Digital Divide and Social Networking Sites


In 1997 the telephone company MCI put out the iconic “Anthem” television commercial. The commercial showcases a diverse group of people collectively claiming that the Internet has created a “utopian” world in which race, gender, age and other identity markers are eliminated. On the internet, the chorus of voices inform us, “There are only minds.” There are a multitude of issues present in this representation of the internet, but the most obvious one is this: It isn’t true. “Anthem” implied that the Internet would allow everyone access to the Internet, thus eliminating the inequalities between different groups of people and making them all the same. People would be equal on the Internet. Fourteen year later, the reality is quite different. Not only have discriminatory actions and practices found a place online, but race, gender, age and income also play a crucial part in who can get online and what they can do once they get there. The “digital divide” (Or “digital inequality paradigm,” which deals with the issues of who is able to gain digital skills and abilities, as opposed to having access to digital technology) exists and runs very obviously along side the issues of gender, race, class and age. Around the same time that “Anthem” was hitting the air, another force was emerging on the internet: social networking. Online communities and networking sites like or had been around for a few years, but it wasn’t until 1997, with the launch of that the modern “social networking site” (SNS) was born. Since then the number of SNS has only continued to grow. Social networking sites have become a mainstay of social life in the United States. Everyone, it would seem, uses facebook. However, SNS are still not as universally pervasive as the public discussion of them would have us believe. There is a “digital divide” effecting who has access to the internet and therefore SNS. Even people who can get online may not have the digital literacy to navigate SNS. This is, however, beginning to change, as SNS become more accessible to people and their uses become more widespread and understood. Within this paper I will examine a number of social networking sites, who uses them and what makes these services important. I will look at how the areas of race, class, age and gender impact internet access and use, specifically in terms of SNS.I will finally look at what differentiates SNS from other online personal publication and communication services such as blogs and why these social networking services have caught on at higher rates with certain groups of people.



The internet is a variable place with many services available and what actually counts as a “social networking site” differs depending on context and who you talk to. A common definition of a social networking site is given by Boyd and Ellison. They define social networking sites as:

“Web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system “

This definition is extremely broad. It encompasses many services – such as livejournal, last.FM, youtube and flickr – that are not normally thought of as social networking sites in the same way that linkedIn and facebook are. To differentiate between these different services we have to bring another term into play: social media. The differences between social media and social networking are also incredibly complicated because both terms are new and refer to concepts that are still in the process of forming, and because there is a tremendous amount of overlap between them. One definition offered by social media consultant Lon S. Cohen is that social media is “a strategy and an outlet for broadcasting, which Social Networking is a tool and a utility for connecting with others”. Mark Stelzner of follows up Cohen’s definition with the explanation that “Social Media are tools for sharing and discussing information. Social Networking is the use of communities of interest to connect to others”  Social networking sites, then, are sites where the primary goal, as defined by the site creators and the majority of the site users, is communication and connecting to others. Services youtube, flickr, and blogging services like blogger and livejournal, fall more firmly under the category of social media because they are typically used for broadcasting and discussing information. However, these two terms are not exclusive and the services described as SNS here are often used for social media purposes and social media services are often used to connect to others.

This paper will mainly focus on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, as they are the three most popular SNS in the United States and World-wide. Facebook is perhaps the most well known social networking sites in the world. LinkedIn is unique in this group because it is primarily used for making professional connections. Twitter is also interesting in that, despite being continuously included in discussions about social networking sites, it only just barely meets the criteria for a SNS and is perhaps the greatest example of the way social networking and social media overlap.


