Opinions - 26.10.2015 - 00:00 

Does the net divide our society?

The internet offers countless advantages and conveniences. We have got used to them; indeed, we are hardly able to imagine life without them. Yet the internet may also be the cause of a societal divide. A commentary by Christian Pieter Hoffmann.


17 September 2015. Ever since the 1990s, academia and politics have been in the grip of a fear of a “digital divide”. According to this, there are people who share in the advantages of the internet, and there are those who remain outside because they cannot find any access to the new media. The internet creates valuable resources such as knowledge and exchange, and it saves time and money. However, all this is denied to people who are unable to use the internet.

Over the years, the digital gap closed on account of the rapidly growing user numbers. What is left of a “divide” if 80-90 per cent of citizens people the internet? But swiftly a new worry emerged: what if there is a digital divide of a second order? Or to put it differently: what if we are all “in” but many use the internet in such a way that they derive particularly many advantages from it while others waste their time or even ruin their opportunities? This is described as a “participation divide”.

Participation in the internet

The new digital divide raises many questions: what does “participation in the internet” mean exactly? What do people who participate in the internet actually do? Why do many people not participate although they have access to the net? Together with the German Institute for Trust and Security in the Internet (DIVSI), the University of St.Gallen has pursued this question and has had focus groups interview German citizens about their internet use behaviour.

One result of the study: participation in the internet is ubiquitous. Health fora, learning and studying aids, collaborative art projects, crowd-funding, the distribution of products and services, petitions – forms of participation can be found in all spheres of society from business to education, health, culture and politics. In all these areas, users create contents in order to reach and motivate others.

The net as a reflection of society

An idyllic world of participants, then? Not at all, since users distinguish between, say, voluntary and involuntary and positive or negative participation: users are not always voluntarily involved in internet activities – they may have been drawn in by others, or their data may have been used without their knowledge or consent. Therefore participating can also cause worries, and: many people devote themselves in the net to concerns that others perceive as harmful, like radical ideologies.

Why, then, do many users participate in the net and others do not? This question proves to be complex because different users also understand different things by “participation”: easy-going and fun-loving users already feel that they are “participating” when they are linked up to the internet because somehow they are “part of it”. Conversely, confident, versatile users have a clear conception of participation in the internet; they live in and with the net and derive numerous advantages from their participative use of it. Many middle-aged users have a very functional relationship with the net; they appreciate the benefits of the new media and make selective use of them but check and strictly limit this use.

“Participation divide” through age, education and values

And finally there are the timid users, most of an advanced age. They hardly understand the internet, feel at the mercy of it and therefore avoid any active use of it. Many of them have no idea what “participation in the internet” could be in the first place. Yet the “participation divide” in the net is not a question of age. The survey reveals that worries and uncertainties can be found in all age groups. What is at least as important as knowledge and self-confidence is people’s motivation for participation.

Here, the net is definitely a reflection of the known physical world. Yet this is no reason for sitting back and doing nothing since the will, the confidence and the ability to participate in the internet are able to reinforce social differences that are associated with age, education, income and values in any case. The digital divide of the second order is therefore quite real. Unfortunately, this gap is also more difficult to bridge than with simple internet access. 

Bild: Photocase / inkje

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