Black and white and Web all over

Black and white and Web all over: By Janelle Brown. African-Americans aren't flocking online. A new study by Donna Hoffman and Thomas Novak puts hard numbers on the 'digital divide.'

By Janelle Brown
Published April 17, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Race, gender, physical appearance: All will be democratized by the glorious, global medium of the Internet -- at least according to its own marketing hype. But while the ethnic background of your chat room correspondent may be indeterminable, it doesn't take much brainpower to recognize that minority groups in the U.S. aren't getting online as quickly as their affluent, white counterparts.

So far, there has been no concrete demographic research into race on the Web, and only some arms of government and scattered activists have devoted much energy to encouraging minority groups to get online.

That, says marketing researcher Donna Hoffman, is a big mistake. Together with her research partner Thomas Novak, Hoffman has released the first comprehensive study that looks at the numbers of American whites and blacks who use the Internet -- and tries to understand the "digital divide."

The study, which will appear in Science Magazine, is the latest research to emerge from Hoffman and Novak's Project 2000 center at Vanderbilt University. For four years, they have examined market segments on the Internet -- including race and gender -- in hope of mapping the demographics of the online population and understanding how the numbers could influence the long-term commercialization of the Web.

Using the results of a Nielsen Internet Demographic Study, which surveyed 5,813 Americans in December 1996 and January 1997, Hoffman and Novak extrapolated the numbers of African-Americans online and determined the roles of income and education in that presence. The results, says Hoffman in an interview with Salon, were both encouraging and alarming.

What did you find in your studies, and why is it significant?

We have been able to provide very solid evidence of a digital divide on the Internet. Some of the findings are rather obvious -- whites are more likely to have a computer at home, whites are more likely to use the Web and whites are more likely to have used the Web much more recently. There's really nothing surprising there. On the other hand, we've been able to document the extent of the gap and where the gap is more severe.

The other things we've found are some rather surprising, and to some extent shocking, differences that actually suggest the gap is much worse in a more insidious way. That particularly has to do with students.

White students are more than twice as likely as black students to have a computer at home, and that difference does not go away when you take income into account. That is really interesting because it suggests that African-American families are making different choices -- even at the same level of income, they are not buying PCs.

You can't say that this is because African-Americans don't want access, because we also looked at that and found that, in fact, African-Americans are actually more likely to want to get online than whites are. So it's absolutely not a question of aspirations or interest, because in fact African-Americans are more interested. Something else is operating here.

The other thing we found, which is even more disturbing, is what happens with students who don't have a PC at home. The good news is if you're a student and you have a PC at home, there's no difference between whites and African-Americans in terms of Web use. Having that computer in the house is a wonderful equalizer. But take that PC away and then look at what happens and it's shocking: There you find that when there's not a computer in the home, whites are five times more likely to find another way to use the Web at some nontraditional access point -- like a cybercafe, community center, a library, a friend or a relative's house -- than an African-American student is.

What was your immediate reaction to these results?

It suggests that we need to start looking at the status of technology in our cities and our communities, because it's turning out to be very important to have these nontraditional points of access [in locations where African-Americans are more likely to use them]. These have to be provided, and they have to be provided equally if we want to ensure equal participation for everyone in society -- not just educated, well-to-do, high-income professionals. Everyone needs to have an option here.

I think one of the key policy recommendations is that we need to get access into the home. Because the other thing our research shows is that Internet use goes up astronomically, especially more frequent use, when you have access at home. We know that one of the key answers is going to be to make computers really, really cheap, and to make Net access really cheap and accessible, so we can get these access points into the hands of everyone.

What kind of impact do you think non-computer-based approaches to Net access, like WebTV, might have in African-American communities?

I think they offer great potential. Our data also show that African-Americans show more interest in acquiring Net access in that manner -- via some kind of set-top box on the TV set, or through an Internet-TV proposition -- than do whites. We can speculate that this is because it's cheaper. So I think that the role of set-top boxes, and other innovations along those lines, should be aggressively pursued.

One anomaly in your research was that African-Americans are actually more likely than whites to have access to the Web at work. Could you explain that?

