#ICA14: The Digital Divide and Big Data

At this year’s ICA conference in Seattle (pretty nice city, btw!) I laid a strong focus on the digital divide. Not only did I attend the pre-conference on 20 years of digital divide research (http://www.icahdq.org/conf/2014/aroundtheworldcfp.asp) and present a paper there; I also gave a presentation in the very last session of the conference on content creation and the participation divide in Germany (http://de.slideshare.net/long_nights/content-creation-on-the-internet-and-the-participation-divide-in-germany). The vivid research agenda on the digital divide and several presentations in this area were among my personal highlights of the 2014 ICA conference.

Two other highlights included:

  • 2 panels on big data and computational social science: „Really Useful Analytics and the Good Life“ and „Emerging Research Agendas at the Intersection of Communication and Computational Social Science“
  • A presentation by Alice Marwick on online self-branding within the panel “Venture Labor”
Alice Marwick's presentation on self-branding was one of my personal highlights of #ICA14.

Alice Marwick’s presentation on self-branding was one of my personal highlights of #ICA14.

During the conference, one aspect showed up irregularly and it’s worth treating it in more depth, since it hasn’t found the attention it merits. It’s the question of representation and making yourself heard and visible on the Internet. Here, interesting connections emerge between the digital divide and the other highlights mentioned, namely the developments in big data and computational social science and online self-branding.

How so? When we study the digital divide, it’s not only about Internet access, online skills, ICT use, participation/content creation and all the gratifications that emerge from there. It’s also about who is visible on the web, which impressions and traces individuals leave online, and how these can be manipulated and monitored. Such aspects merit more attention, as their importance will only increase in the immediate future. In short, “what I do online” should be complemented by “what’s out there about me online” – and what others make of me online by (not) writing about me, by (not) liking my content, (not) endorsing me or (not) knowing me, i.e., being friends with me or following me. In this vein and in the tradition of digital divide research, researchers should investigate the ones who are NOT represented and canNOT make themselves heard – be it directly via participation or indirectly via less obvious paths, such as business analytics, predictive analysis or big data. There is a danger that companies establishing their offers and business models by means of big data analyses will only consider individuals who are present in their datasets. Data-rich,  i.e., prominent, users on the web derive a bigger benefit from these new offers and are served more accurately and individually than users who are not (or only marginally) represented online. Thus, they are twice advantaged: First, because they are more prominent in the first place, better findable and less obscure. Second, because new services are increasingly tailored to their specific needs and they profit more from that.

Research on the digital divide should increasingly turn to the question who’s findable and present on the Internet, who’s able to build him/herself a public and who is not. A current Oxford Internet Institute study goes in that direction. It shows, with a large-scale analysis of Wikipedia data, how unevenly the world is encyclopaedicly cartographed (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2382617). „There is simply not a lot of content about much of the world“. Furthermore, the study shows that the underrepresented regions are often described “colonializedly”, i.e., not in their own language but by better represented countries and language regions. Jen Schradie, who also presented at the ICA conference, wrote an inspiring article on that issue. She observes that big data excludes primarily the underprivileged and is therefore not big and inclusive enough (http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2013/07/big-data-not-big-enough-how-digital-divide-leaves-people-out/).

The concept of self-branding plays an important part, too. Alice Marwick stressed the de-emancipatory potential of the social web during the ICA. The ones who skillfully market themselves online and promote themselves as a brand, with constant – often superficial – status updates, can shape their self-image in a proactive way and make themselves heard. By contrast, shy and less self-confident (and thus less self-branding) users will perish. Social media providers, via their interfaces, smartly program and foster such forms of self-promotion. Thus, they contribute to the widening of the big data divide. Online, the thought of branding yourself as a product, as a perfectly trimmed commodity, becomes increasingly pervasive.

Snapshot of Alice Marwick's #ICA14 presentation with an example of a self-branding advisor.

Snapshot of Alice Marwick’s #ICA14 presentation with an example of a self-branding advisor.

What can we do? How can we counteract these worrying tendencies? There were a couple of answers to these questions in the other highlights mentioned above. The panel „Really Useful Analytics and the Good Life“ showed ideas and initatives how big data can be brought back to the ordinary individuals and to the communities. Among others, „analytics should be accessible and available to all publics to use”, „analytics should be open to public supervision“ and „analytics should be subject to democratic control in the public“. Nick Couldry from LSE presented a promising project in these regards, where scientists, developers and common people collaborate: Storycircle  (http://storycircle.co.uk/) attempts to create awareness of the most recent developments in the area of social media and big data by means of workshops and a participatory action research framework.


Tweet during #ICA14

Tweet during #ICA14


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