Social networking sites are used in diverse ways, with each individual utilizing different aspects of them to create a unique experience. Many SNS are used not to make new connections to people, but instead support pre-existing relationships. Most “networks” on these sites are the articulation of offline connections, although the strength and nature of these connections vary a great deal. In a PEW Internet survey it was found 91% of teens on social networking sites used the sites to stay in touch with friends they see frequently, 82% use them to stay connected to friends they rarely see and on 60% of boys and 46% or women are likely to use social networking sites to try to make new friends. In some case however, the objective is in fact to make new connections. The goal of LinkedIn, for example, is to make new connections in order to find jobs and network with others in your professional field. Twitter is often used to follow celebrities. SNS are used to announce user’s current status, to have conversations with other users, to post links to online content and in increasing amount to act as a catalysis and tools for political acts like the protests and revolutions in the Middle East in early 2011.


The “digital divide” refers to the gap between individuals and groups of people in regard to their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (Also know as “ICTs”, used here to refer specifically to the internet) and their use of said ICTs. Another concern with the digital divide is that there is an imbalance not only in access to technology but also in the knowledge and skilled required to participate in certain aspects of digital life. This is more easily referred to as “digital inequality.” The digital divide is often cited as the result of socio-economic status, but there are age, gender, and racial components to the divide as well. The way the divide is played out across the web in general and SNS in particular is varied. Unlike the rest of the internet, SNS have a very large percentage of women and people of color. In this way, SNS can become a bridge to helping break down the digital divide in other areas, which in turn have greater impacts on people’s opportunities in life.

GENERAL STATISTICS is the largest SNS with over 800 million active users on Facebook. More than 350 million of those users access Facebook via a mobile device. Twitter has the second largest user base, with 200 million users. LinkedIn purportedly holds the title for third most populous social networking site with it’s claim more than 135 million members. Income is a huge determinant in who has access to the internet. 95% of Americans with an annual household income of $75,000 or more use the internet, as opposed to 70% of households making less. In terms of SNS, the majority of users fall between the 26k and 75k income range. Over 64% of facebook users fall in this range. Twitter’s income break down tends to skew lower, with 17% of users in the 0 to 25k range, 33% in the 26k to 50k range, and 23% in the 51 to 75k range. In comparison, 39% of LinkedIn users make of 100k annually.




In terms of ICTs and digital technology in general, women tend to have less access and digital literacy than men. However, women typically outnumber men on social networking sites. 58% percent of Facebook users are women, and 64% of Twitter’s users are. LinkedIn stands out as one of the few social networking sites where men are the majority. As of 2010, 75.8% of women online use social networking sites vs 69.7% of men and women spend 30% more time on SNS. Part of this is due to the fact that women’s decreased access is a direct result of social practices that provide women with less employment, education and income. When these factors are taken into consideration and accounted for women are actually more active ICT users than men, which should be taken into consideration when discussion the technological prowess of the the different genders.

us digital divide 00-06 rates of broadband subscription 09 by-race

The Internet is very white, although this is beginning to change. Between 2000 and 2010, the proportion of African American and Latino internet users doubled from 11% to 21%, much closer to offline proportions of the populations. African Americans have increased their home broadband adaption dramatically, although they are still less likely than whites to go online. English-speaking Latinos are almost identical to whites in their internet use, although Spanish-dominant Latinos still trail behind. Minority adults use SNS at much higher rates than whites do. As of fall 2010, 70% of of African Americans and English-speaking Latinos use social networking sites, as opposed to 60% of white adults. In addition, nearly 50% of black internet users us SNS on a daily basis, as opposed to one third of white users. One forth of all online African Americans and 20% of English-speaking Latinos use twitter, as opposed to 15% of white internet users. There is a distinct lack of women and people of color in STEM (science, technology, engineering and medical) fields. Part of this stems from a belief that these groups do not find technology interesting or that they are not capable of using them. However, SNS usage shows that when given the proper access and motivation, people of color and women are just as likely if not more likely to be engaged in technology as white men. SNS therefore could potentially be used as a jumping off point to getting more underrepresented people into STEM fields.




