The Digital Divide and Identity on Cyberspace

            The early 1990’s was time of rapid and comprehensive technological advancement and gestation of the internet.  Early scholars of the web imagined the information revolution would revitalize and emancipate democracy and generate a society “where free thought and egalitarian associations transcend political boundaries and an ‘electronic commons,’ where netizens discuss issues and influence decision makers who are listening” (Hurwitz 1999)  would be rendered feasible.  The communitarian, utopian-masquerades championed positive facets of internet technology such as its nonhierarchical structure, low transaction costs, global reach, scalability, rapid response, and disruption overcoming alternative routing (Hurwitz 1999).  Such visions of grandeur were scrutinized and defeated over the years and now most critics and experts profess that the internet is a contested terrain, following suit with John Law’s brilliant painting of the continual and complex post-humanist (post-modern) struggle between heterogeneous elements.  Cyberspace does, however, seem to have been (and still may be) a frontier in some respects, as “it lacks a tradition of governance that can be generalized to the world beyond it.” (Hurwitz 1999).  Though certain groups have more control and influence than others the surface and consistency of the internet is always vacillating.
            Contemporary studies of the digital divide mimic sociological analysis by showing the overwhelmingly intersectional nature of social categories and factors of influence.  Indeed, age, education, income, race, and more orient one another and serve to predict levels of internet access.  Recent inspection of the traditional digital divide has exposed the resilient effects of perception: perceived ease of use, perceived usefulness, and perceived barriers to access that inhibit many minority social groups more so than tangible agents of prevention (Porter and Donthu 2006).  Referred to formally as the Technology Access Model (TAM), perception and mental blocks alter assets, actions, attitudes towards the internet. Multivariate analysis of social categorical factor’s determination of attitudes and consequential internet usage reveal a host of implications and intricacies – we need to pay special attention to different specific individual and group motivations and perceptions of the internet (Porter and Donthu 2006).  The PEW Internet & American Life Project published the most recent report available on the Digital Divide a few days before the original draft of this paper.  Entitled A Typology of Information and Communication Technology Users, the exposition ran its typology along three dimensions of relation to ICT’s: assets, actions, and attitudes.  With merited consideration given to Web 2.0, their research identifies 49% of Americans as having few technical assets (Horrigan 2007).  The demographics of the low-tech groups attest to greater numbers of elderly persons, slightly higher rates of women, and less educated individuals.  The “Off the Network” category had considerable numbers of Blacks relative and more persons of lower income and of course by far the highest median age.  When all the smoke clears we can see that though many groups have changed and detailed analysis reveals intense complexity, some people are still getting the shaft.
            Facebook users could hail from many of the categories identified in the PEW report.  The system is easy enough to use that people of many levels of technical competence are able to see it as desirable and useful.  In all probability, however, since college users dominate the Facebook crowd and this range of users is predominately situated in the upper half, the digital divide disparity outlined in the PEW report finds some limited continuance on Facebook.  Even so, members apportioned to the lower half like the so-called “mobile centric”, or those who access the internet and connect to one another more often with cell phones, are able to visit Facebook – the site is designed to be integrated into and accessed by mobile phone platforms.  Though heralded as a feat of permanently beta largely because of the input of developers, the majority of Facebook developers will fall into the typical categories of computer programmers: male, younger, middle to upper-middle class White and Asian persons.  The encoded responsiveness is only available insofar as ones membership and participation is present in the system – those excluded audiences have little to no say in the direction and flow of the SNS.  In the end, though Facebook is swimming in community and developmental design it inadvertently continues norms and plays hosts to a specific student-youth dominated audience.
            As Lisa Nakamura insightfully and competently stated in an interview for Frontiers, a journal of women’s studies, “Certainly the Net is as racist as the societies that it stems from.  How could this not be true?  Is it not true of all other media forms, including literature, film, and television?” (Lovink 2005).  The internet is dominated by rudiments of the visual world, and infiltrated by physical identity – it is what we as humans engage with.  Little research has been dedicated to cultural studies involving technology – unless of course it involves marketing.  Internet scholars such as Nakamura believes that the duty to provide more compelling theory on race, identity, and the internet lies in the hands of the institutional support and intellectual community for scholars of (and in) new media (Lovink 2005).  Much like Science and Technology studies issues an almost anti-disciplinary creed (forgoing the snags and catches resultant from too much high level or microscopic analysis as well as over using the quantitative or qualitative), new media and sociological research should include exhibition into cultural studies and its connections and technology.
            Identity on the internet is a complicated subject.  Studies seem to consistently show that collective identities still matter in cyberspace and personal identification is typically redefined, at most, rather than erased by online interaction (Mcmillan and Morrison 2006, Parker and Song 2006).  Even in systems of anonymity certain forms of identification find ways to perpetuate themselves (Rains 2007).  Though examples of identity tourism by majority members and new forms of online cultural practice initiated by minority groups themselves exist (Parker and Song 2006) occurrences such as these are not the norm.  The internet’s participants are its creators – finding a place in cyberspace can be difficult who don’t feel their identity is represented there.  Minority suffer from a filtering effect when layered.  There are relatively few women in information technology, in fact, the number is of women in computer science is decreasing (Spertus 1991, O’Reilly 2007), and when you add any additional racial minority status other Asian to this the numbers drop at an exponential rate.  This is not to provoke despair, however, optimists such as Michelle Wright challenge a better future, as she does in a statement in her article Finding a Place in Cyberspace: Black Women, Technology, and Identity (2005):

“Yet what better space than cyberspace to imagine Diaspora?   With its emphasis on hyperinclusion, fluidity, and the need for understanding alliances as a series of intersections rather that coercive categories, with the Internet’s ability to hyperlink and thus offer every text as a set of intersections, the black feminist and queer mandate mentioned earlier can in fact be realized…we need to engage the Internet as a discursive space not only because it can help us explore the dizzying chronotopic demands of Diaspora, but because it is increasingly the site where those ideas and ideologies that Nakamura so eloquently outlined function ever more frequently and broadly.” (Wright 2005).

