Meet Jen Schradie

01 May, 2014

Meet Jen Schradie

The Berkeley Center for New Media is turning 10! To celebrate, over the next ten months leading up to our birthday party on September 25th, 2014, we’re sharing ten stories of BCNM’s life so far. This month, hear how Designated Emphasis Ph.D. candidate Jen Sc

Jen Schradie has never been afraid to confront the societal inequality she witnesses. During her undergraduate studies, Jen was involved with the farm workers’ movement and was active both in the United States and Mexico – eventually living with agricultural workers in Nicaragua at the height of the Contra War. In the American South, she has worked closely with activist groups fighting against poverty, racial discrimination, and inadequate healthcare and education by editing and creating documentary films. Later, she leveraged these skills to contribute to The Golf War, a documentary that details the struggle between international developers of a golf resort in the Philippines and the local farmers being ousted from the area and assaulted by private security forces.

As an early adopter of digital film, Jen increasingly became interested in technological innovations and their effect on social movements and media. Far from viewing these changes as a utopian social panacea – as many academics did for a time – Jen inflected her understanding of these transformations with her experience.

While at the Harvard Kennedy School, she explored who was being left out of the digital world and the political consequences of not participating online. Jen’s commitment to exploring the inequities she observes has made her a leading voice in the academic conversation on the digital divide.

Jen’s research has shown a stagnating split in American digital access and production. The wealthy dominate the online world. She criticizes the data from some studies of Internet connectivity, many of which equate limited intervals of Internet usage or perhaps a single online experience with the connectivity of a laptop-owning, smartphone-toting wi-fi owner. Jen therefore pays attention to how and where people without a computer or consistent Internet go to gain the connectivity they need to access basic online information, complete forms for service, or finish their homework. Often these individuals are forced to rely on limited resources, such as public libraries and relatives.

This division might not seem wholly surprising in a country with some of the worst income disparity in the developed world. But through responses to her research, Jen has discovered a startling lack of acknowledgement or critical consideration of the imbalance of digital access and use. In part, this disregard reflects the bias of academics themselves, most of whom are middle class and above, living and working in research institutes where digital access is taken for granted. It is this blindness to the digital divide that Jen is seeking to change.

Remaining ignorant of digital inequality has dangerous consequences for public policy. Policy makers promote big data as a cheaper and more innovative approach than traditional statistical and accounting methods, sometimes “fetishizing” the findings as inherently better and more insightful. But since ‘big data’ amassed from online data scraping leaves out large swathes of society, the implications for a variety of public sectors, including public health, are significant. In addition, many government and public services are considering moving completely online, often cutting off in the process society’s most marginalized. For example, when registration to speak at town hall meetings takes place through an online form, municipalities hamper participation in what is supposedly a cornerstone of American activism.

At the same time, Jen critiques the growing trend of “Silicon Valley neoliberalism” – notably in her “Open Letter to Mark Zuckerberg” – which presents increasing connectivity, especially among children, as a solution to any number of social ills. Jen is quick to remind us that connectivity will not easily reduce poverty, or increase economic growth in the developing world, without taking into account various other structural issues.

Jen’s current research focuses on how social media interplays with social movements and contemporary democracy. Investigating the online presence (and absence) of several dozen political groups in North Carolina, she is able to learn how social inequality, political ideology and organizational structures shape Internet use and digital politics. She hopes to expand her research in the future to a cross-national comparison of how social media and the portrayal, presentation, and dissemination of news by and about working class communities plays out in the US, compared to other Internet-saturated countries, with a special consideration for citizen journalism.

Jen has accepted a position starting in the fall as a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse at the University of Toulouse. Follow her on Twitter @schradie or at

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hradie explores the digital divide.