The majority of SNS users are between the ages of 23 and 35. Social networks were orignal pioneered by the young, but as time goes on these services are gaining more and more older users. LinkedIn has one of the oldest user base, only 6% of it’s users being between the ages of 18 and 22. Understandable, since it is a primarily a professional job networking service, which would appeal to more to adults. In contrast Facebook a bit of a younger demographic: 40% of users are under the age of 25. This could be due to the fact that facebook originally opened to college students and then high school students. Facebook has primarily been seen as a haven for younger generations. Older users are not always welcome, as seen by the outcry when older users began to join. Many younger users incredibly worried, and still are, about the dreaded time when their parents would join facebook. Sites like, whose tag line is “Congratulations! Your parents just joined facebook. Your life is officially over,” are used by younger facebook users to commiserate over the “invasion” of older users. Sites such as these demonstrate the dominant assumption that SNS, especially facebook, are meant for younger people. However, as time goes on, more and more adults over the age of 55 are joining social networking sites. As of spring 2010 almost half of all internet users ages 50 to 64 and a quarter of those older than 65 now use SNS. 11% of online adults use Twitter. Adults over the age of 65 are still the least represented age group on social media sites. They still rely heavily on email as their digital communication medium of choice. Online social networking is simply very new to many older adults, which accounts for some of their reluctance to initially sign up. In addition, adults 65 years and older are very unlikely to have high-speed internet access and the least likely group of people to see not having broadband as a disadvantage. However, those that do have high speed access are unlikely to give it up. SNS use increases in adults who have high-speed access.


Why are social networking sites popular? Why do certain social networking sites like facebook and twitter have such a high rate of use among women, people of color and people from lower income households? Why social networking sites, as opposed to the many other online publishing and communication services?


One alternative to using a social networking site might be blogging. A blog, or a “web log” is a website or section of a website that is updated with new content from time to time. Blogs can either be hosted on someone’s personal website, or using any number of free or paid services available, such livejournal, blogger, or wordpress. There are many different types of blogs; some are used by companies to enhance brand image, some are used by individual professionals to share their knowledge, but the type of blog most related to SNS are those that function as a type of online diary. At the time of this paper, blogpulse statistics claims that there are 177,384,192 public blogs in existence. There’s no way to know how many of those are “online diaries,” but personal blogging has seen a large down turn since the advent of social networking sites. Most people, especially younger bloggers, have moved to facebook and twitter.


This is partly because SNS fulfill many of the same needs that blogs do, only better. One study found five major reasons for individuals to blog: they use blogs as journals to document their life, to express their opinions and give commentary on things, to express their emotions, to work through ideas through writing and to form and maintain communities.

Documenting your life is made extremely easy via status updates on Facebook and Twitter. 30% of tweets are of the users current status, making it the most common message type.

These status updates can also be used to express their emotions and work through ideas, much of the time with their social network being called on to actually help with emotional support and feedback on ideas. SNS also allow people to give their opinions and commentary on things, sometimes very directly: 25% of twitter users and 40% of facebook users follow a brand, which they can then interact with.

Finally, SNS are often a more effective way to form and maintain communities because they are, as the name implies, networked. Among teens, 91% use SNS to keep in touch with friends they see frequently, 82% use sites to keep in touch with friends they rarely see, 72% use the sites to make plans with friends and 49% use the sites to make new friends. It is fairly easy to find people and groups on facebook: simply search for something and a plethora of options appear. On Twitter, the trending topics feature allows people to see what others, even people they aren’t networked to, have to say about any number of popular topics. As people join in on the fun, it creates a temporary mini community of people who are all briefly invested in the same thing.

In contrast, blogging services are sometimes fairly difficult to navigate. Blogger, for example, has no clear search engine on it’s homepage for finding new blogs.

WordPress and livejournal are better in this respect. WordPress has a way to search blogs by general topic, such as “humor” and “books,” as well as a way to search for specific blog entries by topics. Livejournal allows the creation of both personal and community journals, both of which can be searched easily.

Blogs that are hosted on personal websites, of course, have no inherent networking capabilities.

