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Gateways to the Virtual Society: Innovation for Social Inclusion

This project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, Swindon, UK. Grant reference no. L132251022 

This research was part of the ESRC's Virtual Society Programme and explored the ways in which people become included in the information society. As forms of work, shopping, leisure and communication increasingly depend on familiarity with, and access to, computers and the Internet there are concerns that some people will be left behind. Private sector provision of Internet access for all looks increasingly implausible even in affluent countries. While some colleges and libraries are trying to fill this gap our research was interested primarily in innovative organisations which have been established, sometimes from within the private sector sometimes from within the voluntary sector, to provide a different kind of public access to the virtual society.

These organisations, usually known as cybercafes or telecottages in the UK, are creating a form of public access in a social space outside formal sites of learning or information provision. Often they are linked to other types of social provision such as cafes or restaurants, arts or community centres. These organisations can be thought of as a social interface between the real and virtual worlds. Rather than access being seen simply as the provision of equipment at an affordable cost, this research provided the opportunity to explore the social relations that facilitate peoples' learning and involvement. It looked at the approach of those running the facility towards access and inclusion and at other aspects of the culture of these organisations and their links to wider social groups. It used social network analysis to assess the degree and forms of inclusion of different types of people in both the real and virtual worlds.

The research began in November 1997 and continued for 2 years. A survey of telecottages and cybercafes in the UK showed that such facilities have a high commitment to increasing access and appear to be successful in attracting a wide range of new users. Detailed case studies in the UK and comparative research on similar facilities in California and Scandinavia was also completed. This showed two distinct modes of inclusion based on strong or weak ties with potential users.

Research Output

Journal Articles

Liff, S., Steward, F. and Watts, P. (2000) 'Inclusion in the information society - The distinctive role of e-gateways', Teleworker, 7, 1 (Feb/March) (electronically available here).

Liff, S. (2000) 'Consumer e-commerce: Potential for social exclusion?', Consumer Policy Review, 10, 5: 162-6.

Liff, S., Steward, F. and Watts, P. (1999). 'Public access to the internet: New approaches from internet cafes and community technology centres and their implications for libraries', New Review of Information Networking, 5.

Book Chapters

Liff, S. and Steward, F. (2001) 'From the social to the virtual... and back again', in Woolgar, S. (ed.) Virtual Society? Get Real!, Oxford Univerity Press.

Liff, S. and Steward, F. (2001) 'Communities and community technology centres: Networking for social inclusion', in Loader, B. (ed.) Community Informatics: Community Development Through the Use of Information and Communications Technologies, Routledge.

Liff, S. and Steward, F. (2001) 'Social inclusion in the information society: The role of public access provision in the UK and USA', in Malkia, M., Anttiroiko, A. and Savolainen, R. (eds.) Citizens and Public Administration in the Information Age

Liff, S. (2001) 'Inclusion or exclusion in the e-society?', in Tether, B. and Rutter, J. (eds.) ICT UK: Perspectives on the Future Socio-Economic Impacts of Information and Communication Technologies, Edward Elgar.

Liff, S., Steward, F. and Watts, P. (2000). 'E-gateways as a route to access for all' in Milne, C. & Creighton, S. (eds.) Universal Community Service: Access for All to Internet Services at Community Level. Council of Europe (available from http://www.humanrights.coe.int/media).

Liff, S. (2000) 'Modes and means of inclusion in the European Virtual Society', in Academia Europa (eds.) Virtuality in Europe: Trends, Opportunities and Risks.

Note: various reports / powerpoint presentations from the research can be found on the Virtual Society? website at www.virtualsociety.org.uk

Project Team:

S Liff
F Steward
P Watts