National Capital Freenet
by Sheila C. Alder
Five years ago, a small group of people with a wonderful vision of the future founded the National Capital FreeNet in Ottawa, Canada. The National Capital FreeNet has grown to become the second largest in the world, after the first in Cleveland, Ohio.
Today, we have registered almost 65,000 members, and still have over 20,000 active users. The vision of the founders has been maintained, that of free community access to the Internet. We ask for, and encourage, donations as we do have to pay for our phone lines, administration, and Internet link, but no one receives lesser treatment if they don’t choose to, or can’t, donate.
With 51 public access terminals in libraries and other public buildings in the city and surrounding communities, there is no barrier to being part of the NCF. No one need own a computer, and I am pleased to be able to offer homeless people their one permanent address to allow them to stay in touch with family and friends.
I’d like to share with you my personal story of what FreeNet offered me.
Over two years ago, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. I had never heard of this illness, and the doctor told me to go away and “get educated,” then return to decide on my treatment with her. She advised me to enroll in a special class given at a large teaching hospital, but it would be weeks before I could attend. I realized as I was driving home that I didn’t even know if this was something terminal — I hadn’t even thought to ask her! As soon as I got home, I checked my 20 year old medical text books, and could find nothing. I then turned to the FreeNet, which I had only begun using a short time before, logged on, and began my search. Within thirty minutes of entering the word ‘fibromyalgia,’ I had the diagnostic criteria (established in 1990), the declaration of this as a real illness by the UN (in 1992), the name of a Usenet newsgroup, and the wonderful news that it is not life threatening.
I opened the newsgroup, read a little, and posted a question. The next day I got several answers, the first of which was from another member of the NCF, welcoming me to the group, and offering assistance and local information, which was sorely lacking in my previous search. NCF provided me with the information and reassurance I needed so desperately.
Ihave never forgotten how lost I felt when I turned here for help and information. I later established an Information Provider area on the NCF about Fibromyalgia, and the local support group I founded, so no one else would have to feel that lost again.
Since then, I have been expanding the area as more and more information becomes available. I have been so pleased by the response to this area, as many new members have come to the NCF to get the information provided here. One woman called me last summer, desperate for support. I was able to have her register as a member, get the information she needed, and receive the online support that was, and continues to be, so important to me.
Training is an important and integral part of being online. Women need to help other women learn.
A man I know who works in technical support was called to Montreal over and over to check the new computer system installed there. The manager was getting reports from one of his female staff that her terminal was losing files. The system was checked again and again, showing nothing wrong. Finally the tech support asked the woman to show him exactly what was happening at her terminal. She pulled out her instructions, and followed them exactly. When it said “Type ‘filename’ here,” she typed ‘filename.’ The men laughed.
A man from WordPerfect technical support wrote about a call he received. The woman was unable to see anything on the screen of her new computer. He asked her to follow the cords to make sure the monitor was plugged in. She said she couldn’t tell, as the power was out due to a storm. He then told her to pack up the computer and take it back to the store. When she asked if it was a serious problem, he answered "Yes. Tell them you’re too stupid to own a computer."
No one had taken the time to give these women the basic level of training. Computers have been seen as a part of a “man’s world” for too long. I live in Kanata, a small city west of Ottawa, known as Silicon Valley North due to the prevalence of the high tech industry.
The other wives of ‘computer wizards’ I’ve encountered here almost universally tell me the same thing — their husbands are too impatient to teach them anything, as they can’t ‘come down’ to the level of the new user. These men have spent their whole lives in the computer world, and can’t seem to grasp that those who haven’t are not less intelligent or less able, just less experienced. There is a world of difference!
At the NCF, we offer training, free of charge, at various branches of the public libraries in the area. Through both group presentations and one-to-one training sessions, we are trying to ensure our members do not find themselves in these situations, meaning more women members, more disabled members, and more multicultural, including francophone, members.
We are working towards that goal, but we have to deliver the message that the NCF is here, and waiting with open arms to welcome more members. I was speaking with a bank officer last week, and he asked me what freenet was. When I explained, he asked "Do you really do this for just a donation or free?" I said it was true and he exclaimed, "Then why doesn’t everyone join?"
That’s my question, too.
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