by Jill Elswick
The hype is over. The reporters have come and gone. But "America's Most Wired Town" couldn't care less. The members of this community network are more interested in having a life than making history.
As a fledgling "experiment" -- the result of a strategic partnership between Virginia Tech, Bell Atlantic, and the Town of Blacksburg -- the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV) drew its identity largely from its status as an Internet service provider (ISP) to anyone in Blacksburg for the bargain price of $8.60 a month. Subscribers got an e-mail address with a nifty bev.net extension.
At first, having a BEV address seemed like a membership card in the on-line community. But since restricting its ISP services to Virginia Tech affiliates in 1996, the BEV has emerged as a network unlimited by arbitrary e-mail addresses.
In a large part, the BEV's utility is centered on its web site at www.bev.net, where Blacksburg residents can join community-oriented discussion lists, chat live with the town mayor, check out movie listings, shop at the local toy store, visit a museum exhibit, and decide what they want to order for dinner before driving to the restaurant.
Seventy percent of Blacksburg's businesses are linked to the BEV web site, the highest figure per capita in the nation.
But Andrew Cohill, a Virginia Tech professor of architecture and urban affairs who heads the BEV initiative, defines the BEV as "everybody in Blacksburg who is on-line." Even if they never go to the web site.
The ultimate goal of the BEV project, explains Cohill, is "to wire the community" -- not to get everyone to visit a certain web site. Watching what people do with Internet access once they have it and know how to use it is all a part of the experiment. In addition to being an outreach effort and a public service, the BEV is Tech's "research lab for community networking."
Sixty percent of Blacksburg's residents are currently on-line. That's 22,000 people in a community of 36,000 -- an impressive figure linked, of course, to Blacksburg's status as a college town.
But it's not just college students and professors who account for the BEV's initiates. Senior citizens, second graders, and barflies have also gained access to the Internet in Blacksburg. And now that they're wired, they're never going back.
Seniors conquer the web
Perhaps the most surprising outcome of the BEV experiment is the zeal with which Blacksburg's senior citizens have embraced the new technology.
A few years ago, seniors began meeting at Bogens, the popular bar and restaurant on Main Street, to plan a community network exclusively for seniors. The network's purpose would be to promote computer literacy.
Connie Anderson, co-owner of the BEV-Seniors Listserv, emphasizes that this community was planned to be more than virtual -- it would be exclusive to seniors living in Montgomery County, with members expected to meet face to face often.
Anderson has just retired after 25 years of service to Virginia Tech as a laboratory specialist in biochemistry research. As computer literate as any teenager with a personal web page, she is the resident guru of the seniors list. Up-to-date on her HTML, she maintains the BEV-Seniors web page. She often makes housecalls to seniors who need a little help learning how to use their computers.
Whenever someone tries to join the bev.seniors list from the BEV-Seniors web page, Anderson scrupulously confirms that person's status as a senior living in Montgomery County. The BEV-Seniors web page has been getting 1,500 hits a month, with 95 percent coming from outside Montgomery County. Quite a few people have tried to join the bev.seniors list out of curiosity.
Anderson's protectiveness was also behind a decision to stop publishing listserv members' e-mail addresses on the seniors web page. "We kept getting spammed," she says, "with porn plus investments plus whatever." Operating with the stereotype of the decrepit senior, health oriented businesses also tried to sell their wares to the list.
Currently, over 135 seniors claim membership on the list. Topics of discussion on the list have included computer viruses, requests for items, and gardening. A message might read, "I have lots of plants, but no tomatoes" or "I got my first cucumber." Extensive discussions of sports or finances are discouraged, although web sites on these subjects are frequently shared.
Every month, from September through May, the BEV-Seniors hold a meeting at the Blacksburg Community Center on Patrick Henry Drive to discuss a new topic of computer literacy. The last topic was about the senior web page's links to health related sites.
"Does Dr. Kervorkian have a home page?" jokes senior Dennis Gentry. His wise-cracking balances the studious atmosphere of the 29 seniors present -- a good attendance level.
The Seniors Computing Learning Center, located in the recreation center, holds 13 donated computers in varying states of readyness for Internet access. "Some of them are junk," Gentry admits. Still, the center is a place for one-on-one instructional training. "We have found that old folks teach other old folks better," says Gentry.
Keith Furr, who usually runs the meetings, recently gave a senior citizen a gentle reprimand for playing solitaire at the center. "I think that's what a lot of people think seniors use the computer for -- solitaire," he says. The senior Furr chastized defended herself, saying she was simply trying to figure out how to play the game with the keyboard instead of the mouse, which was missing. Furr couldn't fault her for that.
Second-graders learn e-mail intimacy
At Margaret Beeks Elementary School in Blacksburg, second-graders converse with BEV-Seniors. At the urging of David Carter-Tod, instructional technologist at Virginia Tech, a mailing list has been established linking the young students with BEV-Seniors who wish to participate in electronic conversations.
Tamra Oliver (management, housing, and family development '79; M.A., education), second grade teacher at Beeks last year, took on Carter-Tod's challenge enthusiastically. "Kids already feel disconnected from their extended families," she says. "This was an opportunity to connect people in the same community."
Oliver saw an unprecedented chance for both groups to benefit from the computer connection. The children get 'surrogate' grandparents and the seniors get a willing audience for their stories. "Seniors are recording their history and reflecting back on their lives," Oliver points out.
