Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist

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19 August 2003

Yesterday I handed in my dissertation – my MSc in New Media, Information and Society is now officially over and in a month and a half I return to the LSE to start a PhD in Media and Communications. Here’s the abstract of my dissertation, which I hope to turn into a published paper later. I am also keen to summarise the results for a non-academic audience for a thinktank or newspaper so if it sounds interesting, give me a call!

Civil society campaigning organizations have an important role to play in the public sphere according to deliberative democratic theory. The new communicative capabilities offered to such organizations by the Internet in recent years must be evaluated in the light of a digital divide that has persisted even in developed countries. This study measures and attempts to explain patterns of Internet usage among activists, and examines the possible implications of these choices for the public sphere and political participation.

Drawing on a postal survey of 109 London-based activists and open-ended interviews with four of those surveyed, respondents were found to have predominantly high levels of education, higher than average incomes and high levels of access to the Internet consistent with those factors. However, high levels of access did not translate into high levels of use in all contexts.
While email was extensively employed, other uses like participation in open online discussion or web-based publishing were much less prevalent than traditional campaigning activity. Some access and skill barriers were noted but the principal barrier to greater use of the web in campaigning appeared to be a perceived lack of its relevance or importance in that context. The fact that much Internet use by activists is via email and therefore tends to be “invisible” except to participants in the dialogue might contribute to that perceived lack of relevance.

The study also suggests that the existing socio-economic divide between the “core” activists surveyed and the broader public could be accentuated if, for reasons of efficiency, those activists moved their attention away from traditional activities like meetings and newsletters towards email-mediated dialogue or if the Internet does make it easier for the relatively privileged who are already online to become more involved at the expense of those who continue to fall on the wrong side of the digital divide.

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