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Notes On Social Media, Smartphones, and the Digital Divide

BY Nick Judd | Monday, July 18 2011

Source: Bing Maps

During last week's #PdFMeetup here in New York, the digital divide was a recurring theme. It's great that "we" keep having these conversations about our cities online, our group of 20 or so people kept saying, but "they" — people who aren't tech-savvy, people of a lower income, since the audience at our Meetup was largely white, maybe people of color, and certainly "real people" as opposed to Internet creatures like us — aren't.

Some of our notes on why this is not exactly correct bore mentioning last week and maybe they bear repeating here.

Pew Internet & American Life Project research has shown that if you are a person of color, or if you are new to your neighborhood, you are more likely to use blogs and social media as a point of entry into civic conversations. If you are a person of color, research has long held, you are more likely to be on social media. A greater proportion of black and Hispanic people have smartphones than white people, recent research shows.

From Tokyo to Mumbai to Nashville, we've seen time and again that networked communities communicate in a networked way regardless of circumstances — that's just how information is shared in highly wired communities of place, and it means that everything of interest is talked about in a different way.

As an example, I took a snapshot of some recent tweets from the northern, eastern and central reaches of the borough of the Bronx in New York City — one of the most diverse communities in the United States, with both rich and poor contingents from many ethnicities and countries of origin. Notice that big empty space above the Henry Hudson Parkway in the upper-left hand corner of the map above? That's Riverdale, one of the Bronx's most affluent and predominantly white neighborhoods. Not a lot of tweeting going on there — but check out the rest of the borough. This is just a small sample, but if you take a closer look at social media traffic coming out of the Bronx I would wager that it will jive with what you see here.

Here are some of the top tweets that Twitter suggests to me when I look for "Bronx" on the social media platform: one about asthma rates in the Bronx; from my friends at the Norwood News, one about a federal drug bust; from the Bronx political operative Haile Rivera, complaining about the Bronx's awful daytime traffic; on the subject of urban education and dysfunctional neighborhoods; and about a new merchants' association in one Bronx neighborhood.

Health, crime, transportation, education and the economy — you can't really get more civic than that.