Virtual Communities and Information Resources in Latin America

Jose F. Silvio <j.silvio@unesco.org>

Abstract

1 Dimensions of Computer Mediated Communication

2 CMC between People: Virtual Groups and Communities as Communication Resources

CMC between people has generally taken place in Latin America through electronic mail and list servers in different countries. These servers host a variety of social groups that have been formed for different purposes. Some of them center on social, cultural and recreational topics while others act as forums for discussion of professional and scientific organizations that have used CMC as a research, management and development tool for their activities and projects. These lists can be viewed as the expression of virtual groups and communities existing in Latin America, although they lack the degree of organization and complexity of other communities existing in other regions like WELL2 and Freenets. These groups and communities constitute communication resources and reservoirs that allow members to interact for different reasons and, at the same time, function as information resources and reservoirs derived from exchanges between people.

Virtual communities made a rather recent appearance early in the 90s throughout Latin America and the Caribbean when nationwide telematic networks quickly prompted countries in the region to join INTERNET. Data collected on these communities was mostly compiled by going from one electronic information center to another inside and outside the region. communities by topic inside and outside the region.

A total of 94 listservers and 590 electronic lists were identified, of which 30 servers and 486 lists reside in INTERNET nodes in the Latin American region and the rest elsewhere (mostly in the United States with topics concerning the region). (Figure 1). While most of the lists reside in nodes found in Latin American countries (about 82%), the number of listservers is greater in nodes outside the region. List distribution among countries in the region is quite uneven. Countries where concentration is observed are Brazil (which stands out significantly), Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Chile and Argentina. (Figure 2). This distribution reveals population density throughout the region, but also indicates the evolution of electronic communication in the region. Brazil and Mexico, along with Colombia, pioneered the development of the BITNET network in Latin America, which is traditionally recognized as the source of electronic communication in the academic world through listservers. This network led the development of interest groups and virtual communities, a tradition later inherited and carried on by INTERNET on a worldwide scale.

Disparities are also observed in the distribution of virtual communities by topic inside and outside the region. Figure 3 shows how lists covering Informatics and Telematics are much more predominant than lists on Engineering and Technology, which stand in second place. Lists dealing with Natural sciences, Human and Social Development, and Education come next. A group of lists aimed at Information Exchange in general also stands out, although to a lesser extent than the above. They constitute spaces for communication created by various groups of users to exchange information on different topics without concentrating on any particular one. Examples include lists of national networks dedicated to discussing problems encountered by users of electronic communication, as well as communities of users from different entities discussing general problems faced by them in their work on different matters with regard to the use of computer mediated communication.

A significant group of lists covering national and regional integration is also particularly relevant. It includes communities of users who engage in the exchange of information on different topics related to their respective countries or to the Latin American region as a whole. It is important to note that, for the most part, these lists are located in INTERNET nodes outside Latin America, mostly in the United States and Canada and, to a lesser degree, in Europe. Many Latin American users residing outside the region view computer mediated communication as a way to keep in touch with their homeland, thereby strengthening national and regional integration and taking advantage of telematic services existing in their countries of residence for this purpose. This is yet another illustration of the role computer mediated communication plays in globalizing national and regional integration and maintaining national cultural identities worldwide, regardless of geographic location.

Distribution by topic of virtual communities according to region is also uneven (Figure 4). The distribution pattern by topic for Latin America is the same as that identified on a global scale, discussed previously. The topic of national and regional integration is predominant in the United States/Canada and Europe, confirming what was noted earlier in this regard. While a variety of topics similar to that available from listservers in nodes located in Latin American countries exists in the United States/Canada, there is less of a variety in Europe. European interest in Latin America is pretty much centralized in certain countries like France, Spain and Holland, based on the existence of Latin American users with access to nodes in those countries and their use of space to communicate on different subjects.

Significant differences in the distribution of virtual communities by topic are also observed individually by country. Countries like Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Peru, with the highest concentration of lists, follow a more general pattern in which informatics and telematics prevail, followed by engineering and technology, natural science, human and social development and education (Figure 5). This indicates that when more users exist the resulting pattern is usually similar and a clear preference is displayed for topics related to new information and communications technologies. Other countries have profiles differing from the average one. Communities concerned with informatics and telematics prevail in each case, but important differences are observed. In Venezuela, for instance, communities dealing with Informatics and Telematics, Engineering and Technology, and National and Regional Integration are observed in equal proportions. In Argentina and Colombia the distribution of topics is broader. A complete variety of topics exists in all of them, meaning that the same topics are common to all.

