What is Internet use? The answer: It depends and it might matter. Pew has some ongoing work about the demographics of Internet use. The classic term is digital divide. A few things pop out here. Is Internet synonymous with the Web? With broadband? Are things shifting such that whether one is on a computer or phone matters? Think HTML 5 here and the dream of program once for a range of devices. According to Pew:
African Americans have long been less likely than whites to use the internet and to have high speed broadband access at home, and that continues to be the case. Today, African Americans trail whites by seven percentage points when it comes to overall internet use (87% of whites and 80% of blacks are internet users), and by twelve percentage points when it comes to home broadband adoption (74% of whites and 62% of blacks have some sort of broadband connection at home). At the same time, blacks and whites are on more equal footing when it comes to other types of access, especially on mobile platforms.
Pew draws a distinction between Internet and cell use. That may not be wise, although it may capture some differences. More and more folks hop onto a phone or tablet (or excuse me while I gag on the word “phablet”) to access the Internet. Cellular companies are shifting to data plans more than calling and texts. Why? Folks are using mobile devices to get on the Internet.
Of course it matters that any group is not accessing, or is not able to access, information. HTML 5 seems to be doing well, but a developer I met said that native (as in designed for a particular device) still matters for high quality interaction and offerings (such as apps for a service). Perhaps the most heartening finding was “Overall, 72% of all African Americans—and 98% of those between the ages of 18 and 29—have either a broadband connection or a smartphone.” But there is a hidden cost.
As Paul DiMaggio noted some time back TV was expensive in that one might pay it off over a few years, but it kept delivering well after that cost. The upside to cable, the Internet, and more is less centralized control. The downside is continual payment to access information. Even if one uses only a smartphone for information, the annual cost is hundreds of dollars. Throw in cable and the cost goes up.
Although some heads will explode, I must ask whether a public data system would be the sort of infrastructure that unleashes all sorts of good outcomes. Yet as I write these words, I know that the upkeep of networks, bandwidth problems, and other issues plague such a dream. Then again, the slowness of current networks and the numbers of people unable to be online suggest the market is not doing as well as it could.