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Facebook and the Digital Divide

An O’Reilly Media blogger recently posted interesting demographic data concerning Facebook. The blogger highlighted the growth of Facebook’s international user base and raised questions about the market share of social networking sites. But, apart from this, the data encouraged me to consider the global digital divide and whether or not it is slowly closing.

According to the report, the top three user countries (US, UK, and Canada) now only account for 61 percent of all users worldwide. Moreover, two of the Top 10 countries represent the Global South, namely Colombia and Chile. In fact, 21 of the 46 countries that appear on the list are middle-income countries of the Global South, including Mexico, India, Venezuela, South Africa, Malaysia, and Pakistan. It is clear that these developing nations are attractive emerging markets for proprietors of social networking sites and other forms of digital communication.

Facebook may, in fact, be a useful barometer for the current status of the digital divide. Undoubtedly, site membership is an imprecise measure of Internet access across the globe, but it may be an indicator of a trend. And given the social, reciprocal nature of Facebook activity, it signifies the regularity of Internet use among a portion of patrons within a country.

I realize I must be cautious here. After all, the digital divide is two-pronged, existing both between regions or nations and within countries. In reality, access to sites like Facebook, even in these rising middle-income countries, is far from unitary. Last month, Global Voices reported that seventy-five percent of Colombians are still without access. It appears that the paradigm of the North-South digital divide often overshadows the deeper routes of the access gap.

In the end, discussions of Facebook and the digital divide may be just as circular as evaluations of Facebook and democracy. Stories of democratic activism within the Facebook groups of one country are often accompanied by reports of repression or censorship in another. I guess the jury is still out on both issues.

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