Youth participation and social media in SA

Here’s my talk from the keynote for the Digital Youth & Learning conference.

Walton, Marion. 2013. Invisibility 2.0? Zamdela protests, young people’s participation and social media.  Digital Youth & Learning Unconference, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya, May 15-17.

Slide04

I’m here to talk to you today about the rise of social media in South Africa – it is exciting to see a potential space where young people’s voices can be heard, one which can help to place youth issues on the national agenda. But today I’m going to ask you to look beyond the stories that we like to tell about the successes of social media, stories of Arab and other Springs, Occupy and so on, and see what we’re really dealing with when we rely on these forms of media in our local organisations and networks.

Francis Nyamnjoh has explained beautifully why social media is so exciting to us in Africa – its sociality builds on local traditions of informal communication, or ‘pavement radio’. Building on this idea, Herman Wasserman pointed out how SMS and other mobile communication works to help ordinary people obtain information, share it and create possibilities – especially where mainstream media and free expression are out of reach.

So we tend to see social media as having powerful potential for citizen media and participation. That’s the promise that ‘citizen’ journalism and social media could be opening new opportunities for democratic citizenship.

Who gets heard?

And yet, when we look at who actually gets heard on social media platforms, unfortunately the picture is not so democratic. We know that, on online platforms, our attention is governed by what we call ‘power laws’. Economically these power laws tend to mean that the rich just get richer. On platforms like Twitter, where there are an infinite number of voices, and where people have a limited amount of time, power laws and the way information flows through the network means that, while new voices can rise to prominence relatively quickly, a small number of people tend to get more and more attention.

In a nutshell, this means that the large majority of people are still very unlikely to be heard, while others are ‘trending’, celebs who get huge boosts of attention and access to the microphone.

SA’s Massive rebellion of the poor

Let’s move our focus to young people in South Africa, which has been called the country with the highest number of community protests in the world. These protests mostly challenge the state’s non-delivery of basic services such as electricity, water and housing. My students created a map visualising the ‘service delivery’ protests that police data recorded between 2009 and 2012. In that time apparently the police dealt with 2.9 ‘unrest incidents’ each day.

So we may ask, given these incredibly frequent community protests, how are people expressing their discontent? Researchers like Professor Jane Duncan and my student Nicole Wilcox have shown that we definitely can’t really rely on traditional media to tell the stories of the protests. Mainstream media are particularly bad at reporting the perspectives of the protesters. Given these gaps in coverage, you may be wondering whether social media is helping to convey the protestors’ stories to a broader audience? You may well ask – let’s look at a case study of a protest that happened in my own home town of Sasolburg in January 2013.

Zamdela’s burning

Let’s visit Sasolburg – an industrial town in the rural Free State province. Sasolburg was literally built by and for a group of wealthy chemical industries situated in the area. Despite this wealth, in the township of Zamdela, the average income is now R400 per month.

In January, 2013, Sasolburg residents embarked on a protest against some extremely unpopular decisions involving a proposed merger of their local municipality and a deeply indebted neighbouring municipality. Government turned a deaf ear to the protest, and things turned really ugly. Television screens were full of burning cars and people looting. In the course of the protests, police killed four people. 

Sadly in a country where people’s rights are routinely just ignored protesters may have found that spectacular violence is a way to get attention really fast. As community leader Nkanyiso Xaba explained:

[The protestors] have marched, they handed over a memorandum and no one is willing to come back and answer to their memorandum. So the resolution that we are taking is that the community will continue burning tyres to demonstrating their anger until somebody listens.

Analysing social media

Nonetheless, to understand how these events played out on social media, we need to look at two very different but equally important questions

  1. The first is, when the protests are reported, who speaks?
  2. And the second is, when we learn about the protests via social media, who actually gets heard? 

Twitter

So let’s first look at the question, who speaks? I took a random stratified sample of tweets from the time of the Zamdela protests. The tweets were captured using the Twitter REST API.

