Digital Communities Award Jury Statement

Draft by Howard Rheingold: 6/20/04 1:11 PM
Modifications IF/AH ­ 1.5.04

Introducing The Digital Communities Award Category

Digital Communities are about emergent collective action, citizen empowerment, social as well as economic entrepreneurship, the ingenuity of the users of technology and their power to actively shape their media, the future evolution of new tools and social forms, the improvement of culture and alleviation of suffering, the humanization of technology, openness and inclusiveness, and the sheer fun of making things together. Digital Communities can save lives, bridge differences and the Digital Divide, multiply knowledge, enable markets, revitalize democracy and provoke civic engagement ­ but only if people seize the power that technology provides and wield it thoughtfully.

Although sociologists Barry Wellman and Keith Hampton provide a more formal definition of "community" as "networks of interpersonal ties that provide sociability, support, information, a sense of belonging and social identity," we further define "community" for the purpose of this competition as "a web of relationships, sustained over time, among people who care about each other," and we define "digital community" as "a web of relationships that is enabled, enhanced, or extended by digital tools."

Wikipedia and The World Starts With Me, the two winners of the first Golden Nicas awarded for the new Digital Communities category, exemplify the complementary aspects of virtual discourse and face-to-face action implied by the name of the category. The "digital" part of the definition does not imply that technology alone can create community — only people can form social groups, although alphabets and Internets can enable those people to act in ways that weren't possible before. And the "community" part can include many different kinds of groups who have fun, organize political or civic action, create art, engage in commerce, provide peer support in medical or family crises, learn and teach, start businesses, and fall in love.

We hope that the two winning examples, one existing almost wholly in cyberspace with the aim of creating public knowledge, the other one using digital media in Uganda for serious health education in the physical realm, establish an example of how broad the term "digital community" can be. Wikipedians created something that would not be possible without Internet-based communications, and The World Starts With Me uses digital media to improve a vital task in the face-to-face world that can be done without sophisticated technology but might be done more effectively with appropriate digital tools.

We held in mind a variety of criteria when evaluating entrants. Did the digital community provide or make possible public goods, technical and social innovations, civic value, humanitarian benefit, economic opportunity, grassroots power, enabling technology, bridges across digital divides? We also hope that our two Golden Nica winners, our four Awards of Distinction, and fourteen honorary mentions will inspire others to replicate, multiply, and improve the efforts of these pioneering digital communities. Building community in cyberspace is not possible through the use of digital technology and Social Software alone ­ social skills, human relationships, and sustained discourse is required. Most of all, Digital Communities are simply the latest example of the human capacity to invent new technologies of cooperation, and our continuing enthusiasm for new forms of social relationship. The twenty winners are seeds for future imagination, hard work, and ingenuity. They are not meant to stake out the boundaries of what is possible, but to point to the immensity of the opportunity. They are meant to exemplify the need for thoughtful and soulful human effort if our new tools of social Software are to help bridge the digital divide running across individual societies as well as the world as a whole, to bring the people of the world together rather than drive us apart. The worldwide locations of our winning entries were not so much a deliberate intervention by the jury, as a reflection of the truly global scope of digital community.

Although design excellence is always worth considering, the technologies used by both Golden Nica winners exemplify the power of simplicity over flashy display: Wikipedia is a public good that is created and maintained in dozens of languages by thousands of people who use a very simple tool. The World Starts With Me, also a grassroots collective effort rather than a hierarchically organized, top-down, government program, uses simple multimedia curricula to provide health care information and engages youth in frank discussion of a sensitive subject. Indeed, each Golden Nica winner suggests a new capability to the other: World Starts With Me is sure to lead to similar projects that make use of multimedia; and wiki ­ also with its concept of openness and replicability - might prove to be a useful tool for future teachers and learners in future online health education efforts. Both projects amplify the work of a few volunteers to provide value to far more others. As the first instance of the Digital Communities award, the Golden Nica award winners are excellently executed, inspire others to build upon their work to create value in new and different communities, and show the range of different kinds of new projects that digital media make possible for others in the future.

