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Digital divide goes beyond MySpace, Facebook

MIT academic researcher argues that teens who don't have constant access to technology are falling into a "participation gap."

SAN FRANCISCO--Last month, Danah Boyd, a well-known researcher of teen culture online, argued that class divisions in the United States could be split between and Facebook.

In essence, Boyd wrote, MySpace is home to a large population of "burnouts," punks or alternative-scene teenagers whose parents likely didn't go beyond a high school education. Facebook, in contrast, is a bustling hub for jocks, school nerds and prom queens planning for their university years. You get the division.

But what happens to the teens who don't have constant access to technology, unlike those spending hours a day on MySpace or Facebook regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds?

Henry Jenkins, director of the media studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said here Tuesday that the divisions are extending further to a so-called participation gap, which exists between teens who have 24/7 access to digital technologies and kids who can only get online from school or the library.

"We're moving from a (digital divide that's about) access to technology to one that's about access to social skills and cultural knowledge that emerges from access to digital technologies," Jenkins said in an interview at Mashup 2007, a two-day confab on teens and technology. (He posited this idea in a recent white paper published by the Macarthur Foundation.)

For example, Jenkins talked about how a group of kids who learned to read and write from Harry Potter books has gotten an education about corporate politics by defending their fan sites. Warner Bros. had sought to take down Harry Potter fan sites for infringing on its intellectual property, but the outcry from kids operating the sites was so great that the media giant backed down. (Apparently the kids learned from Harry what it meant to question and fight authority.)

Jenkins also cited a study from USC that showed that teens with less access to the Internet, when logged on, just grabbed information from a site like Wikipedia without thinking about it critically. In contrast, teens with more access possess a greater understanding of how a site like Wikipedia works through user-generated contributions, Jenkins said.

The Internet "is a birthplace for civic engagement," Jenkins said. "Kids who don't have access are scrambling to keep up or are left out altogether."