African-Americans that are above the median income of $40,000 are actually more likely to have access to a computer at work than are their white counterparts. We looked into that and found that if you are in that demographic, you are more likely to be well-educated, younger and in a computer professional job. Which, of course, puts you in a position to be using a computer at work.

What that is suggesting is that there's a bias operating here that's restricting Internet use to a very narrow segment of African-Americans. It looks as if African-Americans need to get higher levels of education in order to achieve the same income as whites -- that's discrimination. And then they are going to jobs that tend to be tech jobs.

You mentioned in an
earlier paper
on the subject that the medium's discourse has been shaped by the "dominant culture" of affluent white males. Do you think this has created a cultural bias in the technology itself that is discouraging African-Americans from getting online?

I don't know if it's a cultural bias against African-Americans -- but I think you can make the argument that there's a cultural bias in favor of those who developed the technology. So from that perspective, the bias is against those who don't speak English, against those who are not educated, high-income professional white males. If we look at the Internet as a global phenomenon, there are many groups who are potentially going to be left at the door.

But I think increasingly that's changing: For example, the number of women online is now 50 percent. The gender gap has disappeared, for all intents and purposes.

In fact, there is good news in our study: There are now over 5 million African-Americans online. That's 10 percent of all people who have ever used the Web, and African-Americans are 12 percent of the U.S. population, so they are represented in proportion to their numbers in the population.

What do you see as the role of race-specific content -- African-American sites like NetNoir or MSBET -- on whether this demographic gets on, and stays on, the Web?

I like to look at it from this angle: Our research now gives very solid evidence that there is a very significant segment of people online who need to be targeted. There are many more African-Americans online than people thought, and it makes good sense to target content directly at them.

There's no question that a key factor in keeping people online is that they have a compelling experience. Obviously, if content is not there, they're not going to stay online. But hopefully this sort of research will spur these developments -- when ad agencies, advertisers, content providers can look at this study and say, "That's a good chunk, we need to start looking at this in a broader sense."

We need a study of the differences between the ways black and white students use the Web. That could get to issues of content, and why it is that whites are finding nontraditional access points, and blacks are not, when they don't have a computer at home.

This data was gathered last year -- do you think the past year has made any significant difference in these numbers?

There are many more people online. In fact, we're just getting ready to analyze the latest CommerceNet/Neilsen data from this January, so I'll know more about what's changed in a few months.

As we move forward, what kinds of policies do you think could reduce the gap between the technology haves and have-nots?

In addition to offering better educational opportunities for African-Americans, which needs to come from the government, one of the things we'd like to see is the market get involved in trying to provide computers, to start to adopt a policy perspective. Get computer manufacturers -- the hardware and the software and the access providers -- to say, "What can we do to stimulate the development of the Internet?" It makes good business sense, because if you put a computer with Net access in everyone's home, they will use it. Our research shows that they will use it, and they will use it more than other people, and that's good for business.

We have a situation where business aims can be consistent with greater social aims. So I'd like to see if business will step up to the plate.

What are you envisioning when, at the end of your study, you write, "If a significant segment of our society is denied equal access to the Internet, U.S. firms will lack the technological skills needed to remain competitive"?

If we're only training some people to have the appropriate skills to participate in the work force in this country, we're not going to be competitive. We're not going to have the full range of talents that are potentially available across the population. We're even seeing this right now -- we have Silicon Valley firms clamoring to relax immigration policies and saying, "We don't have enough engineers."

We have plenty of people in this country -- we just have to train them.

What do you see as a worst-case scenario, if we continue to ignore this "digital divide"?

We're in danger of leaving large segments of society behind. This is bad, because it's not just about being unable to access the latest entertainment news from E! Online. Increasingly, as electronic commerce becomes more important to the global economy, business and institutions are putting information that is critical to their constituents online. And if only a certain segment of society is able to access that, we're going to have a bigger divide than we've ever had.

Do we want riots in the cities because only some people can get online to the information they need? That's terrible. [Such inequality] will have very negative consequences on society.

Of course the biggest loss is to democratic communication. It's a joke to say that the Internet levels the playing field, but it only levels the playing field for people who can get online. What kind of democracy is that?

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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