The Co-Intelligence Institute Go to CII home // Go to Y2K home

Self-organizing community networks


see also Co-Neighborhoods

The pressures of Y2K community preparations led to some very interesting developments in community organizing which I've put on this page. They are good examples of how necessity can be the mother of co-intelligent invention.

An Independent Whiteaker Web for our community?

Thoughts about what to do with a neighborhood friendship web

Neighbornets - Version 1

Neighbornets - Version 2

Neighborhood Email networks

An Independent Whiteaker Web for our community?


I have stumbled upon a possible way for a community to quickly self-organize, based on the existing friendship networks in that community.  It probably wouldn't work in a neighborhood where hardly anyone knew anyone else around them, but it would work really well in more coherent communities and small towns.  It is an alternative to the "neighborhood watch" and "block captain" variety of organizing.  It has the advantage of being self-replicating, and having a certain level of trust, caring and collaborativeness built into it from the start.

If any of you would like to try it, by all means share your experiences.  It seems to me that anything that COULD get a neighborhood organized in a few months with little effort and centralization SHOULD be tried out.

See what you think.  And use it in any way you wish.


Monika Houseman and Tom Atlee here.  We want to spark a self-organized, non-heirarchical, non-computerized, friendship-based network of Whiteaker folks who are willing to help out or to relay vital information in case of a community-wide emergency of any kind -- Y2K, floods, earthquake, chemical spills, you name it.

We're calling this a "community Web."  It will be made up of smaller "friendship webs" which are basically the naturally overlapping friendship networks that already exist.  What's nice about this idea is there's no Command Central -- no one in charge, no one with everyone's name, no one to report to, no one forcing anyone to do anything.  In fact, most folks don't have to do much of anything, unless they feel inspired.  The system works anyway.  And whatever YOU do in it, you do with friends.

What more could you ask?

Anyway, here's the idea:  Tom is new to Whiteaker, so he doesn't have much of a local friendship network yet.  But Monika's been around a while and she's got a personal network of more than four dozen Whiteaker friends.  So, inspired by Tom, she marks them all on a map and makes a list of their names, addresses and phone numbers.  Over the next week, she talks to all of these friends asking if they'd be willing

(1)  to help out in a community emergency,
(2)  to pass on vital information such as meeting announcements or warnings or news to their friends if there were a breakdown of normal communication media (but only if they agreed with the content of the message they were supposed to relay) and
(3)  to contact Monika if they run across vital information, resources, or situations in an emergency, that she might be able to pass on.

Let's say most of her friends agree to participate, and she ends up with a "Monika's Whiteaker Friendship Web" of forty people.  She's its "host."  Since she doesn't like her web's name, she decides to call it "The Blair Raven Web" after her daughter and her neighborhood.

While she was talking with her friends about participating, she checked who would be

(a) "helpers" who would help her contact her web in an emergency and stand in for her if she wasn't around when an emergency happened and/or
(b) "web hosts" who would start personal webs of their own.

She finds three helpers.  She gives each of them a copy of the friendship map and contact list she made with Tom, and they talk a bit about how they can help her.

She also finds five potential web hosts.  She spends an evening with each one (or maybe she invites them all over for dinner together) and, like Tom did for her, she helps them make up their own Whiteaker friendship maps and lists.  One of them has a web of eight people, another has 127 people, and the others have several dozen each.  She gives them each this sheet (which outlines the whole operation) and they talk a while about how their webs might actually function together.

Monika doesn't keep a copy of their maps or contact lists.  All she does is get them started in setting up their webs.  And when those new web hosts get their friends to start webs, they don't keep a copy of their friends' maps and lists.  The only people who have these maps and lists are the hosts themselves (who, after all, are already friends of everyone on their map and list) and any friends they can recruit to help them -- as in (a) above.

So this whole network -- the Independent Whiteaker Web (excuse the acronym) -- expands through overlapping friendship networks, involving only those who want to participate, and retaining whatever levels of trust and shared culture are right for each particular network of friends.  And each can have its own imaginative name...

We might call what Monika has set up so far a "Basic Friendship Web" -- just a bunch of friends who agree to help out in an emergency, a few of whom agree to help her perform her host role.  Short and sweet.  That basic minimum is a lot more than there was before.

