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Identifying the unexpectedly digitally included: the start of the search

The plan for Phase 1 of this research is to identify a group of people that are from low socio-economic backgrounds who may be using the Internet to improve their life circumstances.

Data from the most recent OxIS survey makes it possible to identify people from low socio-economic backgrounds who are frequent users of the Internet. While the analysis is still in early exploratory stages, this outlier group, who can be defined as the “unexpectedly digitally included” (see Helsper, 2008), seems to still be in existence in 2013. In this post I shall try to summarise what the current analysis is indicating. Using exploratory factor analysis it is possible to identify seven types of Internet use:

  • Information seeking (news) (look for news – national, international, get info about local events, look for sports information)
  • Informal learning (find info about health or medical care, look something up to help settle an argument, find info about other people, find or checking a fact)
  • Formal learning (look up a definition of a word, get info for school/college/homework, online distance learning for academic degree/job training)
  • Participation (participate in chat rooms, read a blog, write a blog, maintain a personal website, post messages on discussion or message boards)
  • Creativity (post own writing, stories, poetry or other creative work, post videos including music videos that you created, post writing/creative content you authored on a SNS)
  • Entertainment  (play online games, download music, listen to music online, download videos, watch movies or films or videos online, look at pictures or photos online, watch TV programs on the Internet)
  • Finance (buy a product online, make travel reservations/bookings, pay bills, use your bank’s online services, comparing products and prices, ordering groceries or food online, sell things online)

If we then calculate the top 25% of Internet users who use the Internet most frequently for each of these kinds of Internet activity we have a simple measure of digital inclusion. And then, using ACORN as a measure of social inclusion, we can examine the relationship between these two things. The graph below summarizes this relationship. It provides the % of people in each ACORN group who can be classified as digitally included (i.e. are in the top quartile of frequency of Internet use) for each kind of activity:

All Internet users N= 2,083

You would expect, based on what we know about the positive relationship between social and digital inclusion, that there would be very few (if any) individuals from ACORN category 5 (Hard-Pressed) appearing in the figure. We would expect that people from this ACORN group would not be digitally included – particularly given the relatively “high bar” of our definition. Yet this is not the case, for all kinds of Internet activities there are a small proportion of people who are Hard-Pressed who can be classified as digitally included (ranging from 18 – 31% depending on the activity). And at times the proportion of people from the hard pressed group who are digitally included is a comparable or even a higher proportion of people compared to other ACRON categories who have higher SES.

A similar pattern is clear when we look at household income. While there is clearly a relationship between digital inclusion and household income – the outliers – or the “unexpectedly digitally included” – still exist. (13% – 20% depending on the activity).

All Internet users N= 2,083

While this is only the start, and in particular the measures of digital and social exclusion need to be far more nuanced, it provides a useful indication of the presence of the “unexpectedly digitally included” in Britain.

 

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The importance of outliers in digital inclusion research

The premise behind this project is that we need a new way to look at the issues around digital inclusion. While the research has become increasingly nuanced, time and time again we see that, in general, individuals from better off backgrounds tend to benefit far more from using the Internet than the less well-off. The patterns stay the same.

But there is a small, but significant group of people who do not reflect this trend.  There are some adults who despite being from less well-off backgrounds seem to be using the Internet to improve their circumstances.  This group of “outliers” uses the Internet “against the odds”.  We do not know a great deal about them (see next post for a brief review) but their existence raises so many questions.  In what ways does this group use the Internet? What are the contexts and processes that lead to them using the Internet in this way? Are they deliberately using the Internet as a way to enhance their cultural, social and economic capital for themselves and for their family? What meaning does this kind of use of the Internet have in their lives? Has it, in their own terms, contributed to their social mobility?

That is the basis for this study.  Through analysis of OxIS data and in-depth qualitative interviews with this group I hope we can add to our understandings about the links between the Internet and social mobility in ways that the majority of people, who fit the general trend, cannot.