The relationship began when the children composed an introductory letter to the seniors, posing a question or a theme that would become the thread for that month. One topic, for example, was October traditions: raking leaves, Halloween. One senior reminisced: "There were no stores to buy ready-made costumes ... the masks we wore just covered the eyes, so if we didn't want to be recognized, we all dressed up like ghosts using decorated white sheets."
Another popular topic was games. Children are mystified to learn of a time before soccer tournaments and electronic games. They want to know about kick-the-can, drop-the-handkerchief, guessing jar, ring-o-levio, capture-the-flag, and stickball.
All the talk about games prompts one senior to share a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "We do not quit playing because we grow old; we grow old because we quit playing."
Would this relationship develop through writing letters instead of e-mails? "No," Oliver says firmly. "I have done a number of projects with letters. Children do not have that long of an attention span." [By the time you get a letter back] "so much time has passed that you forgot what you said."
The children do enjoy getting letters and cards from seniors as a special supplement to their e-mail correspondence, but the immediacy of the mailing list is what makes their connection intimate.
Adding to the feeling of closeness is the childrens' knowledge that the seniors live in the same town and that they will eventually meet for a party together. Last May, Oliver's class met with the seniors at Hand-in-Hand park for a picnic.
A senior known simply as MARYLOU (all caps) brought elegantly decorated butterfly cookies that looked too good to eat. The "butterfly cookie lady" now has a name and a face permanently etched into second-graders' minds.
Also at the picnic, a senior who had once been in the army put the children in lines and marched them on a hill. They were delighted.
Of the entire second-grader to senior experience, Oliver concludes: "It broke down the barriers between that generation group and this generation group."
Bogens' customers surf for free
"We were the world's first cyberbar," Bill Ellenbogen (health and physical education '73, M.S.) proudly announces of his 13-year-old Blacksburg hang-out landmark, Bogens. "There were cybercafes, but not cyberbars two and a half years ago."
What makes a cyberbar? At Bogens, it's a computer perched on a high table in the middle of the room, between pool tables and the bar, with a tall, comfortable chair encouraging a user to sit and surf for a while. For free!
Ellenbogen wanted to provide the Internet experience to a class of people who may not already have the means to get it. "I felt that many of my customers did not have access," he says. "I'm not sure all my customers are spending a lot of time in the library."
A technology buff, Ellenbogen wished to provide a lively setting to counteract most people's ideas about appropriate environments for a computer. No stuffy office, sterile computer lab, or stately library for Ellenbogen's brand of computer literacy.
"There are social aspects to the Internet that aren't tapped by having a computer in an office or a home," he says.
On a busy night, the Bogens' computer is always in use. Students do their homework, businessmen surf for stock quotes, sports fans settle arguments. Ellenbogen recalls a time when the computer was used to get instant information after the Tyson-Holyfield fight. Customers frequently share sites with each other. Some compose e-mail on Eudora. The NASCAR home page is bookmarked.
Amazingly, no one seems to hog the computer for too long. Only one such circumstance, where someone was playing real-time backgammon all day, has occurred so far.
Ellenbogen's major contention is that no one need fear that computers will dehumanize us or that the virtual world will isolate us. "There is a basic need for human companionship," Ellenbogen muses. "No one will satisfy their social needs over the Internet."
It's not the computers, the switches, or the fiber optic cables that are interesting, says Ellenbogen: "There are people at the end of binary bits."
And it's the potential for human connection -- what sociologists call "social capital" -- that is the most exciting aspect of the BEV and every other electronic village.
Blacksburg is investing in a fiber-optic cable network, allowing direct connection to the Internet, to help revitalize the downtown area. The nature of commerce is changing. "A business cannot run on dial-up access anymore," says Andrew Cohill. So Blacksburg is offering downtown businesses free Internet access as an amenity.
BEV-Seniors are pushing the town of Blacksburg to expand the fiber-optic network even further -- into all homes. Without increased bandwidth, says Keith Furr, "We're not moving forward." Furr also sees the need for more public access, because not everyone has the money to buy a computer. He hopes for more centers like the Senior Computing Learning Center: "You build it, and people will come."
Bill Ellenbogen envisions "access like payphones" in the near future, with the Internet terminals available on every street corner.
In the meantime, a new generation of second-graders in Patty Devens' class at Margaret Beeks Elementary are composing their own e-mail messages to the BEV-Seniors.
The BEV experiment has repeatedly made the national news.
It all started in 1994, when the NBC Nightly News ran a series on the telecommunications revolution and the Information Superhighway. Tom Brokaw's voice gravely intoned: "Imagine a computer network where everyone is wired to everyone else and the world. This is not a fantasy for one small American town...."
Since then, the BEV has been featured in USA Today, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Esquire, Reader's Digest, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, just to name a few.
News crews and local officials from around the world have also come to Blacksburg to cover the BEV and learn what it takes to wire a community. Among the countries represented are Japan, China, Germany, France, and Ireland.
A study by Andrea Kavanaugh, the BEV's director of research, reveals that the BEV is building social trust, networks, and norms as well as community involvement and attachment.
BEV participants report using the community network to reinforce their "sense of place" in Blacksburg. They express satisfaction in being more connected to the community.
The most popular feature of BEV is electronic mail, which accounts for about 75 percent of usage. Not surprisingly, e-mail is key to the BEV users' experiences of enhanced social relations in Blacksburg.
The World Wide Web accounts for almost all the rest of BEV usage time, trailed by chat rooms.
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