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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16 June 2004

“David Wilcox”:http://partnerships.typepad.com/civic/2003/02/about_david_wil.html, consultant on ICT use by the community and voluntary sector, talks about a new review of the literature on community informatics in the UK by veteran UK academics Barry Loader and Leigh Keeble.

It makes disturbing (though not surprising) reading, indicating that despite the Government’s best efforts these programmes often don’t reach the most excluded and rarely increase civic engagement (except among the already engaged). Take a look at the “summary of the report”:http://www.jrf.org.uk/knowledge/findings/socialpolicy/584.asp or “download it as a PDF”:http://www.jrf.org.uk/bookshop/eBooks/1859351980.pdf

In amongst the gloom and doom there are some suggestions for better practice in future – siting internet access centres in the community rather than in libraries or colleges and organizing training around people’s perceived needs rather than forcing them into formal courses for example – both designed to attract people who have had negative experiences with formal education.

Underlying my own research is a belief that ICT can have an emancipatory effect – for some at least – but that mere provision of the technology (closing the ‘access divide’) is not enough. Community informatics programmes must lean much more heavily towards the ‘community’ in their titles if they are to succeed.

Also see “this earlier blog posting”:https://blog.org/archives/000990.html on similar research. Some there suggest that while library access may not be a good way for new people to access online resources long term it may have a useful role in introducing people to online resources. I still have my doubts but take a look at the two reports cited there and let me know what you think…

13 June 2004

It promises ‘almost 200 television and radio channels and interactive services’ (I’m guessing mostly radio channels and time-shifted free channels) for £150 including installation starting later this year. The press release is “here”:http://www.corporate-ir.net/ireye/ir_site.zhtml?ticker=BSY.UK&script=415&layout=0&item_id=580035.

The part I find particularly interesting is the fact that Sky’s boxes have a modem. As they point out, ‘All Sky digiboxes contain an integrated modem and therefore are capable of accessing online services including e-mail, SMS text messaging and public service information from Directgov.’ I wish them every success since the government foolishly failed to mandate modems for terrestrial DTV set top boxes (see “a previous blog.org posting”:https://blog.org/archives/cat_digital_tv.html#000924) and thereby missed a chance to tackle the digital divide.

Thanks to Tech Digest for the news

9 June 2004

The 4290 inhabitants of a bunch of really isolated islands off the coast of Scotland were given computers and Internet access through some government programme. Then a few months later the BBC turned up and tried to encourage them to produce weblogs.

Well, after a couple of ill-attended meetings and promotion in the local media, altogether 72 people had created blogs by the end of six months (of those, only eight have been “updated within the last week”:http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/whereilive/westernhighlandsandislands/islandblogging/bloggers/). Of course part of the relatively low takeup might be to do with the fact that the BBC blogs were hosted by the BBC and were pre-moderated – you’d post something and it would take a day to be approved! Not surprisingly (since these people live in pretty close contact with their neighbours) none of the weblogs tried to be controversial in their communities or political – instead they tended to concentrate on mundane day to day community events.

I spoke to the man from the BBC (Richard Holmes) after his presentation at “NotCon”:http://www.notcon04.com/ and he said that some of the community leaders on the island did take up blogging early on but abandoned it and that those who kept blogging were a cross-section of the community. I hope some more in-depth studies have been done on this experiment and I will be interested to see how many of the people who were started off blogging carry on doing it once the BBC stops the experiment (due to finish this month).

It’s interesting to me that even with 100% access and encouragement in the end only .1% of the islands’ population ended up blogging regularly. I wish I had been there to gather some ethnographic detail that would explain why (though I have a few guesses).

22 May 2004

According to “CNET”:http://news.com.com/2100-1034_3-5193926.html?tag=nefd.lede The Mayor of Salt Lake City declined to provide support for a plan for an open broadband network infrastructure in the city, saying:

“I just don’t see the social good in using taxpayer money to fund a network that provides more television and bandwidth for illegally downloading files”

Fortunately here in the UK things policy makers are somewhat more receptive…
Thanks to Werblog and “BoingBoing”:http://www.boingboing.net/2004/04/20/mayor_of_salt_lake_c.html for the links.

