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by nathan jurgenson

A major study (.pdf) on the way teens use social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, as well as other ‘new media’ activities such as texting and IMing, suggests that,

“…their participation is giving them the technological skills and literacy they need to succeed in the contemporary world. They’re learning how to get along with others, how to manage a public identity, how to create a home page.”

bemowo_library_internetThis study has been widely reported in the news (and previously on this site) and correctly identifies the positives of social networking without getting too hung up on the negatives. Parents can no longer view MySpace as just a waste of time. In fact, so important are the skills being learned that we might hypothesize a new sort of habit-based digital divide taking shape.

Typically, the “digital divide” refers to physical access (access to the Internet, cell phones, etc). Access is indeed important and this digital divide remains a crucial issue. However, as access becomes more diffuse (for example, potentially bringing free broadband for everyone in the the United States), we can put forward another important non-material digital divide: between those who have and those who have not learned the important skills of social networking and online content production.

Opposed to the rhetoric of “democratization” and a “flattening world”, Pierre Bourdieu describes in his book Distinction how things like skills, habits and tastes are often learned outside of the education system. That is, those habits that the upper class learn that reproduce their status as the upper class are not simply the product of access to education but are also learned more informally. Similarly, in the case of the Internet, a different sort of digital divide could be based on computer usage behaviors that have little to do with material access. Much like the rest of the social world, adolescents are learning the skills online essential for future success, and they are learning these skills unequally. Certain distinctions might include:

  • Who are the kids that see the Internet as the vast opportunity that it is?
  • Who are the early developers or adopters of new technologies?
  • Which kids are best utilizing new open-source products?
  • Who are able to effectively and perhaps strategically learn to broadcast a digital identity and deal with all this entails?
  • Who are building social networks and utilizing the powerful new collaboration technologies most successfully?
  • Simply, who will best be able to utilize new media to build social capital? Who will not?

These are the sort of informal distinctions that we need to be aware of in light of those speaking of the revolutionary potential of the Internet, a supposed ‘flattening’ environment, and the democratization of voice and action. This reformulated non-material (post-structural? my title is debatable) digital divide will be a split between those who just consume Internet content and those who both produce and consume content (the prosumers). It will be between those who experience the Internet in a solitary way and those who effectively network.

On a global scale, this is already playing out with American youth trailing in Internet usage; with Asian countries producing more content (as opposed to just consuming it) and being far more adapted to the cell phone based mobile web and mobile social networking which, arguably, will be of increasing importance.

Do we conclude on the side of Bourdieu that the democratizing potential of the Internet could be usurped by the interest of the upper class in making itself distinct in its usage, thus perpetuating its status? Or should we see the Internet as a tool that will be used creatively to blur class distinction? Will class even be the primary factor in this non-material digital divide? ~nathan


One Comment

  1. Great article!

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