Talking points for digital inclusion: do you have some?

A big burst of thinking about digital inclusion while reporting at the recent conference – and the 20 points manifesto developed there – reminded me of previous occasions when I and others had distilled some key issues about how people may engage with and benefit from the Internet and other technologies.
I dug around my old blog Designing for Civil Society and found these two lists, one from 2004 and one from 2006. I wondered how much my thinking had changed: not much, though I’ve added a few points to the lists below.

Do you have any talking points on digital engagement and inclusion? I’m interested in blending them with the 45 propositions my co-authors came up for the NESTA Social by Social handbook, and the background ideas that led to them.

My friend Kevin Harris has been working in this field for at least 10 years, and might be tempted into digging into further into his archives.

I developed some conversation starters on digital inclusion back in 2004 for a seminar in Dundee:

1 Community groups and nonprofits are not the strongest leaders towards “digital inclusion”.
Those working in the sectors are more face-to-face and phone than online, they may be worried that pushing technology will exclude others, they are busy, short of funds, so don’t have much incentive to help others get online. They’ll have to change – but they won’t lead the change.

I think this still holds.

2 Community web sites are today seldom a good investment of time and money

If dozens of different interests don’t collaborate and share ideas day-to-day, why should they take the trouble to do so on the web? Sites need site managers and creators…. and if they are any good they will probably gravitate towards personal publishing. They won’t have the time or enthusiasm to pull different interests together and help them publish in ways they don’t favour themselves. See also 6.

I was thinking here about all-purpose web sites rather than the more focussed small sites favoured by Will Perrin and the Talk About Local project. I think we’ll see a local communcation ecosystems developing, with many sites, hopefully linked.

3 Technology centres – as such – should no longer have a strong claim for public money.
Why should we be bothered that local technology centres may not be sustainable? Do we need as many public phones when people have mobiles? Are communal laundries needed when we have washing machines? Do we all learn best in one place? Shouldn’t we just think about libraries, pubs, stations, schools – and community centres – with added technology? Collective learning, publishing, campaigning is enormously important and rewarding. But start with the people and the issues not the technology.

Oh dear, my friends (and clients) at UK online centres may rise to this one. Managing director Helen Milner provided strong evidence at the conference of the continuing need for digital inclusion work, and we heard a couple of really compelling stories about the benefits of centres for people in developing their skills and confidence. I’ve dropped the video in here … it’s worth listening right through.

21st Century Learning from Dave Briggs on Vimeo.

4 Many people don’t want to use the Internet. Why should they?
Surveys suggest that of those not currently using the Net, a large proportion have no desire to do so. They don’t see it as important to their lives. We understand that some people don’t want to drive a car, and recognise that public transport is important for them – and for all of us in some circumstances. We should ensure that different channels of communication are also available for public services. See also 10.

Helen’s evidence has some good points on benefit … which also relate to this point below.

5 Social exclusion in the Information Society is just part of wider exclusion. Spend the money on more basic programmes.
Those who use the Net extensively are recognising that it isn’t a magic recipe for personal and social change. It can be – if it is the route you want. Instead of pushing technology-led solutions concentrate on giving people a range of life and work opportunities which they can follow in different ways. Digital inclusion won’t fix social exclusion as a policy. It may provide great personal opportunities. See also 8.

6 Blogs may kill the buzz in online communities – but that’s no bad thing
Why drop your gems into a mass of other messages when you can broadcast your wisdom to the world? Those people who make email lists and web forums worth reading are going to shift their energies to self-publishing. Conversations will take place through links between blogs, and online events convened with a clear purpose. See also 2.

7 People are buying mobile phones and digital cameras when they can. Go with the flow.
Consumer trends are towards personal, mobile, creative devices that enable people to build their personal, family, work and leisure networks – and be a bit different. Communication is wherever you are, not on the desktop. personal devices enhance people’s networking capacity. See 7.

8 Inclusion is about who you know – so focus on helping people reinforce relationships and make new ones. It’s about networks, networking, networkers.
Technical skills and access to information do not on their own connect people. What’s important is the ability and opportunity to create or join the networks. That involves developing personal confident and networking skills, and finding opportunities to meet others that you want to meet. For some people online social networking opens that door… but what works depends more on the people and their preferences than it does on the technology.

Clay Shirky emphasised this last year.

9 Communities are networks of networks. Networks are connected people. Communication devices are personal. Therefore use technology to build community from the personal upwards and outwards.
Groups and communities don’t use computers. People do, and everyone is different in the way that they do it. It doesn’t work to map broad-brush 19th and 20th century notion of community on to the way that communication technologies are developing.

