Operating from her laptop computer and living in a tiny cabin, Sharon Miranda embodies simplicity in the material world, while at the same time shaping a modest empire in cyberspace.
Miranda is the creator of WebSpirit Community, what she calls the "nervous system" for Ashland and beyond. Subtitled "Social and Economic Organization for Sustainable Community," her site, www.webspiritcommunity.com, connects 2,800 people with dozens of daily postings about classes, rentals, pet care, ride sharing, employment, house-sitting, volunteer opportunities, bartering, community announcements and just about anything else — but no opinionated ramblings that would cause offense.
A fourth of those in the network are paying members who get to post messages and list classes, goods and services. The nonpaying majority read all the messages.
WebSpirit has served practical and economic needs in its five years, but its deeper purpose is to create community and a means for members to reach out and immediately touch each other by the thousands, Miranda says.
"It's become the first place I go to for community news, events and things to give and sell," says member Will Wilkinson.
Another local portal, the 400-member Ashland Resource Center, is free and navigates interactively like Facebook, letting participants post profiles, pictures and videos, while offering itself as a bulletin board for classes, services and ideas.
You gather a circle of "friends" who accept your offer of friendship. Their pictures and comments appear on your page, so you get an idea of who knows whom.
Using Web 2.0 technologies, ARC gives you your own Web page, which you manage, and offers user-friendly blog discussions on a big range of topics — family and children, energy, shelter, environment, consciousness, business and more.
"It's the result of four decades of planning, going back to when I was a community organizer in Detroit, filing everyone's skills and events on index cards," says John David Van Hove, ARC's creator. "It builds community and strengthens support networks — and we're very fortunate now to have all these electronic tools to do it.
"It has a social networking component. You can interact with people, post events, market goods and services and put out community information free. It's no-fee. It's donor driven and will support itself on value-added services like Web design," Van Hove notes.
The site, www.ashlandresourcecenter.com, could charge users but Van Hove says it's a good outreach for his main vision, Global Business Development Services (www.gbds.us).
"Our philosophy is building projects and businesses, just the same as in the old community work, before computers, and we want to walk our talk," he says.
Web 2.0 technologies are "another generation" onward from the Web 1.0 of the World Wide Web's first 15 years, which "was static and needed a professional Web manager," he says.
Web 2.0, which came online three years ago, "is the most rapidly emerging part of the Internet, growing along with green technologies and re-conceptualizing the way the Web is used. People can manage their own site and add photos and blogs," Van Hove says.
Community-oriented, social networking sites are taking the place of the old media — phone calls, physical bulletin boards, photo albums, meetings — and giving people a lot more information than they could get on paper or from word-of-mouth.
The Mail Tribune has started its own social network, roguecurrent.com, on which members can create profiles, invite friends, post blogs, photos and videos, add applications and link to Mail Tribune news and calendar events. They can also form or join groups. In mid-March there were groups for history enthusiasts, Rogue Valley movie fans, Farmers Market shoppers and vendors, cat lovers and coffee drinkers, just to name a few.
Miranda says her networking site has helped many people move to Ashland, simply by connecting them with the WebSpirit Community and letting them read ads for rentals, house sharing and meetings, so they could learn the community's options, opportunities and values before even seeing the place.
"It's not an exaggeration to say WebSpirit is what drew me to Ashland," says member Lauren Taylor. "It represented a good-sized, life-affirming, conscious community, which is what I was seeking.
"When I moved to Ashland, WebSpirit was my primary resource for finding a home and establishing new professional relationships."
A self-described "computer geek since 1980," Miranda at first kept track of people, skills and events in a three-ring binder.
"I realized the resources were so tremendous, but so scattered. I realized 'this is my job; I'm going to organize resources.'
"The community started to join in the energy of the whole thing and connections formed between people, creating an open-hearted, compassionate community, in a safe way."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.