Thanks to a decade of programs geared toward giving people access to the necessary technology, by 2013 some 85% of Americans were surfing the World Wide Web. But how effectively are they using it?
A new survey suggests that the digital divide has been replaced by a gap in digital readiness. It found that nearly 30% of Americans either aren’t digitally literate or don’t trust the Internet. That subgroup tended to be less educated, poorer, and older than the average American.
In contrast, says Eszter Hargittai, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who was not involved in the study, those with essential Web skills “tend to be the more privileged. And so the overall story … is that it’s the people who are already privileged who are reaping the benefits here.”
The study was conducted by John Horrigan, an independent researcher, and released 17 June at an event sponsored by the Washington, D.C.–based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Funded by the Joyce Foundation, the study of 1600 adults measured their grasp of terms like “cookie” and “Wi-Fi.” It asked them to rate how confident they were about using a desktop or laptop or a smart phone to find information, as well as how comfortable they felt about using a computer. Of those who scored low in these areas, about half were not Internet users.
Horrigan believes that policymakers have ignored the problem of digital readiness while concentrating on providing people with access to the Internet and the necessary hardware. Relatively little attention has been paid to teaching people the necessary skills to take advantage of online classes and job searches, he maintains.
The researchers recommend that the technology industry needs to understand that not all users possess the same digital skill levels and that they need to make accommodations for those with less knowledge. Hargittai cites the RSS feed, which alerts its user to updates from his favorite blogs or websites, as an example of a tool that failed to address digital readiness. “There were a few years when every website had this bright orange button, ‘RSS!’ ” Hargittai says. “Web developers knew what it was, but consistently study after study showed that the average user has absolutely no clue what RSS is.”
Libraries can act as hubs for online learning within a community, Horrigan says. Having young, Internet-savvy people who are willing to share their skills is another option for reducing the size of the digitally unready population.
The lack of digital skills is a perennial problem, say researchers who have studied digital inequality over the years. In addition to those with few skills, someone who can function adequately today may fall behind as the technology continues to evolve. Grant Blank, a sociologist with the Oxford Internet Institute in the United Kingdom, believes that the community benefits just as much from good training programs as do the individuals themselves. “They’re more productive as citizens,” Blank says. “They’re able to participate better in social and political issues if they have effective online skills.”