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Divide by Zero

Mac-a-ronies does a good roundup on the digital divide questions raised by the recent Pew Internet Trust study.

I suspect those of us who have been online for a long time can hardly fathom why people would get online and then eventually leave. After all, what’s not to love about the Internet? I could go on an rehash the popular arguments as to why being online is important but somehow, I suspect that I don’t need to do this as people reading this site are obviously not part of the online dropout crowd (if you are, then could you please explain to me why you came back?)

Based on my own informal study (meaning, I talked to 1-2 people about this), here are some counter-arguments you can make to people who poo-poo the value of being on the Internet:

Untrustworthy

Many people still feel that the Internet cannot be trusted. This is somehow due to the fact that many opinions are available on the Internet, some coming from large corporations, others coming from individuals. With each opinion comes an agenda (my own being how do we keep increasing the spread of the Internet so I can keep getting cool jobs innovating with this technology). However, individuals do not trust fellow individuals and have been lulled into believing the old story of the press being impartial. It’s an interesting one to try to break through. If someone raises that argument, don’t deny the existence of a diversity of opinions on the Internet. Point out that bloggers are actually linking a lot, allowing you to see what data they use to make their points. Explain how journalists in traditional media get the same data and filter it using their viewpoint (a good way to exemplify this is by showing how different outlets (Fox News, CNN, MSNBC) cover the same story.

Complicated

This comes from the fact that most people find it difficult to get online. Ask them what the issue is. In a lot of cases, it will be something like a modem cord not being attached properly, or some software problem. Offer to troubleshoot it. Then show them how the Internet can simplify their lives. Ask them about some of the things they hate doing but have to (in the United States, that could have been filling out taxes last week). Show them how the Internet can actually simplify their lives (online bill paying, for example, gets rid of the stamps, the envelopes, and, once set up, can save you a few extra minutes every months). Show them tools like Google to help them search and do a side by side comparison to explain how much time can be saved by using the Internet.

No access in my area

Show that there is access in the local library (most do nowadays but few people actually go there). In some cases, there may be other ways to access. Investigate and have that info ready as a counter to the argument.

No aded value

Showcase a digital hub (but don’t use the word digital hub, just focus on how easy it is to use, not on the underlying technology): how one can pass on pictures of friends and family on the Internet. How one can exchange email with friends and family near and far (this is a big one for older people as it allows them to talk with their kids or grand-kids). Show how one can get more information about a favorite TV show or about another topic of interest. Explain how the Internet is not about technology but that it’s really more like a giant library with information about anything you want and that it’s all there to make your life easier.

Too slow

True, the Internet on a regular modem can be slow. However, many sites are working on optimizing and there are some speed improvements on many of them. For example, the recent redesign of ESPN is dramatically faster. Also, explain how some new things (don’t mention technological words like DSL or cable modems, which usually turn people off, but focus on things like “Faster way to get info”) can bring you faster information.

Focus on the applications

The most important thing is to make sure you don’t talk about the technology (most people don’t care about it). Focus on the applications and how those make one’s life easier. Often, technologists like myself get stuck on the gee-whiz factor of new technologies, but when talking to people who don’t see any value in the Internet, those new features are useless. Listen to what’s a point of pain in their lives and show how the Internet can help ease it. That’s what really gets to people and what will get them back online.

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