March 15, 2005
What happens when Wi-Fi is used to build a virtual community? It may be too soon to say, but the experiment of the 'extensible network neighborhood' is underway in NYC.
In cities around the world, community spirited techno-geeks have been setting up free Wi-Fi hotspots as part of the freenet movement. All it takes is a Wi-Fi router placed near a window or connected to a rooftop antenna, a cable or DSL modem and some firewall software. Users will always find free hotpsots.
Freenet hotspots perform a community service—providing free high-speed Internet access—but John Geraci, a graduate student in NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, thinks they can do more. As part of a school project, Geraci invented Neighbornode, "the extensible neighborhood network," an application that uses a community hotspot to create an online meeting place where near neighbors can post and read messages of very local interest.
"What I wanted to do was reintroduce the idea of an old town center in a big, modern city," Geraci says. "To create a non-threatening place where people who didn't know each other could have a dialog."
Each Neighbornode covers an area about 300 feet from the router or access point used by the host, which means that anyone in that apartment building or across the street with line of sight can access it, register and then post messages. Neighbornodes can also be networked together to create larger neighborhood configurations.
Hosts can create a Neighbornode in one of three ways. They can set up an old PC as an open source server, install m0n0wall, a free, downloadable FreeBSD firewall program, and run the configuration script available at the Neighbornode Web site. Connect the PC to any Wi-Fi router and, through the router, to a cable or DSL modem and you have a Neighbornode.
They also can request firmware from Neighbornode that modifies a Linksys WRT54G router ($55) to turn it into a node—no PC required. Geraci and his team will even do the Linksys router modification for you if you request it.
The bulletin boards themselves are centrally hosted by Neighbornode. Users are redirected to a Neighbornode Web site where they log in to their local node. The original idea was to host the boards locally and link nodes using mesh networking techniques, but at least in the early phases of the roll-out when coverage is spotty, that would be difficult or impossible, Geraci explains.
He envisioned Neighbornodes spreading virally and accelerating the existing Community Hotspot Project launched by NYCWireless, a city freenet organization. That hasn't quite happened yet. There are only 12 or 13 Neighbornodes up and running, not all in New York. The Neighbornode epicenter appears to be in the Greenwich Village area where there are several. NYCWireless meanwhile has between 30 and 50 community hotspots around the city.The spread of Neighbornode has gone in fits and starts, Geraci says. An article appears in the local press and three or four more people write in for information about how to set one up. He believes that putting up signs indicating where Neighbornodes already exist will generate more interest, but the project has no funding at this point.
For now, Neighbornode members typically find out about a node by seeing its SSID appear in their networking software. When they log in to access the Internet, they're routed automatically to the bulletin board page where they see all the latest posts and can respond if they want. The software is intelligent enough that if they've already logged in earlier in the day and seen the latest posts, they bypass the board and go directly to the Internet.
Discussion topics run the gamut from idle chit-chat to serious dialog about and organization around local issues. Neighbors have used the bulletin boards to organize opposition to granting more liquor licenses in an area, to plan group attendance at town meetings and to discuss the plight of a local homeless man.
"There's typically a progression in the level of discussion over time—from, 'Hi, how are you,' or 'Hey, this is really cool,' to more talking about the neighborhood," Geraci says.
In one case, two neighbors in the same building who had seen each other around but never spoken, hooked up on their Greenwich Village node and ended up traveling together. The technology may in some ways make it easier for people to meet, Geraci says. "There's an extra little bit of trust there when you've talked on Neighbornode first."
On the other hand, getting neighbors interacting on a node in meaningful ways can take some doing. "Setting up a Neighbornode is a little like turning on a light," he says. "It can be a weird feeling for people who have seen each other around but never spoken. At first, they often log on but don't post. It takes somebody, usually the host, to post and lead the discussion—to encourage others to step out."
In densely populated Manhattan, as many as 30 people may log in and post messages to a Neighbornode in a day. Other nodes, such as Geraci's own in Brooklyn, see fewer than five log-ins a day. The number of people participating determines the dynamic on the node, Geraci says. He believes that when penetration in Manhattan reaches something like 30%—clearly a long way off—new and interesting kinds of behaviors may emerge.
He has in mind the ideas of one of his NYU professors, Clay Shirky, who points out that when four or five things or people are linked together in a network you get one kind of dynamic, but when 100 people are linked, the dynamic changes and things become less predictable. "You start to see things emerge that you hadn't expected, Geraci says.
Such as? He declines to speculate.
The whole project is in keeping with Geraci's academic interests in, as he puts on the NYU ITP Web site, "making technology more expressive" and engaging in issues of culture and politics. "I'm more interested in people than in computers. Computers are only as interested as the people behind them."