People, Communities, and Service:
Shaping the Future of the Interne

Keynote, Government on the Net ’99

Brenda Laurel

Theme of the Conference

The theme for GovNet 99 is intended to reflect the Government of Canada's progressive agenda to use the Internet to improve Canadians access to information on federal programs and services, and foster a knowledge-based economy.



Inventor Alan Kay once said, "the best way to predict the future is to invent it." The ideas that motivated his invention of Smalltalk flowed out into the world to influence almost every aspect of computing. Great ideas have widespread ramifications. One of the great inventions of our time is the Web. The ideas that motivated it had to do with communication and information-sharing. What has flowed from are new forms of communities and new means for creating and supporting them. Internet-based communities differ from conventional communities in several important ways: they are not geographically defined or constrained; they may recruit new members based on common interest more effectively; communication may be largely time-displaced; there is a much broader range in the representation of the personal identities of community members; and community boundaries may be more difficult to maintain. In this session, we will look at these and other key characteristics of online communities to see how we can take advantage of them to shape the future of government service and citizen participation on the net.

This talk is copyright © 1999 by Brenda Laurel.



In 1993, I had the great pleasure of living and working at the Banff Centre for the Arts for several months. My colleague Rachel Strickland and I had received a grant from the Banff Centre to produce a virtual-reality project based on the local landscape. Our goal was to explore relationships between landscape, stories, and play. My daughters, then ages 5 and 7, came with me, and every morning we woke up to the gorgeous sight of Mount Rundle. One day the girls told me that they had invented something new. They had taped cardboard knobs onto the sill under the picture window. "Look, Mom, it's Mountain TV - all mountain, all the time! And listen to this, the weather and light you see on this TV is exactly the same as it is outside! Only one channel, but it’s a great picture!"

In many ways the best part of the project was location scouting. We hiked to waterfalls, caves, mountain overlooks, glaciers, and lakes. We all fell in love with the landscapes of Alberta and British Columbia. The Canadian artists and technologists with whom we worked were diverse and enthusiastic. Looking back, I see that one of the ways in which my Canadian friends seemed to differ from my friends in the US was their seriousness about government. Regardless of their political views, the Canadians I met seemed to feel both involved and responsible for public policy.

While I was in Banff, I experienced a fairly serious health problem that brought me in contact with your healthcare establishment. The differences between Canada and the U.S. in terms of access to care, as you know, are extreme and poignant. All these things made me more than a little reluctant to return home.

Now I have found yet another reason to admire Canada: the Canadian Government’s enlightened policies and well-conceived presence on the Net. After spending a few days looking around Canadian federal, provincial, and municipal government sites, I began to wonder why in the world you had invited me to speak. I could never know as much as you obviously do about making government information and services available to people electronically. So I tried to figure out how I might cheer you on, and I hope that some of the points in this talk will be useful to you in some way. But what I want you to hear first is my congratulations for the mammoth effort you have made and the excellent results you’ve achieved so far.

Aspects of "User Experience"

I want to begin today by sharing some of the things I’ve learned about "user experience" on the web. This term, "user experience," is one of the latest buzz-words in the U.S. It’s becoming the new term for what was recently called "usability" or "interface design" or "human-computer interaction." Before that it was called "human factors," drawn from the aerospace industry and the study of human pilots, or "man-machine interaction," used in connection with the guys in the white coats standing in front of giant mainframes. If you don’t know what those guys look like, you can still see one in Norton Utilities.

"User experience" as a label is a step in the right direction because it puts the emphasis on something broader than what we used to call "the interface" - the controls or the "contact surface" of a program. The term "user experience" attempts to put us in touch with the entire experience that a person has in a computer-based activity. I think the thing that still doesn’t work is the word, "user." That’s a demeaning little word. I mean, besides computers, the thing that the word "user" is most closely associated with is drugs. Seriously, I think the word "user" implies an unbalanced power relationship — the "experts" make things; everybody else is just a "user." People don’t like to think of themselves as "users." We like to think of ourselves as creative, energetic beings who put out as much as we take in.

