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Minorities Feeling Effects Of Digital Divide?

January 10, 2011

As mobile technology puts faster, smaller and more connected computers in our pockets, Latinos and blacks are more likely than the general population to access the Web by cellular phones, and they use their mobile devices more often to do more things.

According to the Associated Press (AP), some see a new “digital divide” emerging with Latinos and blacks being challenged by more, not less, access to technology. It is difficult to fill out a job application on-line using a cell phone, for example. Researchers have noticed signs of segregation online that perpetuate divisions in the physical world. Entertainment and not empowerment may be the reason for their increased use of Web access.

A larger number of whites than blacks and Latinos still have broadband access at home, but laptop ownership is now about even for all these groups, after black laptop ownership jumped from 34 percent in 2009 to 51 percent in 2010, according to a July 2010 Pew poll.

Fifty-one percent of Hispanics and 46 percent of blacks use their phones to access the Internet, compared with 33 percent of whites, according to Pew. Forty-seven percent of Latinos and 41 percent of blacks use their phones for e-mail, compared with 30 percent of whites. The figures for using social media like Facebook via phone were 36 percent for Latinos, 33 percent for blacks and 19 percent for whites.

“I don’t know if it’s the right time to celebrate. There are challenges still there,” Craig Watkins told AP. Watkins is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “The Young and the Digital.” He adds: “We are much more engaged, but now the questions turn to the quality of that engagement, what are people doing with that access.”

This trend is alarming to Anjuan Simmons, a black engineer and technology consultant who blogs, tweets and uses Facebook “more than my wife would like.” He hopes that blacks and Latinos will use their increased Web access to create content, not just consume it.

“What are we doing with this access? Are we simply sending e-mail, downloading adult content, sending texts for late-night hookups?” Simmons told AP’s Jesse Washington. “Or are we discussing ideas, talking to people who we would not normally be able to talk to?”

Simmons has made professional connections and found job opportunities through social media. But when he first started using Twitter, the first thing he looked for was other black faces to connect with. “The African-American community has a built-in social layer,” Simmons says. “We tend to see other African-Americans as family. Even if we haven’t met someone, we often refer to other black people as `brothers’ or `sisters.’”

He recognizes that mobile phones are more limited than computers: “Phones are more for entertainment right now. I don’t want to use the word uneducated, but I don’t think (customers) are 100 percent educated on what the Internet can do in your life. They just see you can have fun on it. For the Latino community,” he says, “people without Internet are missing about 65 percent of the opportunities in life.”

Yet mobile Internet access may not be the great equalizer. Aaron Smith, a Pew senior research specialist, says there are obvious limitations on what you can do on a mobile device updating a resume being the classic example. “Research has shown that people with an actual connection at home, the ability to go online on a computer at home, are more engaged in a lot of different things that people who rely on access from work, a friend’s house, or a phone,” Smith told Washington.

For those Latinos with mobile access, their connections are often related to geography. “Most Latinos here want to communicate with each other, they have family in other places that they want to be connected to,” Amador says. “And they want to be involved in the American community. They see everyone on TV talking about Facebook and Twitter, and they want what other Americans have.”

The early days of the Internet were filled with visions of a Utopian space where race would disappear, famously captured by a 1993 New Yorker cartoon with one pooch sitting at a computer saying to another, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

But the reality has turned out much differently, says Peter Chow-White, an assistant communications professor at Simon Fraser University and co-author of the forthcoming anthology “Race After the Internet.” He says there is “absolutely” still a racial divide online, in terms of broadband access and the ability of blacks and Latinos to make their voices widely heard.

“As long as you have structural inequalities in society, you cannot expect to have anything less than that on the Internet,” he says. “The Internet is not a separate space from the world, it’s intricately connected to everyday life and social institutions.”

Smith, the Pew researcher, says more research is needed to understand the implications of blacks and Latinos moving so quickly to mobile Web access, because this technology is changing the patterns of Internet use as profoundly as the shift from dial-up to broadband did over the past decade.

“Mobile is a totally different experience,” Smith told AP. “It’s a huge change when the gateway to information in the digital world is always with you.”

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