Golden Nica Award Winners


Wikipedia is a community-created open content encyclopedia ­ a public good created and maintained online by volunteers. The easy to use wiki software enables anyone who joins the project to add and edit material without needing to know html. Quality control and protection against vandalism are accomplished through community effort ­the content and community are self-created, self-protected, self-healed. Since January, 2001, more than 250,000 articles in English and about as many in more than 50 other languages have been published by thousands of contributors. Newcomers can immediately learn how to add or correct content, join online discussions, and begin adding value to the resource. Sister projects include a collaborative multilingual dictionary, a collection of collaborative textbooks, a compendium of referenced quotations, and a repository of free source texts. The concept of "open content" is explained on Wikipedia:

The goal of Wikipedia is to create an information source in an encyclopedia format that is freely available. The license we use grants free access to our content in the same sense as free software is licensed freely. That is to say, Wikipedia content can be copied, modified, and redistributed so long as the new version grants the same freedoms to others and acknowledges the authors of the Wikipedia article used (a direct link back to the article satisfies our author credit requirement). Wikipedia articles therefore will remain free forever and can be used by anybody subject to certain restrictions, most of which serve to ensure that freedom. []

If you are a poor student or teacher in a remote rural area and have access via telecenter to slow, text-only access to the Internet, you will be able to read and use a constantly-updated encyclopedia free of charge. And many technically-sophisticated broadband users use Wikipedia for its simplicity, accessability, and accuracy.

Wikipedia is a proof of concept for "collective intelligence," the capability of groups of people to create, distribute, and use knowledge in ways beyond the capacity of individuals. Wikipedia defines a knowledge-oriented variety of digital community space, with the document serving as the anchor for a sense of place. Who would have dreamed such an enterprise a few years ago? What other enterprises will people dream up in the future in which people create knowledge as a form of entertainment, making it freely available to all? We hope the Wikipedia community will use the cash award to grow in whichever way the community deems necessary, and that others will be inspired to use this simple technology ­ or create other group intelligence technologies ­ to expand the public domain and enrich the human commonwealth of knowledge.

The World Starts with Me

If Wikipedia is an example of what an almost purely virtual community can do to create an intellectual resource, The World Starts with Me is about the most "real" kind of physical community, and about social learning in groups on a very serious variety of information ­ knowledge about disease and behavior that can make the difference between life and death.

The World Starts with Me uses digital information and communication technologies to enable positive change in the face-to-face world, delivering HIV/AIDS education to Ugandan youth ­ a population that is at high risk for a disease in which information about sexual behavior can save lives and avoid the expensive treatments that are straining the capacity of the Ugandan health care system. In a situation where a little information can go a long way to saving lives, and ICT access is limited, The World Starts with Me uses computer based learning and communication among teachers and students as an effective way of amplifying low-tech educational methods:

The WSWM project offers a unique opportunity for contemporary sexuality education. Human rights and a positive approach towards sexuality are the starting points in developing technical and social competencies (eg, negotiation skills, contraceptive use, the right to refuse sex) which underlie informed decision making.

The programme is easy to use and can be quickly adapted based on feedback from users. The safe environment of E-learning and the self-guided, student-driven learning process facilitates interactive education on sensitive issues. The uniform, systematic learning process ensure quality across different sites. Combining text, audio and/or visual effects effectively shapes knowledge, attitudes and social learning through modelling.

Medical expertise in East Africa is stretched thin, medication is expensive, ignorance of the facts of sexual behavior in an HIV/AIDS epidemic is itself epidemic ­ and computer-delivered curriculum materials can provide leverage to teachers who lack material resources.

We hope that the recognition and cash award will enable Uganda-based Uganda Schoolnet and Amsterdam-based Butterfly Works to expand their program to include peer-to-peer communication, online counseling, and any other ICT-based media that can help them grow and make their effort more effective. We also hope to encourage the appropriate use of digital media to address the major health crisis facing an entire generation of young Africans. We do not mean to promote ICT as a substitute for face-to-face healthcare education efforts, but as an adjunct, extension, and amplifier. The WSWM project uses ICT for social learning about sensitive issues which are more difficult to address through other media ­ for example, it is easier for young men and women to engage in frank dialogue if they are facing a screen rather than each other. The ICT is part of a group learning experience, led by a trained educator.

Awards of Distinction


Democracy is not just about voting for one's leaders. The public sphere, where citizens obtain access to the information they need in order to govern themselves, and where they engage in free and open reasoned debate over issues that concern them, is a part of democracy that has suffered during the era of mass media. Voter turnout in many countries has diminished, and young people have turned away from electoral processes that have not engaged them except as passive recipients of broadcast propaganda. Dol2day provides an imaginative and engaging way of revitalizing the public sphere. German citizens, largely young people, participate in a lively discussion that includes an imaginative simulation in which participants form political parties, debate issues, rally support.

Many visions of ICT-enabled "e-democracy" involve a kind of magical thinking about the ability of online communication to solve some of the problems of 21st century democracies. Dol2day doesn't stop with providing information, but involves citizens in the core activity of the public sphere ­ exchanging information and opinions and engaging in reasoned debate about contemporary political issues. It serves as a model to those elsewhere who seek ways to use digital communities in pursuit of civic engagement and citizen empowerment.