To see how this matters, try plugging in other words. "Customer" - this person is highly valued and is usually right. "Audience - this person likes to watch and expects to be entertained. "Client" - this person wants professional services. "Player" - this person wants to have fun. "Participant" - well, this person is doing something, whether it’s fun or not. "Partner" - this person has agreed to work on something together with me. The idea of being in partnership with the people on your site is not only emotionally attractive; it is quite literally true.

It will take a better mind than mine to solve this terminology problem once and for all, but I think it’s a good technique to use whatever word is appropriate to the activity. Is a person on a Canadian government site a customer or a client, a player or a partner? Changing the word you use can change what you design and how people experience it. My friend and colleague Christopher Ireland, CEO of Cheskin Research, reminds us that the products people really love are products that make people feel good about themselves. In this way, brand identity is very closely related to personal identity.

Look and Feel

I’m sure that "look and feel" a familiar concept to everyone here. Some designers still think of this primarily as an issue of graphic design, layout, and interface elements. Brand identity is often equated with "look and feel."

The Canadian Government's "look and feel" on might be described as crisp, uncluttered, simple, straightforward. It projects an identity that is reassuring without being overbearing. As one moves into the hierarchy, look and feel are customized to varying degrees to fit the demographics. For example, in the areas for youth (such as the Youth Employment Services area) or aboriginals, distinct art styles are used to heighten appeal to particular groups. The Canadian Government "brand" becomes the "umbrella brand" for sub-brands in these cases. But in most areas, the umbrella brand appears to prevail all the way down the hierarchy.

"Look and feel" means more than the buttons and tabs and graphic design of a site. It also means the metaphors that are evoked. The Canadian Government brand makes me think of the kind of parent I-d like to have - moderately hip, clear, straightforward, able to give information without being overly directive. But this "parent" is not present; he or she just leaves informative notes on the fridge. So that makes me kind of a latch-key child. If you don’t like the parent metaphor, then maybe we should try to see the "Gov/Net" as a neighborhood in which vibrant and diverse families lives. Now there are people present. Should citizens feel like wards or children or recipients or customers or partners or members or neighbors? These are questions, not so much about the internet as they are about the government, how you wish the government to feel to citizens and residents, and how you want those people to feel about themselves in response.

"Look and feel" is also strongly influenced by the trends du jour on the Net as a whole. For example, commercial and pop-culture sites are using more and more animation and "eye-candy" to compete with one another, and tools like Flash have accelerated and intensified this "battle for eyeballs." The net effect, you should excuse the pun, is that things move faster and people's attention spans are shorter. Government sites tend to present a striking contrast, with little or no movement. This may make a person feel calm and secure, but it may also seem to be quite dead compared to the pace of life elsewhere on the Net. Granted, people on your sites today are probably in a "look-up" state of mind. But most of the web is rapidly becoming more social and more active. I think that this is a trend that will continue for a long while, and that one-way "publishing" sites are going to feel increasingly lonely and static.

The web will provide a strong continuing force toward communication and participation, which you and your government can leverage to your advantage if you wish. If you choose not move toward a more social and more "populated" model, I think you face the potential risk of being seen as old-fashioned, irrelevant, and distant. I will return to the topic of online communities and discuss it in more depth after I review some of the other trends that are influencing design on the web.

Privacy and Trust

As you undoubtedly know, privacy has become a central concern of a large portion of the online population. In the U. S., people are objecting so strenuously to the harvesting of personal data and use of that data in targeted marketing and advertising activities that both private and public institutions are beginning to respond. It makes sense for governments to get involved in helping citizens to protect their privacy in the context of commercial enterprises. But as governments become more actively involved in the lives of its citizens online, governments will have to apply the same rules that they make for businesses about protecting privacy to themselves. Citizens will demand it. The only privacy statement that I have found on the Canadian government sites I visited was directed to employers and employees; I could find no statement of the site's policy for protecting the privacy of citizens who use government internet services. It may be there and I may have missed it, of course. But it is worthwhile, I think, for government internet services to think of themselves as being like corporations in this regard. The culture of the Net, including ideas about privacy and trust, is formed by people’s experiences with all of the sites they visit, and they are unlikely to distinguish - at least emotionally - between corporations and government agencies.

