Who Is Behind the Words on Your Screen? some words on the digital divide & representation online

In a world that becomes increasingly interconnected through the Internet, where we daily see an increase in media content online. Some of us are also ourselves contributing to this growing bulk of information, opinions, shared via “websites, mobile phones, data photography, video, and audio, blogs, wikis, file-sharing systems, social media, and open-source software” (Lievrouw, 2011:2) and numerous other forms of data content that is being shared online. Sometimes the data is filled with opinions and suggestions for solutions to issues ranging from an everyday insignificant detail to an international conflict. The media landscape has changed, from one in which most persons were consumers and audiences, into one where, put very bluntly, anyone can contribute and hence become producers and participants (Lievrouw, 2011). But despite this change in ways of creating and spreading media content, it is not possible to state that everyone contributes or even participates on the same premises.

Pieterse (2005) points out importantly that the so called digital divide must be seen for what it actually is, a socioeconomic divide. If you think about it, when you go online, what from where does the media you interact with originate from? And what does the ones who has the most social media space represent?

This film clip will give you an insight into the reality of connectivity across the world, but more interestingly it presents from where media content is produced.



So this film clip informs us that the world may not be as interconnected and even connected as we are sometimes led to believe. It has been estimated that 80% of the worlds Internet users are in the developed World (Rao, 2005). In attempts to address the disproportionate access and use various programmes and projects highlight the potential of ICT not only to bring mere access but as a means to solve many of the development challenges in the world. It may be so that ICT has the potential of aiding in addressing and even to solve some of the issues. However, initiatives are rarely seeking to increase the presences of disadvantaged groups in social media (Burell). If this is not so then what effects may this have on the depiction that is being created of the world on a daily basis?

In light of the approaching end of the Millennium Development Goals the UN launched an online feature where individuals could share their priorities for the future. Leaving out reflections on the purpose and collection itself, relate this kind of mechanism with the video clip. I have not accessed statistics for the particular opinion poll, but it is likely that more individuals from the global north has shared their views and ideas than individuals from the Global South.

Have a look at the feature here: My World 2015

Another example that in another way points towards the uneven representation online comes from Denskus and Papan. They shows us how content generated on twitter and blogs in relation to the United Nations High-level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly on the Millennium Development Goals reflected the content of the conference and to some extent we not into critical comments but in fact did not generate any concrete debate. To keep it simple the lesson learned is that even though high-level meeting such as this one gets attention in social media, most of the content is merely a reproduction of existing idea as and does not engage in constructive debate that in turn would have the potential of reaching new insights and solutions to current social, political and economic issues across the world.

If we further look at what the film clip depicts in terms of the obvious disproportionate content and data erupting from the global north it is also easy to connect with the Denkus and Papan text and arrive at a conclusion that to a very large extent the dates that is being produced though social media, at least when it relates to larger debates merely is reproduction of existing data and by a very small share of the world’s population.

Now one might ask the question of why it is necessary to demand who is producing content online. Does it really matter? Yes, it does. First and foremost it is a matter of knowing and being aware of who is producing and reproducing a depiction of the world. For we need to keep in mind that there are numerous different social intersections in a society. One of the most obvious but also to some extent most debated is that of women and men. Because women and men do not live life with the same experiences and these differences can, if you take a constructivist (feminist) approach be directly related to the socially postulated differences between men and women. In the same way you are not experiencing life similarly if you live in a big city or in a rural area, in the so called west or the rest.


Burell, Jenna. Problematic Empowerment: West African Internet Scams as rasssrot Media Production. Available from: http://itidjournal.org/index.php/itid/article/view/308/140

Denskus, T. Papan, A. (2013) Social Media and Global Development Rituals: a content analysis of blogs and tweets on the 2010 MDG Summit. Third World Quaterly, pp. 409-424

Lievrouw, Leah. (2011) Alternative and Activist New Media. Oxford: Polity Press

Pieterse, Jan Nederveen. (2005) Digital Capitalism and Development: the Unbearable Lightness of ICT4D. In: Lovnik, G. & Zehle, S. (2005) the Incommunicado Reader. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures.

Rao, Madanmohan. (2005) The infromation society: visions and realities in developing countries. In: Hemer, Oscar. and Tufte, Thomas. (2005) Media and Glocal Change. Rethinking Communication for Development. Buenos Aires: CLASCO Avaliable from: http://bibliotecavirtual.clasco.org.ar/ar/libros/edicion/media/media.html


  1. Hi, very interesting opener. As I work in the media industry, I have noticed the increasing hype of readers participation and data. Yet, as Rao (2005) have mentioned it is still very few who actually attend the public debate even online. I perfectly agree, that it is relevant to know, who is arguing for what; that is all about giving meanings and credibility to words.
    Also as Hyde et al. (in Mandiberg 2012) argue that user-generated content and sharing do not automatically mean collaboration. They claim for example that blogs are not collaborative whereas wikis can be. With this I’d like to bring up a question, how much of the data in social media is actually relevant, and in what context, or to whom after all? Many times the data found online is just nonsense.

  2. Hi! I still cannot watch the video but I think I get your point and I totally agree with you. Actually, this is one of the most common critics to the use of new ICTs. This is a crucial question not only about production but also about ownership. And at the same time this is a very well-known and a very old debate widely pointed by the Post- Colonialist thinkers like Edward Said (1978), Homi Bhabha
    (1990), Benedict Anderson (1983), Partha Chatterjee (1993) among others. When the narratives of “what is going on” in the world are always produced by the Global North, the voices of those living in the Global South are never to be heard and the picture will be incomplete.
    As you mentioned, there are some very interesting initiatives going on trying to change this. I found this project especially inspiring: http://www.makingallvoicescount.org/news/citizen-journalists-give-voice-to-voiceless-in-south-africa/
    Another very interesting example recently brought to the Voice and Matter conference by Andrea Andrea Cornwall’s opening speech on “Reframing Development: From Assistance to Global Justice” . Watch this Save us from Saviors video it if you could not attend the conference

  3. You make a very valid point here about the digital divide – or really, the socio-economic divide. Whose voices are really being heard? All development practices must be designed on inclusivness – being very aware of discrimination, whether that be on gender, class, religion – you name it. That’s why it’s so important to put data into context – to look at both agency and structure, and the obstcales for getting a nuanced picture. And to be aware of the central issue of representation. Andrea Cornwall’s keynote on Voice and Matters last month really touched upon this and how we need to look at the power structures.

  4. Thank you for really interesting comments! I really like the ‘Save us from Saviours’, it is exactly to the point of highlighting who is actually the one in charge of deciding what story is beign told. Furthermore, it shows very clearly how the lives of others is used to depict a reality that they are not intended to be able to verify… The Making All Voices Count project, is as pointed out a vital factor for altering the way in which data is collected and who is considered as contributor, and surely such approaches will become more and more frequent. Nevertheless, it is still a project that according to themselves “aims to catalyze global attention and action around these issues and to play an important role in shaping the debates in the areas of transparency, accountability, open government and use of technology.”, thus keeping in mind that all initiatives has a purpose and it may not be that which we think. What I read in this aim definition is that it is still a question of igniting action and awareness for someone else than those that are the ones who produce data and those in the proximity of it… With this not to say that it is not a very good initiative and that this is a step in the right direction!