Getting to the Netroots of the Digital Divide

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By Dr. Jason Johnson

The Tri-State Defender, August 20, 2009


Last week I packed up my things and headed off to Netroots Nation in Pittsburgh. If you think “Netroots Nation” has something to do with hairnets or hair dye, neither guess is correct.


“Netroots Nation 09” is the fourth annual meeting of the political left’s largest most influential groups of bloggers, writers, and web activists. All of the big names were there – from Moveon.org representatives to Actblue, and the political bigwigs made sure to put in an appearance with this group that was so instrumental in Democratic electoral success in 2008. Former president Bill Clinton spoke, as did recent Republican turned Democrat Arlen Specter and former DNC head Howard Dean. Of course, all of that meant little to me at first since I had gone to Netroots Nation with a clear plan and story in mind.


Prior to going to Netroots, I was going to write a column entitled “The Netroots Nation helped elect America’s first BLACK president, so why is the movement still so WHITE?” Given that we are constantly bombarded with news about the digital divide between blacks and whites on the Internet, I was positive that the conference would be nothing but a bunch of white liberal bloggers praising an African-American president but completely disconnected from the African Americans who lived in their communities.


Much as a columnist is loathe to admit such things, I was completely wrong about the Netroots Nation. While the conference wasn’t nearly as diverse as the Democratic Party that most of the activists worked for, it wasn’t due to a lack of interest or a tin ear towards the diversity and racial challenges of America. In fact, just about every panel or speaker discussed the importance of involving people of all races in every level of activism. Which is why it was so interesting that there was little or no presence of major African-American web activists at the event. While a smattering of writers might’ve been here or there, major political and social sites such as blackplanet.com, blackprof.com, theroot.com, thegrio.com and even prominent African-American bloggers from the Dailykos or the Huffington Post did not have a significant presence at all at the conference. Is the digital divide closing or is something else going on?


As recently as July, The Internet and American Life Study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that almost 50 percent of African Americans were using hand-held or mobile devices to surf the web compared to only 28 percent of whites. Clearly, between mobile phone plans and the plummeting costs of laptop computers the digital divide between African Americans and other groups is diminishing. However, that’s not the divide that I believe still persists having been to Netroots Nation. The issue may no longer be whether or not African Americans have access to the web, it’s what the web is used for when African American people get on-line.


African Americans are using the web in greater numbers than ever to get a date, listen to music, follow sports and a whole host of other activities. But when it comes to the dissemination and pursuit of information all too many African-American activists and citizens are still living in the 20th century.


Barack Obama had plenty of friends on Facebook during the presidential election but when he wanted to speak to African-American voters over the age of 35 he got on talk radio with Tom Joyner, talked with Oprah and went to churches. He knew those were the places to go if you wanted black eyes and ears, and yet the lack of black political activism on-line is a huge opportunity being missed. The Internet lowers the cost of entry for any political activist or commentator. You get incensed about an issue you can start up a blog, open a Web site and link to a Youtube channel without spending a dime, and can access it all for free at your public library. Activism is faster and cheaper now than it’s ever been, and while many African Americans are using the information, enough effort isn’t being made on the part of the community and the activists to connect on-line chatter with real world activism and influence.


Noticing the lack of interest and presence of African-American on-line talent at the Netroots Nation showed me that maybe we’ve been thinking about the digital divide all wrong. Perhaps the reason for the digital divide isn’t because the divide is so great, but because African-American political leaders and commentators aren’t willing to make the leap over it.


Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor of political science and communications at Hiram College in Ohio, where he teaches courses in campaigns and elections, pop culture, and the politics of sports. He can be reached at johnsonja at hiram.edu.

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