If you are interested in checking out online privacy initiatives and standards that are forming in the U. S., I would suggest that you visit several sites. The Privacy Alliance is an alliance of mostly large companies, many of them global, who have felt the need to articulate privacy policies and have agreed to abide by them, in order to gain and maintain the trust of their customers. For a description of the group, see and for a list of its policies, go to

A similar group, formed at the initiative of publishing giant Ziff-Davis, is called the Standard for Internet Commerce. You can check out the standard and find out about the people who are working on it at the Global Information Infrastructure site,, or you can go directly to the study at Years before the sudden sensitivity of the business community to privacy issues, the Electronic Frontiers Foundation was hard at work delineating the issues and proposing practices and legislation that would protect individuals. You can review their work at

In the online world as in life at large, privacy is very closely related to the issue of trust. The folks who are preparing to conduct the census in the U. S. are acutely aware of this fact. They know that many citizens will refuse to participate in the census because they fear that the information collected about them will be used in ways that adversely affect them. We most often encounter the concept of trust in the context of e-commerce, where people must trust companies with private information including credit card numbers. But trust turns out to be a much larger issue, and, as you undoubtedly know, trust will dramatically influence how well the Canadian public will respond to and take advantage of government services online.

Earlier this year, a study on the nature of online trust was conducted by Cheskin Research, an innovative market research firm specializing in understanding customers, in partnership with Studio Archetype, a company that helps businesses develop brand identity. To maximize trust, the authors of the study concluded that companies need to publish clear policies on security and encryption and to assure customers that only necessary information will be gathered. They also found that trust for commercial sites is bolstered by guarantees about shipping and returns. I would extrapolate that, in the case of government services, trust will be bolstered by clear statements about exactly what will happen as a result of the submission of an application or a request for services. If information is gathered, the site needs to describe exactly what it will be used for. Red flags are raised when a site attempts to gather information beyond what is obviously necessary for the given action or transaction to occur. Trust is bolstered when a site gives people a clear say in how their personal information may be used.

Interestingly, the Internet Trust study concluded that the strongest factor in building trust in an online service is ease of navigation. The most trustworthy sites are those that feature straightforward, clear, and consistent navigational strategies. I think this is interesting because it emphasizes that a person’s realtime experience is even more important in establishing trust than how well a site deals with more general and serious concerns. You can find the Internet Trust study, as well as a study on online trends among teens, via the Cheskin Research website at

Taking Action

It is clear from Speech from the Throne that opened the Second Session of the Thirty-Sixth of Parliament to making the internet work for its people:

By 2004, our goal is to be known around the world as the government most connected to its citizens, with Canadians able to access all government information and services on-line at the time and place of their choosing.

This statement implies much more than access; it means that people need to be able to take action - to request services, to make applications, to find out what they need to know, to make things happen.

Because Canadian internet sites and services are in development, it's entirely understandable that there is inconsistency among the way various activities are handled. In some cases, you can provide a form that a person can complete and submit online - this is an example of the ability to take action in real time. In other cases, a person can print and online form and mail it in, and in some cases a person is simply given an address to write to request that a form be mailed. Obviously, greater consistency is desirable. The ability to take action is absolutely fundamental to a person’s satisfaction with an online business or service. Here are some simple design criteria for doing that well.

A person needs to be able to express what he or she wants to do, simply and clearly, with a high probability of being understood. Advanced searching techniques that terminate in a menu selection are currently the most efficient way of achieving this goal. The Standard for Internet Commerce recommends that the ability to search be represented on every screen of a commerce site, and I think that this is a standard that government would do well to emulate.

Once the desire to take a particular action is expressed, a consistent response should be made. The response to a request for action should include:

These guidelines are translations of standard internet business practices. People will come to expect that their actions will be treated in similar ways by government agencies as well. The transaction should also reassure me that I have been heard and understood correctly.

As the Canadian government’s internet capabilities grow beyond request fulfillment to include support for online communities, you will have the opportunity to create affordances for people to take action on behalf of one another and for the public good. Volunteerism and information-sharing are natural community behaviors that can be fostered online to enrich the lives of all citizens.

