Digital divide and social networking

I’d not paid much attention to the MySpace debates until recently. I get very bored with the American paranoia about children online, since US parents are so good at being afraid for all the wrong reasons. Their reasons predictably involve teen sex, pedophiles, and (when they need some variety) computer games. Remember that these same terrified people happily drive SUVs and vote for G.W. Bush. What’s a greater threat to the future of their children? Some steamy text chat or their current level of carbon emissions?
Nonetheless, here’s a more sensible response: a very interesting interview with danah boyd and Henry Jenkins about MySpace. Jenkins and boyd discuss some of the implications of the moral panics about paedophiles and predators, notably the calls to restrict access to certain sites from schools and libraries.
Henry Jenkins argues that children who have to rely on public facilities for internet access might be disadvantaged by their limited experience of the online social networks which are becoming such a powerful social force.

“Now, the problem shifts from concerns about technical access to concerns about participation in the key social and cultural experiences which are defining the emerging generation’s relationship to these technologies. What a kid can do at home with unlimited access is very different from what a kid can do in a public library with ten or fifteen minutes of access at a time and with no capacity to store and upload information to the web. We further handicap these children by placing filters on the Internet which restrict their access to information which is readily available to their more affluent classmates. And now this legislation would restrict their ability to participate in social networks or to belong to online communities. The result will be to further isolate children from poorer economic backgrounds, to cut kids at risk from support systems which exist within their peer culture, and to limit the social and cultural experiences of kids who are already behind in acquiring important networking skills that will shape their professional futures. All of this will compound what we are now calling the participation gap. The early discussion of the digital divide assumed that the most important concern was insuring access to information as if the web were simply a data bank. Its power comes through participation within its social networks. The authors of the law are reading MySpace and other social software exclusively in terms of their risks; they are not focusing on the opportunities they offer for education and personal growth. In protecting children from those risks, they would cut them off from those educational benefits.”

When studying the elaborate international networking practiced by online gamers, I’ve often wondered about whether South African children are missing out on something significant by not participating. Are South African children really missing out on new forms of online cultural capital? To what extent will a lack of knowledge of social networking practices hinder their social mobility? What happens when we replace the idea of a “digital divide” with the idea of a “participation gap”? By talking about participation, the discussion is less technologically determinist than we usually see in comments about the “digital divide”. Still, it replaces this with the idea that normative elite practices must be copied by all. And that all children would benefit from participating in this network.
Here’s the full paper

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