The New Digital Divide

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The digital divide typically refers to the gap between those who do and do not have access to information technologies, most notably the internet. But I think a new kind of digital divide is emerging – one focused on the use of social media and computer-mediated tools for social interactions. The gap is not so much based on socio-economic status, or geography, or race and ethnicity. Rather, it is based on a set of beliefs about human interactions, self identity, and technology.

Social media can be polarizing. As I see it, people tend to fall into one of two basic camps. Let’s ignore those inhabiting the middle ground and think about the extremes for a moment:

“Members of the Digital Tribe”: These are the people who keep their devices next to their bed and the first thing they do when they reach consciousness in the morning is check their newsfeed. These folks like to feel “plugged in” and connected to their digital community. They want to have information about the world at their fingertips.

These folks are knowledgeable, on top of the news, feed off of others’ cool thoughts. I would argue that many of us drift into the tribe – habitually checking emails or newsfeeds or tweets. But a true member of the digital tribe believes that life is best lived when a fair portion of it is broadcast to their online social network.

We all define ourselves in the context of our social network – our friends, loved ones, enemies, acquaintances. The digital age has allowed us to stretch this sense of self to include much vaster webs of social connection. Yet, in the case of social media, many members of our network are strangers. Does this mean we feel increasingly comfortable being a stranger and talking to strangers?

Values about privacy likely vary – some folks who live a fair portion of their life online may believe that privacy is overrated, and that sharing random thoughts and experiences is as valid as sharing deeply genuine feelings. Other may feel the opposite.

Members of the Tribe hold up the mirror of social media, look in, and see themselves. And what a fascinating and beautiful mirror it is. Incredibly rich; almost too much to process.

These are the romantic technophiles.

“Worried Outsiders”: Worried Outsiders are not necessarily the “disconnected.” Instead, these are the folks that probably use at least one or several forms of social media. But, in their dark moments, when they’re sitting at the café thinking about life, or laying awake in bed at night, they may picture a future dystopia in which we scuttle around in some anti-social, dark, cityscape and are ‘jacked into” some virtual digital reality via our brain stem. Think Blade Runner meets The Matrix.

These are the people that are REALLY annoyed when they find out about their sister’s engagement – on Facebook. These are the people who still prefer a nice conversation on the phone to other ways of getting things done. These are the people who daydream instead of get on their devices to fill the time.

These might also the same people that might have, if they were alive at the time, voiced grave concerns about that new fangled device the telephone when it first came out. Or the television. Or anything that changes how we interact as social and emotional beings.

That is not to say that this group is comprised of luddites and romanticists (although there are surely some here). Instead, these are the ones that wonder about where it’s all going… and whether it’s all good.