In the foreseeable future, as connectivity to INTERNET in the rest of the Latin American countries develops and interface access and telematic services are more readily available to the inexperienced user, virtual communities on different topics will arise, thereby minimizing involvement and importance of communities dedicated to discussing topics related to informatics and telematics and engineering and technology. Nevertheless, the incorporation of new and more varied users cannot be expected through inertia. Systematic efforts must be made to generalize new technologies among these new users if we expect to obtain any added value from telematic networks and transform them into useful, functional and socially integrating tools.

Another type of virtual community exists that has hardly been developed in Latin America even though it has played a very important role in INTERNET and constitutes a highly valued communication and information resource in developed countries. Interest groups comprising the USENET network of Newsgroups joined INTERNET, contributing all they had on information and communication. There are now about 10,000 groups like this. While access to them does require special programs, they have become as popular or even more so than electronic lists to which some have been automatically connected, increasing their presence even more. Nonetheless, these groups have not developed to any great extent in Latin America; only 21 Newsgroups were identified (Figure 6). It is interesting to note that the main function of these groups in Latin America and the Caribbean has been to contribute to national and regional integration. Almost half of them deal with topics on a national and regional level linked to culture, politics and other aspects pertaining to particular countries and the region in general. Like many other lists, these groups have helped Latin Americans living abroad maintain ties with their homeland and exchange information with their fellow citizens. However, no "culture," as such, exists yet in Latin America for the use of discussion forums or interest groups, and the use of lists is far more widespread than that of these groups.

Communities based on communication in real time, characterized by the use of Internet Relay Chat, are practically nonexistent in Latin America. Only two IRC servers exist, one in Chile and another in Venezuela. Moreover, their development within INTERNET is also relatively new, and their use has been limited almost exclusively to recreational and social applications instead of to professional and scientific ones. However, this real time communication tool is very useful in professional and scientific domains inasmuch as it facilitates the exchange of information by communicating many people to many others via telemeetings and teleconferences for educational, professional, scientific purposes, project management, etc.

3 CMC between People and Organizations: Information Services and Resources

Virtual communities and groups are the human factor involved in integration and development of sociability in a virtual context, but information resources and services are to be found in another dimension. They provide the basis for developing what is known as the Virtual Library; that is, an enormous reservoir of information constituting the global matrix of computer mediated communication worldwide. While they too are products of virtual human sociability, their function is different.

For analytical purposes, one needs to distinguish between telematic services and information resources. The term resource is generally used to designate any information reservoir: a data base, a directory, an electronic magazine, a collection of electronic documents and the like. It contains information that adds value to telematic networks because of its strategic importance as input for action, decision making and problem solving in the many spheres of social life. A service, on the other hand, is a technological means by which a telematic network allows a user to access these resources through different strategies for communication, search, and information processing. Generally speaking, the service is just a client program (like Telnet, FTP, WWW) facilitating hookup to a server and access to an information reservoir contained by it (data base, directory, documents, etc). For example, a particular organization's data base can be accessed through various services: a remote connection like TELNET or FTP, Gopher or Web services. Furthermore, the same service, such as Web, can allow access to various kinds of resources. For practical purposes, service and resource may be confused and used interchangeably: a resource like a data base managed by an organization provides information services; a service such as a Web server is really an information resource in the eyes of a user conducting research. However, for the sake of concept clarity and consistency, we shall maintain the classical distinction between resource and service, which also coincides with INTERNET's use of such terminology.

Telematic services providing computer mediated communication between people and organizations may be classified according to the following criteria:

As with lists and interest groups, which are essentially resources for communication, information was compiled on services and resources existing in INTERNET nodes throughout countries in Latin America, as well as in nodes located in countries of other regions with resources aimed at topics referring to Latin America.

Figure 7 summarizes information on all of these services and resources that make up INTERNET services: Telnet, FTP, WAIS, Gopher and World Wide Web. Distribution of these resources in nodes throughout Latin America, the United States and Canada, and Europe is 57%, 40% and 3%, respectively. The proportion of information resources in Latin American nodes is much lower than that corresponding to communication resources discussed earlier. In this respect, the region has been more traditionally inclined towards communication than information. Actually, communication resources appeared in Latin America (and on INTERNET in general) long before information resources, particularly due to the influence of the development of the BITNET network and other national networks based on UUCP protocol which helped create the habit of using electronic mail and discussion lists. These lists were used both as resources for communication and information searches. As services develop allowing generalized use of virtual libraries, information resources will become more meaningful. The existing differences can be attributed to the legacy of telematic networks evolution, and surely the future will bring a balance between information resources and communication resources, or their fusion into a single concept.

