Social media and mobile technologies in bridging digital divides

Digital inequalities such as digital divides are a big issue in the information society, potentially influencing engagement in political, social, and educational life. They create marginalized, excluded groups who do not have access to the Internet, to information, or maybe to the necessary skills for using these devices and social applications. At some point, these people will not be able to engage fully in social, economic or political life.

The notion of being social on the Web is constantly evolving since we are connected not only via computers but also via mobile phones and other handheld devices. There is no doubt that these technologies, along with social media and apps, help to bridge the present digital divides, by providing an interactive and engaging platform for otherwise excluded voices, globally.
However, it is still a challenge, not only to make those technologies available everywhere, but also to create programs and initiatives for educating, engaging, empowering and interacting so that those digital gaps would break down or at least lessen.

Despite the way in which social media and mainstream news like to talk about ‘’new digital divides’’, they are not new at all. From my own research in the field (a new the book where I contributed with the chapter), it seems that the core issue is not always about technology as a liberator (that breaks down the digital divide), but that the central issues are about social power, access to information and skills (even to the level of fundamental literacy).

Opening up the access to knowledge and its deployment in everyday work and education is crucial for producing the results and fostering the competences of the members of one’s society. Access to information is the key to an individual’s position in society.
We are all participating on a daily basis in a networked world and we are the creators and the producers of the content online, all together in the same hyper-connected world where the issues and patterns of inclusion and exclusion need to be observed and addressed.

Although there is still limited access to the Internet in some developing countries, connectivity continues to grow and mobile technology and social media applications are playing vital roles in shaping the trends of social activism and raising awareness, in the context of freedom of expression and giving citizens a voice to address social issues. According to the International telecommunications Union, about 70% of mobile phone users are in developing countries, mostly in the global South – making mobile devices the first telecommunications technology in history to have more users there than in highly developed nations and regions. The usage of mobile phones in Africa is growing almost twice as fast as any other region, growing from 63 million users to 152 million in just two years!

New mobile platforms are simple, portable, and require only a basic mobile phone with SMS capability. Those basics allowed their adoption all over the world for election monitoring, corruption tracking, crime and violence tracking and to foster education and raise the level of literacy, as well as to provide logistical support in natural disasters. The ubiquity of mobile technologies is helping those excluded voices and citizens not only to bridge the existing digital divides but also enrich and help human development through participation, engagement and innovation, enabling connection and networking among the geographically dispersed .

Proliferation of mobile technologies world wide through ubiquitous mobile technology platforms and mapping software like Ushahidi and Uwiano, are allowing people to report, share, get informed, interact, get in touch, learn, and produce.

NT Mojos, a project Australia’s Northern Territory, is an example of a way to bridge a divide between white and indigenous Australia through sharing stories and storytelling, where it empowers indigenous people to have a local voice and to provide a less marginalized view of everyday life by enabling them to create and share mobile stories, though mobile journalism.

One of the ongoing issues within these communities, common for many other communities world wide, is education and literacy. Because NT Mojos teaches story-telling first and technology second, the project is “as much about increasing literacy levels and helping people think about their environment and how to convey those thoughts and stories,” the executive producer Ivo Burum said. A version of the project has also been launched in China as Ningbo Mojo, though the upload issues arise more often due to Internet censorship in the country. The Burum Media mojo package has also been delivered to a secondary school in Melbourne and to ‘J’ students at Deakin University.

Presently emerging mobile technologies and social media play a crucial role where the technological and the social meet, but it’s not clear this will be all it takes in the present networked momentum in order to decrease divides. Digital divides are conditioned in many cases by gate keepers and oligarchs – including publishing houses and business moguls – who are controlling access to services. A digital divide is not only about technological affordances that are commonly discussed; it is also caused by social and economic inclusion globally. The situation is exacerbated by corporations and other media gate keepers exercising control over access to knowledge historically and who are now seeking to extend and protect that control – despite the lack of any natural control points in the digital realm – through bad legislation like SOPA, ACTA, TPP (still in play) and PIPA.

Meanwhile, new online publishers are striving towards open access repositories to break those iron walls; civil society groups are using more and more Open Source services, software, and applications to open up the all structures and entities in society; apparently disempowered users globally are using social media and mobile technologies to unexpectedly bypass the artificial barriers of the gate keepers.

Social media and mobile technologies are not only a relatively pervasive, cheap, and quick method for communication, but also a platform for access to information, for exchanging ideas, for learning, and for engaging in civil society. Even so, we need more. Too many of these liberating solutions still rely on a central bottleneck. We also need federated and decentralised social media services implemented as open source and free software and platforms, and most crucially we need an open and free internet on which to run those services can run, so that freedom of expression is guaranteed and no discrimination against any class of usage can succeed.

 Image source.