Class Struggle

Tech won't end the digital divide

Like many American cities, Modesto has been decimated by local media layoffs and cutbacks in recent years. Journalists have more responsibilities than ever, and so they’ve come to rely on Twitter, Facebook, local blogs, and Google as vital parts of their news-gathering efforts. Before this digital shift, journalists too often under-reported, stereotyped, and misrepresented poor and working class Americans. Now, social media allows a broader array of citizens to participate in the creation and distribution of local news. Do these new platforms help marginalized voices represent themselves better in the media?

Not really. Over the past five years, I’ve been researching the barriers and divides of who is producing publicly available digital content. According to my data, aside from age, socioeconomic class is the key determinant of one’s likelihood to engage in activities such as blogging, social networking, or posting to video sites. So online access and activity are far less common in a rural area, like Modesto, than ninety miles away in San Francisco, a more urban setting with a bounty of innovative journalism.

Indeed, one can find few local Modesto blogs, news startups, or foundation-backed nonprofits stepping into the breach. And given the demographics of the region, and the role those demographics play in determining who is likely to participate online, it’s unlikely that these sorts of projects will appear organically.

To understand why, it is essential to study what I call the digital-production gap: the poor and working class in America, of which Modesto has more than its share, are not as likely to create online content as those from the middle to upper classes.

I have researched online content production using statistical analyses of almost a decade’s worth of Pew Research Center data. I examined the factors affecting participation in ten common online activities—from blogging to social networking, from video to photo posts. I found that the production barrier isn’t simply a question of access to the Internet. My analysis included everyone from the data, even people not online, who are often omitted from published reports on digital engagement. However, even among people who are online, a significant class gap exists across all online activities, even accounting for other demographic factors.

Do race and ethnicity explain the gap—especially in a town like Modesto, where 35.5 percent of the population is Hispanic (compared to 16.3 percent of the total US population)? Not really. Hispanics are less likely to have Internet access than non-Hispanics; but among those who are online, neither ethnicity nor race accounts for the production gap.

Instead, the low rate of citizen journalists in a city like Modesto is related to the low levels of education and income among a significant proportion of its residents. For one thing, a limited income can reduce access to an array of digital tools and production gadgets. In other words, owning a smartphone, a desktop, and/or a laptop—and having access to these digital tools at home and at work—matters. Public library access or school-based computers are a start, but they’re not enough to close the gap. In another study, I interviewed and observed library patrons who relied on public computers. They reported having to take multiple buses or walk a great distance for their one-hour computer allowance during the few days per week that the library was even open. They spent their time online applying for jobs, writing résumés, or doing school work, rather than production activities like citizen journalism.

In addition, Internet users with a college education are twice as likely as their high school-educated counterparts to post videos and photos online. Also, bloggers are one and a half times more likely to have a college degree than just a high school diploma. Digital skills training is a tempting remedy for the education gap—but it fails to account for the new gadgets and applications that are always on the horizon, leaving people on a treadmill trying to catch up.

How, then, can low-income people in cities like Modesto become active producers of media rather than passive consumers of others’ attempts to cover them (or the lack thereof)?

It is not simply a question of improving rural broadband access, or importing technological solutions from the digital riches of Silicon Valley to the poverty of the Central Valley. The digital production gap transcends geography and stopgap measures.

Expanding broadband access, particularly in rural areas, is an appealing answer to digital production inequality. Surprisingly, while high-speed Internet access is important for being an Internet consumer, it is not important for being a producer. At the same time, living in an urban area contributes to consumption of online content, while having little bearing on production. What ultimately matters is class.

And it is the working class that has lost the most during this transformation of the news media. Not only does coverage of their world suffer like that of other constituencies in an era of reduced investigative reporting, but they are also not as apt to contribute to the new citizen journalism cloud.

Any solution to this gap must address the fundamental socioeconomic gaps between digital haves and have-nots. The ability of a city like Modesto to engage more of its citizens online may well rest on its ability to confront this thorny topic. Otherwise, the more elite classes that dominate the cloud will continue to drown out the voices of the marginalized.

This piece is part of CJR’s Nov/Dec 2011 roundtable discussion of the future of news in Modesto, California, and places like it. For more on the topic, click here.

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Jen Schradie is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and is affiliated with the Berkeley Center for New Media.