Distribution of services and resources by country differs greatly from the pattern observed regarding lists (Figure 8). Colombia leads the way in information resources, followed by Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Chile and Venezuela. Although Colombia had one of the BITNET network nodes located in the region, after joining INTERNET it made a great effort to maximize the use of information resources.

The kinds of resources are distributed quite unevenly in accordance with the telematic services or programs providing their access. Figure 7 shows a marked predominance of WWW and Gopher servers and resources over the rest, indicating that the generalized tendency of INTERNET users to use the WWW service as a general and polyvalent interface to access other services and resources, whose access they in turn provide to the user, also prevails in the region.

As concerns information resources, despite the fact that it is very difficult to identify the topics of stored information, an attempt has been made to classify these topics according to their respective degree of concentration. Nevertheless, one needs to exercise caution because information resources accessed by widely used services like Gopher and WWW contain information on different topics and, as a result, tend to be more generalized. This trend towards generalization is clearly evident in Figure 9, where a high percentage of information resources that could not be attributed to any particular topic becomes apparent. Here again, as with discussion lists on National and Regional integration, one notices a high percentage of resources containing general national and regional information, as well as information on Economics and Commerce, Politics and Government, and Human and Social development pertaining to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. These resources are basically located in virtual communities and information resources found in countries outside the region, mainly the United States and Canada. These servers provide economic, political, social and cultural information on Latin American and Caribbean countries which is updated regularly and disseminated to a worldwide public. As seen in Figure 9, countries in the region tend to concentrate their resources on technical and specific topics. This is somewhat of a paradox, and indicates a tendency towards polarization of information. Apparently, updated information on Latin America seems to be located outside the region instead of within it. This fact perpetuates a long-existing tradition that preceded electronic networks.

Distribution of resources by topic exhibits a different pattern in each country (Figure 10). While servers with general information on different topics are prevalent, areas of concentration by topic are also noted: Engineering and Technology (Brazil and Mexico), Information Exchange (Argentina and Peru) and Education (Venezuela). Unlike what occurred with electronic lists, profiles are not similar.

4 Conclusions and Suggestions: Towards Integration of Communication and Information Resources

INTERNET growth over the last five years has been amazing, but it has not been evenly distributed throughout the different regions of the world. Developed countries have experienced the most rapid and diversified forms of INTERNET growth, while developing countries have only seen relatively weak progress in this direction, as shown by a survey conducted in 1995. Growth of INTERNET in Latin America has been greater than in Africa, but less than in Asia and the Pacific, which ranks third, after North America and Europe3. Growth patterns have imitated existing telecommunications infrastructure: INTERNET arrived and spread wherever a reliable telecommunications infrastructure was available. Thus, inequality observed in Geoeconomic space seems to have reproduced itself in Cyberspace. Therefore, if the needs of developing countries are not met, the technological development gap will also increase through information superhighways in general. The consequences of this situation are obvious in terms of the possibility of developing virtual groups and communities as well organized communication and information resources in Latin America. Along these same lines, as noted, Latin America is still heavily dependent on developed countries, especially North America, for information resources. This should decrease as soon as countries in the region are able to overcome their economic, financial and social problems. Latin America's incorporation and contribution to Cyberspace development is contingent upon this entire situation.

On a more specific level, topics of interest groups and electronic communities in general need to become more diversified in order to reduce the predominance of topics linked to new information and communications technology and to open up usage to users from other areas of social life. Creation and development of newsgroups is desirable to complement and enhance the multiplying effect of electronic lists. This becomes feasible as possibilities for connectivity and access to communication and information resources increase, but more Latin American information resources also need to be developed with proper support and maintenance from countries in the region. This will afford the new user more varied, diversified and better disseminated information resources to more adequately reflect his/her sociocultural identity.

