For the many nonprofits involved in researching and addressing the digital divide, the emphasis has been on access to technology: how can we ensure that people, in particular different racial and economic groups, have access to the internet so that they become fully part of the digital age?

However, this approach to the digital divide seems to be changing as we realize that people do have access to the internet, albeit in different ways. For example, according to a study by Pew Charitable Trust African-Americans and Latinos are more likely than whites to use their phones to access the internet. As a result the conversation on the digital divide has been shifting from access to consumption:

But now some see a new “digital divide” emerging with Latinos and African Americans being challenged by more, not less, access to technology. It’s tough to fill out a job application on a cell phone, for example. Researchers have noticed signs of segregation online that perpetuate divisions in the physical world. And African Americans and Latinos may be using their increased Web access more for entertainment than empowerment.

The biggest impact of this shift is that it demonstrates that access to the internet, while important, is not enough to ensure that people reap its benefits. How people use the internet is just as important as having access to it in the first place.

For me this shift in focus raises several questions for people and organizations that are concerned with access to technology and the role of technology in justice and relationships.

  • Firstly, I wonder how access to the internet affects how it is used. For all of the wonders of phones, I see phones primarily for entertainment and as the article points out it is pretty difficult to fill out job applications on the phone.
  • Secondly, I wonder how efforts to instantly personalize the internet, in particular on social networking sites, make it less likely for folks to be exposed to various opportunities beyond their immediate network. Are the attempts at bringing people closer together actually isolating them?
  • And finally, I wonder if we will struggle with problems of a narrow definition of how to use the internet. We realized that we needed to redefine access when it became clear that people did have access, just not solely through laptops. So when it comes to usage are we asking the right questions? Why are certain websites consumed more than others? How are certain groups finding content and defining community? What does empowerment look like? What does skill development look like?

Issues like this sit at the center of our conversations on internet and social media and social change. Mobilizing people to make a difference requires meeting them where they are and understanding their needs. Will the focus on consumption make it easier for us to do this?

What do you think: When it comes to solving the digital divide what matters more: access to the internet or internet consumption?