            I include this extended quote because it is both potent and poignant.  We as activists and advocates for civil rights and social change must give attention to correctly understanding and influencing the representation of identity on the internet.  The research and resultant action has already begun – race-targeted websites designed for Black users result in these more time spent browsing and better retention of information (Appiah 2003).  Sites such as and help to increase informed and positive social change oriented minority presence on the web (Roach 2005, Wright 2005).  The opposition is on the move as well, however, white supremacist organizations have taken to the internet to bolster their numbers and heighten their influence.  Studies suggest that nationalism, religion, and definitions of responsible citizenship are interlaced with race to forge identity and recruit members for these groups (Adams 2005).  The battle ought to be extended to more than issues of race, in the best heterogenic fashion.  Other solutions include developing access opportunities based on familiar devices (like say TV’s), building education and training programs to help overcome psychological barriers, and reducing the price of internet access - especially broadband, which is required for serious internet usage (Porter and Donthu 2005).  Promotions ought to be directed towards informing lower income consumers of the relevance of the internet to their lives and goals as well as offer chances for trade-ins, upgrades, and pricing plans (Porter and Donthu 2005).  These ideologies and plans to increase representation and create places for minority identities on the web are just a few of the many.
            As Facebook specific research is limited at this time only a few documented examples of positive social change induced by the SNS can be cited.  Facebook seems to have a great potential for student organizing (Daily Kos 2007), and this is seen reflected through a number of ways. One such example are groups built temporarily during times of election devoted to informing people about given campaigns.  Even relatively simple actions like status updates indicating political participation (I” just voted!”) as well as notes and posted links to video or external websites bolster awareness.              Perhaps most influential is the event feature – organizers can create events for all manner or causes and very quickly contact massive numbers of students via tree branching effects (allowing multiple administrators who can send out events and in turn enable their friends to send out events).  UCSB students were able to organize a candlelight vigil the night of the shootings at Virginia Tech by creating an event in this fashion.  Hundreds attended and the remarkable show of support made news (Cox 2007). SNS hold potential to becoming extremely fast low-effort organizing.  We here at UIUC have even seen at least one such example – the passing of the sustainable campus action item had to do with the borderline harassment actions of Facebook activists in that group1.  These types of interactions serve to further reinforce the hypothesis that Facebook further empowers social capital.
            Facebook offers more than political organization, however.  Since the original prerequisites for the network membership were academic email addresses, many faculty and staff have joined the fold.  This fact is most often cited in the form of examples of system domination by the youth poised against responsive regulation by authorities, but what happens when students and faculty start openly recognizing and communicating with each other on Facebook?  To the best of my knowledge only one study (Mazer, Murphy, and Simonds 2006) has been conducted on the impact of teacher self-disclosure on Facebook, but the findings yielded the a solid conjecture that teachers who committed high levels of self-disclosure both raised levels of motivation and affected learning to create a more positive classroom climate (Mazer, Murphy, and Simonds 2006).  Students and researchers jointly agree that teachers should pay attention to the type and level of self-disclosure, however, as their credibility might be affected as well.  Starting next semester I myself will be testing this hypothesis moving beyond simply allowing students to “friend” me on Facebook but establishing a Facebook group for the research methods course I teach.  Thus far students have thoroughly appreciated the customized website helping to organize agendas, assignments, and resources for the class and the high caliber and intensity of group work all but begs for an interactive web extension of classroom.  While blogs and messages boards offer similar benefits Facebook could be offered as an optional supplementary resource for student collaboration – since students have such high levels of participation in Facebook one stands to expect heightened potential for involvement in extra-classroom Facebook bounded learning.  Who knows, this may be the cusp of the wave – Email was once rumored to be incompatible with the serious workplace and now look at it.  I can only hope coming workplace usage of Facebook doesn’t destroy or mangle its magic. Even still professors might stand to learn a lesson from this research; we best teach those whom we understand, and the growing disconnect between older professors who distrust the internet and young students who thrive on it and dance with SNS daily threatens to mar teacher-student collaboration and growth.  Besides, just like all of the issues of the digital divide, faculty are an underrepresented group2 on Facebook – they can play a hand in orienting the environment too – they might just have compromise more than they’re used to.

Mapping race to Facebook

            Racism is still a pervasive problem in the US, and most current day incarnations are covert and institutionalized.  Recognizing these new forms of racism is one of the first steps to combating it; tacit social shared understandings or social facts like the colorblind mentality (or worse yet, reverse-racism) have a way of ordering the world to make it conducive to preservation of power for the majority, and therefore, safe.  Social norms, laws, and institutions are not necessarily bounded, but insiders treat them as universal.  Every society includes and excludes and consequently features established mechanisms for attaining this.  In our transnational age the boundaries of societies, communities, and countries are shifting rapidly or vanishing completely and the internet represents an unprecedented form of community.  The digital divide is very much a far-reaching problem and one stands to reason it influences domestic environments such as Facebook too.

[1] Can’t say this for certain, but as far as I can tell the group had numerous powerfully connected administrators who sent out messages and events to members and friends incessantly.

[2] Just think of that – a bunch of old super-educated white guys with egos as the minority… I know it really depends upon the field and school but tenured professors do have a tendency to fall within the social power categories.  Faculty are actually the only search-interface countable group on the UIllinois Facebook network, weighing in at 430 members as of May 2007.