Tweets were downloaded on 23 January 2013 using NodeXL ‘s Twitter search network importer, resulting in a sample of 1599 tweets posted from 899 distinct Twitter accounts. (NodeXL used Twitter’s ‘garden hose’ search API – v 1.1.). Graph metrics for the search network were calculated based on retweets and mentions in the network.

Of these tweets, 571 (or 36%) included a link to an image. These tweets formed the basis of the content analysis.

I divided the dataset of tweets with linked images (n=571) into two strata according to how influential the tweets were in the larger search network. Accounts with the highest in-degree metric (>=2 retweets or mentions) were selected for separate analysis.

This identified the most influential accounts for content analysis of the images considered highly sharable, newsworthy or important in this network

The less influential tweets constituted the majority of the tweets (66%). These had not been retweeted and their author had not received mentions in the search network (i.e. in-degree <2). A smaller set of 192 tweets with linked images (34%) were more influential (in-degree >=2). These tweets had been retweeted, or the author had received mentions in the network.

Most tweets received fewer than two retweets or mentions
Most tweets received fewer than two retweets or mentions

I drew a stratified random sample from these groups for the content analysis. After duplicates were removed, the final dataset for the content analysis consisted of 27 images from more influential tweets and 18 images from less influential tweets.

Despite the potential for citizen media to tell the story from the protestors’ perspective, mainstream media appears to have played a dominant role in defining which images we saw on Twitter. The 27 highly retweeted tweets in the random sample together constituted 34% of the edges in the Twitter search graph. Thus this was pretty much a media ‘echo chamber’, which highlighted spectacular and highly “newsworthy” images of violence, arson and particularly of looting and its aftermath.

Sources of influential images posted to Twitter
Sources of influential images posted to Twitter

Citizen media (mostly from the white right wing) accounted for only about 11% of the images. Print news publications posted the majority of the images that were circulating (51%), perhaps because of their strong networks of photojournalists and links with freelance photographers. Broadcast media posted only 27% of the images, perhaps because their large team of journalists covering the story spent a good deal of time under siege in the Zamdela police station, but possibly also because they were not posting still images for their audience to share.

Geocoded tweets show limited mobility of journalists
Geocoded tweets show limited mobility of journalists
SABC journalist tweeting while trapped in besieged Zamdela police station
SABC journalist tweeting while trapped in besieged Zamdela police station

Finally, online-only news (particularly the Daily Maverick) was relatively well represented with 11% of the images.

Visualisation of most influential images of Zamdela protests
Visualisation of most influential images of Zamdela protests

I’m sure you’re wondering why the Zamdela protesters weren’t telling their own stories on Twitter in the same way as we have seen activists from Occupy or Ferguson do. In the first place, social media demographics are different in South Africa, and they were even more different in 2013. At the time of these protests Twitter, much beloved by South African journalists, had been adopted by the wealthier middle class, not by people earning only a couple of hundred rand per month.

In the second place, at the time, most South Africans used feature phones, not smart phones. Although they could access Facebook and Twitter, many still preferred cheaper instant messaging. Consequently, lots of grassroots participation was likely taking place on Whatsapp and other messaging platforms such as Mxit.

Facebook

A search network gathered via the Facebook API revealed that Zamdela activists as well as local witnesses of the protests and their aftermath were posting their experiences to Facebook rather than Twitter. This citizen journalism primarily took the form of Facebook status updates posted to personal Facebook pages.

As seen in other contexts, this mode of citizen engagement is highly emotive and dominated by strong expressions of affect. The sample included several attempts to mobilise support for the protests and retaliate for the police killings:

n wat i sow was really sad fire arms were every where tear gas acid water n our fellow strikers were killed tdy im worried cos i left my kid behind hes only 6 years old guys fuck ace n fuck the police who killed our friends guys let sasolburg turn to marikana now

The Facebook sample also included commentary by observers, who were not directly involved in the protests, critical commentary on media coverage, rationales for the protest action and debate among community members, both pro and anti mobilisation.

