The Digital Production Gap: The Digital Divide and Web 2.0 Collide

15 Jun, 2011

The Digital Production Gap: The Digital Divide and Web 2.0 Collide

The history of the Internet over the past decade has been defined by the explosion of social media that created seemingly un-limited ways for people to participate in the growing online dialogue. From commenting to blogging, from posting photos to social networking, observers hailed the emergence of the social Web as a step toward creating a more egalitarian platform where everyone’s voice could be heard.

But in a groundbreaking study that reviews nine years of data, a Berkeley Center for New Media researcher debunks that myth. When it comes to creating publicly available online content, the new generation of digital creators are still dominated by those with more income and education. The digital divide still trumps digital democracy.

The study, “The Digital Production Gap – The Digital Divide and Web 2.0 Collide” demonstrates the persistence of what UC Berkeley Sociology PhD candidate Jen Schradie has termed the “digital production gap.” Using data from 17 surveys from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, Schradie’s research shows that gaps that run along educational and economic divides remains deep.

The study was recently published in Poetics, a Journal of Empirical Research on Culture, the Media and the Arts, examines a wide range of digital content production activities, including blogging, commenting, posting a photo or video online, social networking, and web site developing. All ten activities showed a class-based gap along income and educational lines. Among the examples of the research’s findings:

College educated users are twice as likely to post photos and videos, rather than high school users.
The probability that a college graduate would write an online rating or a comment to a newsgroup is three times greater than that of a high school graduate.
* Class is a more significant determinant of online production than age, gender or race.

“I’m often at conferences in which industry, academic, and media leaders dismiss the digital divide as not mattering anymore because there is a belief that everyone will eventually be online,” said Schradie.
However, this study challenges the conventional wisdom that the Internet is leveling the playing field, and broadening the diversity of voices being heard. This is particularly troubling given the growing reliance a wide range of organizations, companies and governments are placing on digital dialogues to identify the supposed will of their communities.

Schradie’s research said there are a wide range of barriers that keep the poor and less educated from participating more fully in the growing online civic life. The challenges include more than basic access, although connectivity is critical, as a full one-quarter of Americans have never been online. However, being online is not enough.

Research findings show that among people who do have Internet access, being able to go online both at home and at work is vital as to whether or not someone is a digital producer. Having a variety of digital tools at your disposal, such as a laptop, smartphone and other devices is also important. In other words, when people have jobs that do not allow Internet access, they do not have the freedom and autonomy to fully participate and produce online.

“I found that creating content for the public constantly requires more and different expensive gadgets. People just can’t afford to catch up,” said Schradie.

Many studies of digital inequality often draw on samples from young populations, such as college age students. This research, however, examined people from the general population of adults. Results show that socioeconomic class matters more than one’s student status or age.

Given the persistence of these gaps, Schradie believes they are unlikely simply to disappear over time. Many observers have assumed that participation rates will increase as younger generations, so called “digital natives,” embrace new technologies and new modes of communications. But by tracking ten different activities over time, the study shows strong patterns of inequality that do not disappear when the next social media tool appears.

“The digital production gap is critical because people in power rely on the Internet now to search for what matters – whether for politicians who listen to social media campaigns, journalists who rely on Twitter or Facebook posts, or the general public who go to Google for information,” said Schradie, “But without the voices of the poor and working class, is the Internet really an accurate picture of America?

UC Berkeley News Center