The Social Digital Divide and Engaging Constituents Online

I’ve been a fan of danah boyd’s work for years now, but I’d never seen her speak at a conference. She managed to make the Personal Democracy Forum audience really think and pay attention, which isn’t the easiest thing to do with the tweeting, laptop/iPhone-toting crowd.

danah opened her presentation by asking the PDF crowd – are you on Facebook? (everyone raises hand), then – are you on MySpace? (two hands stay up). This was a great way to illustrate how neatly real-world social divisions are mapping onto digital spaces. It’s also counter-intuitive – Facebook and MySpace are hailed as social bridges and places to connect.

But the reality doesn’t match the hype. Users on social services tend to recreate their physical social networks and don’t leave mental room for new people or perspectives. The network then acts as a key reinforcer of existing values, rather than an agnostic space to create new social value.

As danah put it, the migration of white, more affluent users from MySpace to Facebook may well represent a new “white flight.” It’s worth reading danah’s various papers on the sociology of online networks.

For government, not engaging on both MySpace and Facebook means abandoning entire segments of the population. This social schism is as much a piece of the digital divide as broadband access and affordability. So what can government do?

First, acknowledge that connecting with constituents may mean engaging in online spaces where you’re not completely comfortable. Many social media staffers are young, well-educated, and exist within the “Facebook bubble.” But knowing that you have to make this effort may be half the battle.

Second, find out where key influencers in your community are online. Go to your community, don’t expect them to come to you. Are they on Facebook? MySpace? Twitter? a local site? Wherever they’ve gathered online, that network possesses key sociological value for that particular constituency. Yes, there’s the digital “white flight” problem, but if MySpace fills key sociological needs for its users in ways that are different than Facebook. So get on there and figure out what those constituents value.

Finally, take it seriously. The segregation of online networks is troubling, but taken seriously in the short term, it can provide you with key insights into constituencies that you may not hear from on other communications channels. You can learn and adapt to serve your constituents better.

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