Divisions and Gaps

Jakob Nielsen‘s latest “Alertbox” article is entitled “Digital Divide: The Three Stages.” In this (very brief) article, Nielsen posits three types or stages of divides that “alienate huge population groups who miss out on the Internet’s potential:”

  1. Economic Divide
  2. Usability Divide
  3. Empowerment Divide

Nielsen argues that the Economic Divide is largely a non-issue in modern America. His other two divides are very similar to Jenkins’ Participatory Divide. In short, both of these researchers believe that significant divides still exist between (a) Internet users and non-users and (b) different groups of Internet users. The two researchers differ in some ways on the exact form and causes of those differences but those differences appear to be more in point of view than significant and substantive differences. As a usability researcher, Nielsen concentrates largely on the user experience and how users interact with particular tools, suites of tools, and technologies. Thus his focus is often on how someone can or cannot use something to perform a particular task. Jenkins, on the other hand, is a communications researcher whose focus lies more on the sociological impact of technologies and societal changes or influences caused, aided, or disrupted by technologies.

One subtlety that is masked by the label “divide” is that these divides are more like continuums than binary, black-and-white issues. Whether one speaks of Nielsen’s Usability Divide or Empowerment Divide or Jenkins’ Participatory Divide, these are areas in which one can have more or less (understanding, power, or rates of participation). Even the seemingly-black-and-white issue of access is a continuum wherein no possible access and high-speed, always-available, unfiltered and uncensored access lie at the endpoints of a continuum with different levels of access in between (borrowed access, slow access, filtered or censored, etc.).

For us, it’s very important to remember that our students will come from both sides of these divides and all places in between. I don’t have good data at my fingertips but I have no doubt that traditional measures of diversity such as race, ethnicity, SES, age, gender, sexual orientation, etc. play huge roles in where one lies in these issues. The role of SES should be obvious. In his exploration of fan culture, Jenkins has noted the role of gender and the differences in how men and women interact with and use technology to interact and collaborate. danah boyd, herself a noted researcher in these areas, speaks of the role that communications technologies (specifically, IRC) played in her experiences as a young queer woman, technologies that may not been available to her had circumstances (location, finances, experiences, etc.) been different. It’s very important for us to begin to understand how (a) access or lack of access to, (b) understanding or lack of understanding of, and (c) use or non-use of these technologies – technologies ubiquitous and essential for many young people – is shaping and influencing youths in America (see the recent debate about DOPA for a great discussion of these issues). I assert that we don’t understand this right now as it’s complex and changing very rapidly. I further believe that applying what we know about young people (both through our experiences and through our research i.e. student development theory) we can uniquely contribute to this discussion and begin to understand its importance.