Digital exclusion – Michael Jackson memorial edition

Hard on Martha Lane Fox’s speech at Reboot Britain yesterday – with a fuller account in today’s FT – comes a piece by Eszter Hargittai on the tacit social exclusion in access to tickets for the Michael Jackson memorial service:


Having the chance to win a ticket … required Internet access at several levels. First, one had to access a Web site on July 3rd or July 4th [a holiday weekend in the US, so many public access points closed] to sign up for the drawing. Second, entering the lottery required an email address. Third, in order to find out about winning, one would have to check email on Sunday, July 5th to see about winner notification.

So how come we’ve seen no buzz over this topic? Buzz these days seems to come from online discussions and by definition, the people being excluded in this process are not online. They don’t run searches on Google, they don’t use Twitter, they don’t blog and consequently what’s on their minds does not show up in data about trending topics online. This is just one example of how the voices of those not online and the positions they represent are systematically excluded from conversation and public discussions. Millions of Americans are not online and this is just one example of the many opportunities from which they are systematically excluded on a daily basis due to this constraint.

As she acknowledges, there is no right of access to an event of that kind, and as her commenters have noted, even the most connected had a vanishingly slim change.  But it’s a thought provoking example of the way in which those of us who are online can make easy assumptions of universality.

More tangentially, it has helped crystallise some of my sense of ambivalence about Reboot Britain.  It was an event celebrating the power – both constructive and disruptive – of the online world.  I am in little doubt that it represents an important view of all our futures.  But it risks leaving an over-optimistic view of everybody’s present.  That’s not an absolute or necessary thing:  Williams Perrin’s work on Talk about Local is just one example of how social exclusion can be challenged and redressed by digital inclusion.  Pragmatically, though, the fact of that divide is something we are going to have to recognise and deal with for a good while to come.