If any online activity qualifies a digital social networks to be called a community, it's the kind of peer support found in medical patient communities. German-based Krebskompass provides cancer patients with peer-to-peer message board forums, a portal to qualified information resources, and prompt online consultation from certified experts ­ a combination of heartful, helpful, and informational resources that could serve as a model to any online support community. A cancer diagnosis is a frightening event, and neither medical authorities nor one's family are available twenty four hours a day. The kind of emotional support and advice that a cancer patient receives from other patients has a special value, even if the advisor and advisee have never met, didn't know each other previously, and live in different places. One weakness of medical support communities, however, is informational quality control. Rumors and misinformation can be passed from peer-to-peer just as easily as emotional support and useful advice. However, Krebscompass includes an online braintrust of specialists, from pharmacists to oncologists and surgeons, who provide answers to questions within 48 hours.

With all of the wonderful power of surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy, medical institutions cannot devote individual attention to the emotional needs of each patient. That's where digital community can come in. Just as e-democracy projects can empower citizens to collectively repair and remediate the problems and inadequacies of democratic societies, e-medicine communities like Krebscompass can enable a collective self-organization and formidable knowledge-sharing capability that empowers patients to take charge of understanding their own treatments. Top-down political solutions are not the only means of addressing the growing problems of the scientifically powerful but economically strained and politically complex 21st century health-care citizens. Empowered citizens, armed with knowledge, and capable of using digital media to self-organize collective action, can be a force for positive and effective change. The prize acknowledges the impact of patient communities on various diseases as well as the specific achievements from a fairly small core team that launched Krebskompass.


Open Clothes is a Japanese language site that enables community learning, support, and commerce for entrepreneurs and designers in the fashion industry ­ people whose crafts and enterprises have been marginalized by mass production and concentration of ownership in large, highly capitalized economies. Designers, textile artists, button-makers, have found it difficult to pass along their skills, connect with each other, and to buy and sell their wares in an age of consolidated and highly automated supply chains. This unique site links the entire fashion supply chain, from fabric through design and accessorization, in a lateral community rather than a hierarchical bureaucracy. Small businesses that had been threatened by the globalization of fashion enterprises that worldwide communication media made possible can now use digital media to self-organize themselves.

If empowered citizens are the basis of successful e-democracy, and empowered patients might influence the growth of e-medicine, empowered small entrepreneurs are those who can use digital communities as e-business centers that bring global resources to individuals and help maintain cultural traditions, rather than drawing away resources and replacing traditions. Combining small e-businesses, a b2b market, and discussion forums provides the framework for an effective business community. No longer are there no viable choices for designers and artisans who do not join major commercial fashion enterprises. We hope that this award will encourage others to link and empower grassroots entrepreneurs and indigenous artisans.

smart X tension

The Tonga people of Zimbabwe, threatened by forced migration and separation across the political and geographic boundaries, have been using their unique musical heritage to preserve their culture. Austrian musicians and Tonga musicians have been using a battery-powered digital musical keyboard/recorder to weave the physically separated members of the culture. Music itself is perhaps the oldest community technology, bringing people together around collective art-making that continues to hold a uniquely powerful emotional appeal that is capable of bridging geographic and cultural boundaries:

Tonga.Online is a project on media, information & communication technology and art focusing on the Tonga people living along the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. The project goal is to promote a Tonga voice on the Internet and to provide the Tonga minority with the most advanced information and communication tools.

This project is conducted in a part of the world where the cash award has the potential to go a long way. We hope that the present project will be able to reach more of the Tonga people and bring more community-based digital technology resources to bear on community and cultural maintenance in the face of strong separating influences. We also hope that the success of this community, again using digital tools to strengthen imperiled face-to-face communities, will inspire others in many parts of the world to use music and digital technologies to encourage preservation of traditional cultures and community-building to counter the community-fragmenting tendencies of technological and geopolitical pressures..

Honorary Mentions

Cabinas Publicas de Internet

A coalition of computer engineers, academic scholars and scientists, and telecommunications industry professionals trained more than 50,000 Peruvians in the use of ICTs. After the original coalition retired from the project, many of those who had been trained became small business entrepreneurs, offering Internet access through local kiosks.

Children with Diabetes

Not many children with diabetes have the opportunity to interact regularly with other children who share their frightening situation. This community offers not just support but empowerment, with both children and parents voicing and helping each other solve problems; the presence of trained medical authorities is key. This is another resource that would be difficult if not impossible in the face to face world.

