The Discursive Divide: Rethinking the Rhetoric of the Digital Divide

I would like to approach this question by considering the ways in which the institutionalization of the digital divide emerges not just from differing levels of access to, or experience with digital technology, but primarily from perceptions about those differences that inform our teaching and scholarship. What would it mean to shift the discourse from a framework of crisis based on an understanding of youth media practices as ‘out of control’ or ‘undisciplined,’ to one that assumes that youth social media practices can involve a great deal of sophistication and critical literacy? 


One very real way in which this digital divide has manifested recently is in the discourse surrounding ‘cyberbullying.’ There is a significant difference in the ways in which the topic is understood by adults and teens, creating a digital and discursive divide. danah boyd and Alice Marwick suggest that teens themselves understand aggressive behavior online as a continuum with very few specific instances that fall directly under the heading of ‘bullying,’ instead categorizing most of these actions as ‘drama.’ But much of the scholarship and popular media coverage labels teens as either ‘bullies’ or ‘victims’ effacing the often sophisticated ways that teens either navigate or respond to these behaviors through social media. While some efforts, such as the It Gets Better Project, take current youth practices as a starting point for more focused action, many of the legislative and public awareness efforts miss the mark because they take their starting point on the other side of the digital divide by failing to adequately account for the range of practices that teens are actually engaged in. What happens when we, as digital humanities scholars, start from the same place?


I’ve made this mistake in my own teaching by emphasizing the need for critical media literacy to my students before gaining an understanding of how they actually understand their own practices. But I wasn’t able to reflect on that position prior to my research on a subgenre of YouTube videos produced by teens that actually respond directly to cyberbullying. These vlogs comment quite profoundly on the impact of social media through their own sophisticated social media production, demonstrating a level of recursivity not often accounted for in scholarship on the topic. 


This experience has made clear to me that investing too heavily in the rhetoric of the divide actually helps to create one. Rather than pointing to a clear solution, I would suggest that we continue to critique our methodologies in order to avoid further entrenchment in our own practices. This begins by avoiding assumptive behavior in our pedagogy and aggressive behavior in our research that is based on a misunderstanding of what it is that actually divides us. 


Works Cited


boyd, danah and Alice Marwick. “The Drama! Teen Conflict, Gossip, and Bullying in Networked 

Publics.” A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society. Oxford Internet Institute Symposium, September 21-24, 2011, University of Oxford. 


Image on front page by www. and available on Flickr


I think that, along these lines, that it is interesting to think how the students use their phones as rhetorical tools to frame and capture moments of bullying. Videos on Youtube that are categorized as "Nerd beats up bully!" or "Bully knocked out!" from public moments that turn into moments of personal catharsis for those online. It might be interesting to examine those alongside of the more "civil" responses to bullying that projects like It Gets Better.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.