Increased presence within the region of virtual groups and communities (lists and newsgroups) like social networks and information resources (data bases, directories, etc.) is also desirable. While communities and information resources have certainly grown out of different motives and objectives, both are the product of human integration. Communication that takes place between people when members of electronic lists or newsgroups interact does in fact generate information resources which are organized according to an order one might call "vital." On the other hand, organization of information resources is the product of more deliberate action based on a "geometric" order, so to speak. When a virtual community arises from these resources, its value as a resource doubles as a tool for communication and storage and information search of relevance to that community. Here, the community becomes a factor for the integration of the information reservoir, somewhat like the human basis behind the contents of the information itself, as well as multiple space for communication between people and between people and organizations. This trend has been developing spontaneously within INTERNET, but the process needs to be more systematic. Information communities and resources would thus develop as social networks with telematic support. Communication of information and search for same could be conducted using these social networks, thereby substantially increasingly the value added to the telematic network itself by these networks and to its information and communication services. Some networks aimed at teaching and learning, called learning networks, like a few existing in Latin America 4, are examples of this type of integration. WWWW plays a key role in this process of integration, insofar as it provides the port of entry and complete organization for the community, as well as the means to structure its information and communication resources and to keep them in permanent contact and interaction with those of other organizations and communities.

A list of information resources that could be developed in Latin America with support from virtual communities providing human assistance is provided below for purposes of illustration:

- Latin American and Caribbean Center for Information on Health Sciences, Panamerican Health Organization (BIREME).

- Academy of Sciences of Latin America (ACAL). Regional Program on Science and Technology Information for Latin America and the Caribbean.

- Latin American Social Sciences Council (CLACSO) - CLACSO Information and Communications Network.

- Latin American Development Management Center (CLAD) - Latin American Network for Documentation and Information in Public Administration (REDIAP).

- Latin American Economic System (SELA) - Project on Status of Regional Cooperation (PESICRE).

- Center for Research and Development in Education (CIDE) - Latin American Network on Information and Documentation in Education (REDUC).

- Union of Amazonian Universities (UNAMAZ) - Amazonian System of Information (SIAMAZ).

- Network for Information and Communication on Higher Education (RIESLAC), UNESCO's Regional Center for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (CRESALC).

- Virtual Library and Project for an Electronic University of the University of Colima (Mexico).

- The Global University, based in New York, and its activities in Latin America.

- Telesinergics Project, Networks and Development Foundation (FUNREDES).

- Bolivar Program for University-Industry Cooperation in Latin America.

- Network for Innovation in Distance Higher Education (RIESAD), National Open University of Venezuela and CRESALC/UNESCO.

References

[1] Silvio, Jose F. Potential users and virtual communities in the academic world. Proceedings INET'95 Conference. Honolulu, USA, 1995.

[2] Smith, Marc. Voices from the WELL: the logic of virtual commons. UCLA. Los Angeles, USA, 1993; and Kollock, P and Smith, M. Managing the virtual commons: cooperation and conflict in computer communities. UCLA. Los Angeles, USA, 1994.

[3] Bournellis, Cynthia. Internet 95. Internet World Review. November, 95.

[4] See Silvio, Jose. Learning networks and international cooperation in Latin America. II World Congress on Education and Informatics. Moscow, July 1-5, 1996 and on a more global level: Harasim, L et al. Learning Networks. The MIT Press. Cambridge, USA, 1995.

Author Information

Jose Silvio is a Sociologist and graduate from the Central University of Venezuela. He holds a Doctorate Degree in Educational Sciences from the University of Paris and pursued Post-Doctoral studies in Informatics and Statistics Applied to Social Sciences, and Mediatics and Telematics, in France and Canada, respectively. He is currently the Senior Specialist at the UNESCO's Regional Center for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (CRESALC). He has also worked at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, in the International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) and the Division of Educational Policy and Planning. He is coordinating CRESALC's program for the development of academic networks, among others, and has worked on several research and training projects in the field of electronic networks. In particular, he is the principal adviser of a Network on Distance Education (RIESAD), for the creation of a virtual community for research, training and development in this area, within the framework of UNESCO's programs: UNITWIN and "Learning without Frontiers". He is the author of several articles about the social and educational impact of new information and communication technologies, and the editor of two books recently published by CRESALC/UNESCO: "Calidad, tecnologia y globalizacion en la educacion superior" (Quality, technology and globalization in higher education) (1992) and "Una nueva manera de comunicar el conocimiento" (A new way to communicate knowledge) (1993). Mailing Address: UNESCO/CRESALC. Apartado 68394. Caracas, 1062-A, Venezuela. Tel: 2860721, 2860516. Fax: 2862039. E-mail addresses: j.silvio@unesco.org.

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