One reason some people may feel more comfortable using SNS to network and communicate as opposed to blogs is that SNS have more options when it comes to privacy. For blogs there are three privacy settings: public, unlisted (can only be found if you have the URL), and password protected. Facebook, however, allows you to decide who can see what on your page. Perhaps everyone can find your profile, but only friends can see your photos and so on. LinkedIn also has a privacy settings page. Twitter is a bit more like the typical blog, with tweets either being public or “protected,” meaning that anyone who wants to view your tweets or follow you requires your approval.

Privacy is large concern for everyone, including the elderly, who cite confusion about privacy and security management as a barrier for joining certain SNS. Some people, especially women, have found that blogging for the public at large can result in harassment and even death threats. SNS make it much easier to control who you come in contact with and allows for an altogether safer and more comfortable online experience.

Perhaps the number one reason that SNS, especially twitter and facebook, have taken off as well as they have, is because of how easy they are to access on mobile devices. Over 30% of facebook and 37% of twitter users log on using a mobile device. Social networking applications are the fastest growing mobile application category. In addition, mobile facebook users are usually twice as active as those who access facebook on a desktop. And with the single exception of google maps on the Android OS, the facebook mobile application is the most used app in the US across every mobile operating system. In addition Twitter has numerous free apps across multiple operating systems.

This is notable because mobile devices are the number one way that African Americans and Latinos access the internet. They are even more likely to own a cell phone than whites and they use their cell phones for a wider range of activities than white cell phone owners do. In addition, people with less disposable incomes may find that using mobile devices as their main way of accessing the internet is significantly less expensive than broadband internet on a desktop computer.

Both Twitter and Facebook are incredibly easy to use on mobile devices, which may account in part for their popularity. LinkedIn on the other hand has a significantly less mobile friendly app. The LinkedIn app does not let you create or edit a profile on the app itself. It is clearly supposed to be used as a supplement to desktop access, while twitter and facebook can both be completely accessed via your phone. This may account in part for why the numbers of Latinos and African Americans on LinkedIn are so low, as well as the reason why people from lower income houses don’t take advantage of LinkedIn very often.

In addition, the mobile apps for blogging services like wordpress, blogger, and livejournal are not nearly as user friendly as the Twitter and Facebook apps are. The Blogger app doesn’t let you look at other Blogger blogs, only update your own blog. Livejournal and WordPress do allow you to look at the blogs of the people your following. WordPress allows you to find new blogs in a way similar to how you find blogs on a normal web browser, but livejournal’s mobile app’s search function only works if you know the name of the livejournal user you’re seeking.

The actual posting ability of all three apps is limited. Blogger’s posting client allows for none of the formating options that often make blogging a more attractive option over social networking sites, which rarely allow for italics and bolding in status updates. WordPress’s posting client, and livejournal’s to a lesser extent, both require a basic understanding HTML, which can be a huge deterrent for less tech savvy people. In addition, blogging really isn’t made for mobile devices. Blog entries are generally expected to be longer, and it’s much harder to format longer text posts on a mobile device, not to mention if you want to work in some sort of multimedia element. Overall, SNS lend themselves to mobile devices much better than blogging services, which in term makes SNS services available to a much wider audience.


Social Networking sites are important for a number of reasons. As the old adage goes, it’s who, not what, you know that counts. Networking can lead to a great number of opportunities in life. Sites like LinkedIn are built around the assumption that networking is good for businesses. SNS let people seek support from others. People with chronic illness are extremely likely to participate in online discussions and seek out support from their online networks.

Social networking sites are an important component of getting under represented groups like women and people of color online and getting them acquainted with ICTs in general. SNS are a crucial part of beginning to bridge the digital divide in terms of gender, race and age and will hopeful lead the way in equalizing digital inequality in terms of ICT use and skill level.

Finally, as the events in the Middle East in early 2011 showed, social networking sites have completely transformed the political and information landscape. Services like twitter help keep people informed about events all over the world in a way that not even newspapers can begin to replicate. Government outreach using social media is critical for the future, as is citizen journalism using these same services.

And although these services still have a long way to go in terms of credibility, they are not disappearing any time soon.


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