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Looking For Data That Demonstrates The Digital Divide Is Harmful

Danah Boyd a researcher at the Berkman Center recently gave a presentation at the personal democracy forum; the presentation suggests that people are using a particular social media dependent upon their class, social position and race.

After listening to this presentation, I came away thinking less about the problems and issues of society as they relate to a digital divide, and more how the information was presented. Danah Boyd appeared to state, you the audience doesn’t bother to think about these issues and you should. But I don’t think Danah gave me a reason why I should think about these issues, just that there is a divide.

The divide is important, but by suggesting we should think about the divide the question becomes why? I think a researcher’s role can be very helpful in shining a light on problems that exist, and the best way to do that is to show data, I’d like to know more about the data, what’s the evidence for a divide? How is that divide empowering or making people powerless? How does the segmentation of people into social media communities divide society, and why should we work to reduce the divide, or make sure that the effects of segmentation are mitigated when it comes to government?

I can think of a few ways in which a digital divide is harmful. If citizens use digital technology to get a bigger voice in our democracy, those groups who use such technology successfully, or the “right” social media technology will have more power to influence Government. Then surely if different groups are using different social media technologies, Government has to understand those differences and as a result use the technologies that reach most of the people. The current Obama administration is using digital technology to listen to citizens, though I am a few qualms about the process for triage and response. Is the current use of voter popularity websites for ideas, just a showcase to spin the Government is listening, or the real use of technology where ideas will be implemented?

I typically write about business, but I’m interested in journalism and also how society uses social media. If a company or Government wants to reach a market or citizenry, it is important to understand what social media technologies the customers and citizens use. The issues related to the digital divide Danah Boyd raised in her presentation are important, because they relate to Government policy, and even thinking about marketing to people within different social networks, but I’d like to see more data.

After watching the video, I wondered if Danah Boyd would be able to answer a few questions about her research, so I sent her the following questions.

1) What data and how many interviews did you conduct for the data to back up your presentation?

2) Why do you assume that people assume that everyone else has access? What evidence do you have for this?

3) You talk about the fears of people about children and sexual predators in Myspace, can you show any evidence that parents are more concerned about Myspace compared to Facebook? And if so, can you compare the level of concern at Myspace’s and Facebooks same level of development with the number of participants?

4) If the public sphere was never accessible in the past, it sounds to me as if you are lamenting that anyone is accessing social media. Why critique the current users because they are pioneers?

5) You are suggesting that the current users are writing off a large part of the population because they are not using social media. What evidence do you have for this?  Have you spoken and interviewed people to determine if they have written people off?

6) Other than one or two interviews with people you referenced in your presentation, I’d be curious to know what additional data you gathered?

Update 7/18/09 6:00pm: Danah Boyd responded and suggested I read her thesis to answer most of my questions, here's the link to Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics.


I realized I'm using the wrong definition for digital divide. The divide is really between those people who have access to technology and the internet and those people who have limited or no access. Danah Boyd was really discussing the differences between the uses of social networking sites when people do have access to technology, so I am not certain that is classified as the digital divide, though the term could have been expanded.