But Monika's more ambitious.  She wants to have a "Together Friendship Web."  She gets together with her helpers and:

Then they decide to go even further -- to become what we could call a "Strong Friendship Web."  This takes some real organization and commitment.  They find out who in their web has special needs (or might during an emergency or infrastructure disruption) and who has special skills or resources that could be of use to the community (there's guidance about how to do this, if you want it).  Some members even do this for their local blocks (usually a personal web includes people on many different blocks).

Meanwhile, the creation of other personal friendship webs has been going on in the kitchens and living rooms and eateries of Whiteaker, with new ones forming each week.  The Web spreads almost like a chain letter, always through friends, with no one knowing what the whole thing looks like.  A call goes out for anyone interested in discussing in more detail how the overall Web might deal with various situations.  A couple of dozen folks from almost as many webs show up and some serious emergency planning starts to be done, which later proves very useful to the entire Web and community.

On November 14th (Sunday) and 15th (Monday) -- by which time we have 10% of Whiteaker residents involved in the Web -- everyone knows there will be a test of the system.  A message goes out from Monika's "Blair Raven Web" with an instruction to pass it on and then call a certain number.   No one identifies themselves; they just call the number so we can figure out how accurately and speedily a message travels through the Web.  We do it again the next day to see how a message travels on a weekday.

Then the next week (November 21st and 22nd) we do it again.  Except this time, although everyone still calls in on a number, no one uses their phone to contact the other people in their webs.  They go on foot or bikes or other non-phone media, to test how the system would work if the phones were down.  If we can get a message to hundreds of people in a few hours without phones, we will have really accomplished something.

Of course, new friendship webs continue to be made.  But the progress slows as webs begin to bump into each other -- as the same people are asked to be part of numerous webs.  In late November we start looking for parts of Whiteaker that haven't yet made it into a web.  Soon people are contacting us from all over the country and the world, wanting to know how we did it.

It was nothing, really....

Thoughts about what to do with a neighborhood friendship web


(This was written for my Eugene, OR, neighborhood, but is readily adaptable elsewhere.  -- Tom Atlee )

Some people have wondered what use a friendship web (see "A new way to self-organize a community?" sent 10/19/1999) would be, and why they should get involved in one.  To me, it is obvious that if authorities, official emergency assistance and utilities are not readily available (as they may not be in a major disaster) -- or if we just want to learn to live together without so much dependence on such centralized resources -- then we need to learn to depend on each other.  The more of us there are, the more resources we'll have to work with -- IF we can access those resources.  As a community, we can only access resources in a timely manner if we're well connected to each other.

But that's all ideas.  Here are a few more very practical examples of how friendship webs could be used.



Our town, like most towns, has only a few ambulances.  Each one handles several emergencies a day.  Emergency officials here have told us that a serious 3-car accident could tie up all their resources for hours.  In a disaster -- which, by definition, exceeds the local area's emergency response capacity -- there would be many simultaneous emergencies.  It would be wise to have a system where, if ambulances weren't available, we could find vehicles (and, if we were really prepared, medical help) from right here in our community.  Our local public safety official said he would love to be able to call on neighborhood people to help with their cars.  Currently there is no way for him to do that, and residents would be rightly suspicious of any top-down efforts to organize that.  This is something that needs to be organized voluntarily from the neighborhood or not at all.



There is a vast amount of know-how that could be extremely valuable in a disaster situation, which is currently known only to a few people in our community.  How do we handle human waste if the sewage system breaks?  How do you purify water -- or catch rainwater?  What are safe ways to keep warm or cook if the electricity goes off?   Whatever useful knowledge exists in a community could be shared in a timely fashion through its friendship webs.



It is easy to imagine, in the event of a disaster, that we'd want to organize a meeting to pull together a grassroots response.  But when you stop and think about it, we don't have a really effective way to do that, even now.  Notices can get posted, but so few people read them.  Even when neighborhood meetings are publicly announced -- like in our neighborhood newsletter that goes to every household -- people still don't know about them.  But if they got a call from a friend, they'd know about them.

If there were martial law and public gatherings were forbidden, information could be spread through previously organized networks like this.  The safety of the network would be enhanced because no one would know its whole structure, and people would only be communicating to people they already knew.


There's a fire and no fire trucks available.  Teams and tools (ladders, buckets, etc.) are needed to protect surrounding houses.  The call goes out through the network.

The electricity is blacked out.  A wood stove is available in someone's house for cooking for 50 people who will gather firewood for it.  The call goes out through the friendship web.

