Before I became a communication professor, I was a Web developer and e-marketing director for 10 years.
When you’re in this position, you focus on the best avenues for getting messages to targeted audiences (e.g., age, gender, region).
But in the late 1990s, many of us took for granted that our Internet-based messages were reaching our targets. The fact was, no matter how much time spent creating beautifully executed, Internet-based marketing plans, all of our efforts were pointless unless a large percentage of our audience actually had a chance to see the message. That is, they needed to have access to the Internet.
So, in 2002, I joined a large group of educators, researchers and other professionals advocating for better Internet access for marginalized groups.
We weren’t alone. Politicians and other community leaders were also trying to find ways to bridge this digital divide.
The term “digital divide” refers to the gap that exists between groups, the “haves” and “have-nots,” and their access to all forms of information and technology.
Technology includes all communication- related devices: mobile phones, computers, television and radio, and, of course, the Internet.
There were some successful (and unsuccessful) efforts to bridge this gap. You’ve probably heard stories about federal- and state-funded programs designed to put technology in the hands of low-income citizens.
Regardless of your thoughts about these programs, the goal was simple: Get better access to phones and computers for disenfranchised groups, and not just at the library and local community centers – but in the home, where they could have access to information 24 hours a day.
The good news is that the gap in the digital divide is getting smaller.
Last week, the Pew Research Center published a report on the growth of Internet use among some groups. I argue that Internet “use” suggests increased “access.”
Pew looked at massive amounts of data. They conducted over 229,000 interviews as part of 97 different Internet usage surveys between 2000 and 2015.
Over the last 15 years, the Pew researchers found differences in Internet use based on age, income and education, race and ethnicity, and community (e.g., those who live in rural, suburban and urban areas).
In 2000, they found that African-American and Hispanic groups, rural citizens and those with less than high school educations were lagging behind other groups in Internet use. However, in May 2015 these groups reported much higher levels of use.
Of course, age is a major factor in determining Internet access and use.
Among all groups, young adults still reported the highest levels of Internet use (96 percent). But in 2000, only 14 percent of senior citizens reported using the Internet. In May 2015, that increased to 58 percent.
These numbers suggest the digital divide is shrinking, but we still have a way to go to connecting everyone to information and technology.
To read the Pew Research Center report, go www.pewinternet.org and search for Americans’ Internet Access.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is associate professor and chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA. He researches and writes about social media and technology, sports and fans.