‘Please Prepare for Cross Check’: A Review of ‘Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities’

Stefanie PankeBy Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education

In August 2009, I received an email from Etienne Wenger, announcing a book he has written with Nancy White and John D. Smith called Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities (Portland, OR: CPsquare, 2009). In a way, this book is a follow up activity on a survey of community oriented technologies that Etienne published in 2001. I was amongst those who downloaded this report, finding an overview of various technology products and – more important – inspiring insights that helped me to understand the role of technology for communities. We were in the process of implementing community features for the portal e-teaching.org, a German Web site on e-learning in higher education. Since then, the concepts of situated learning and legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice have greatly influenced my work on the design of educational resources.

In a community of practice “learning means to become, that is, to belong differently than we do at the moment” (Lee & Roth, 2003). Since Howard Rheingold’s seminal work on virtual communities (1993), online communities of various kinds and in very different fields, such as marketing, education, community informatics, etc., attract researchers’ and practitioners’ attention alike. A fundamental question across the various perspectives and domains has been up to now how online communities work: How do they come into existence? What are critical success factors? And how can technology be designed to support community development? Digital Habitats develops a conceptual model to describe the skills necessary for choosing, implementing, and maintaining digital tools that enable a communities’ togetherness. The character of the work can be placed somewhere between practitioner’s guide, academic reflection, and visionary pamphlet. The book’s eleven chapters are clustered into four parts: “Introduction,” “Literacy,” “Practice,” and “Future.” The following summary outlines the content of each part and highlights a chapter or concept that I found particularly inspiring.

Cover of the book Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities by Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John D. Smith

Part I

The first three chapters introduce the idea of learning communities, explore how their development is intertwined with technology, and finally define the notion of technology stewarding: “Technology stewardship is an emerging role that describes both a responsibility and a practice – an attitude as well as all the conversations, decisions, and learning that address the design and management of a community’s technology infrastructure” (33).

I was most impressed with the theme of chapter 2, which gives a historical overview of the mutual influence between communities and technology, drawing a bow from the Well to Web 2.0 and from the physicists at CERN to Ward Cunningham’s first wiki, invented to support the pattern community. “Technologies have changed how we think about communities, and communities have changed our uses of technology” (21). Technologies enable communities to form and to act in new ways, offering infrastructures for interactivity and connectedness. At the same time, communities have played a critical role in the invention of new technologies.

Part II

Chapters 4 to 6 introduce three different models on technology’s role for communities. These models constitute a specific kind of media literacy that allows for analyzing the technology needs of a community and pursuing a course of action. The first model includes different aspects of technologies such as tools, features, platforms, and configurations. The second model points out the inherent dilemmas of everyday community life. The third model deals with the specific traits of different communities, their so called orientation. “Communities learn together in different ways: some meet regularly, some converse online, some work together, some share documents, some develop deep bonds, and some are driven by the mission they serve. We say that these communities have different orientations towards the process of learning together. An orientation is a typical pattern of activities and connections through which members experience being a community” (69).

Chapter 5 offers a thoughtful perspective on the technology landscape, building upon three inherent polarities that challenge technology use in a community: Togetherness vs. separation, participation vs. reification, individual vs. group identity.

  • Togetherness vs. separation: Community interaction follows a rhythm of togetherness and separation. The use of synchronous and asynchronous tools and the alteration between them are part of this rhythm.  “How do synchronous tools contribute to a community’s rhythm, both because they enable members to be together in time and because they often leave traces in the form of recordings or transcripts? In an asynchronous conversation, how often do people have to post something to sustain an experience of togetherness?” (57).
  • Participation vs. reification: One could also call this polarity “interacting vs. publishing.” For instance, the writer’s community behind the ETC blog has a lot of discussion and negotiation that is handled through a mailing list. This is the “participation” part, where we interact with one another and negotiate meaning and identity. The “reification” part is happening when we actually write a blog entry or pursue a project: “Literally, reification means making into an object” (57).
  • Individual vs. group identity: Learning together in a community of practice does not require or produce a homogenous group of people, all focused on the same goals. Communities cannot expect to have everyone’s full attention, since the activity level, learning aspirations, and needs vary individually. This creates both a challenge and potential for discourse, both being fueled by technology. “Technology contributes to the tension between individual and community. While a tool may be designed for groups, it is largely used individually, often when one is alone. Technology also increases the complexity of the group/individual polarity. By providing varied opportunities for togetherness, it also opens the possibilities for extreme multimembership” (59).


