Monday, February 8, 2010

Diminishing the Double Digital Divide

To wrap up my notes on Social Media Week, I thought I would pursue a comment made by Meebo CEO and co-founder Seth Sternberg during the Social Graph Optimization panel. He suggested that without proper education on the use of digital tools, we would see the a growing divide between two technological classes increase: those with access to information would be at a greater advantage than those without without. Having the means to access information on the Internet goes just beyond access to the hardware; it also depends on the individual's ability to understand how to use the tools at her disposal. And as digital technologies become prevalent, individuals who can successfully manage digital media will be at an advantage in terms of accessing and processing information, managing networks, and sharing data. As we begin to tentatively discuss issues of netiquette and privacy, we should also be actively considering the double digital divide—not only do we need to bridge the gap in access to technology, but at the same time, we need to educate users on how to utilize digital tools to their fullest potential. Digital agencies, including social media and digital advertising firms, are in a position to mobilize this initiative via CSR programs—with surprising benefits if they do.

To examine disparities in people's abilities to use digital media, researchers assigned search tasks to a random sample of Internet users, and found a considerable difference in whether people could find various types of content on the Internet and how long it took them to find it (Hargittai 2002). These studies used socioeconomic and demographic measures to determine understanding of digital media, and while it is true that these factors may hinder access to technology, social environment can also influence an individual's Internet use. Researchers propose that when socioeconomic and demographic characteristics were held constant,
the social environment (higher interactions with others regarding giving and receiving Internet-related help; proportions of family and friends who use the Internet) and the technological environment (having a computer at home, the number of places for going online, and length of experience with the Internet) were significantly associated with higher Internet connectedness (Jung 2008).
"Internet connectedness" in this case refers to the individual's ability to use the Internet and digital media to satisfy "digital goals" (i.e., the ability to find specific information being sought, to connect to specific groups). The first step in overcoming the double digital divide—realistically, as equalizing socioeconomic and demographic statistics is a larger social issue—is to increase access to technologically-oriented environments. It seems logical that this could most easily be pursued via schools, but they clearly need help to get the tools they need to build a technologically-savvy generation. Data suggests, internet users were twice as likely as nonusers to report that most people they know use the Internet; and just 4% of users compared to 27% of nonusers reported that none or very few of their acquaintances go online (Lenhart et al., 2003). This suggests that understanding of digital media can be socially spread. For example, an individual from a lower socioeconomic status who becomes technologically savvy can become their family's link to the digital world—as is already happening. We know that in "developing" countries, mobile communication technology is often shared between groups. While the cell phone usage rates are likely higher in the United States than elsewhere in the world, there are still groups that have limited access to this and other digital media. As increased knowledge and access to technology filter through a community, messaging through digital media can become more effective—and will follow once the issue of access is resolved.

How can digital agencies help? By assisting to build on-site computer labs either at schools or at major agencies, bringing digital technologies to local communities—and demonstrating that digital media is a viable career path. As our society shifts toward digital media use, and businesses move to digital media to help cut costs and increase their reach, effective messaging will mean working with an educated audience. Yes, there are expenses involved, but they are offset by the benefits gained. Digital agencies need to seriously consider their role in our new technological society. Are they interested in working with consumers to increase satisfaction with the experience and product, or are they merely interested in dictating the development of digital technologies and messages?

ResearchBlogging.orgHargittai, E (2002). Second-level digital divide: Differences in people’s online skills. First Monday, Peer-reviewed journal of the Internet, 7 (4).

Jung, J. (2008). Internet Connectedness and its Social Origins: An Ecological Approach to Postaccess Digital Divides Communication Studies, 59 (4), 322-339 DOI: 10.1080/10510970802467387

Lenhart, A., Horrigan, J., Rainie, L., Allen, K., Boyce, A., Madden, M., et al. (2003). The ever-shifting Internet population: A new look at Internet access and the digital divide. Washington, DC: Pew Internet and American Life Project.

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