As a scholar who increasingly moves across media platforms and technologies while trying to think of the affordances, limits, and particularities of specific media forms and practices, I want to think about digital divides as plural and multiple as well as historically and spatially contingent. Thinking of digital divides in a plural sense allows us to consider how we as users, teachers, scholars, and members of institutions and disciplines are implicated in preserving and removing such divides. By thinking of digital divides as plural, we can more accurately define the particular nature of digital practices or forms of digitalness that create divides (or are symptomatic of larger ills) and articulate digital divides as an overlapping and plural set of ruptures and flows. By parsing out digital divides, or what are more accurately media and communication divides in our contemporary age, we can start ascertaining and addressing the multiple scales at which digital disparities work to frame production, distribution, and experience at local, municipal, regional, national, and global scales that are at times independent of each other, but are most often intertwined in complex ways.
Like many, I assumed naively at one point that my students were digital natives, but I was rudely awakened when many of students struggled to read (and annotate) PDFs, join shared Dropbox folders, create usernames and passwords for WordPress and Twitter, and engage in production assignments for critical studies classes. I was deluded into thinking that Facebook use equals digital literacy. As digital ethnographers, audience studies researchers, and digital literacy scholars argue, we confront digital divides in our classroom based on gender, class, race, ethnicity, access, and use. Digital natives rhetoric in its most utopian forms assumes that ubiquity equals literacy. Books have been around for centuries, but as the ubiquity of the printed word illustrates, ubiquity does not automatically lead to literacy, much less the critical literacies or production literacies most important to cultural studies and media studies teachers and scholars. Like many, I struggle to couple challenging course content with assignments that ask students to use digital tools, but I have become convinced that teaching students how to say and do things with digital media in a range of courses and content areas is crucial. To do so, however, means spending significantly more time mentoring students and dealing with a range of human interactions with computing technologies and digital platforms. It means retooling our pedagogy, being increasingly adaptable, and rethinking the purpose and types of assessments we design for our syllabi.
Digital divides are based on Internet infrastructures, but also on platforms. The enthusiasm over cloud computing in industrialized countries risks further reinforcing the marginalization of media sectors in emerging economies and may result in substantive changes in media storage, access, and use in developing and emerging economies (as well as in the hinterlands of industrialized nations less likely to have the bandwidth to put in and pull from the cloud). The gaming industry’s enthusiasm over cloud and networked gaming contrasts with the preference of many game players in emerging markets for tangible discs. The uncertainty or contingency of networks contrasts with the comforts of tangible media. The utopian hopes put on cloud computing and cloud storage by some media and tech entrepreneurs deserve scrutiny both for the ways they may engender (or constrain) transnational distribution in terms of commercial success as well as access and participation.
Digital divides can be seen as ways of manufacturing scarcity, attempts to maintain the hegemony of national broadcasting systems or nationally constituted media systems, or ways of segmenting territorial markets for digital distribution. Geotracking, embedding prohibitions, service availability (e.g., Hulu and Netflix), and DVD regions all conspire to make studying, sharing, and discussing transnational television more difficult. Fragments of transnational television cultures found on YouTube that are useful for moving beyond cinema in global media courses often replicate other divides, where uploaders (most often fan laborers) have subtitled clips in major European languages such as English, Spanish, or French.
Finally, how do we think about the relationship of digital divides to the porous, permeable membranes between platforms experienced by users who migrate between different worlds, different communities, or different affinity groups? I have watched international students bounce back and forth between SNSs such as Facebook, Orkut, Cyworld, and Renren. Queer users may migrate back and forth between SNSs and locative apps such as Grindr and Scruff, all while navigating dynamics of embodiment, identity, anonymity, and subjectivity. How and why do people migrate across platforms?