Social Media and the Knowledge Gap

Fair warning: This is an exploratory post. I’m just thinking out loud here and I’m not sure I have any answers.

Jeff Jarvis argues today that the iPad, by being a device oriented more toward consuming content than creating it, is a retrograde tool that in effect pushes users back into the role of the passive audience once again. Howard Owens counters by saying that it’s important to remember that just because people CAN create content more easily and cheaply than ever before, doesn’t mean that they WILL; a lot of people do a lot more consuming of media than they do creating. I’m not sure their views are necessarily diametrically opposed and I’m pretty sure they are both right, but this speaks to something deeper I’ve been wondering a lot about.

What kinds of divides are opening up in our society between the creators and the consumers, and between the people who are heavy users of social networks to share information and connect with others and those who aren’t? These kinds of divides aren’t new, to be certain, but I’m curious about the particular shapes and contours they are taking in the new media landscape.

Mass communications researchers have been interested in understanding and combating the “knowledge gap” for decades. In a nutshell, when new information enters a social system,  highly educated people will learn more and less educated people will learn less. The information gap between the two groups gets bigger and bigger, even if both groups are better informed than they were before. For example, Sesame Street was designed to help close the gap between kids of different socioeconomic status and to help kids whose parents didn’t, say, read to them much, catch up. But of course the show was free to all, and while both groups of kids acquired more knowledge thanks to Big Bird and company,  the gap persisted.

So now we have more information from more sources entering the social system, and I’m wondering: Is this gap increasing like never before? Or is something more utopian going on?

I’m not talking about the “digital divide” here, which essentially highlights problems surrounding lack of access to expensive technology, e.g. those pricey iPads I for one can’t afford. Although access remains an  important issue, I’m in the camp that thinks that overall, there’s more information available more cheaply and easily to all socioeconomic groups than ever before, especially when you consider mobile, which is on the rise. I’m talking about the gap between people who are active users of social media and who frequently create content in various forms from Flickr to YouTube, and those that don’t.

Sure, Jarvis is dead on that the number of creators and participators is rising precipitously, and there is evidence that people come to the Web with different expectations than they do traditional media. They expect to be able to interact and therefore they find sources that don’t allow them to do so easily less credible. That has had many revolutionary effects on traditional media. But then, to take just one example, studies also have shown that 73 percent of Twitter users have Tweeted less than 10 times and only 27 percent of those with an account can be considered active.

And I’d say anecdotally that even though I only have a handful of family members and friends who do NOT have a Facebook account,  there are an awful lot of lurkers in that group. They don’t post status updates, rarely post photos, and only occasionally if at all leave a comment. As a journalist, I probably have less of those than the average person, given that a lot of my friends are professional communicators and therefore take naturally to content creation.  But this gap isn’t necessarily an educational one; there are plenty of people with PhDs or other high-level degrees who, as a matter or priorities or personalities or interests, simply are not heavy users of social media. Heck, I still find a lot of journalists who are resistant to it. Indeed, just a couple of months ago, one of my friends from high school, who by the way is very well-educated (has a MA degree), finally caved in and joined Facebook.  And HATED it. Saw no use for it whatsoever. In her mind, it was a time suck full of information she had no interest in or time for. She hasn’t even uploaded a profile picture.

Those of us who are really excited about technology and adore social media have a hard time understanding that point of view, but I think that is precisely the point. It’s easy for us to forget that even though the social media universe feels expansive, we may be preaching to ye old choir and talking to people who are predisposed to agree with us about its impact on society.

And what’s going to happen to those folks who are not in the stream? It’s not just what information and ideas they aren’t exposed to. There’s pedagogical evidence that creating is an important element of knowledge development:  People who interact with content are forced to think more critically about it. This is why graduate level courses are taught seminar style rather than in lectures, for example.  Anybody who has struggled to explain their random thoughts in a blog post like this one knows how much the process of writing for an audience, even a small one, shapes and deepens our understanding of the topic at hand. What does that mean for the knowledge gap?

And in my own field, occasionally I talk to other academics who profess to have “no time” for Twitter or other social media. As somebody who just took my first day off in a month yesterday, I sympathize, believe me. But here’s the thing: I’m continually stunned by their lack of knowledge of things I take for granted as being conventional wisdom in our field. These are obviously very bright and by definition well-educated people. But there is one hell of a knowledge gap there. And that is just within one specialized field. What does it mean on a broader level for society at large?

Side note: Jarvis and Owens were talking about the iPad; I’ve obviously broadened the discussion here because I don’t have one and probably won’t get one (I can’t afford it,  don’t really see the need for a device that lands somewhere between my laptop and my phone, and,  although I do own an iPhone, am generally not a big fan of Apple because I don’t like their lack of openness).



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10 responses to “Social Media and the Knowledge Gap

  1. Nate

    Your blog post reminded me of the difficulty of talking about what I do to people who don’t speak using the same terminology (i.e. social media, news ecosystems, multi-tiered storytelling, all-platform journalism, etc.). Similarly, when you network and discuss with very smart thinkers, you can forget how many other people in the same field don’t have the same baseline knowledge of new methods.

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  3. I consider myself more of a consumer of content than a creator. Part of my daily “ritual” is to find a random blog and read the post. I rarely comment on the blogs I read, your post challenged me to put my thoughts together and respond.
    When my son entered college as a freshman eleven years ago I commented to him about the computer expertise of his generation. Although his reply wasn’t really profound, it has remained with me. He told me, “Most kids think they know a lot about computers because they can play games.” I think that is analogous to people thinking they are creating content for the web by tweeting that they are having lunch at Chipotle. That tweet isn’t really any better for us than the Chipotle burrito, it’s temporarily satisfying, but really just fills us up with junk.
    Its blog posts like yours that are truly creating worthwhile content for those of us who are consumers of that content.
    FYI – Although I’m more of a consumer of content, up until about a year ago I post daily on my personal blog and greatly enjoyed attempting to interest my small band of readers; for a reason I can’t really pinpoint I slowly discontinued that blog over a six month period. I do post on my business blog about once a week and tweet a couple times a week; always with the goal of driving some traffic to my business.
    Thanks for the interesting post, and I’m guessing that one day you will own an iPad.

  4. Thanks for the kind comment, Brad.

    We’ll see on the iPad 🙂 I do have an iPhone, but I’m not a huge fan of Apple and I also am not really sure that I have a need for a device between my laptop and my phone.

  5. Oh, smart questions. Lots to tease apart. One thing I’d suggest is that we’re still living in what I describe as The Great Transition — media habits, including social-media use, are still really fluid and far from habitual or widespread. I’m imagining the introduction of TV went through a similar transition — not everyone was on board right away or became habitual users overnight. I think we’re going through some growing pains — some folks are growing their social networks, while others aren’t, and I think that’s OK. In the end, no matter how hard I try, I’m not going to be able to get my parents (and, yes, some of my peers) to socialize with me through FB or Twitter or Tumblr or whatever. And I kind of feel it’s unfair, maybe even elitist, of me to expect that. That stuff either appeals to you or it doesn’t.

  6. Good point, Doreen. Indeed it’s totally a time of transition, and I think many things are just beginning to shake out and we’ll see. I think it is elitist in some ways to expect everybody to use these technologies the way over-educated journalism nerds like us do, but then the question still remains of what, over time, separates us?

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