No Need to Reinvent the Wheel: Applying Social Network Analysis to Digital Literacy in the Developing World

There’s a strong temptation in today’s digital age to believe that we are living through “unique, revolutionary times, in which the previous truths no longer hold.”[1] This phenomenon has been described by many technology theorists, and was termed “Internet-centrism” by writer Evgeny Morovoz.

As Morovoz and other scholars have pointed out, many of today’s technology-related problems (such as Inbox overload and censorship battles) have historical parallels.[2] Clay Shirky has famously explained how the sense of information overload we feel towards our email inbox and the Internet in general was also made possible by the printing press, which generated so much information at such a fast pace that no human could ever consume all of the knowledge in all of the books in their lifetime. Sounds familiar, right?

One of the main disadvantages with framing today’s social problems as entirely new is that it leads us to think we need solutions that are entirely new, leading us to ignore existing scholarship that could provide insight or even solutions to today’s problems.

Take, for example, the international movement towards using computer-based technology for international development. Soon after its invention, the Internet-enabled “digital revolution” was celebrated as a potential miracle cure for the developing world. World leaders like former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan touted new technology’s revolutionary potential to fix economic, social and political problems, and agencies like the UN and the World Bank invested millions in this hope.[3]

One of the first lessons learned in the technology for development movement was that in addition to access to a computer, people needed digital literacy—the know-how and social capital to utilize digital technology. This requires not only technical training in how to use technology, but also motivation, and interest and awareness of the possibilities technology can offer.

Since this revelation, international organizations and governments worldwide have invested millions in campaigns, programs and curricula to promote digital literacy. But, like the tech theorists who seek to understand social media networks and why things “go viral,” digital literacy advocates could learn a great deal from pre-Internet scholarship about social networks.

As Howard Rheingold explains in chapter 5 of “Net Smart: How to Thrive Online,” both online and offline networks are made up of individuals connected through strong and weak ties, and through direct and indirect channels.[4] Some people have a lot of influence and a lot of connections, termed “supernodes” by Rheingold. Rheingold argues that these supernodes have a lot of influence, and can direct a great deal of attention towards certain information.

In the online world, supernodes could be popular bloggers, or people on Twitter with thousands of followers. In the offline world, they’re simply influential individuals in our workplaces, neighborhoods and communities. Just as online supernodes can make Internet memes or videos go viral, offline supernodes hold tremendous potential for promoting education and adoption of technology in the developing world.

In Colombia, for example, data shows that citizens gain digital literacy skills more often from contacts in their own offline social networks than they do from official digital educators. According to national research surveys, only 41% of Colombians learned to use the Internet at an educational institution, and 32% learned from a friend or family member.[5] In addition, 63% of Colombians reported having taught someone else to use the Internet or applications.

Unfortunately, there haven’t been large-scale digital literacy programs to date that leverage these networks. The Colombian Ministry of Information and Communications Technology’s Redvolución campaign showed traces of potential: it provided limited training for high school students and average citizens to help introduce other Colombians to the Internet for the first time.

But Redvolución didn’t go so far as to examine strong and weak ties, seek to identify supernodes, map the hubs and bridges in community networks, or generate feedback loops about who was reaching people and at what pace. Based on Rheingold’s synthesis of social nework analysis, these would be keep steps in utilizing existing social networks to advance digital literacy.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel to understand online social networks—there are plenty of theories from the pre-Internet age that help us understand them and how to use them. But we do need to recognize the importance of offline social networks, the ones that predate the Internet, if we want to be successful at advancing digital literacy. Things like hairstyles have been “going viral” since before viral was even a term—it simply means an idea spreading like wildfire through social networks. And digital literacy could be the next big thing.

[1] See “Evgeny vs. the Internet.” http://www.cjr.org/cover_story/evgeny_vs_the_internet.php?page=all

[2] See Clay Shirky on Information Overload vs. Filter Failure. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LabqeJEOQyI.

[3] See United Nations press release on launch of ICT Task Force, http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2001/dev2353.doc.htm

[4] Howard Rheingold, “Net Smart: How to Thrive Online.”

[5] Colombian Digital Culture Survey, 2013.

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