We Live in a Digital Democracy. Seriously?
The Internet is commonly perceived as a game changer in our ongoing efforts and struggles to create democratic societies for all people. Some have disagreed, but it is widely accepted that regardless of physical location, economic status, race, age, gender, religious affiliation or political status etc., conceivably anyone who can get online can participate in democratic processes in the public sphere.
Sounds great, but I always the love the chance to check such a claims’ underlying assumptions, and question what we are told about the way things are. Wait, isn’t that democratic too?
When the Internet is posited as the greatest thing for democracy since the Magna Carta, I simply cannot resist a deeper look at the hidden dimensions of that claim. Jen Schradie, a researcher at UC Berkeley took up the challenge and her 2011 study provides some revealing insights about the now commonly accepted digital democracy.
Most debate and discussion around digital inequality (the digital divide) has focused on the question of Internet access. Of course, if you can’t get connected, you simply cannot participate. But get connected and the possibilities appear to be limitless. You can sign petitions to change laws and lawmakers, mobilize entire nations in political movements like the Arab Spring, raise obscene amounts of money, influence opinions, save lives and so much more.
Schradie’s study is important because she extends the discussion about digital inequality beyond simple questions of who has Internet access and who does not. The Internet and the social web, she argues, is more of a stomping ground for the affluent than a digital democracy. In short, it’s elitist and strongly delineated along socio-economic (class) lines.
In her study, The digital production gap: The digital divide and Web 2.0 collide, Schradie makes an important distinction between the producers and consumers of information:
Having Internet access is not enough. Even among people online, those who are digital producers are much more likely to have higher incomes and educational levels.
Schradie analyzed data gathered from more than 41,000 American adults surveyed between 2000 and 2008 in the Pew Internet and American Life Project and tracked the relationship between socio-economic status and 10 online activities most likely to influence the public, opinion shapers and policy makers. These activities are:
- Social networking
- Website building and design
- Share creation
- Chat room
- Newsgroup participation
- Posting of comments and ratings
Here are some key findings from the study:
- Less than 10 percent of the U.S. population is participating in most online production activities
- Despite users’ racial, ethnic and gender differences, all 10 online activities showed a socio-economic class divide
- People with a high school education are less likely to produce online content than those with a college or graduate degree
- In seven of the ten activities, people with a lower incomes are less likely to create content
- Location and control of access also matters. Those with access at both work (and more flexible work policies on non-work related online activities) and home are more likely to be content producers then those who access the Internet at work or a library with limitations.
I am really lucky. I get exposed to many amazing people driven by a tremendous passion for leveraging technology for social good. These folks give me a daily dose of inspiration to sustain my own belief in the power of technology -- in particular the Internet -- to create positive social change. Honestly, they make me love my job.
But besides lucky, I am also privileged by virtue of my socioeconomic standing and advanced education among other things. It’s always good to get a reminder about that privilege. Jen Schradie’s study is both convincing and important. It’s most certainly going to inform my approach to the work I do.
(1) By Coolboydipesh (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
(2) Poetics, Volume 39, Issue 2, April 2011, Pages 145-168, DOI: 10.1016/j.poetic.2011.02.003