28 April 2004

A netfriend of mine, Melanie McBride has written an excellent overview of the issues around “Blogging, Equality and the Future”:http://www.mindjack.com/feature/linkedout.html on “Mindjack”:http://www.mindjack.com/, a magazine I have been involved with for some time. It quotes those who believe blogging is a vital democratic tool but also includes the welcome cautionary voice of “Danah Boyd”:http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/ who points out the un-acknowledged barriers to blogging (very much in the terms I plan to in my own PhD). I could go on but why not read the article for yourself!

10 March 2004

“Ethan Zuckerman”:http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/ethan/2004/02/27#a138 has produced an interesting paper on blogging as a political force in the Third World – commenting on the enthusiasm for Internet-mediated political debate expressed by Jim Moore in an essay “The Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head”:http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/people/jmoore/secondsuperpower.html and by Joi Ito in “Emergent Democracy”:http://joi.ito.com/static/emergentdemocracy.html. I blogged about the latter essay “some months ago”:https://blog.org/archives/cat_best_of_blogorg.html#000687.

He warns astutely:

“If that group [enthusiasts for ‘weblog democracy’] forgets that they’re outliers in terms of larger society and fails to include others in the shaping of these technologies, it’s unlikely that these tools will be useful to the wider world”.

He also suggests that bloggers can’t provide a critical alternative to the mainstream media when a region is not adequately covered:

“When journalists don’t cover parts of the globe, webloggers are like an amplifier without a guitar – they have no signal to reinforce. There aren’t enough bloggers in eastern Congo to give us a sense for what’s really going on.”

He suggests that Third World expats writing about their own nations from abroad and (though he doesn’t explicitly say this) First World expats writing about the countries they are visiting or trying to help could help fill the gap in coverage of third world issues and give the rest of the world a personal view.
He notes the weakness of this proposal:

these discussions are open only to people with the access to the Internet (which cuts out people in countries who censor, people in unsderserved rural areas, as well as people who don’t have money to spend time online); primarily open to people who speak and write English well; primarily open to people who can afford to spend time online engaging in these dialogues (cutting out many people whose jobs don’t afford them the luxury of working in front of a CRT).

He highlights some interesting solutions to the problem of language and cultural barriers to mutual comprehension – “Blogalization”:http://www.blogalization.info/reorganization/, for example, encourages bloggers who can speak foreign languages to translate interesting posts and news items into other relevant languages (chiefly English) – acting as a volunteer news agency. “Living on the Planet”:http://www.livingontheplanet.com/about.html is similar (but only translates to English.
In the end, he acknowledges:

Generally speaking, though, in most developing nations, the Net is not the obvious place to look for political change. So few citizens are online, and those who are generally are atypically wealthy and powerful that the Internet is a poor way to reach the grassroots. Instead, it’s useful to think about what media are analogous to the Internet in developing nations. One likely parallel is talk radio.

He seems to suggest in his conclusion that the “solution” to ensuring that the third world can part lies with the toolmakers – a technical fix.

But a real solution, I suggest, would have to involve a lot of grassroots capacity building work to ensure that a broad range of people in these countries (not just the elites):

1) have access to the technology
2) have the time and literacy to engage with them and
3) are listened to by those with power in their countries.

Big (some might say impossible) preconditions but without them a Third World Blogosphere would be an elite echo chamber. I fear that if tech boosters succeed in persuading developing country governments to foster a burgeoning blogosphere in their countries it would just serve to further benefit the articulate middle classes and elites in those countries who already have influence.

1 March 2004

The “Pew Research Centre”:http://www.pewinternet.org/ has just released “Content Creation Online”:http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=113 which finds that, “44% of U.S. Internet users have contributed their thoughts and their files to the online world”.

I haven’t had the chance to dig into the detail yet but some of the activities they class as online content provision don’t match the kind of activity I am most interested in studying for my PhD. The people of most interest to me are the 13% with their own websites and the 2% with weblogs. I wouldn’t count the 20% who allow others to download music or video files from their computers as being content creators, nor would I count the 8% who have contributed material to Web sites run by their businesses if they didn’t do it out of choice. But doubtless different people would slice the data different ways.

