the (post-structural) new-media digital-divide
by nathan jurgenson
A major study (.pdf) on the way teens use social networking sites 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.” [quote is from this article’s coverage]
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), and this remains a crucial issue. However, as access becomes more diffuse, 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.
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. Who will best be able to utilize new media to build social capital? Who will not?
This reformulated non-material 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]
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 for this non-material digital divide? ~nathan