A New Digital Divide: Web 2.0 Leaves Society Behind

As the Web brings more community journalism and interactivity onto the Web, society leaves entire groups of citizens on the outside. Web 2.0 can only be utilized by those citizens who have the tools and know-how.

“The evacuees in Austin were forced to learn on the fly how to use these sorts of tools,” said Lou Rutigliano, a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin currently working with Austin Free-Net. “For many of them, they were signing up for email for the first time.”

Even current community journalism options such as EastAustin.com do not offer citizens much opportunity for feedback. With a great deal of advertising and only a link to send email feedback to the site, EastAustin.com does not give much of a chance for citizens to view each others comments or interact.

The Web 2.0 experience could offer a great deal for citizens in these situations or even the homeless outside of disasters. Similar to “hobo codes,” a type of urban tagging done by the homeless to identify locations where free meals or clothing can be obtained, the Web could be an incredibly powerful communication resource.

The difficulty in getting these citizens to use the Web comes from lack of computers available combined with language or knowledge barriers or simply a resistance to the Internet.

“A lot of people are just resistant to the idea of even getting online,” Rutigliano said during the International Symposium on Online Journalism.

Austin Free-Net tries to involve computers in the everyday lives of these citizens. Through showing them how to look up bus schedules, use email or even research potential employers, Free-Net integrates the Web into their lives.

“Matching up offline and online behaviors,” Rutigliano said. “That is how you are going to get people in there.”

Austin Free-Net is attempting to arrange classes on using the Web and software while people wait in line each week at the food pantry in hopes that more disadvantaged members of society will get online.

These concerns come at a time when many companies are concerned about leaving people and countries behind on the Web. AMD has created the PIC, or Personal Internet Communicator, in order to provide a low-cost Internet ready device for first-time technology users in high-growth markets like India, Brazil, Mexico and China.

ISOJ 2006: Citizen Journalism, from Knight Center on Vimeo.