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).