Digital Divide

1. The digital divide is so over that it’s passé

This is a common trope I hear at conferences, whether academic or otherwise.  Before presenting at the American Sociological Association annual meeting last year, I got feedback from colleagues that I should explain what in the heck the digital divide is before launching into its connection to online activism. Huh? We are sociologists – we have all read Marx. Inequality is one of the pillars that holds up our discipline. We wouldn’t know what to do without gender, class and race gaps.  Why should the Internet be any different from the rest of society?

But I’ve been told to always listen to my audience, who need a gentle reminder that digital inequality is alive and kickin.’ But what is it, exactly?

The digital divide is a way to talk about how some groups of people are not able to use the Internet, or other digital technologies, at the same rate as other groups. According to the Pew Internet Project, “One in five American adults does not use the Internet.”  For example, in 2011, 94% of college educated Americans use the Internet but only 43% of people without a high school education are online, and 62% of people who make less than $30,000/year are online while 97% of those making over $75,000 use the Internet.

While race, ethnicity and age are strong factors in Internet use, my research has found that it is social class gaps that are most consistent over time.

2. The digital divide is a divide

In other words, many believe that it’s a simple question of whether or not people have or do not have Internet access. If everyone had a laptop, broadband and a smart phone, then all would be good, so goes the story. The One Laptop Per Child proponents certainly think so.

This is perhaps why people believe the divide is over, but a lot of surveys about Internet use ask if someone has ever used the Internet. Sociologist Laura Robinson found that high school kids who responded on a survey that they had used the Internet had used it years before at a relative’s house, not on a consistent basis.

Scholars began to move away from even calling it a divide, per se.  In academic parlance, we like to talk about digital inequality, rather than a divide, because of a range of multiple divides. The Pew Internet Project uses the term digital differences or disparity. It’s more than access.  It’s also about variation of skill or confidence in using digital technologies. It’s also about whether or not you have one desktop computer shared among multiple households or if everyone in your household has multiple digital devices. How many do you have? Smart phone? Laptop? Desktop? Tablet? More? In my research, I found that what is more important than broadband access is the number of gadgets one has.

It’s also not a simple divide between those with consistent, high speed Internet connectivity and those without regular access to wired devices. These are questions of the consumption of digital content. Inequality is also prevalent based on producing online content.  Production is about the creation of blogs, YouTube videos, and Tweets, for instance. While some see the blurring between production and consumption, this division is not so blurry for the poor and working class, who are much less likely to ever have “participated” in social media.

Simply, there are people who are not consistently online creating content whenever they want. The digital elite Twitter-sphere often forgets this.  Huh, you say? Isn’t it classist to assume that production somehow privileges consumption? Cyborgology blogger Nathan Jurgenson makes this type of argument.  By pointing out these inequalities, I am not arguing that one is better than the other. Instead, whose  voices are heard in the digital public forum matters – online content is critical for journalists and policy makers.

But why am I even using the term “divide” myself, then, if there is not one type of gap?  Especially when it’s too retro to say it’s an either/or binary divide? Jurgenson contends that offline versus online differentiation is “digital dualist.” Certainly, as PJ Rey pointed out, those not online are still affected by the digital.  Dualism is very real for those without regular access to online spaces. While inequalities is an apt description for a range of skills, connectivity or gadgets, what does remain a singular divide over time is a social class gap with almost every measure of online engagement.  In other words, class matters, regardless of what the newest online activity is. From over 60 interviews with social activists, I have found that working class people who are not able to engage in digital activism see people who do as an unattainable “other.”

3. The digital divide is NIMBY (Not In My BackYard)

Since I started researching digital inequality eight years ago, I have been hearing the claim that the digital divide is happening in the Third World, not here in our fine United States.  Oh, how people’s eyes glaze over in mentioning the American digital divide. What matters, people say, is providing access overseas. Yes, the divide is stark between the global North and South.  For instance, 77% of Europeans have Internet access while just 7% of Africans do although the United States, for instance, overall ranks 14th for broadband per capita. Certainly, the gaps are larger in less developed countries, but that doesn’t mean that everyone here has access.

Yes, look in your own backyard. Here in Oakland, I conducted an ethnographic study of public library Internet users, who rely on a one hour allotment to write a school paper or fill out a job application. In other words, it’s important to look beyond an overall country’s Internet usage and look at gaps within a nation, or within states, cities, or even neighborhoods.  A friend of mine in rural Colorado has been using dial-up, the only way she can access the Internet. Remember that dial-up noise?

4. It’s just the old farts that aren’t using the Internet

Once senior citizens die, then the digital divide will be over. Well, not quite. Certainly, young people are more likely to be online than those from older generations.  Lots of research on digital engagement and inequality focuses on youth. In fact, a recent study focuses on how the digital divide is well, gone, yet it only focuses on youth and samples primarily from people already online. But the class divide persists across age brackets. And gaps are especially persistent with online content production. For instance, over time, gaps between high school and college educated Americans do not close with how likely they are to blog.

Predicted Probability of Blogging Among American Adults small

It is not simply a question of persistence of the gaps, since this might align with some theories of diffusion. Instead, newer gadgets or social media interfaces, especially for content production, continue to emerge.

5. But I heard that African-Americans blog and tweet more than whites.

Um, well, uh, you might have heard it from me. In a study published last year, I found that among people online, that African-Americans are twice as likely than whites to blog. However, what a lot of media outlets failed to report when citing my study was that Blacks are still less likely to be online in the first place. Blacks are more likely than whites to produce content in this instance if they are already online, but overall they are less likely to consume content, or simply have Internet access. In fact, a gentle statistical reminder: when you read about research findings and Internet use, make sure they are including all respondents, not just those online.

6. But aren’t people from marginalized communities “leapfrogging” over desktops, laptops and even tablets by using their mobile phones?

As Sociologist Shelia Cotton put it, “Could you type a 10 page paper on your phone?” However smart it might be, newer, smaller, sleeker gadgets, such as the iPad mini, are designed more for consumption, rather than producing and engaging with online content. Certainly, many people are tweeting and posting status updates with their smart phones, but class divisions are stark both domestically and worldwide for smart phone, rather than mobile phone access. And mobile devices are not always “smart.” As I have argued, having online access at a variety of locations (i.e. home and work) and owning a lot of gadgets allows people to control the means of digital production and have the autonomy for high levels of Internet use. One cell phone doesn’t cut it.

7. You, Jen Schradie, are dystopian and are just seeing the glass half empty.

Ok, well, maybe just a bit, but those of us who read blogs like these can easily forget that not everyone has multiple wired (and wireless) gadgets available to us 24-7. If we develop policies, journalism, social movements, as well as academic theories assuming that everyone has instantaneous Internet access and knows how to participate online, then we are even farther from creating a digital democracy than any utopian could hope for. Only by acknowledging and then fixing these structural, yes structural, constraints, can we ever harness the participatory power of the Web.

Jen Schradie studies social media, social movements and social class and is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley Department of Sociology and the Berkeley Center for New Media. She can found online at or on Twitter @schradie