There's been an earthquake.  Several people are having nervous breakdowns and some people are needed just to sit with them, listen to them, hold them.  The call goes out.

There's a major economic downturn.  Food is getting expensive and scarce.   An old man has a big back yard he can't garden and five young people are eager to get a garden going but have no land.  They find each other through the network.

Which, of course, suggests we could try making connections with our friendship webs even BEFORE there's a disaster.



Like the Internet, the local bar, or even the news media, a friendship web is subject to abuse.  By abuse, I mean passing on information that masquerades as fact but is, instead, rumor, opinion, fantasy, or misrepresentation -- whether intentional or not, whether malicious or not.

We'd like to think that there is some media that are free of such abuses, but there aren't.  Even in the best of circumstances, objectivity is hard to achieve.  But practices like journalism and science at least have idealized rules (checking sources, controlled experiments, etc.) which help them TRY for objectivity.  We need something like that.

Here's a worst-case-scenario:  In a disaster situation, someone without the best interests of the community at heart sends false information into the friendship web that plays upon people's fears or, if people act on it, generates some mass behaviour that harms those involved or the community as a whole.

Nothing protects us from this except our own good judgement and caring about our community.  We can try to provide sources for any potentially disturbing or dangerous information we pass on.  We can think about the consequences of passing on particular information.  We can learn more about each other, becoming better judges of what information to take with a grain of salt, from whom.

This is one reason to practice using the network BEFORE our lives and our community well-being depend on it.  Another reason is to try to improve the "telephone game" factor.  In the game of telephone a dozen or more kids sit in a circle and one whispers something into the ear of the person next to them.  The message travels around the circle through whispers-in-ears, finally returning to the originator.  Often what started as "I love you" ends up as "I loathe you."  The more we use the network, the less of this problem we'll have.

Neighbornets -Version 1


Here's another interesting light-touch community organizing approach, useful in low-key Y2K preps and otherwise. -- Tom


NEIGHBORNETS are groups of people who live in the same general part of town who share in different ways (resources, activities, friendship, interests, and possibly values). In Washington State there's an active effort to organize them.

One such neighbornet describes its vision this way: to be like an old-fashioned neighborhood. While there is no property owned in common, we have established a community based on friendship and resource sharing. We have weekly potluck dinners and regular group activities such as camping trips. Many opportunities arise for regular interaction. Children play together and adults can be seen chatting as they water gardens and relax on their front porches.


See the NeighborNets Network at
for background info
or contact

Steve Habib Rose
Phone: (206) 721-0217
ICQ: 7649155

Host of The Garden
Founder of the NeighborNets Network
Board Member of the
Northwest Intentional Communities Association

Neighbornets -Version 2


Halim Dunsky, who manages the Y2KCommunity website, has created a simpler version of the community self-organizing plan described at the beginning of this page.  If you're interested in such things, feel free to use his outline, below.  He's interested in comments and, especially, in thoughts from people who actually try to do it (as he is doing in his neighborhood).  You can contact him at






This plan is a work in progress -- an experiment. We'll learn together and redesign as we go along!

Neighborhood e-mail networks

In our neighborhood we also have a simple method, we call it the
neighborhood E-ring. maintains email lists for various commuity
groups around Fort Collins. I asked them to create one for our neighborhood.
So now we have an email list for our local neighborhood. This is not
y2k-specific. Anyone in the neighborhood can post and subscribe/unsubscribe
at will. Since its managed by majordomo software, only subscribers can post
therefore preventing spamming.

I went door to door letting folks know about it and leaving instructions on
how to subscribe. There is no charge. The most common reaction I've received
from neighbors is that this is a wonderful idea - they would like a way to
keep in touch with the neighborhood.

It turns out in our neighborhood about 90% of households have email (and
it's increasing). 15-20% of the households I went to have signed up. We
use email to communicate with others all over the world, why not use it to
communicate with neighbors? We are all on such busy schedules these days,
its often difficult to connect with people who live nearby.

Ian Wells <>


By Elaine Carey

Toronto Star Demographics Reporter

They were the first wired community - a neighbourhood hooked together
by a high-speed Internet connection and an e-mail network. And the
people of Netville - a pseudonym for the community, half an hour from
Toronto - used it to become better neighbours.

Despite all the dire warnings that computers are turning us into
isolated geeks, a three-year study of Netville by two University of
Toronto researchers found they led to more community involvement,
closer neighbours and more friendships....