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The New Digital Divide

The New Digital Divide

The increasingly wide coverage of broadband today may be viewed by some to have bridged the digital divide, particularly in North America. For instance, broadband penetration in the United States is already above 75%, according to a study cited by MSNBC. However, as Steve Rubel puts it, there is a new digital divide, and that’s between the people actively publishing their own content thru new media, and those who are still passive about it.

The year 2006 was a good one for digital democracy. Citizens around the globe, equipped with broadband, new distribution channels and powerful search tools, reclaimed power they had ceded to well endowed, giant institutions. But what about everyone else?

Dig deeper … and you will find that the majority of the broadband connected population is passive, not active. Despite all of the wonderful advances in technology, publishing and aggregation tools have been adopted only by only a small minority of users. It’s this tiny community, more than any other, that is shaping the technology, media, business and even the geopolitical agenda. Our voices, not always the broader populous, is what rings loudest.

The fact that you’re reading this blog would mean you’re part of the minority who actually knows what blogs are and how these are different from regular websites. Even a smaller subset of that would actually have published at least one blog entry. Let’s not get into RSS, as another study cited by Rubel that only 10% of respondents have heard of the term and only 2% actually use it.

But those figures are only for the US. What about other countries whose populations are only starting to enjoy broadband–or worse, those with majority of users still on slow (i.e., dial-up) connections? Developing countries still fare poorly when it comes to Internet penetration. For instance, the Philippines is at 5.3%, just a tad above Pakistan and India, with 3.2% and 1.3% respectively. This makes me feel lucky that I can afford and enjoy a broadband connection at home and can still do so while on the road (via WiFi or 3G). But what about the rest of my country? Only a very small minority has a computer and Internet connection at home–many still go online on public Internet terminals, such as those in cafés; others go online at work.

Does this mean that control over the media, whether traditional or “new media,” is something that’s bound to stay with elite few? I think with new media, this is not necessarily so. The barriers to entry are really low, and the costs virtually negligible when you compare it with traditional media. The challenge in this case would be to spread the mindset that each person can create and contribute.

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Also, the new “divide” does not necessarily mean access to the Internet is a prerequisite for crossing over to the other side (the side that creates and contributes). Let’s use the Philippines again as an example. In the social networking realm, estimates put majority of Filipino internet users to have accounts on Friendster, which is the most popular social networking site in the country. This means the ability to be part of a community (and contribute, when the situation calls for it) lies not in the accessibility of resources, but in how the users use these resources.

In 2007 our challenge is to bridge the digital divide that exists between the technophiles and the technophobes. It’s staring us right in the face wherever we go. Consider how many of your friends blog or post to Flickr or even know what the heck is.

Pretty soon, applications like Flickr,, and activities like blogging will not only be the realm of technophiles, but something that everyone else will have to come across at one point or another. Email was once only only enjoyed by über-geeks and now practically can do email. I can probably say the same about new media apps.

View Comments (5)
  • J., I think the digital divide shouldn’t be gauged according to how many are publishing using the latest technology, it should be based on how many are consuming the published content. Publishing a blog doesn’t mean you are “connected” if you have nothing to say and you’ve got no audience. The better measure would be communication: how many people use the technology to communicate to other people, to other communities. Another measure would be your awareness about filtering — what you want and what you don’t want. Once we’re empowered to chose what we want, I think we’re truly connected.

  • Amrit, that’s also a good way to look at it. There’s still this divide between people who are aware about new media, and those who are still unaware, but who consume information from new media.

    I do think, though, that Steve Rubel’s point was that there is the divide between those who use applications and actually contribute–and this includes those who do not actively “publish” for public consumption.

    For instance, I may be uploading pictures on my Flickr account to share with my friends and family. That makes me part of the “connected” crowd. Or I may be leaving testimonials on my friends’ social networking profiles. That makes me “connected” too.

    Still, the concept of being empowered to choose would be a better gauge of being connected. I guess we’re still a long way from that.

  • You mean a ‘reinvented digital divide’? ‘Digital Divide 2.0’?!

    With 16.7% global internet penetration as of November 2006, I think Rubel and anyone who jumps on this ‘new’ bandwagon need to come to grips with reality.

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