Given my reservations about their definition of content creation I am cautious about leaning too much on their results but I note that even with their rather liberal definition, online content provision tends to be done by a relatively priviledged sample of the US population – particularly in terms of education. For example, 6% of people who didn’t graduate high school contributed content online compared to 46% of those with a college degree or higher. I find it interesting that although there is a section on the demographics of content creation in the survey this stratification is not mentioned in the “summary of findings”:http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/reports.asp?Report=113&Section=ReportLevel1&Field=Level1ID&ID=484.

I look forward to getting my hands on the raw data (Pew “makes its data sets available”:http://www.pewinternet.org/datasets/index.asp six months or so after they have been collected).

21 January 2004

David Wilcox brings to my attention on Designing for Civil Society an article summarising the benefits of several different open source applications for activists.

Interesting and useful though the list is for some, I do think it shows a narrowness of perspective common to technically-proficient activists. It doesn’t talk about how difficult the software is for the group to install or maintain and doesn’t put much stress on whether there is a free hosted version of the software available (so an organization can just use it without having to install it or run their own web server).

The unspoken assumption of those writing seems to be that at least one person among the activist groups will know how to set up and maintain software and have access to a computer with an always-on broadband connection. Tut tut!

9 January 2004

David Wilcox “blogs here in detail”:http://partnerships.typepad.com/civic/2004/01/nonprofit_tech_.html about a research report from Jeremy Wyatt at a regeneration consultancy, “Hall Aitken”:http://www.hallaitken.co.uk/. It suggests UK Online centres should be less in libraries and more in community centres and integrated with the voluntary and community sector, but says nonetheless that they are largely successful in reaching those they target (disadvantaged people who wouldn’t have Internet access elsewhere).

By sheer coincidence on the same day I came across a paper by “Dr Neil Selwyn”:http://www.cf.ac.uk/socsi/selwyn/ in the September 2003 edition of the journal “Information, Communication & Society”:http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/1369118x.html – unfortunately not publicly accessible (unless you are an academic with a subscription – if so look “here”:http://www.ingenta.com/isis/searching/ExpandTOC/ingenta;jsessionid=3ok9ubgqnr53e.circus?issue=infobike://routledg/rics/2003/00000006/00000003&index=5)
The paper seems to be largely based on “a report Dr Selwyn did for BECTA”:http://www.becta.org.uk/page_documents/research/digidiv_selwyn.pdf in any case (which is publicly accessible).

Anyway here are some key findings:

…The survey data suggest that, in terms of people’s effective access to ICT, public access sites have a relatively slight profile when compared with household and wider family access – perceived to offer ready access to ICT by only a minority of respondents. Moreover, when the use of these public ICT sites is examined, there is little evidence of public ICT sites attracting those social groups who may otherwise be excluded or marginalized from the information age.”

Update:Jeremy Wyatt himself was good enough to comment on this post. He said:

“I can see where you have seen a contradiction in the two reports but actually they don’t conflict in any way. As as researcher you’ll forgive me for suggesting you read the whole of both reports…we actually quote the work Neil and his colleagues did in our report.

One of the thrusts of Neil’s report is that people don’t use public internet access points much. The thrust of ours is that UK online centres have helped to introduce the internet to many new users and helped many gain skills and confidence. Our report stresses the introduction and skills services. It does not confirm or deny that public internet access once you have these skills is a viable approach. It refers to Neil’s work to suggest that there is data to suggest the opposite.

But, and its a big but, things change fast in this field and maybe public internet access has a big future once its ubiquitous.”

Mea culpa! I don’t have time to go more into this at the moment but I do encourage people to read both reports. The Hall Aitken report is “here”:http://www.dfes.gov.uk/research/programmeofresearch/index.cfm?type=5&keywordlist1=0&keywordlist2=0&keywordlist3=0&andor=or&keyword=CMF+funded+uk+online+centres&x=94&y=15.

