The Visibility Divide

Studies on the digital divide have increasingly shifted from access to skills, uses, motivations, and participation. Thus, not only the differences in access to modern ICTs matter but also the differences in how users apply these ICTs for constructive and productive purposes. 

The participation divide describes the social inequalities between those who contribute actively on the Internet and those who use it passively. What does actively and passively mean in this context? That’s quite a valid question, since the boundaries are blurry and hard to define. If we operationalize participation as content creation, we can open a continuum rather than a strict dichotomy. In this sense, maintaining a regular blog is more participatory than updating your Facebook status once in while, which, in turn, is more participatory than Googling your time away and watching cat videos on Youtube. 

Focusing on the participation divide, some evidence suggests that the demographic inequalities characteristic of previous divides – e.g., access and skills – are more nuanced in the case of online content creation ( Users with high socio-economic status (SES) are not necessarily more participative and active than those from lower status. Different forms of content on the Internet need to be distinguished, as not all of them share the same social structuration: The people who contribute in political online communities are different from those engaging in idea and open innovation contests; uploading own songs on Youtube differs from giving advice in health forums, when it comes to the demographic composition… And different domains of participation as well as social groups who engage online might not all gain the same attention – which leads me to the core of this post.

A neglected aspect within research on the participation divide has been the visibility and outreach of user-generated content. Not all content is created equal. Some people reach a huge audience with just a few tweets, others reach a tiny segment with thousands of tweets. Are the former still less participatory than the latter? Or in other words, is online content without much visibility and impact still valuable? And how can research on online participation deal with this impact/visibility question? Jen Schradie wrote a very thoughtful piece on a similar matter some months ago ( Many aspects of this visibility/outreach divide tap into questions of big data and representation. 

A tentative hypothesis deduced from the previous paragraphs could thus be: Users with high SES are – ceteris paribus – better equipped to reach a large audience with their online participation compared to lower SES users. 

Why should that be the case? Well, the mechanism lies in digital skills, self-efficacy, and social capital (I might elaborate the argument in more detail in a later post). Anyways, it would be worthwhile to research the visibility divide, as a sub-divide of the participation divide. 



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