Diversity and Personalization

Any government faces the difficulty of acknowledging the diversity of its population while maintaining a consistent identity as a nation. Certain political belief systems maintain that real fairness consists in the erasure of difference; others insist that fairness requires consistent acknowledgment and celebration of difference. I think that both of our countries have had ample opportunity to see the fallacy in the idea of ignoring difference: when assigned a unitary identity, many people are bound to feel left out. Our sense of our own uniqueness is too strong. Asserting a strong positive value for diversity helps a culture to resist prejudice and hate just as it fosters cultural creativity and pride.

But the difficulty with acknowledging diversity is that any time you characterize an individual or group, you run the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, or of being seen to be doing so. This is an area in which I have had some personal experience, and I’d like to take a moment to share some of what I’ve learned with you. Although my experience has to do with gender difference, I think that it applies to the issue of diversity in general.

in 1992 I joined a company called Interval Research with the charge to conduct research into gender and technology. Later, Interval became an investor in a company called Purple Moon that I founded to use what we had learned in that research to design computer games and web activities for preteen girls. Our reasons for doing this were socially positive. We found that one of the primary ways that boys developed comfort and confidence with computers was through the vehicle of computer games. We noted that no games had been developed to date that attracted girls to the computer in anywhere near the same numbers. We also learned that comfort with having their hands on technology gave boys an advantage in computer-related activities in school. We resolved that one strategy for attracting girls to technology would be to create entertainment and play activities that would engage them in the same way that computer games engaged boys, and we predicted that successful games for girls could give them a higher level of comfort with the computer.

The world had changed a great deal since 1992 when we began our work, and the conditions around gender and computer usage have improved quite a lot thanks, in part, to the work of all of us who were trying to design things specifically for girls. There is still work for those of us who want to make content for girls just because they are girls and we love them and want to lift them up, and there always will be. But girls have largely joined the mainstream of computing, and they are members of many audiences. Today making products for girls is no longer the same kind of social issue as it was in 1992.

There were several challenges that I faced in that work which I think are relevant to you. These took the form of political correctness, coming to terms with my own personal preconceptions and ideas, and dealing with widely held cultural views about diversity and difference.

From the perspective of academia, talking about certain kinds of gender differences - especially those that might have biological roots — was politically incorrect in the extreme. I have three daughters at home, and I grew up female, so my observations of my own life and my children’s made me an armchair expert. In fact, nearly everyone is an armchair expert on girls (and boys) - everyone has beliefs about what girls are like and how they should behave. Finally, there is a kind of magical thinking that goes on in society that goes like this: if you notice something or mention something, it will make people want to do it. This is the argument that some people use against sex education, and it is an argument that was made against acknowledging and representing any gender-specific traits, whether cultural or biological in origin. To notice is to encourage, this way of thinking says, and if we don’t notice then maybe it will just go away.

First, I had to learn that growing up female in the U. S. in the 50s and 60s in no way made me an expert in girlhood in the 90s. Many things about childhood and girls have changed radically; for example, the explosive growth of media that kids encounter and the positive attitude toward girls’ participation in sports. I also had to check my political agenda at the door of the lab. I had to understand at a deep level that I would have to suspend what I wanted to be true about girls in order to learn anything new.

Research ethics require that you approach your subject with an open mind and a question that does not contain its own answer. And it’s a good idea to make the questions as general as reasonable in order to have results that are broadly applicable. So, for example, rather than asking why girls don’t like videogames, we decided to ask, for children in the U.S., how do play patterns and preferences vary by age and gender? We reviewed the literature in all fields that we thought would be relevant. Then we interviewed about 100 experts, many of whom had authored the research we were reading. We identified the most promising threads and then began a series of interviews with children. We talked to nearly 1500 children, both boys and girls, in all regions of the U. S. We also interviewed about 500 parents.

At the end of the day we were able to produce several key findings. Since this conference is not focused on gender, I won’t take the time to review our findings in detail here. But I will say that many differences we observe between boys and girls — play preferences, attitudes toward competition, and the appeal of various kinds of characters and stories — come from fundamental differences in how boys and girls organize themselves socially and how they achieve status among their peers.

