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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

Even Web 2.0 has a Digital Divide

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Back before the internet became mainstream in South Africa — 2004, I think — my then boyfriend got me to download Opera Mini for my k700i. I was reluctant to do so; I didn’t think I needed the internet on my phone, too.

My resistance didn’t last long and I have been using this browser ever since. I’m an Opera Mini Missionary. So I find it surprising that some people still choose to use the default browser of their phone. Unless you’re using a phone with Windows Mobile you should consider getting a proper browser.

But this isn’t my biggest gripe, actually. My biggest gripe is with companies who build these mobile sites. I’m not sure whether anyone tests it out first. Or perhaps the tester thinks the end-users won’t be interested in building content.

So this means that it’s difficult, nay, impossible, to edit a Wikipedia page by using the mobile version. I played around with the default web browser of my k800i yesterday. The page looks terrible and takes long to load. The information that gets displayed is perhaps only a quarter of what one can see on the ‘real’ web; the page on grammar is divided into three pages.

I also tested the local iAfrica site. I’m not impressed. The News24 site is even worse than iAfrica. The font is small and users cannot comment on articles. Is this the Web 2.0 Digital Divide?

Not even Opera Mini is perfect: it doesn’t recognise predictive text; however, the browser of my phone does. But Opera Mini just makes life so much easier. So I can’t imagine switching. Unless someone develops a new mobile browser that can use predictive text when typing in a Google query *and* doesn’t ever convert sites to the mobile version.

But not many people know about Opera Mini or alternative mobile browsers. Hell, most people do not even know that any WAP-enabled phone can connect to the internet.

So what does this mean for us in South Africa? Most black people do not have access to the traditional web. But almost everyone has a cellphone. The purpose of the internet is no longer just to get information; it is to get information, be entertained and create content. And it is pretty damn impossible to create any type of content with a mobile browser.

Get free updates to my blog with my RSS feed or follow me on Twitter. Leave a comment below to get involved in the conversation.

Written by Joy-Mari Cloete

December 30th, 2008 at 9:36 am