“The Internet is not a luxury, it is a necessity.” These were the words of President Barack Obama during his announcement in Oklahoma of a new government initiative called ConnectHome. Building partnerships with private sector organizations like Google and leveraging the existing programs of non-profits, ConnectHome is a revolutionary government initiative to help low-income citizens get affordable Internet access for little to no cost.
As a society transformed by online information, on-call applications and social media, the Internet is now slowly becoming a new means of survival. Giving Internet access to a greater part of our population can help more individuals integrate into a society, address some of the greater challenges that come with accessing jobs and current events and reduce the digital divide, or the opportunity gaps that exist between those that do and do not have access to the Internet. Many internet applications, specifically on social media, can be psychologically beneficial: They can help build our self-esteem, help us become more comfortable with self-expression and help us build and sustain more relationships.
So why does a digital divide still exist? Why are there so many people still not using the Internet when the government is giving more funding and opportunities to do so? If programs like Connect DC can give people six months of free internet, what is the barrier?
According to a recent study by Pew Research, availability and expense accounted for less than 25 percent of people who didn’t use the Internet. More than two-thirds of non-users reported digital discomfort, or frustration with navigating the Internet. With the complexity of something like an e-mail or Twitter, many choose to remain offline and miss out on the complementary opportunities.
We can’t stop at access and possession when it comes to getting our community members online – bridging the digital divide means understanding how the disconnected perceive the usability and relevance of the Internet.
So what can we do to help reduce the digital divide in D.C.?
For one, we can volunteer. Many libraries and nonprofits look to bring in volunteers and teach classes for those experiencing frustration with computer literacy. The Arlington Central Library, Anacostia Library and other D.C. Public Library branches have many open slots for classes that aren’t currently offered; for example, if you have a skill in a social media application or want to teach individuals rudimentary email skills, the libraries offer a wide variety of options to get involved. In addition, organizations like LIFT enable you to be a community advocate to help low-income individuals find jobs online. Many traditional nonprofits also open up options to create new volunteer opportunities – ask them how you can help teach computer skills!
Second, we can create awareness. Something as simple as sharing Internet use success stories or tweeting about solutions for the “#digitaldivide” can be instrumental in helping get more individuals educated about the digital divide – and more disconnected individuals interested in learning more. While awareness leads to more advocacy and higher demand for new programs, awareness can also have a psychological impact on motivation. Seeing a success story, especially from someone with a similar background or situation, can help increase motivation for those who feel the Internet may be a waste of time or has no relevance to their personal challenges.
Finally, we can donate. There are many ways your dollar can help more and more D.C. residents get online. Donating to an organization like Byte Back or Uplift DC, which both provide computer training for lower-income residents, can be effective in turning computer literacy into economic opportunity. For people who don’t have time to volunteer and care deeply about reducing the digital divide, donations are a valuable way to channel our ambitions into impact.
At the end of the day, we need to not only give others access, but to give them a reason and an opportunity. It won’t always be convenient. It won’t always be easy. But we don’t need to reduce the digital divide as a society because it’s convenient or easy. We need to because it’s right.