Like Wyatt, Selwyn suggests that siting UK Online centres out of libraries, schools, colleges and museums would help and suggests

“another alternative strategy would be to develop a shift in emphasis away from community sites towards developing systems of community resources, which can then be loaned into people’s houses, thus building upon and augmenting people’s existing access to and use of ICT in friends’ and relatives’ houses.”

However he concludes pessimistically, “Although proving useful for those that use them, it appears likely that such sites will only ever fulfil a limited social role and are certainly not a panacea to the perceived inequalities of the information age.”

I share his pessimism because I feel not enough is being done to explain to disadvantaged people how what is on the Internet is relevant to their needs (and particularly not enough is done to encourage them to contribute themselves – which would help in turn to narrow the relevance gap).

I hope at least that the common recommendation of both reports – moving public access closer to where the public actually likes to hang out – will be listened to. To its credit the Office of the e-Envoy in its “annual report”:http://www.e-envoy.gov.uk/assetRoot/04/00/60/69/04006069.pdf seems to be taking this on board to some extent. The Government is funding ‘get online’ initiatives with the voluntary and community sector and spending around £3m (not a lot admittedly!) through Culture Online to, “engage hard-to-reach audiences, encouraging them to discover the potential of new digital technologies (p. 11)

7 January 2004

Whether the weblogging ‘community’ is ‘fair’ or not depends on whether you look at opportunity or outcome. Not everyone has the opportunity to blog (this takes time and an internet connection) but as “Danah Boyd”:http://www.danah.org/ points out in a pair of recent postings about blogging and fairness the weblogging community looks even more unfair when you look at outcome – who is actually doing it.

In her first post on the subject she suggests out that propensity to blog seems to be “concentrated among straight white men”:http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/001400.html#001400 – in the “second”:http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/001402.html#001402 she suggests that just because the world of blogging is in principle open to all (or at least all with time and money to spare) and therefore fair (according to “Clay Shirky”:http://www.corante.com/many/archives/2004/01/06/joi_are_blogs_just.php) it doesn’t mean that the situation is necessarily right.

Clay appears to agree but suggests, ‘I can’t imagine a system that would right the obvious but hard to quantify injustice of the weblog world that wouldn’t also destroy its dynamism.’

Both he and Joi Ito, whose “posting”:http://joi.ito.com/archives/2004/01/06/are_blogs_just.html sparked the discussion in the first place seem to suggest that if a solution were to be found it would be through changes to the software itself. I think the definition of the problem and its solution needs to be broader – a ‘technical solution’ to the problem of inequality of participation and outcome in weblogging is not likely because that problem is largely a reflection of inequalities in society itself.

[Update: Oops – it seems I missed a later “post by Clay”:http://www.corante.com/many/archives/2004/01/06/boyd_ahtisaari_and_butterfield_v_me_dont_bet_on_me.php in which he actually partly makes my point below himself, saying there is ‘equality of technological opportunity, but one heavily dependent on other, external factors.’]

My own evolving PhD project at the “LSE”:http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/pressAndInformationOffice/aboutLSE/information.htm
will be looking at what kind of people do Internet self-publishing, why those people do it and what social effects this new capability is having (currently using Bourdieu’s work as a theoretical basis).

The main point that has been largely missing so far in the discussion I think is that the barriers to blogging or other self-publishing (in the developed world at least) are not solely (or even mainly) money and time but attitude. It takes a certain attitude to want to share your thoughts and experience in this way and many people who one might argue should contribute (poor and/or minority people for example) don’t because (among other things) it isn’t the kind of thing they would think of doing and nobody they know does it.

If one believes that it would be of benefit both to society and to the individual participants that the practice of weblogging were more widely distributed, making the tools cheaper and easier to use is a necessary but not sufficient step. The benefits of such activity would need to be demonstrated and promoted by and among people of those other communities.

P.S. Has anyone done a recent study of webloggers or personal home page creators that looks not just at age and sex but at education level, occupation, ethnicity or better still class?

P.P.S. There’s lots more on the question of whether we should worry mainly about inequality of opportunity or of outcome (when looking in this case at the economy) over at “Crooked Timber”:http://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/001040.html

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