Has the Internet democratized engagement?

This week, I’m going to blog and launch new web resources based on my experience as the Duvall Leader in Residence at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Leadership Development (CFLD), part of UK’s College of Agriculture,Food and Environment. My visit was sponsored by the W. Norris Duvall Leadership Endowment Fund and the CFLD, and focused on leadership development and community development and engagement as both relate to the use of online media.

First up for discussion: Democratizing Engagement. Specifically: has the Internet democratized community, even political, engagement? To democratize something is to make it accessible “to the masses.” So, my answer during the presentation in Lexington at the Plantory, to launch discussion in Lexington, was, “Yes… and no.”

On the “yes” side:

  • People can access information they need most, like weather forecasts, communicate with people remotely, even bank and community organize, through text messaging on a simple cell phone. This has been revolutionary for people in the developing world.
  • People with even more sophisticated tools, like laptops and smart phones, can do even more, like access pension information, journalism-based media sites, business information, etc., apply for college or jobs, even run entire organizations and undertake a remote career.
  • Even before smart phones, when cell phones were becoming popular in the developing world, text messaging played a key role in political movements in the Philippines, in helping AIDS patients in Africa remember to take meds, and in appropriate amounts, etc. See this paper from October 2001 for more on these early examples. Handheld, networked devices continue to play important role in political movements.

On the “no” side:

  • Social media has been instrumental in reviving incorrect and, sometimes, dangerous folklore that interferes with humanitarian efforts, government health initiatives, etc.
    Negative consequences for the opinion-sharer.
  • Government and corporate entities are monitoring and recording users’ online activities and sometimes using the information they find against citizens/consumers to curb their rights or voice.
  • Many web sites cannot be accessed by people without the absolute very latest, most advanced laptops and smart phone.
  • The Internet has never been slower.
  • People with disabilities are often excluded from being able to access Web-based resources – the site isn’t configured for people using assistive technologies, an online video has no subtitles, etc.
  • Not every organization is developing online tools for people who use only feature phones and text messaging, and that leaves out millions of people who don’t have smart phones.
  • Not everyone is on the Internet.

And I’ll add one more to the “no” list: many people are made to feel unwelcomed online, to the point of their being threatened with violence if they don’t refrain from saying certain things or even being online altogether. #gamergate is a good example of this. Also see this blog, Virtue & reputation in the developing world.

Even with all that said, and the “no” list being so much longer than the “yes” list, I said that the Internet is playing a role in democratizing information for everyone, but it’s got a long way to go.

What do YOU think? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

(and I have to note that my favorite moment of the evening was when we went around the room to ask why people had come and if they got what they wanted out of the evening. One of the attendees said that, in fact, she was in the wrong room – she had come for something else – but once I started talking, she was so interested in the topic that she stayed!)

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