The sample even included (informal) posts by police officers, who posted Facebook comments of desperation and revenge, apparently while in medias res:

“our hands are full”

“the back up can’t get threw”

“this is now personal”

It is notable that this wide variety of posts and commentary did not include a single image of the protests taken by a participant or a local observer from the community.

There are several possible reasons for why this analysis was unable to identity the visual “voice” of Zamdela activists or the broader community. Posting images on public platforms such as Twitter may have been too risky for protestors. Taking and posting images is relatively difficult on feature phones. Images also require quite a bit of mobile data, which is expensive in South Africa, particularly for cash-strapped consumers who tend to buy prepaid airtime in small denominations. Even zero-rated mobile services (such as Facebook Zero) do not zero-rate images.

Despite the possible problems with posting images, even the text of the Facebook posts would have provided very interesting perspectives and contacts for journalists reporting on the events. Sadly journalists’ were not paying attention to Facebook. In 2013, ‘pavement internet’ and grassroots citizen participation were still pretty invisible to mainstream media.

Being heard

It’s time to go back to Twitter and look at our second question, who gets heard on Twitter? It’s pretty hard to tell exactly what people are paying attention to on social media. Still, in our sample we can see what sources were retweeted and mentioned in the tweets. Judging from this evidence, during the Zamdela protests, the mainstream media, particularly print media and professional photojournalists were highly influential in determining whose perspectives were seen. Citizen media by protesters didn’t’ make much impact and this category was dominated by those tweets by the white right wing that I mentioned earlier.

So, when we think about citizen media which goes viral or gets thrust into the spotlight, we’re thinking about exceptional cases. It’s important to remember that the vast majority of tweets in this sample had very little influence on others discussing the topic of the Zamdela protest. They were neither retweeted nor mentioned by others using the keyword. Instead, a small number of high influence accounts (in this case primarily from mainstream media) received the lion’s share of the retweets and mentions.

In conclusion, I would challenge you to consider how our society and our public media can work against these ‘power laws’ and harness viral to help to equalise public participation. We can see the huge potential of social media to extend and amplify ‘pavement radio’, but there is still extremely limited grassroots use, especially of Twitter. People who do have access and are using the networks to report their experiences are not being heard. Neither are their perspectives being seen.

Nonetheless, I believe both journalists and activists could be playing a huge role in bridging this gap between affordable and accessible messaging platforms and mainstream media. Only when this happens to a far greater extent than it does now will people learn to trust the power of documenting and sharing their experiences, and start to become confident that they, too, are being heard.

Walton, Marion. 2013. Invisibility 2.0? Zamdela protests, young people’s participation and social media.  Digital Youth & Learning Unconference, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya, May 15-17.

Anti-social? Links from #unlikeus Amsterdam

Peter Olsthoorn showed us how to work out and claim our value to Facebook:

What is your Facebook value? Work it out here

Benjamin Grosser introduced everyone to his Facebook Demetricator
Facebook Demetricator and the Easing of Prescribed Sociality

Karlessi from Ippolita unpacked Religions 2.0 or the rituals of the participation society and how they feed the friendship algorithm
Ippolita

There was a Skype video of Richard Metzger challenging Facebook’s strategy to get publishers to pay for ‘sponsored stories’

 Facebook I want my friends back

Hester Scheurwater shot back after her fantasy self-portraits fell foul of Facebook’s censorious gaze

Shooting back

For a world where Facebook is our passport, Tobias Leingruber offered us a Facebook ID

FB Identity

There were also some great links shared in Simona Lodi’s presentation: Art as Networked Machinery: When Art Becomes Anti-Social for Being More Social

Anti-social blocks social sites

IOCOSE

A crowded apocolypse  draws on crowdsourcing to generate a multitude of conspiracy theories

Rui Guerra and David Jonas

Uncloud: Control your own cloud

Les Liens Invisibles

15 MINUTES, ANONYMOUS

 

Getting started with social network analysis

I teach an MA course in Advanced Media Methodologies at the University of Cape Town. This  year I’m presenting an elective which introduces Media students to Social Network Analysis. I’m really looking forward to teaching the course and seeing how a conceptual grounding in social network analysis and the  techniques of visualisation will change the work my students are able to produce for their dissertations.

