The Digital Divide: Closing Doors

As a nonprofit employee, I often found myself excited to take advantage of all the free opportunities on the internet. My organization could save lots of money by promoting its activities and publishing its information via social media, e-newsletters, and on our website. All the low- and no-cost possibilities seemed to open so many doors for us. But what if we closing doors for others at the same time? Hurting more than helping by relying on these means?

The internet was supposed to eliminate limits to information and expression. These limits often times kept people in their place, unable to be upwardly mobile if they couldn’t afford a tutor to help them with math or a resume writer to help them with the best way to present themselves when applying for a job. With the advent of the internet, anyone who had access to a library computer could watch a video explaining the difference between an isosceles and a right triangle or could search examples of the best resumes and resume advice. The great equalizer, right?

However, things didn’t turn out that way. Research has shown us that quite often technology has ended up increasing rather than decreasing social stratification. Hence the digital divide: those who have access to quality internet technology are gaining more and greater advantages over those who do not. Accessibility issues go beyond simply having a device or connection; connection speed, skill level, autonomy, physical ability, and comfort level all play a role.[i]

By relying more and more on the internet to disseminate information and change attitudes, nonprofit organizations often unwittingly contribute to the digital divide. For many organizations this runs counter to their purposes. It seems organizations are stuck between a rock and a hard place – spend limited resources on outreach or continue to contribute to a problem that may be ethically difficult to justify.

Here are some approaches for limiting or counteracting the effects of the digital divide:

  1. Research your audience. What technology do they have access to? Use what they use, even if it means spending money to reach them where they are.
  2. Make sure your information is not only smartphone accessible but also mobile friendly. Pew Research Center found that 15% of Americans have no or limited access to the internet aside from their smartphones.[ii]
  3. Use opt-in SMS messaging when appropriate. According to Pew Research Center, 92% of US adults have cell phones; of those, only 68% have smartphones.[iii]
  4. If your donor base is using different technology than your client base, you can target each group using different methods. However, don’t silence your client’s voices. They can speak in their own words to donors and supporters through technology that you provide, which helps to amplify perspectives that might not be otherwise heard.
  5. Make sure your online information follows accessibility guidelines for people with disabilities.
  6. Provide resources in audio, large print, at a lower reading level, and in other languages.

While it may be tempting to take the fast and easy road, promoting everything online in a format that’s comfortable for you, remember the people for whom we are closing doors. Without their participation, each organization’s impact will only be a pale shadow of what it could be.

What has your organization done to decrease the digital divide? Share your ideas in the comments.

[i] Eszter Hargittai and Yuli Hsieh, “Digital Inequality,” in The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies, ed. William H. Dutton (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013), 129–50.

[ii] Aaron Smith, “U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015,” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, accessed November 2, 2015, http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/04/01/us-smartphone-use-in-2015/.

[iii] Monica Anderson, “Technology Device Ownership: 2015,” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, accessed November 2, 2015, http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/10/29/technology-device-ownership-2015/.

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