Soap opera comes to Cyberstreet

The sociologists have moved in on a London street where most homes are wired up. Maureen McTaggart reports

It's not a very well kept secret in Islington. But then, only a miracle would have stopped the news from getting out, particularly when one considers the ingredients to this real-life soap opera. First, there's a free offer from Bill Gates, the world's richest man, to connect the residents of a north London street to the Microsoft Network. Then, there are the lucky recipients of this offer - any scheme set in the heart of London's "media village" is sure to attract at least some attention.

Microsoft's aim was to explore the social implications of electronic communications and whether being hooked up can help cement community spirit. In short, to see if Internet connection would "change their lives".

The company says it picked the leafy street purely at random. Despite its comfortable appearance - handsome townhouses and no council blocks - "MSN Street" contains a mix of private and public housing.

Microsoft provided each participating home with a computer, modem and MSN account, enabling access to the Internet and email to contact neighbours and friends in the outside world. Microsoft says that having chosen this street, it was prepared to connect 20 to 30 households, depending on how many already had a computer.

So has connection to the World Wide Web really made any difference to this corner of London, famously known as Tony Blair's former stamping ground? Have the chats in the street, the twitching of curtains and local telephone calls, been bolstered by email as the neighbours link with each other and the rest of the world on the Net? Well, I talked to some of the street's 60 guinea pigs (in 23 households) to see how they have adjusted to life in cyberspace.

You might not believe this, but one of the wired-up families, living just a stone's throw from where Tony Blair used to live, is also called Blair. Renee Blair, , who is a computer services manager, she says: "It is a cliche, but it is possible to live in London for a long time without putting names to faces."

Now, after a visit to the street's bulletin board, she and her husband regularly meet other Internet-connected Islingtonians to talk about websites and local topics - like gardening, theatre and Arsenal FC.

Microsoft's offer of a free upgrade for the Blair's computer was a big incentive for them to join the scheme. And their children, Richard, 14, Lisa, 12, and Stuart, seven, were eager to get online. "We wanted them to start to swim with it rather than go in at the deep end," says Mrs Blair. The children took to the Internet like it was always there, but not their parents - they find download times grindingly slow.

Richard and Lisa both use the Internet to help with homework and, thanks to advice picked up from the Net, Stuart now boasts the most up-to-date collection of the latest fashionable toy - the yo-yo. "My grades have gone up since we have been on the Internet," says Lisa. "While doing a project on fashion changes through the ages, I accessed the Victoria and Albert Museum site. This encouraged me to visit the museum and it was invaluable in helping me decide how to approach my project work."

Unlike his sister, who rewrites the information she gets from the Net, Richard, who downloads pictures and text, especially for geography, admits that he often copies facts verbatim. "I am too lazy to write it in my own words. It doesn't make me do any more homework than I would have done before its arrival. But it does mean I can start work at home and finish it at school using its Internet facility."

The project has even had its day in Parliament. Charles Hoare, one of the residents, addressed a conference of MPs and local authority representatives at the House of Commons about the positive effects the Net was having on the street. And in April this year, Chris Smith, the local MP and Secretary of State for Culture, joined the project's first anniversary party.

s part of his study for the Economic and Social Research Council of the effect new technologies are having on citizenship, Professor Andrew Graham, Acting Master of Balliol College, Oxford, has monitored the residents' experiences. He says: "It is clear email is one of the facilities people find most useful - in effect, email is often the 'hook' that pulls people into using the new technology.

"Another positive and interesting result was to notice how much people exchanged local useful information. In this sense, the 'community' was clearly talking to itself in ways that it had not been before."

This is confirmed by Janet White, who has lived in the street for a decade. She said: "Sometimes it's taken me years to speak to people. They have to give birth or have puppies before you find whatever it is that's going to make you say the first thing.

"The Internet is not my first choice for finding information. I use it for practical purposes - locating plumbers and helping the children with homework - never for recreation." Her daughters, Primrose, 15, and Charlotte, 14, say their Internet time is mainly driven by school work - downloading huge chunks of information they swear they change or add to before presenting as their own.

The novelty has worn off a bit, but Mrs White says she can't imagine not having Internet access. "My 12-year-old son, who would have been unwilling to open a book, finds the computer fascinating and uses it all the time."

Marcus Ware, 19, is a trainee chef. He uses the Net once or twice a week to help with his training projects, for which he must write 2,500-word essays on a range of culinary themes. "I'm working on one at the moment about three different dishes - meat, fish and chicken. A lot of the ingredients aren't the kind you can find locally, but you can find out about them all on the Internet. "

Whereas he once had to go to his local library and spend time looking through piles of books to glean material for his course, he now does the research online - and no longer visits the library. And the rest of his family enjoy the Net too - his younger sister uses it for homework.

Clad in an Arsenal T-shirt, Marcus says he has picked up information about his team not published in the local newspaper. For example, did you know a horse is buried under the North Bank? He spotted this item, along with up-to-date transfers details, on the club website.

While Internet access has made a big difference to research for his training, Marcus hasn't seen much of an impact on community relations - it's a friendly neighbourhood anyway, he says. But does he think the project is a success? "Yes, definitely. Everybody really appreciates it."

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