We don’t have much class time and there are so many new skills to be learned.  I decided to design the course around a series of exercises and readings that students can use to prepare before class.

Here is a first draft of the outline with the course readings and exercises. Any feedback welcome!

Analysing Social Media: Text, image, network

 

Early adopters (joined pre Dec 2007) in my own Twitter network
Early adopters (joined pre Dec 2007) in my own Twitter network

Week 1: Reading and exercise

Garton, L., Haythornthwaite, C., & Wellman, B. (2006). Studying Online Social Networks. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 3(1).

  1. Create a blog (if you don’t have one already). You can use a free site such as wordpress.com. You’ll be posting your answers to the class assignments on the blog.
  2. After reading the Garton et al (2006) reading for this week, prepare and pilot a short interview. Your interview should explore a research participant’s use of social media to communicate with his/her strong ties and should be designed to yield both quantitative and qualitative data. Post a short rationale for the interview questions on your blog and bring the questions to class next week.
Spreadsheet listing connections in our class
Spreadsheet listing connections in our class
  • Complete the Connections spreadsheet We will use this to map social networks during class.
    1. Click through to the editable spreadsheet on Google Drive
    2. Add your details to the final line of the spreadsheet.
    3. I have already added my details and the fact that I know all of you.
    4. Add your details by putting your name below the final line of data in the first column. In the second column, (next to your name), add the name of any other student you already know in the class, one per line. (I have already added the connections between the Interactive Media production students.
    5. In the third column, indicate from which class you already know that student.
    6. If you know the student from more than one class, add another line with your name, the student’s name and the name of the additional class.

Week 2: Readings and exercises

Hansen, D., Shneiderman, B., & Smith, M. A. (2010). Analyzing Social Media Networks with NodeXL.  Morgan Kaufmann. (Chapter 3) Chapter 10)

Bruns, A., & Burgess, J. (2012). Researching News Discussion on Twitter. Journalism Studies, 13(5-6), 801–814.

1. As shown to you in class, and using the vertex data from the Connections spreadsheet:

  • Download NodeXL and follow the installation instructions. You will need a Windows PC with Excel (or Windows and Excel installed on your Mac). You will also need internet access on the machine. NodeXL will not work on the UCT network behind the firewall.
  • Work through the NodeXL tutorial
  • Create a NodeXL sociogram to depict the relationships recorded in the Connections spreadsheet
  • Calculate the graph metrics. What are the various centrality measures? What do these numbers mean? What does this suggest to you?
  • Are there any clusters? What do you notice about them? What does this mean?
  • What is the graph density? What does this tell us?
  • How can you make the graph more readable?
  • Create a matrix to depict the relationships..
  •  How would you go about showing how everyone in the class communicates with fellow students and tutors about the social media assignments?
  • Do you have any criticism of the data we collected or how NodeXL represents it? How could we improve the data in the graph?

2.      Advanced (for students who want to use social network data for creative projects)

Week 3: Readings and exercises

Hansen, D., Shneiderman, B., & Smith, M. A. (2010). Analyzing Social Media Networks with NodeXL.  Morgan Kaufmann. (Chapter 10)

  • Papacharissi, Z., de Fatima Oliveira, M.: Affective News and Networked Publics: The Rhythms of News Storytelling on #Egypt. Journal of Communication. 62, 2, 266–282 (2012).
  • Lewis, S.C. et al.: Content Analysis in an Era of Big Data: A Hybrid Approach to Computational and Manual Methods. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 57, 1, 34–52 (2013).
  1. Read Hansen et al. Chapter 10 and download your own set of Twitter data to explore and graph your own personal network on Twitter.
  2. Download Twitter search data for a keyword that interests you.

Optional (for creative projects):

  1. Read Chapters 6-11 Stanton, J. (2013). Introduction to Data Science.
    http://jsresearch.net/groups/teachdatascience/
  2. Conduct your own popularity contest to compare and graph Twitter activity around two words or phrases which are in the news right now.