“Technology contributes to the tension between individual and community. While a tool may be designed for groups, it is largely used individually, often when one is alone. Technology also increases the complexity of the group/individual polarity. By providing varied opportunities for togetherness, it also opens the possibilities for extreme multimembership.” –Wenger, White, and Smith


Part III

Although the introduction states clearly that Digital Habitats is neither a shopper’s guide to technology products, nor a roadmap to technology selection, this part of the book comes close to filling out these roles. Chapter 7 addresses contextual factors that have an impact on technology choice, such as stage of community development, diversity and complexity, members’ experiences with and attitudes towards technology. Chapter 8 discusses the pros and cons of different acquisition strategies like “build your own,” “get a commercial platform,” “use open source tools,” “go for the free stuff,” etc.  The focus of chapter 9 is the ongoing role of technology stewardship in the daily life of a community. Chapter 10 gives a practitioner-oriented summary in the form of an “action notebook,” comprising checklists, step-by-step guides, questionnaires, and evaluation sheets. Actually, I found this section also interesting from a research perspective. One can use it as a concise instrument to analyze the characteristics of different online communities (see pages 149-152).

Part IV

The final part is an essay on the future of technology stewardship. The two central questions of this outlook are: “Where is the interplay between community and technology going?” and “How should technology stewards develop their practice?”

Chapter 11 identifies four emerging trends that influence out interaction within digital habitats. First, an increased connectivity around time and space is fostered by ubiquitous Web access through wireless networks and mobile devices (“always on”) as well as the new qualities of virtual co-presence in 3D environments. Second, we are facing new modes of engagement for interacting and publishing. The web is becoming a medium of self-expression. At the same time, technology enables mass collaboration on an increasing scale. Both perspectives are brought together through application programming interfaces (APIs) that support a constant remix of web content.  Third, the geographies of community and identity are changing. The complexity of the Web is growing. People can choose from a multitude of communities and resources. The boundaries between different Web sites are becoming more and more dynamic. Due to search engines, every voice popular enough becomes accessible. Individual content aggregation allows for a personal information diet that makes the mix palatable. Fourth, people are using the Web increasingly as a socially active medium. “The combination of distributed production, digital representation, and search capability make the web an active medium where the social and the informational build on each other” (179). Programs exchange and produce information about social relations, supported by semantic web technologies. Our digital footprints are intermingled with the reflections others imprint on us.

Who should read this book?

A review should not only tell you how much I liked the book, but also what you as a potential reader might get out of it. This calls for a clarification of the target group. Luckily, the authors have already done this job themselves, describing three groups of addressees.

  • Deep Divers are interested in exploring the connections between technology and community from an interdisciplinary angle. Their focus lies in applying conceptual models and learning theories to the domain of technology adoption by communities of practice.
  • Attentive Practitioners are interested in developing their practice, whether technology plays a major or minor part in it. They seek practical advice as well as theoretical concepts to communicate their role as technology stewards effectively.
  • Just Do-It-ers are action oriented with a strong focus on getting the job done. Their main interest is in practical tips and tricks while the more conceptual aspects are in the background.

This review reflects a “deep diver” perspective. A practitioner’s summary would most likely highlight different aspects of the book. Whatever description characterizes best your interest in online communities, Digital Habitats is great reading for those who seek a compass to navigate the technology ocean.

For additional information and further discussion, see the accompanying weblog: http://technologyforcommunities.com/