Daily Prophet

This vibrant community of young readers and writers who share a passion for the Harry Potter books not only encourages young people to write and imagine, but shows the importance of fair use and the necessity to protect the literary commons from overly restrictive ownership of literary resources ­ like other fans, these young people build their own stories on the Harry Potter material, empowering kids who are consumers of pop culture to also become producers. Literature has always depended on the right to build on the work of others, not upon building tall legal walls around intellectual works. An even better expression would be to expand this site to allow the children to publish their unedited drafts.

DakNet: Store and Forward

DakNet uses the existing infrastructure of buses on regular routes to enable a communication infrastructure that otherwise would not be available in rural India. "Digital postmen" use WiFi to pick up and deliver email messages wirelessly, bringing some of the benefits of ICT to people whose lack of connectivity would otherwise have prevented them from gaining these benefits.

Along with wiki, is an example of a simple tool that enables people to make social connections, spread knowledge capital, and build communities of interest by sharing their bookmarks. There is no business model other than the intention to create a fun and useful public good.

The digital divide sometimes exists within countries, as well as between countries. In a rural area of Denmark that was not served by the major wireless carriers, local citizens used this digital community to self-organize wireless access that was not available commercially ­ a rural counterpart to NYCWireless. We hope this award encourages efforts by geographic communities to take advantage of wireless communications technologies and the ability to use the Net to self-organize to make communication infrastructure available where commercial enterprises have failed.


This BBC-sponsored site is a well thought-out instrument for enabling people to take group-formation around civic instruments into the realm of action. Self-organized civic actions online have stimulated peaceful demonstrations of up to 1000 people, using successful examples in one part of the country and one interest area to use the same infrastructure to enable action in other areas and around other interests. We would love to see this structure become a more open system in the future that could be driven by more than just BBC users, with links possible everywhere on the Web, not just to BBC sites. This is an excellent example for other public media utilities who seek to use their franchise to enhance civic participation.


kuro5hin is a U.S.-based community weblog that includes a reputation system and a generally high level of discourse about technology, politics, and a very wide range of issues. The open-source Scoop software, made freely available by kuro5hin founder Rusty Foster, enables any other group to post articles, sekf-organize ongoing discussions about the articles, and to use a user-rating system to filter the content without censorship. Both group publication tools and user-generated reputation systems are new and potentially powerful forms of social software; kuro5hin is a milestone, an inspiration for others, as well as a tool others can use and build upon.


A diaspora site for the worldwide community who originated, or whose forebears originated in the Greek island of Kythera. The island is now populated by only around 2500 people, most of them elderly, but more than 100,000 emigrants and their descendants live around the world, most of them in Australia. Funded by Kytherian emigrants, this site preserves cultural memory ­ oral histories, biographies, photos ­ and , puts the scattered Kytherians in contact with each other. Because of the nature of diaspora, a worldwide Kytherian community is the kind that would not exist with the vibrancy that it does without the use of technology.


Fun and shared enthusiasms are a vital part of online life, and hobbyists have always been the critical mass of many digital communities. All wireless digital technologies today, for example, owe a debt to the efforts of early radio amateurs. Lomography is a worldwide community organize by enthusiastic amateur uses of an inexpensive Russian-originated camera. Visual communication, like music, is a global means of communication that transcends linguistic differences.


Nabanna, a Unesco-implemented project, provides ICT access and training for women in rural communities in West Bengal India, fitting technology into their needs rather than the other way around. This site offers one model for ways of thinking about the specific needs of women, rural communities, and sustainable development, focused on encouraging skills and empowerment as the central focus of appropriate technology use.


NYCwireless is an intentional organization of individual efforts to expand wireless networks and encourage community-formation around those networks. Working with ISPs that allows bandwidth-sharing provides an alternative to top-down bandwidth provision; working with both local business communities and city agencies working in traditionally underserved neighborhoods expands access to wireless broadband to a broad population. The collection and display of individual nodes encourages self-organized collective action ­ the kind that built the Web.

Telecentre Communautaire Polyvalent Tombouctou

The Telecentre not only provides global communication access to a very remote part of the world, the physical telecentre has become a face-to-face gathering place in the community that reaches students, craftspeople, guides. Cultural heritage projects (digitizing ancient manuscripts) bring together generations. This project offers a model for one aspect of digital inclusion ­ creating a real-life hub for peer-to-peer technology education as well as access, affording face-to-face community as well as access to the cyberworld.


Wikitravel is another example of people using simple technology to self-organize a public good out of their own needs and experiences. An alternative to commercial travel guides, this community provides a tool for travelers to share their finds and opinions. The open intellectual property licensing of Wikitravel deserves mention, encouraging wide distribution in a variety of other media. Like Wikipedia, Wikitravel is a community-created and community-maintained public resource. Besides free encyclopedias and travel guides, what other community-created goods are possible? Surprise us!