Blog Post

Digital Divide and Social Media: are the connections growing or collapsing, or both at once?

Yesterday I had the wonderful opportunity to learn from Dr. Allison Clarke -- she is a Research Scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and currently spending some time at Duke as the Distinguished HASTAC Scholar in Residence. She presented her new work-in-progress, called The Access + Digital Literacy Research Project. Her project looks at the digital divide and its complicated articulations - whether it's about literal hardware and broadband access, or more about the social possibilities, literacies, and inclinations for some populations to get engaged with digital media. Her presentation levereged her insights into her own (and familial) experiences, theoretical approaches, historical data, and discussed the deep implications of the digital divide. Some of the questions and points she emphasized were:

 - why claiming the mere availability of computers at local institutions like libraries is not the same as digital access in your own home, on your own timeframe

 - the history of the digital access movements and their complicated implementation strategies (or lack thereof) in the US

 - the defeating realization of how many job applications that require a computer and/or an email address

 - the shuttering of local newspapers and some of that information moving solely online

 - digital literacy / literacies and the importance of developing good internet practices

 - youth practices and tendencies of engaging with different kinds of technology (cell phones vs. computers, etc.)

 - the ongoing legacy that the digital divide pepetuates, and the importance of community based technology centers

(Dr. Clark's lecture is available on iTunes U at:

In a nice instance of serendipity, I heard this NPR interview of Clay Shirky only a few mornings before Dr. Clarke's presentation. Clay Shirky was speaking with Scott Simon on the growing influence of that loosely defined notion of "social media," and hits on some points on that conversation that are worth noting here:

 - growing influence of technology and social media even in local municipalities. He refers to the idea of a "pothole report" whereby citizens can report - with photos - the location and severity of potholes in local roads. He says that the real time map generated as a result of these reports is a "side-effect of the things citizens already know." So it's not just generating *new* knowledge, but more effectively capturing the knowledge that citizens already know.

 - but of course, and as Dr. Clarke points out, the technology in municipalities and local organizations varies widely by region and the social strata of its community.

 - there are benefits beyond the initial "money saving" desire for corporations or governments. We all know this, but these institutions had to experience these social media interactions to recognize that by hosting a forum for troubleshooting, or making it easier for end-users to be in touch with each other, the "brand" (whether that brand is a consumer object or a citizen relationship) recoups a huge investment in terms of "brand loyalty" and interest in being further involved with that 'brand.'

 - Clay also mentions the digital divide, and how the conversation in the 1990s was really centered around hardware and network connections (not everyone had a computer) but as prices have dropped and technology has proliferated, the "digital divide" conversation has shifted to the "sense of permission and the sense of interest." Although the hardware problems have not disappeared, it is increasingly becoming more of a social question (as Dr. Clarke so wonderfully put it, "Duh!") and not just a question about providing the raw tools.

 - He asks: "How do we go to people who don't sense they have permission to speak in public and offer them that permission?" While I would personally phrase this question much differently (see the upcoming Scholars forum for a conversation about thes exact question!!), the baseline intent does resonate nicely with Dr. Clarke's new project.

 - the scale of social media: you can be followed by 1 million people, but you can't follow 1 million people. He has a nice metaphor explaining that Twitter is both like a phone (for intimate, one-on-one conversations) AND a radio (for broadcasting information) and it's really the first digital social media network that functions this way

The NPR interview with Scott Simon and Clay Shirky is about 7 minutes long and well worth a listen.

Dr. Allison Clarke will be the featured guest at an upcoming reception at Duke on September 21 at 4:00pm. Please join us if you're in the area!


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