Social Media, Information Technology And A Digital Divide
By now we have all witnessed the power of social media. Take Facebook: it has more users than America has people. Impressively, they went from 250 million to 300 million users in just 2 months—the fastest growing demographic being those 35 years and up. Internet tools like Facebook are transforming how businesses communicate with their customers—and how we communicate with each other.
But what about those who don’t have Internet access?
As of March 2009, Internet users account for less than 3% of the population in 44 low-income countries. Bangladesh, home to 156 million people, only has around 500,000 Internet users. And forget the Internet: there are more telephone lines in New York City than on the entire African continent. And we still haven’t discussed abysmal literacy rates yet.
But why bother? The digital divide isn’t social media’s problem. Yet the divide highlights how companies need to approach their marketing strategy. A Facebook page or a Twitter feed just isn’t enough. What about those without Facebook? Better yet: what about those without Internet?
Even in the United States, a troubling digital divide separates the broadband-in-the-pocket, get-my-news-through-Twitter crowd from those who can’t afford to own a computer. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, nearly 1 in 3 Americans still do not have Internet access at home—that percentage spikes among minority and rural populations. In addition, research shows a divide even among social networking sites—that “your social class determine(s) your online social network.”
While communication technologies have equalized the accessibility of information, they have also delineated how different kinds of people receive their information.
In designing strategies that involve social media, we must be mindful of the digital divide. At the same time, we retain an important role toward bridging this gap.
Let’s go back to low-income countries for a second. Though Internet penetration is still very sporadic, rural Africa has become “the fastest-growing mobile phone market worldwide.” These devices are accessible, portable, and cheap. Accordingly, a number of social tech innovations—from micro-payments over the phone to mobile information distribution—are being produced for the mobile industry. Mobile phones have become the most impactful social medium on the African continent today.
The lesson? It’s information technology that is the railroad of the modern era—not social media tools. It’s information technology that is the latest in the long advance of human communications. But if information technology is the beast that lays the tracks, then social media tools become the trains that carry us around the world and make us one. Throughout history, the progression of how we communicate has always sought to narrow the gap that can connect us with one another. Today we are less divided than ever before.
But the work has just begun. Social media itself is not a solution—and for that matter, neither is information technology. Yet within them, we find our voice—and with that voice, we push forward.