10 Mix communication methods, respect and favour personal differences. Nurture communication ecologies – not communication monocultures.
Face-to-face, phone, print, texting, email, audio, video all have different strengths and weaknesses in different circumstances. Most people prefer some over others. What’s important is to create or support the ecologies of communication that work for your organisation, network or local community.

… and a way forward

11 Work on getting stuff to join up. Challenge commercial models that divide.
As online publishing become more personal, online communities become networks, and there’s no ‘one place’ for anything, the challenge is to make sure the links work. That means joining up blogs and email lists and forums and challenging commercial models that create ‘walled gardens’ or standards which mean devices can’t operate together. We have environmental audits, social audit – may be time for some network audits.

The walled garden approach is being challenged … and organisation like Ruralnet have been showing how to move on.

Then in 2006 I did some work for Digital Inclusion and Challenge Network and developed these points … with some repetition, but some fresh ideas I think.

Digital inclusion is social inclusion. Digital inclusion is part of social inclusion – that is, the reason for helping people to use new social technologies is to help them with their relationships, learning, work, leisure and other activities. Digital exclusion means limited access to information and knowledge that others have as a right, and increasingly having no identity in a networked world.  Point 5 above.

The main social benefits stem from interaction. The main ways in which social technologies can help with social inclusion are broadly in helping people to get information; communicate; collaborate; find a voice … and learn by these processes. Each of these benefits may apply in different ways in developing social relationships, work and leisure activities. Social – and digital – inclusion is about relationships and interaction. Digital inclusion technologies must be interactive. Point 8 above, maybe.

Digital inclusion technologies must be personal. Everyone has different social needs, and different preferences for the ways in which they communicate. These vary with age and circumstance. That means that one size won’t fit all:  the technology devices and applications will ultimately be personal, and must offer clear personal benefit. Point 7.

Personal social benefit occurs in a network environment. While the ways in which people use technologies will be personal, in order to gain social benefit they have to join up. People’s different devices have to communicate on a social network … or rather, a lot of interlinked social networks. The challenge is to offer people choice, within a flexible network environment.

Inclusive networks require support roles. Social networks are people, not technologies. People need confidence and skills to use new technologies, and networks may requires some support, weaving and facilitation if they are to be inclusive.

Walled gardens offer limited benefit. There is little benefit in creating a “walled garden”, or technology platform, that makes devices and networking easy unless it also enables people to connect with wider developments on the Internet. Otherwise the platform is defining the relationships that people can develop.

Digital inclusion requires a collaborative culture. The benefits of personal and social networking can only be fully realised in a collaborative environment. Digital inclusion technologies are of limited use unless people are prepared to engage and interact. Collaboration requires personal skills – but more than anything it requires a collaborative attitude and culture.

Civil institutions must join in. Social inclusion depends on people being able to interact with civil institutions. Therefore personal and social networking benefits are limited unless civil institutions are also using the technologies in an interactive and collaborative way. They will help to define a culture of digital inclusion, and underpin social and technology networks.

Technology is not the starting point for design. From the above, the foundations for successful social and digital inclusion practice involve developing a participative civil culture, respecting individual differences, building networks and then ensuring appropriate technologies are available.

Go with the Web 2.0 flow.The past year has seem an explosion of free services for online access (e.g. broadband from mobile phone networks), and also free services using Web 2.0 technologies and approaches (blogs, wikis, feeds, tagging, social bookmarking, mapping, photo and video sharing). These make it potentially much easier for people to configure tools to meet their personal needs. The new tools are explicitly designed for interaction, based on people’s social enthusiasms. They are becoming the mainstream. Digital inclusion involves helping join that mainstream.

Staff need to be digitally included too. The challenge for institutions is two-fold. On the one hand they have to build from existing services and other activities outwards, on the other hand they have to ensure that their online presence integrates with the newly-emerging personal, Web 2.0-enabled environment. It will be increasingly difficult to maintain old-style environments internally, and new-style ones externally. The internal-external boundary has to be permeable to social networking tools. That means that those working within institutions have to be digitally included. That may involve cultural changes within the organisation, as well as training, support, and new tools.

Walk the talk. The new web 2.0 applications and culture create an environment that is fundamentally different from Web 0 (no online experience) and Web 1.0 (most past institutional usage). It is impossible to help develop new interactive online environments without being part of them … it’s like trying to work in another country through an interpreter: excluding. That means those designing programmes need to be fully digitally included.

Co-design rather than consult. From the above, it is not possible to design digital environments without fully understanding user needs and preferences, and the possible nature of network requirements. That means new systems and environments have to be co-designed or evolved with users – wherever they are. Consultation on pre-determined approaches is likely to be inadequate, and lead to low take-up. What’s needed is a whole-system, all-users approach.

Hmmm, how to re-organise and update that lot? Any help very welcome.

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