Anyone using the new version of Mapstraction?

When teaching my students at UCT’s Centre for Film and Media Studies how to visualise geographical data, I’ve previously used Mapstraction, along with a good textbook by Adam DuVander and his excellent Twitter geosearch example.

The Mapstraction lesson only required a couple of small updates to form the basis of an assignment where the students created their own custom version of a visualisation of geocoded tweets. It worked well, providing an excellent example of how to mashup social media data with a map. I also like the tutorial because it provides a relatively simple research tool for my postgrad students (who are usually not web developers). For example, I used it recently to research the applications used by journalists and delegates at the ANC’s December 2012 conference in Mangaung. It was also helpful as a way of showing students what a tiny proportion of twitter data is geocoded (usually lower than 1%), which smartphones are in use in various countries, and (perhaps most important) the dangers of assuming that the comments and activities of Twitter users in South Africa reflect the preoccupations of the population as a whole. As one of the delegates to the Mangaung conference tweeted ‘ANC’s masses are not your Twitter people. So Social Media Hype will mislead you’.

geocoding_mangaung
Geocoded tweets at ANC’s Mangaung conference in December 2012.
Applications used to post geolocated tweets from ANC Conference, Mangaung, 2012
Applications used to post geolocated tweets from ANC Conference, Mangaung, 2012

Mapstraction always appealed to me because of the ability to use it for open data providers, and the ease it promises if you want to switch from one map provider to another.

Unfortunately, it’s the nature of the game in this field that you have to keep running just to stand still. Preparing the new version of my course, I realised that I needed to update the tutorial as my exercise and the textbook builds on v2 of the Google Maps Javascript API. This is now deprecated and apparently won’t be available for much longer (until May 19 2013 to be precise). Given that I’d used Mapstraction, I didn’t think that it would be too difficult to make the switch, but sadly this was NOT the case.

geocoding_beach_durban_gv3
Geocoded tweets about the beach posted near Durban, Janauary 2012, now using Google Maps API v3

The new version of the mashup (you can try it out here) allows you to search Twitter for geocoded tweets, and after searching you can summarise and view the twitter data.

I’m now using Gabriel Svennerberg’s textbook, and his Google Maps API v 3 JSON tutorial.

I still use the Twitter API and most of DuVander’s code for mining the JSON data, but I (reluctantly) abandoned Mapstraction, as I struggled a bit to get it to work, and I’m a bit short of time. I now display the data directly via Google Maps Javascript API v 3 instead of using the Mapstraction layer.

I’ve added a couple of features which I believe may be useful to researchers, and which I hope will spur my students to engage with the Twitter data in a more focused way. (I’ve found students like to decorate the maps but are overly cautious when it comes to making use of the additional data available from the tweets). The new version is just a start, but it provides a list of geocoded tweets, allows the user to see all the query results in JSON format or download the data as a JSON text file (although this requires browser popup windows to be enabled).

I tried updating the example to use the new version of Mapstraction and the Google Maps Javascript API v3 but ran out of time. I wondered whether anyone else has seen working examples which use Mapstraction together with Google API v3 and Twitter data? Please do let me know! Comments on the mashup example are welcome, though it is very much work in progress.

 

Dramatic uptake of mobile internet in SA – latest stats

Fascinating mobile stats from +Arthur Goldstuck and World Wide Worx reflect dramatic increases in extent and intensity of mobile internet use in South African cities and towns (in an URBAN >16 sample) with data spend increasing by half to 12% of airtime budget.

According to their findings, 41% are browsing the web now, Facebook use has almost doubled to 38%, instant messaging app for smartphones Watsapp is now used by 25%, Blackberry grew fourfold to 18%.

Now that the internet adoption curve for South Africa is well into the early majority stage things should get very interesting indeed.

