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The internet is no meritocracy

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Meritocracy, noun, “a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.” — Merriam Websters.

The internet is not an equal playground. I thought this is obvious to all but I was wrong. Many think that as long as you’re online, you are just a line of text. And that your awesome content, eg, will rise to the top. This thinking claims that we cease to exist as men and women, white and black, African and American; we become citizens of the net. And that we can all be achievers, if we’re good enough.That’s what the Internet Founding Fathers thought back in the beginning.

But that isn’t true. There is plenty of misogyny online; POC bloggers are still left behind or shunted off to virtual reserves; and expensive bandwidth still prohibits many people all over the world from becoming active on the internet. It helps to be a white man in a white collar job who has access to fast broadband that doesn’t switch off every half an hour or so. It really does.

So please do not think the internet is the Great Big Hope. Yes, sure, we can’t see that someone is fat but when you write a fat acceptance blog or when you write a personal blog that upset people — for whatever reason — you do put your safety at risk. Even  software programmers can receive death threats.

This myth of meritocracy is so entrenched that very few are aware of it. Similar to fish swimming in water. Or the Matrix. And everyone has been born into this prison for the mind.

Racism on the internet

Blogging While Brown isn’t always fun. Whenever someone at a newspaper or an online media house makes a list of the top blogs, chances are that the list will feature very few POC bloggers. Gina McCauley, a WOC blogger,  said that

“Black bloggers link to other black bloggers, and progressive white bloggers link to other white progressive bloggers,”

There are few such studies on this subject, and David Sasaki’s blog post caused a big fuss in SA last year. But it’s true that white bloggers have mostly white blogging friends to whom they link. Either that or they just tend to read blogs that other white people write. There’s no branching out to read voices other than theirs, with experiences that differ to theirs. These apologists will claim that they read the best of what the web has to offer, regardless of who the author is. And they’ll probably also use the all-too-familiar catchphrase to ensure that we know they aren’t racist — “My best friend is black, ya know?”.

Sexism and the internet

Women are slut-shamed for the tiniest thing. Many comment threads — on blogs and on forums — start off  civil but  descend into chaos. Few of the tops users of any social community are women. Why? Could it perhaps be that men still have greater access to technology and that they still have more free time than women do? Women still do most of the household work and this means they have little time left for themselves, never mind editing Wikipedia.  But, I forget — “There are no women on the internet.” And the few women who are on the internet — who aren’t men with boobs, or boys — tend to get demotivated when they constantly observe how male-centric, ie,  old boys club,  the intertubes is.

And yes, social conditioning is also at play here. How often do young girls not feel that they aren’t qualified to speak or write about a topic? I see it in myself, too. I’d far rather edit a Wikipedia article than post a new one. Unless it is client related, of course. And most of the time I would only correct the grammar, not the facts. So perhaps it is based on personality and on gender. Not sex. Gender constructs shape our world and we all have to dance along; gender is a performance. And the perfect version of female gender — as per 1950s magazines and books — is unfortunately passive, coy, intellectually dull, and sexless.

Internet economics

Bandwidth isn’t cheap in most developing countries, some websites are considering limiting content to developing countries, and sometimes that interesting video you want to watch isn’t available or can not be viewed in your region. Other sites that restrict access based on geographics are Hulu, Pandora and Spotify. Techcrunch did a great article on how to get around these restrictions; however, the people who read Techcrunch are still an elite minority.

Lo-fi sites and broadband access

Computers are as big an indicator of economic success: not everyone can afford a Mac; fewer still can afford or be bothered to get proper software.

So yes, our hypothetical internet user has a 3G-enabled cellphone on which to use the internet. But the screen is tiny and the keyboard is as tiny; 2 things that might deter them from commenting on blogs or writing their own blog to promote their brand. Yes, they benefit by being on the internet already but very many things deter their full enjoyment of what the internet can offer: Flash websites, web browser compatibility, censorship, broadband cost.

Mobile web browsers are far more advanced than they had been 2 years ago. But they’re still getting a couple of things wrong. And the general public does not know that these browsers exist. Especially not with companies building  ‘lo’ versions of their sites. These versions are supposed to bring the internet to the masses. Um, OK.  How will that happen when the masses can only access a ‘lo’ version of a news site?

Internet reception is one of the biggest factors that limit uptake. South Africans get different signals, depending on where they are. The signal could change from 3G to EDGE by just moving the cellphone around a bit. That messes with the user experience and could lead to frustration aka ‘watching paint dry’. A few European countries — France, Switzerland, and Finland — have either declared internet access a ‘human right’ or have declared it a ‘legal right’. Other countries that have short-term and long-term broadband speed plans are Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Denmark and Taiwan. And the UK government has a 245-page pdf available on their Digital Britain initiative, which aims to introduce a universal 2 Megabit/s line internet access by 2012. And the Federal Communications Commission — US-based — released a 168-page report on how to get all American citizens wired up, and by when.

I’m not even going to contrast this to South Africa — with promises of broadband for the masses; however, there are a few private initiatives that wants the South African government to adopt a broadband strategy.

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Written by Joy-Mari Cloete

October 29th, 2009 at 2:28 pm

8 Responses to 'The internet is no meritocracy'

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  1. Thank you so much for this post. The truth is gatekeeping is well and alive, and the gatekeepers are often those who are getting paid to preach that Web 2.0 is all about participation, openness, democracy and collaboration.

    Ernesto Priego

    29 Oct 09 at 6:53 pm

  2. Hi, Ernesto

    Your comment gives me cold shivers. You’re so right. The real horror is that I had only touched on a few barriers; I’m sure there are many, many more.

    Joy-Mari Cloete

    30 Oct 09 at 9:13 am

  3. All I can say for now is very well said Joy-Mari.

    B. Adu

    30 Oct 09 at 1:36 pm

  4. Merci, B. Adu!

    Joy-Mari Cloete

    30 Oct 09 at 1:37 pm

  5. Very educational. Besides your post, I spent about an hour following links and liberating myself from ignorance. Well done.

    Brand Smit

    6 Nov 09 at 4:27 pm

  6. Hey, hey, hey ;)

    Ooo, I’m soooo glad. I love link posts — it adds depth.

    Joy-Mari

    Joy-Mari Cloete

    6 Nov 09 at 4:35 pm

  7. [...] to others. I’m sure that many of you know that linking = good. It’s a great way to add depth to an article and you’re also helping to sustain the internet linking community. So I’ll touch on a [...]

  8. good read, Ill be back

    rosemary

    23 Dec 09 at 11:27 pm

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