighted that the information component was a major contribution of MISTICA while the action ingredient required further attention in order to (a) enhance a more active participation of a large group of subscribers and (b) have a more effective incidence in concrete social processes. In the closing evaluation, it also became clear that the impact of this project extends beyond the dynamics of the VC, suggesting that an ethnographic approach (based upon in-depth interviews) would uncover the more subtle individual and organizational impact of MISTICA in both pro-active and passive participants.
THE ESSENCE OF MISTICA’S DISCUSSIONS
ICTs are not neutral. If left alone, they will not solve but aggravate existing social problems. There is also clear consensus in MISTICA about the importance and relationship between globalization forces and the social impact of ICTs in the region. Understood as an irreversible phenomenon, globalization not only poses serious threats to developing countries (where dominant political and cultural models can wipe out local cultures and political systems) but also opens up many opportunities for less advanced societies -- if they develop effective empowerment strategies to adopt these technologies and use them in a meaningful way.
Whose interests do ICTs serve? How can popular sectors in the LAC region effectively use ICTs to engage in more equitable development? In order to answer these questions, MISTICA debated and categorized the following topics that served as a main axis for the discussion:
In his elaborated vision of social networks, Melluci4 refers to a meta-communication process that, embedded in the ethics and politics of knowledge creation and distribution, is an effective practice for freedom. The production and appropriation of non-manipulated knowledge (analytical skills, self-reflectivity, and awareness) thus become the main opposition tools for crucial social struggles played in the cultural arena. Rethinking objective truth and reconstructing reality from multiple perspectives, on the other hand, also provide an accountable and collective version of historical subjectivity, as suggested by Haraway.5 In a networked society, situated knowledges resist the imposition of global truths, normalizing behaviors and a monolithic culture imposed by globalizing forces and an ethnocentric development mode.
What has this to do with MISTICA? These profound reflections underlie the collective hopes of MISTICA, OLISTICA, and all networked utopias where people gather and engage in positive and transformative social action. However, we still need an answer to the following question: What are people who do not say anything in a virtual discussion really saying? A large proportion of people who subscribed to MISTICA is passive participants. This draws the line between those who voluntarily contribute with their time and commitment to the process and those who simply profit from the richness of the open discussion without giving anything in return. Who owns the ideas that emerge from such a collective process? What really motivates people to participate in a virtual discussion? And how, in the absence of visual markers, are reciprocity norms built to consolidate social (virtual) capital?
In networks, how one interprets
and transcends virtual reality brings up a better understanding of the
power that one has to transform the reality one experiences.
1 The “black holes” are the systematic exclusion of large segments of economies and societies from information networks. Those who are in a marginal position become structurally irrelevant for the dominant system from where, statistically speaking, there is no escape from abrupt misery (Castells, Manuel. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Vol. I, The Rise of the Network Society. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996).
2 Also supported by PAN and coordinated by FUNREDES, OLISTICA will build upon an alternative vision for ICTs and social development to conceptualize and test different tools to systematically and collectively assess the social impact of ICT in Latin American and the Caribbean. OLISTICA will target civil society organizations in order to strengthen their capacity to effect policy environments conducive to more responsible uses of ICT for social development.
3 Comunidad Virtual MISTICA (prepared by Nora Galeano and Luis Rodríguez) “Documento de Síntesis de lo Tratado por la Comunidad Virtual”, 1999; http://www.funredes.org/mistica/castellano/ciberoteca/tematica/esp_doc_cv.html
4 Melluci, Alberto. “Challenging Codes: Collective Action in the Information Age.” Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1996.
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