Higher Education

"participation gap," connection speeds, class differences and corruption

Henry Jenkins et al’s white paper on new media literacy examines the new digital divide in terms of what they call the "participation gap." As they note:

What a person can accomplish with an outdated machine in a public library with mandatory filtering software and no opportunity for storage or transmission pales in comparison to what person can accomplish with a home computer with unfettered Internet access,high bandwidth,and continuous connectivity.(Current legislation to block access to social networking software in schools and public libraries will further widen the participation gap.)

In short, where we once talked digital divide simply in terms of access, now we talk about it in terms of level of access. As this quote already suggests, a significant element of the gap is technical, founded on connection speeds. As reported in this Communications Workers of America report, the average download speed in the U.S. is 1.9 mbps. "This average U.S. download speed compares to 61 megabits per
second in Japan, 45 megabits per second in South Korea, 18 megabits per
second in Sweden, 17 megabits per second in France, and 7 megabits per
second in Canada." This is not exactly surprising information, right? For some time the US has been dropping in terms of web access and has long been behind Europe and the Pacific Rim in terms of mobile networks.

The point here is that lack of connection will simply limit one’s ability to do interesting things on the web whether that’s playing video games, exploring virtual worlds, watching videos, or uploading your own media content. This is only further exacerbated by draconian and short-sighted rules seeking to proscribe the use of networks.

Recently danah boyd has caught some additional attention (and criticism) for her discussion of how class differences play themselves out in social networks (basically that facebook seems to attract college and college-bound users of a more middle-of-the-road variety, and MySpace attracts working class, ethnically-diverse, and fringe/counter-cultural users). I don’t know if boyd’s analysis is accurate–it is more ethnographic-observational research than statistical. However, it doesn’t suprise me that people from different cultural spaces inhabit different social networks, whether those networks are mediated by the web or not. Nor is it especially unusual to say that one of the functions of college is to introduce students to new social networks: is that not what the idea of "inventing the univeristy" or discourse communities is about? If anything, the "long tail" logic of the web suggests that we inhabit increasingly narrow and customized social networks. It makes sense to me that those networks might connect with different social networking applications that reflect the rhetorical practices and aesthetic preferences of the user community.

So I wonder, as the participation gap becomes more granular in a sense, how this will play out. Poor rural communities may continue to lag at the bottom of connection speed, while those in urban areas will have more mixed access (e.g., some cities will provide universal access; others may not). Suburban communities, corporate spaces, and colleges will likely continue to have the best access. If social networks go more vertical, they might design around connection speed as well as other community considerations. That is, in the past, there were groups without any connection for whom no online community existed. Now those groups may be connecting at a slow speed with sites to match. Of course that’s just a hypothesis. It’s equally possible that if big time media decides to push its products over the web that we will see a more even expansion of connectivity.

This is where the issue of corruption comes in, as Lawrence Lessig has recently discussed. Addressing the "participation gap" might begin with addressing the issue of corruption, even though corruption in terms of national internet or IP/copyright policy is only one small part of the larger challenge of government corruption. (Just as an aside to those who want to argue that wikipedia and such are examples of our decline as a civilization: if you want to look for a connection between the US and a declining Roman empire, government corruption is certainly the place to look, not the web.) In any case, it is (corrput) policy decisions, not technological limits, that have prevented the development of mobile networks in the US, that have slowed down the project of connecting citizens, and inhibit everday users from creative engagement in the culture.

However, even if we were to reduce this corruption (and I don’t think we can afford to be so cynical as to say that this is not possible), I think we will continue to see the fragmentation of social networks. For example, I have a Facebook page that I created b/c one of the student groups I advise uses Facebook for social networking. But I have a difficult time imagining I’ll ever use if for anything else. I have a Twitter account that I play around with, but none of my local colleagues have one, as far as I know. I might use it with my students and perhaps it will catch on with others in rhet/comp, but not too many right now.

So I can see the continuing role of rhetoric with what is a "participation gap" perhaps but also a "participation shift," as each student moves from one set of social networks with particular technological, aesthetic, rhetorical, and ethical practices to another.


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