Once you have research findings, a new set of ethical concerns comes to the front. How are you going to use what you know?

This is where you reclaim the values you checked at the door. For example, we might have chosen, as fashion and cosmetic companies often do, to take advantage of girls’ insecurities in designing and marketing products. But we came into the work with the intent of doing good for girls. When we combined our research findings with our values, we were able to produce design principles to guide us in our creative work that retained the integrity of both.

We decided to use what we had learned about girls’ social concerns, identity formation, and character preferences to offer material that would be relevant to their lives and help them play around with making different choices than they might make in the real world. Our games provided emotional rehearsal space about issues that are extremely important to preteen girls — for example, who to be friends with, what it means to be a friend, conflicts between being popular and doing the right thing, whether to keep or tell secrets.

Although 95% of the press coverage we received was positive, the negative reviews cut us to the quick, because they often came from so-called feminist positions. We were wrong, it was said, to bring up issues like popularity. Girls shouldn’t think about this, and so we shouldn’t encourage them. After talking to thousands of girls and seeing survey results from thousands more, I say, "horse feathers." Popularity is a pervasive concern for pre-adolescents. Emotional health is not about whether preteens think about popularity, but how they think about it and what kinds of values they employ in deciding how to behave.

Our few but vocal critics also claimed that we were wrong to give girls "special treatment" by making games just for them. This objection was based on a common sort of bias — that what already exists is "for everyone" and therefore tailoring something to a particular group is prejudicial. Of course, the world of computer games was not "for everyone" in 1992 and it’s still not today. Most computer games are for boys. All we have to do is look at who buys and plays them. But because they are not explicitly labeled "boys only," it can be claimed that "mainstream" games are gender-neutral.

The same might be said of the style of a website, even a government website. One could decide that because a style seems transparent to us, it must be neutral. It must be for everyone. My point here is to suggest that you question that assumption as rigorously as you can, and that you find the courage to acknowledge and celebrate difference through design.

But, I can hear some of you thinking loudly, we are doing that by offering French as well as English, and by creating areas for youth and seniors and aboriginal people. But if you look at participation rates, I would be willing to bet that they are not relatively equal across those segments, and that the reason is not simply about access.

Well, I hear someone thinking again, we can’t create a bunch of little ghettos for subsets of the population. Imagine the trouble there would be if we did. My reply is, you don’t have to. A safer and more effective alternative is to create the affordances for a people to construct their own identities and communities on your sites. Supporting personalization is a powerful and graceful way to acknowledge and celebrate difference. What would an individual’s personalized government web page look like? How might a person create a self-representation that could be used on government sites? Allowing detailed self-representation will assist tremendously in the formation of online communities. Let’s take a look at what that means.

Online Communities as Part of Government on the Net

Today, it is clear that social needs and the pleasure of social contact drives much of net behavior. People appreciate social opportunities even on e-commerce sites; for example, the customer reviews posted on or the chats on Customer feedback is a standard feature of retail sites, and many sites are devoted entirely to mutual help in a variety of areas, from health to elder care to domestic abuse. It seems clear that online communities will be able to capture much of the richness that we associate with geographical communities as bandwidth and access improve.

Whether the subject is employment, health, tourism, education, or any other function, one of the primary goals of government service is to help people feel connected. This is a positive social good in almost any context. In a complementary way, government benefits from good communication with its citizens. When trust is established and privacy is secure, people will provide you with an abundance of information about themselves and feedback about your services.

Yet another government role that can be enhanced by fostering online communities is the ability to provide relevant and timely information to particular groups of people. Private online communities already do that job in many ways. For example, a private website devoted to the gay community in San Francisco recently cooperated with municipal government to get the word out about an outbreak of a particular disease. A potential health crisis was diverted through timely and effective communication with a specific community that is otherwise difficult to reach.

Online communities are not dependent upon geographical proximity. Although online communities cannot replace strong neighborhoods and communities in the physical world, online communities can triumph over geographical barriers. People once isolated by space can find people with shared interests, and government agencies and services can reach and communicate with these distributed communities more easily.

