An Ethnographic Study in Collaboration with SeniorNet

Prinicipal Investigators:

Annette Adler

Mizuko Ito
University of Southern California and Keio University

Charlotte Linde

Elizabeth Mynatt
Georgia Tech

Vicki O'Day
UC Santa Cruz

Issues of community building and community access have become increasingly salient in discussions around the Internet and the National Information Infrastructure (NII).  As the user-base for and social significance of computer-networking expands, it is crucial to examine and extend access to communities that have not traditionally used computers, and that are located outside of institutional hubs of computer networking (i.e. universities, schools, and workplaces).  This research project addressed these issues through research on SeniorNet, a community of computer-using seniors, conducting an in-depth case study of how a group located outside traditional computer access settings was able to make computers and computer networking meaningful in their daily lives.

This project was a collaboration between computer and social scientists at The Institute for Research on Learning and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, involving ethnographic research with SeniorNet.  SeniorNet is a nonprofit organization, founded in 1986, with approximately 20,000 current members, of which approximately 4,000 communicate over America Online (AOL), and with a new but growing population on the World Wide Web (WWW).  SeniorNet activities include online bulletin boards and chat rooms, face-to-face gatherings at both a national and local level, as well as classes in computer use at over 80 learning centers across the county. SeniorNet provides a rare case of a successful online community of a group that is generally considered resistant to new technology.  The community provides opportunities for seniors not only to become adept computer users, but also to develop meaningful relationships that span geographic and social distance, including support groups, information sharing, pen-pal relations with kids and schools, and deep personal relationships that have resulted in enduring friendships and at least eight marriages.  Further, its relatively long history, provides a rich case for looking at how a group is established and develops over time, in relation to changing technical standards.

The premise of this research is that access needs to be understood not only in relation to technical and economic factors, but also in relation to social and historical context of computer use.  The project focuses, in particular, on a sense of online community as a key factor in motivating and supporting access to new information technology.  Rather than focusing on just economic or technical preconditions for use of networking technologies, this study looks also at how people learn how to use it, why they find it compelling, and how it is integrated into their daily lives.

The project was funded in 1998 by The National Science Foundation's program on Societal Dimensions of Engineering, Science, and Technology, Grant #SBR-9712414.



Ito, Adler, Linde, Mynatt, O'Day
Computers and Society 31(3): 15-21


This paper reports on an ethnographic study of SeniorNet, a US based network of computer-using seniors, as a case study for exploring the communal and interpersonal dimensions of Net participation and the social and cultural issues involved in broadening public access.  This study contributes to the expansion of the universal service conversation beyond a focus on technical, infrastructural, and economic preconditions to access and on information retrieval as the primary online activity.  SeniorNet represents a success story of supporting "high-end" access for a population that is commonly thought to be technologically disenfranchised, and thus can provide a model for broadening access to other groups underrepresented on the Net.  The paper analyzes the multiple dimensions of access involved in participation in a network community: benefits of access, various forms of literacy, relevance, and community empowerment.

 [ pdf version ]


O'Day, Adler, Ito, Linde, Mynatt
Proceedings of the Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Conference 1999.


Designers of Internet applications and those involved in helping others learn about the net need to understand the problems Internet newcomers face as they encounter the idiosyncratic structures that organize the networked world.  As part of an ethnographic study of SeniorNet, an organization that helps seniors learn to use computers, we explore early encounters with the networked world by analyzing questions asked in introductory computer classes.  These questions, grounded in newcomers’ prior experience, show how the  taken-for-granted assumptions and strategies underlying successful Internet use differ from those in other domains.  The questions and analysis are grouped in the following categories: identity on the Internet; boundaries and scope of the Internet; boundaries and scope of the personal computer; and organizations and providers in the networked world.

[html version]


Mynatt, Adler, Ito, Linde, O'Day


With the explosion of participation on the Internet, there is increasing interest and speculation in extending its uses to support diverse online communities, and particular interest in using the Internet to combat loneliness and isolation amongst senior citizens.  For the past year, we have been investigating Seniornet (SN), a 12 year old organization that attempts to bring seniors together via computer networking technologies.  We found a rich tapestry of human relationships supported by various technical and social underpinnings.  In this paper, we delve into hte richness of an active community and describe the intertwining technical and socila factors that make it useful and valuable for its members.  And underlying question in these discussions is "If network communities have to be principally created and maintained by their members (as we posit), then how do designers help without getting in the way?"

  [pdf version]   [framemaker version]   [powerpoint presentation]



Mynatt, Adler, Ito, O'Day
Computer Supported Cooperative Work: The Journal of Collaborative Computing 6: 1-35, 1997.


Collaboration has long been of considerable interest to both designers and researchers in the CHI and CSCW communities.  This paper contributes to this discussion by proposing the concept of network communities as a new genre of collaboration for this discussion.  Network communities are robust and persistent communities based on a sense of locality that spans both the virtual and physical worlds of their users.  They are a technosocial construct that requires understanding of both the technology and sociality embodying them.  We consider several familiar systems as well as historical antecedents to describe the affordances these systems offer their community of users.  Based on our own experience as designers, users and researchers of a variety of network communites, we extend this initial design space along three dimensions: the boundary negotiations between real and virtual worlds, support for social rhythms and the emergence and development of community.  Finally we offer implications for designers, researchers and community members based on our findings.


Mynatt, Adler, Ito, O'Day
Annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 1997


Collaboration has long been of considerable interest in the CHI community.  This paper proposes and explores the concept of network communities as a crucial part of this discussion.  Network communites are a form of technology-mediated environment that fosters a sense of community among users.  We consider several familiar systems and describe the shared characteristics these systems have developed to deal with critical concerns of collaboration.  Based on our own experience as designers and users of a variety of network communities, we extend this initial design space along three dimensions: the articulation of a persistent sense of location, the boundary tensions between real and virtual worlds, and the emergence and evolution of community.

  [pdf version] (ACM pay-per-view access)


Under Review

Arguing against a notion of globalization as cultural homogenization, this paper suggests that mass media and communication technologies provide opportunities for the production of localized sociocultural difference.  In particular, it advocates for anthropological attention to localities that span geographic space, and proposes a notion of "network locality," as a way of looking at niche affiliations and communities that are enabled by networking infrastructures.

The paper proceeds in three sections, where arguments are made through three different ethnographic cases.  In the first section, the paper argues for the importance of decoupling a notion of the local from a necessarily geographic referent, and proposes looking at technological infrastructures as sites for the production of locality. A concept of "network locality" is proposed as a way of describing local places and identifications constructed upon media infrastructures. A case study of the infrastructure of an Internet gaming community illustrates the role of computational infrastructure in supporting localization.  In the second section, network localities are tied to the production of new forms of sociocultural difference.  The paper presents a case study of SeniorNet, a US-centered network of computer using senior citizens, that demonstrates how information infrastructures support the proliferation of technologically localized niche communities and identifications.  In the final section, as a contrast to the focus on Internet communities, the paper looks at how network localities support niche affiliations through mass mediation and capitalist exchange rather than interpersonal interaction.  A case study of a child’s engagement with a computer game is presented as an example of a "faceless locality" where affiliation is mediated by commodities as well as technological infrastructure.

 [pdf version]