Following on from the previous post on the challenges of using digital technology to tackle social problems, I was interested to read this post by freelance communications and public relations specialist, Jon Kedwards. As can be seen from the comments, I questioned the author’s statement that: “It’s important that more deprived communities are able to use the same tools that are bringing together many more middle class activists“.
I questioned the statement not because I disagree with the idea that it’s important that people living in more deprived communities have the opportunity to use these tools if they want to. My question is what, in practice, are digital tools enabling middle class people to do that would enable deprived communities to become less deprived?
I’m not especially old (I’m 30) but I’ve been interacting with policy discussions around what has been called – and may still be called – ‘the digital divide’ for about 10 years. In the early years of the previous decade, the then New Labour government was extremely keen on persuading ‘more deprived communities’ – in those days described as ‘socially excluded’ – to get online. As well as setting up Online Centres, there were also a number of schemes that actually involved going into particular areas and giving people computers.
I don’t know to what extent it’s currently considered that Online Centres or any of these specific schemes to tackle the digital divide have or haven’t worked. And I’m not clear to how far, if it all, the current digital championing being undertaken by Martha Lane Fox, draws on the lessons of the apparently very similar work that was taking place previously. Maybe previous efforts just weren’t very successful but, if so, it might be worth considering why they weren’t successful.
Either way, the present enthusiasm for digital social change mostly goes beyond nuts-and-boltsy stuff about paying your council tax online to ideas for improving public services and local communities through the use of social media. In terms of these ideas, my starting contention – that some current projects seek to address but many apparently ignore – is that the successful use of digital tools by middle class activists is a symptom rather than a cause of their social status.
If you want to prevent the closure of a public service in your local area – or support the development of a new community organisation – then you need to have the knowledge, connections and confidence to mobilise the support of some other people in your area then contact and make demands of local decision-makers. As the RSA’s Connected Communities project is in the process of pointing out, social networks are key in enabling communities (and particular people within those communities) to shape social change. But social networks doesn’t necessarily mean online social networking platforms.
It is useful to be able set up a Facebook campaign in support of a service but it’s ultimately more useful to understand who in the council takes a particular decision and the basis on which they do so – and, if possible, to be able to talk them directly about what you and your group want to happen. The key advantage ‘middle class activists’ – or, more accurately, well networked people from any social group – have is knowing how things work, understanding the location of levers of power and having the confidence to attempt to pull on them. That’s what’s needed by more deprived communities if they are going to become less deprived.