Of Course I'm on Facebook, but What is... Google-y?

Can Mobile Apps Really Bridge the Digital Divide? Post created for my Digital Media course, #MC7019

“But I can't help but wonder if, in the rush to build native apps -- apps designed specifically for iPhones, iPads, Androids, and/or Blackberries, we are neglecting the mobile Web -- applications and websites optimized to be accessed via any mobile browser, smart-phone or not. And as such, the great promise of greater access to more knowledge and technology is only coming to those who can afford smart-phones.” - Mobile Phones, Educational Apps, and the Digital Divide

Since the beginning of the 1970’s, social scientists have expressed concern that knowledge, like wealth, can be differentially distributed in society, and that increasing flow of information might exacerbate instead of equalize this distribution. In 1970, Tichenor, Donohue and Olien published a paper in Public Opinion Quarterly, concluding that “increasing the flow of news on a topic leads to greater acquisition of knowledge about that topic among the more highly educated segments of society” (p. 159). The authors used education as a proxy for socioeconomic status.

Subsequent research has supported the idea that technological systems can increase this knowledge gap, either through differential access to technology, or differential skills at using technology. Based on education, wealth, access and/or age, some segments of the population are in better seats than others when it comes to benefiting from technology. From books and newspapers, to telephones and cell-phones, to radio and television, new communication technologies have constantly provided greater access to knowledge, or at least to information, for those could adopt, afford and efficiently use them.

And then came the World Wide Web, praised as a ‘great equalizer,’ a provider of free and diverse information to the masses, if in a rather chaotic style. The web was a place where anyone could go for the information they desired most, and eventually in any particular form they wanted it.

But ‘free’ is a tricky term.

It didn’t take long for social scientists to realize that the web, perhaps even more than radio or television, came with un-equalizing forces. The first concern was one of access – a paid internet connection is a prerequisite for ‘free’ info on the web. And the simple problem of access to the internet was quickly replaced by low vs. high-speed internet access, and school and work-only vs. home-based internet access. [see President Obama’s ConnectED initiative to connect 99% of America’s students to high-speed internet.]

A Growing Internet Divide

In 2001, Everett Rogers published an article in Convergence arguing that the access-based digital divide was being exacerbated by learning-based and content-based divides. Just because an individual has access to high-speed internet and web-browsing doesn’t mean that the individual knows how to navigate the web for credible, useful information.

Suppose we could overcome the access problem for segments of the US population with low socioeconomic status: now they technically have access to useful health information, but do they know how to get it? According to Rogers, “[f]or individuals with access to the internet, health information is available to answer almost any question,” (p. 101). But what does this really mean? How do these individuals know where to go to get credible information? Their top 10 hits from a Google search? (Assuming they know what terms to search in the first place). Wikipedia? (Is it credible?) A free smartphone app?

This is what van Deursen and van Dijk call a “second divide.” According to these authors, closing the digital divide, or the knowledge gap based on digital technology, is not as simple as providing access to all. Unequally divided digital skills may exacerbate social inequalities, they argue, based on age, education and primary location of use (school vs. work vs. home). The authors divide internet skills into operational and formal skills (basic skills in using internet technology and navigating the web), and information and strategic skills (capacity to carry out actions on the web required to fulfill information needs and reach particular goals).

“In digital divide research, the conclusion that operational and formal internet skills are not sufficient for an effective use of the internet so far only received little attention. Information and strategic internet skills are also required. In contemporary (and future) information society these skills increasingly determine people’s positions in the labor market and in social life. Unfortunately, these skills appear to be the most problematic.” - van Deursen and van Dijk, p. 908.

How do you teach someone to navigate the web for credible information? Help them understand that what they are looking for might not be on their first on even second page of Google search results? Or within a particular iPhone app? What lay audience member navigates Google Scholar for vetted scientific information? The Wikipedia page on cancer is only as good as its references at the bottom of the page. But let’s face it: most people aren’t navigating the links to those references – perhaps especially if they are operating inside a closed-system mobile app.

What Does ‘Death of Web’ Mean for the Haves and Have-Nots?

As far as access goes, don’t we have alternatives to home-based, high-cost and high-speed internet connections? It’s with near disgust that I tell you: in order to blog, stream videos and watch movies at home, I currently pay nearly $65 dollars a month for high-speed internet alone. That is internet only – I forego all home phone or cable services in order to afford my internet! But 3G AT&T data plans go for as little as $14.99 per month.

Many have touted the mobile phone as a possible solution to the technological knowledge gap, able to “close the digital divide in a way the PC never could.” Mobile phones are cheap compared to personal and laptop computers, and serviced by hotspots and other affordable and accessible data plans.

But again, we might be failing to realize the importance of information and strategic internet skills in effective internet use, and how these are being served, or rather not served, by mobile technology.

In a 2010 article in Wired Magazine, Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff made bold and perhaps even controversial claims about the ‘death’ of web browsing and the surge of social media and mobile app use. According to the authors, “[t]wo decades after its birth, the World Wide Web is in decline, as simpler, sleeker services — think apps — are less about the searching and more about the getting.” This statement, the way I see it, is more about how we get our information, and what that means for our accumulation of knowledge, than anything else.

According to analytics firm Flurry, the daily time spent in mobile apps has today surpassed web consumption: “The average user now spends 9% more time using mobile apps than the Internet. In June [2011] users spent an average of 81 minutes daily on mobile apps, compared to 74 minutes on the web. This compares to […] just under 43 minutes a day using mobile applications [in June 2010] versus an average 64 minutes using the Internet.”

But the transition from web browsing to mobile app doesn’t necessarily mean we exchanged nytimes.com for the NYTimes iPhone App. It probably looks more like exchanging nytimes.com for their Facebook page inside of our Facebook iPhone App. Who needs to navigate the web when you’ve got your favorite Facebook news aggregator page or your smartest Facebook friend who posts all that boring political and science news for you?

Raise of hands, how many of you reading here get your news almost entirely from Facebook, Twitter or some other social media app?

“Facebook became a parallel world to the Web, an experience that was vastly different and arguably more fulfilling and compelling and that consumed the time previously spent idly drifting from site to site.” – The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet.

But what’s the big deal? Who cares if we’ve abandoned time-consuming and confusing web-browsing for the efficiency of apps that bring information directly to us, through the filters of our pre-existing interests and our digital ‘friends?’ The information looks better that way anyway, right Tweeters? Even if our ‘friends’ are the ones bringing New York Times stories to our Facebook news feeds, aren’t we eventually navigating to the original nytimes.com website anyway?

The problem, in my view, is that for the relatively wealthy iPhone users and the digital “low-literates” alike, the fact that mobile apps go out and retrieve, package and present information in a way that is convenient for us doesn’t do anything for our information and strategic internet skills. Mobile phones may indeed be an answer to the access-based digital divide, but will low-literate mobile users learn how to strategically navigate and retrieve information from the web at all? Or rather learn only how to consume information made available through free apps?

In a Mashable Spotlight article, Jessica Goodman writes, “Although some believe mobile is helping to close that divide, it's not without consequences. In particular, certain groups of students are turning primarily to smartphones for their Internet needs, thus, falling behind on necessary computer skills.”

While mobile phones are indeed cheaper and more accessible portals to the web for many users, they may be not so much portals to the web as portals to app-based internet.

“They’re all over Twitter but they don’t know how to save a Word document.” - The Digital Divide Is Still Leaving Americans Behind

App-savvy students aren’t necessarily learning the skills to strategically access websites, fill out online applications, navigate search engine results. But then again, who needs to know how to use the web for a book report when you can read the book’s Facebook page.

And now, back to Twitter. :)