Read the article on Times Live

 

Affording images: Digital imaging and media-sharing practices in a corpus of young people’s cameraphone images

Paper presented at Multimodality in Education colloquium held at Mont Fleur, Stellenbosch on 10 August, 2011 by Marion Walton and Silke Hassreiter, Centre for Film and Media Studies. University of Cape Town

The affordances of mobile phones as devices for creating, publishing and distributing images means that they are often seen as a threat to young people’s safety or to public morality. Alternatively, they are celebrated as having immense potential for supporting an individualised and highly networked mode of mobile learning or ‘m-learning’. These issues are particularly significant in the global South, where photographic practices and digital imaging are being adopted rapidly, as mobile networks reach over a billion people and feature phones with cameras become increasingly accessible.

This paper documents the image-sharing and photographic practices of fourteen young people who participated in a mobile video-making project over four months in July-November 2010 in Makhaza, Khayelitsha. We analyse the corpus of images which they shared with us as researchers. We explore distinct communicative genres which, in this context, are associated with (i) personal photographs, (ii) photographic composites (iii) downloaded images from popular culture (iv) multimodal image messaging. In this paper, our focus is specifically on interpersonal meanings and the representation of interpersonal meanings and social distance.

We argue that the social practices of young people and the marginal contexts of this appropriation play key roles in their domestication of mobile photography. Consequently, it is a mistake to assume that new genres and practices can simply be ‘read off’ by listing the features or affordances of the new generations of smart phones. Instead, it is necessary to consider a wider range of contexts and uses before the ‘affordances’ of the new medium can start to be understood. In particular, the differences associated with the specific contextual meanings of artefacts such as mobile phones, local genres of communication and interaction, and broader issues of access to communication infrastructure and mobility need to be considered. We argue that a contextualised study such as this should be conducted before embarking on the development of new curricula for learning or self-expression for young people.

Mobile republic: Visual approaches to discourse in South African mobile social networks

Yesterday I presented some of my work on visualising mobile messaging discourse at ISEA2010 Ruhr. Here are the slides from my presentation:

Social distance in images from Flickr and Guguletu
Social distance in images from Flickr and Guguletu

Walton, Marion. 2010. Mobile republic: Visual approaches to discourse in South African mobile social networks. Paper to be presented at ISEA 2010, Ruhr, Germany in August. Prepublication draft

A new generation of South African Internet users network online via net-enabled phones. Despite limitations, mobile-centric internet allows connections with broader mediated publics. Mobile networking (both public and intimate) has the potential to reshape South African public discourse and change the social fabric, but social and economic divisions mean that mobile social interactions are currently almost entirely digitally invisible. Visualisations of social networks and the mobile Internet are presented to suggest some of the mediated conversations and networking taking place in the social networks of the majority.

Prepublication draft

WTFMedia Conference – academic discounts available

The  WTFMedia conference on social media, mobile media and cloud computing will take place from April 27 – 29, 2010 at CTICC (Cape Town International Convention Centre).

Some of the 40 speakers include Melissa Attree, Matthew Buckland, Dave Duarte, Arthur Goldstuck, Justin Hartman, Shel Istrael, Vincent Maher and Hans Mol. The conference will include a boot camp:  How to negotiate the social media landscape. (Don’t worry, no pushups or actual sweat glands are involved, but bring your own laptop and mobile phone.)
The conference blurb promises to use “common or garden words to provide relevant answers to real questions as to what works and what doesn’t”. So that’s likely to interest impatient hands-on practitioners, or the jargon-wary types who don’t relate to most of the usual connotations of the word ‘conference’ — other than ‘lunch’ and ‘dinner’, of course. It’s also a juicy challenge to any academics who want to get their fangs into media history as it happens. Just imagine, all that warm-blooded industry talk, temptingly packaged as common-sense. Mmmm.

The registration fee of R4500 is indeed extremely steep for our academic budgets (WTF, most media scholars are in Humanities faculties, after all). So it’s good news that CPUT are offering academic discount rates of R1000 –  before 20 April. (You will need to produce valid staff or student card).

Here is the conference website
If the price is just too steep, there’s also the NetProphets event, which is also in Cape Town, and still free, Sadly it looks like I won’t be able to attend that one.

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