What Every Geek Should Know: The REAL Digital Divide

by francine Hardaway on April 17, 2008

Fellow geeks, we live in a dream world — a world of Twitter-Twhirl-FriendfeedAlertThingySeesmic. And if you think most people reading this can identify any of those things, think again. Moreover, if you think there’s a chance of any of those crossing the real chasm in the next ten years, think again.

Why? Because the rest of the world just isn’t ready. We live in a rarified world of social media consultants and early adopters. Where is the rest of the world? Well, I hate to tell you this, but it’s back at YAHOO.

Why does Microsoft futz with buying Yahoo? Because the rest of the world is still there. At least it is from a social media standpoint. This morning on Twitter, Scoble asked why CNET still existed, when all he read was Tech Crunch. None of those names mean anything to the people I meet in Phoenix.

I have been facilitating technical assistance groups for SLHI, a foundation in Arizona that helps non-profit organizations collaborate. This is my second group.

The first group was called “social media,” but most of the people who signed up didn’t know what social media was. They signed up because we marketed the group as “free web site tools.”

These were non-profit executives who had built websites (or hired someone to do it for them), but a few years later, the sites were out of date, the designers out of business, and keeping their sites current is impossible for them. Most did not even know who owned their domains (not usually their charity) or hosted their sites (often the owner of the domain).

What tool did I use to teach them to build web sites? Blogger. How long did it take? Six weeks. Why? Because most of them had to be taught how to log on to a computer, launch a browser, and find a URL.

The second group is quite different. This group is called simply “free web tools.” I started off by asking people what they needed in their organizations. From their answers, I selected a group of tools I thought they could use. In this group, I had to start by teaching people Yahoo Groups, so they could communicate with their constituencies and I could communicate with them. I answered questions like “if I join Yahoo, will it put a virus on my computer.” Once I had them signed into Yahoo, I went down the entire left navigation bar to show them how to upload photos, post files, and use the calendar.

These were half a dozen people who can use Microsoft Word and answer email. One woman even carried a thumb dirve with her church files on it, and knew how to upload from the drive to a computer — but then not how to post a photo on a photo-sharing site.

What I’ve learned is that computer training is all over the map. While almost everyone who works in an office can now use email and perhaps word processing, the level of competency after that is all over the map.

These are not people in undeveloped countries; they are not residents of the barrio; they are professional people who have been taught a small piece of a very big puzzle, and don’t have a sense of what the completed puzzle should look like.

We hold this program in the Phoenix Indian Center, a building full of resources for urban Native Americans. I’ve been told that most of the Center’s clients do not have access to computers at home, so they come to the resource room in the Center to use the computers. There, they can check the things they already know, such as job listings or email, but there’s no systematic training for them here, either.

What this means to me is that it will take a generation for the kids who may be growing up with social media now to be comfortable with it, as it has taken ten years for the current generation of employed professionals to get comfortable even with the amount of collaboration and transparency represented by Yahoo.

I am so grateful for my life, because I have the privilege of experiencing both ends of the spectrum, and therefore getting some perspective.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Brandylynn223 April 18, 2008 at 8:52 am

So true, so true. I work in a large hospital in OK City and we are having a time right now trying to teach people how to access their email on Outlook. I talk about the things I do on the computer sometimes and people look at me like I’m crazy (and I’m not near as advanced as many of the people I interact with here).

francine hardaway April 18, 2008 at 10:47 am

Exactly, and someone who receives this blog by email said she had trained herself to watch out for the bleeding edge.

Sheila Scarborough April 18, 2008 at 11:55 am

Great post, Francine, and you’re absolutely correct. Most people know how to check email, order something online and Google for info, and that’s about it.

The question that also must be answered is, why SHOULD anyone know more than that, when lives are already so busy?

If geeks can’t answer that question, their cool toys/ideas will never get traction in the real world.

Maria Palma April 18, 2008 at 3:25 pm

I often have to remind myself that there are still millions of people out there who still have no idea what a blog is.

I never thought of myself as an “early adopter”, but this post opened up my eyes a little. Thanks!

Jack Kessler April 18, 2008 at 8:21 pm

I would and will go a step further than Sheila Scarborough. I, for one, truly hate real time interaction. It is an intrusion, which is a small thing, and an interruption which is a large one.

E-mail has begun to revive writing which was on the verge of extinction. People who had written fewer than a dozen real letters in their entire lives now write frequently and at length.

Twitter is named that for a reason. The name may have been intended as self-mocking and ironic, but for the most part it is accurate. Does anyone compose thoughtful paragraphs in twitter?

Real time interaction harks back to the oppressions of the telephone. We still have no easy polite way to say, “I am going to hang up now”. One instead has to string together a series of hints that the conversation is ending. I always hate going through that. I am sure twitter conversations are no better. E-mail can be answered tomorrow, apparently tweets cannot.

francine hardaway April 19, 2008 at 7:03 am

I compose thoughtful paragraphs in Twitter. You must, when you want to tell someone something important in 140 characters. Also, Twitter is not real-time interaction; it is a river into which you can dip your toe at will. Most tweets go unanswered forever. They are just information: “making red rice and pork chops for dinner”; “posted something new to my blog.” That information is not an interruption; it can be filed away for when and if it is needed. next time I want a recipe for red rice and pork chops, I will talk to @hardaway. And when I get a minute, I will go to @hardaway’s blog.

Brent Schlenker May 1, 2008 at 2:18 pm

Hi Francine! I’m in Phx as well and and continue to try and attend your events to meet you f2f. I blog and twitter and engage with every new web app that sends an invite. I do it because its my job to stay on top of these tools and figure out how they can be utilized as learning/training tools. I speak at many eLearning and Training conferences and even during sessions that describe as advanced I’m still forced to define wiki, and blog, and RSS for a good number of attendees.
At times the masses on social networks seem large, but outside of “the network” these apps are non-existant, or worse, they are deemed evil and a threat to our very existence. It feels the same as the attacks on rock music in the 70s/80s. Now we hear Stairway to Heaven on the easy listening channels and as Musac in elevators.
We are at least a decade or 2 out in front of the main stream on this stuff. Remember, email actually existed WAY before corporations thought it sounded like a good communication tool for employees.

PS: I hope your son is recovering well.

Mary Baum May 12, 2008 at 12:53 pm

Is this maybe a generational issue? It seems to me that the kids coming out of college over the last three or four years, and younger, know their way around Facebook and MySpace, and were IMing before that.

My daughter (18) and her friends go nowhere without a camera — besides the one in their phones — and the pics get posted to Facebook in short order after every event in their lives.

She also has at least one blog and a photoblog as well.

Pragmites September 9, 2008 at 10:58 pm

Interesting views. There are tons of people who are fluent in basic computing, which includes transferring files, the internet etc. But they express apathy at using social media sites purely because it is too involving and takes up a lot of time. Add to that the sheer confusion of deciding which one to register yourself on.

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