19 May 2008

The Internet Is Not a Democracy

If the blogosphere were an accurate reflection of global society, the world would be full of techno-gadget lovers who lean to the left and like to look at pictures of cats.

Eight of the "top ten" blogs on Technorati - the tool most of us use to gauge popularity or "authority" of blogs - focus essentially on communications technology and equipment. (the other two in that ten are Huffington Post and Icanhazcheezburger.) Despite the fact that all ten of these blogs are either solely focused or strongly focused on the United States, only one of them periodically focuses on the issues Americans think are the "most important problems" facing the country - the economy, gas prices, health care, and so on. And Huffington Post does it from only one ideological point of view.

Further, The most popular stories on the 'net in the past year according to the participants of Digg are about gadgets and technology, with a dash of Ron Paul and Heath Ledger.

Two items I've listened to/looked at recently - Christopher Lydon's truly outstanding Open Source podcast featuring Global Voices Online's Ethan Zuckerman and Solana Larsen, and a ReadWriteWeb story about "super-users" on Digg - reminded me that the Internet and Web2.0 haven't created the true "democratization of communication" we've heard about. In fact, as your perspective grows broader, that goal looks even farther out of reach. To me, this flies in the face of those who suggest "all media is social media." From a truly global perspective, even social media isn't social media.

The truth is the wired world is still a rather small part of the whole world. 1.4 billion people use the Internet. More than 6.6 billion people live on the planet. Yes, 73 percent of North America is wired, but as noted above, the discussions skew toward the geek.

Now consider that a number of noteworthy scholars estimate that half the world lives on less than two dollars per day. If we're going to see the online discussion become truly representative of the global discussion, we have a lot of work to do in global development well before we worry about Digg or Technorati.

Meantime, we should respect the online discussion for what it is - an "opinion elite" discussion. Again, from the global perspective, the participants represent the most educated, most affluent members of society who incorporate technology into almost everything they do. Even in the United States and Canada where Internet penetration is so high, we know the avid users of technology are more educated, affluent and involved than the population as a whole. Further, we've seen information that suggests many online communities are isolated even from each other.

This is why my social media "elevator speech" can sometimes be a single sentence - "I identify online opinion leaders and I help you build relationships with them."

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