Thursday, 04 October 2007

Social exclusion, social capital, and local online centres Yesterday to the Oxford Internet Institute for a session on 'digital disengagement' and social exclusion, where I learned the following from one reported study: 11% of those whose experience of exclusion is most entrenched (ie identified on several measures, not just one or two) are 'internet users.' Without the source I can't unpack this stat, but I'd like to see more case studies to find out more about what people in this category are doing when they are connected, and what difference it makes to their lives. It happens that I'm involved in the evaluation of a 'social impact demonstrator' at a couple of UK online centres, so may be able to contribute in due course. And Citizens Online's Everybody Online projects should provide some insights. As it turned out, the need for more qualitative research, to get at some subtleties that were not emerging from survey material, was a lesson for the OII from the seminar. One of the nuances that concerns me is the point that, irrespective of communication technologies, we don't know enough about the extent to which people who experience exclusion are strategic in their approach to weak ties. People of all ages and classes and backgrounds can be strategic about their need for and approach to connections and friendships, without necessarily being cynically so. Is such behaviour as likely to be found among those whose experience of exclusion is most profound? Whether it tends to be or not will influence people's attitudes to the communication technologies, for example in recognising that mobiles are brilliant for strong ties but maybe not so good for establishing weak ties. If your personal social network is sparse, then strong ties might be the ones you crave or seem to have most need for. Perhaps also you lack opportunities or skills (or both) to establish weak ties - these tend to require some basic cultural, social or economic capital to start with. But from the early work with UK online centres in low-income areas that I was involved in years ago, it was apparent that some people were establishing weak ties with remote others online, and gaining confidence and skills from that experience. And right on cue, here's a paper by Sara Ferlander and Duncan Timms, which contrasts users' experience of a 'local net' in a low-income area, and in an 'IT-café'. The paper examines the extent to which use of the Internet is associated with an enhancement of social participation, social trust and local identity in the area. The Local Net appears to have had limited success in meeting its goals; the IT-Café was more successful... The IT-Café provided a physical meeting place which facilitated social networking, especially the development of weak ties bridging different local groups, and led to decreased tensions between them. The physical aspect of the IT-Café had positive impacts upon local ties and bonding social capital. Nonetheless, visitors to the Café, in common with the users of the Local Net, mainly used the Internet for...

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