A common fear about online communities is the abysmal level of discourse in many chat rooms. How do we prevent inappropriate speech and behavior? I want to share two thoughts about this. First, communication need not occur in real time to be effective. Threaded discussions, email lists, and groups all demonstrate the appeal of time-displaced communication. Using near real-time architectures permits the use of computer-based filtering and human editorial participation to protect the integrity of communication. An impressive example of how this can work is, where every subject area may be thought of as a community of interest and each has a human editor or guide who facilitates and protects the conversation.

In online communication as in a community center or club room, there are bound to be strong differences of opinion, inflammatory views, and factually incorrect statements; these are features of robust conversation. Fear of this kind of chaos often holds us back from involving the larger community in educational conversations with the young. It’s so messy. But if the freedom to speak one’s mind merits legal protection within legal limits of decency, it also merits tolerance at the level of government. In education as well as politics and government, there is really no way to keep people "safe" from free speech. The only known antidote is critical thinking skill.

I urge you to think of the relatively free exchanging of views in online communities as a kind of vaccination mechanism. Just as a vaccination provides immunity against disease, exposure to discourse can provide immunity against apathy and gullibility by exercising one’s critical thinking skills.

Finally, I want to raise the issue of identity construction again in the context of online communities. I am sure that the ability to represent oneself online produces pleasure, and often, pride. People may want to be anonymous, but they don’t want to be nobody. There’s a difference. At heart, we all want to be seen. Internet services that don’t permit personal identity and community formation force people to be nobody. They’re "users," quite simply.

Given the opportunity, people will represent themselves with vigor and imagination. They will do so in order to participate in communities of shared interest and to find new friends with common goals and experiences. They will also do so in order to enter communities that they have never had access to. In other words, they will sometimes lie. I would wager that at least half of the men on the internet have represented themselves as women at some time, and most children and adolescents have pretended to be adults. As long as people behave within accepted limits of civility, I think that there is no harm in this. We don’t punish a child for pretending to be a banker or a ballerina when she plays. Identity construction is a kind of playing, and a way of finding out about the world.

Before you become unduly concerned about cyber-masquerading, however, I want to remind you of two other things. Research has persuasively shown that after a year, a person is most likely to settle down to a coherent identity on the net, and that it corresponds fairly highly with their identity in real life. The other thing that we need to remember is that people belong to many different groups simultaneously, and that some of these affiliations may even seem contradictory. I’m a home-grown feminist who abhors the idea of physical abuse and whose favorite kind of movie is action-adventure films where most of what happens is that people getting chased, beat up, and shot. A ten-year-old girl will see no incongruity in describing herself as a very shy person who will break the head of anyone who messes with her. We are inconsistent beings, but out of all the disparate parts, we take real joy in being our whole colorful, kaleidoscopic selves.

Right now you may be visualizing muddy footprints all over your nice, crisp, white welcome page. Don’t worry; that doesn’t have to happen. An approach you might consider for supporting online communities would be to offer server facilities, tools, and technical help to communities that wish to establish themselves as affiliates of Gov/Net. As long as a community meets your standards for civil speech and conduct, it can receive this support. If it doesn’t, then it has to go private or commercial.

Besides preventing those muddy footprints, this strategy has the advantage of permitting exclusion. I know that sounds contradictory, since we have been talking about the feeling of inclusion as a social value of communities. But it’s important to remember that just as a community includes some people, by definition it excludes others. All healthy communities have boundaries that are self-enforced through a variety of means, from informal social pressure to formal expulsion. Communities cannot function well without some means of exclusion.

Likewise, the government internet system needs to be able to exclude communities that cannot abide by rules of civility. By making support conditional upon compliance with a clear policy of civil conduct, the government can have an influence on the quality of communities without becoming their policemen.


I hope that you’ve found some encouragement in these words and some food for thought as well. It has been a real pleasure having the opportunity to see your work and think about the issues you face. As you set about the next few days working to find better ways to deliver government services on the net, I hope that you will remember that the greatest service is the one you’ve already delivered: a promise to connect and serve your citizens with the brave new tools at hand. In prosperous times, it is easy for societies to succumb to selfishness, short-sightedness, and greed. Through its aggressive internet initiative, as in many other ways, the government of Canada stands as a shining example of commitment to the public good.

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