Virtual Community and Civic Life in Amsterdam

By Howard Rheingold

Can a strong virtual community, used wisely to strengthen social ties, help defend the integrity of real-world communities?

Can a strong virtual community, used wisely to strengthen social ties, help defend the integrity of real-world communities? Watch what happens to Amsterdam over the next couple of years. Real community still exists in the streets of Amsterdam, where the skyscraper developers, long thwarted by the city's marshy foundation, haven't destroyed the great public places where Dutch citizens and their guests have gathered for centuries. On a spring or summer day, when the pedestrians and and bicyclists outnumber the automobiles, strolling along one of the city's canals, you get the overwhelming sense that the people here still believe they own the place. Amsterdam has its problems, but its a city where citizen participation in civic life is still visible and audible wherever you go. It's a relatively small city, a tenth the size of New York, London, or Tokyo, but you can fill a lecture hall with citizens of all kinds to hear a panel discuss art and technology and politics.

The Dutch are trying to do something that the rest of the world might learn from: Now that deregulation of telecommunication access and the efforts of grassroots activists are bringing full Internet access to Dutch citizens, it is heartening to see an early committment to maintaining strong ties between geographic and virtual communities.

De Balie, near Amsterdam's grand Leidesplein, is a building in which restaurants, lecture halls, and performance spaces have long encouraged active discussions of culture, technology, and politics. De Digitale Stad (the Digital City, or DDS), the largest Free-Net in Netherlands, grew out of proposals from De Balie and Hacktic, a hacker activist magazine and organization, that were financed by the city of Amsterdam and national Ministry of Economic Affairs. When I met with Dutch online culture builders in April, 1995, it was in a room in De Balie, after a dinner at the restaaurant in the same building. Having your own cafe and urban meeting space certainly adds a vital dimension to a virtual community.

Marleen Stikker, one of the founders of DDS, told me "De Balie combines sculture and politics in lectures, debates, manifestations, theatre, and performances. De Digitale Stad began as a practical inquiry on the possibility of public debates in the digital space. Since the first of January 1995 De Digitale Stad has been an independent foundation."

The building that houses DDS is a hotbed of digital culture: Mediamatic , the techno-trendy but critical magazine, has its headquarters there, and so does XS4ALL. XS4ALL has 4000 users; it's currently the cheaprest provider. In the DDS office.Marleen Stikker and her colleagues showed me the new interface they are creating for De Digitale Stad (DDS), based on the Web.

DDS has 15,000 accounts. People have occupied the city with their home pages. They have their own Usenet newsgroup hierarchy. The new interface they demonstrated creates a visual represenation of The Digital City divided into town squares, literally areas of interest. You point to an area of interest and you can find out what is happening this week in your neighborhood, geographic or virtual. People looking at information in different areas can choose to represent their presence with their e-mail address, and a small .gif. If you want to chat with another DDSer, click on his or her .gif. That means that in the Digital City, people are not all browsing alone through each other's show-and-tell "home pages." The design of the next generation digital city combines the multimedia self-publishing that makes the Web so popular with the conversation-with-neighbors-and-others property of virtual communities that makes Usenet and BBSs so popular.

I visited DDS and other Amsterdam digital activists in April, 1995, and reported about them in Rheingoldian Roadshows Here are a few Amsterdam sites, some of them with English content, much of it in Dutch: