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Stevens FORWARD! -- 'Virtual community' through technology

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By Tom Larson, Sun Tribune

It might seem that computers and other technology such as cell phones are deeply integrated in everyday life today.

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But for many people, that's not the case. They are no more comfortable using modern technology than they are speaking in public.

Bridging that divide and improving social inclusion through technology is one of Stevens FORWARD!'s 14 Destiny Drivers.

The goal of the Destiny Driver is enhancing "interconnectedness" by making better use of the technology already available, thus creating a "virtual community" of people who might be separated by many miles.

Kristin Lamberty is an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota, Morris Computer Science Department who has studied and participated in online communities.

Through a course at Georgia Tech, Lamberty said she participated in an online community of quilters and wrote about ways people in that community interacted and shared their love of quilting.

"There was a surprising variety of activities supported by their online community," Lamberty stated. "Some activities were very linked to the quilting theme of the community (block swaps, fabric trading, quilting tips, gallery of finished projects, and questions and answers about specific quilting related topics). Some members of the community arranged for group events to happen in the real world (fabric shopping events, quilt shows, sewing retreats, and quilting classes).

"I found it particularly interesting that there was a whole discussion thread specifically listed as "off topic" that seemed to be very important to some members of the community," Lamberty stated. "It was here that people discussed all kinds of things about their lives and seemed to forge strong friendships with other quilters, (such as) bonding over major life events and sharing thoughts about everyday life as well."

Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are social networks that help enhance "interconnectedness," and provide quick sharing of information between family and friends.

Lamberty recently gave birth to her second child. She and husband, Jeff, were able to use Facebook profiles to give family, friends and even acquaintances almost immediate updates on the birth process. The Facebook updates came much more quickly and reached many more people than traditional birth announcements or even email, Lamberty said.

But there are still many obstacles to getting some Stevens County residents to trust and use the technology available to them.

Get Broadband! is a program through the Blandin Foundation which is intended to help businesses upgrade to high-speed, broadband Internet access by providing grants to pay for technical expertise.

Michael Haynes, executive director of the Stevens County Economic Improvement Commission, received $30,000 in grants from Blandin in 2005. He expected it would take a year to direct money to business people for upgrades. Instead, it took three years to use up the money.

"It was hard to convince some people, and I'm trying to convince people still," Haynes said. "There were all kinds of reasons -- they didn't have enough time, they didn't want to bother, they didn't see the need. Some got it right away and some didn't get it at all."

The people who shy away from using technology to its fullest run the gamut, from lawyers to retailers, Haynes said.

Getting people to become familiar and comfortable with technology in their day-to-day lives might lead them to branch out into more social uses, he said.

"It starts with the basics," Haynes said. "It starts with city and county governments."

Building permits, dog licenses, applications, bill payments for utilities and other ways people interact with governments should all be set up to be handled online. People will then feel comfortable making mortgage and other payments and transactions online, he said.

Once those hurdles have been cleared, people can take their knowledge into the business place, Haynes said.

"There are a whole variety of things people should be able to do online that they don't," he said. "There's no reason you can't sell things in Idaho from Morris."

Andy Lopez, is a retired UMM Computer Science professor who founded Info-Link in Morris. He said technology can be a vital piece in building businesses and a "virtual community."

Technology can reduce travel, immediately keep people updated on merchandise, inventory, deliveries and the goings on in the local crocheting club.

A UMM student recently worked with the Morris Senior Citizens Center to create a Web page dedicated to the schedule and events at the center. The technology can be important to people with limited mobility, such as seniors or those with disabilities, Lopez said.

"That's where the power of this is," Lopez said.

But progress has to be made with care. Technology can open up vast communities but can also create a legion of "hermits" who don't have any other social interactions, he said.

The technological networks and education also must be improved. People who are tentative about absorbing technology into their lives and then encounter problems and abuses are less likely to try again, Lopez said.

"We see the dark side so much," he said. "People are reluctant in some ways and I don't blame them."

But the future is bright, especially as technology becomes smaller and more portable, and, as such, more integrated into daily lives. Technology will become more a support to person-to-person interactions, Lamberty stated.

Technology can enhance intergenerational connections and also inter-business, interfaith, inter-neighborhood, inter-town, or inter-school connections, she said.

There have been efforts to create a "free-cycle" group locally, through which people can reach out to save things from going to landfills and help people find things they want, she stated.

"I wonder if we need to create one, new virtual community to increase our interconnectedness, or if we should be striving to help people leverage the wide variety of technological resources already available to strengthen our connections," Lamberty stated. "This particular Destiny Drive goal seems like it could impact the other goals, particularly the ones that involve drawing others to our community, since a virtual presence is much easier to share with the world."

Are you a 'Champion'?

Stevens FORWARD! stewards are seeking "Champions" -- people who want to get involved in the initiative and spearhead a Destiny Driver. For more information, visit the Stevens FORWARD! Web site at www.stevensforward.org, or contact Coordinator Roger McCannon via email at: mail@stevensforward.org, or by phone at (320) 287-0882.

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