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Bridging the Digital Divide

By Passang Norbu

Reflecting on the Rethink08 project, there are three key learning points that I would like to discuss: use of technology and the growth of social networking in journalism; technical challenges, and a world without borders, yet virtually separated.

Being a young Bhutanese journalist, with minimal exposure to the use of technology for journalism and online social networking, I learned that the use of those tools is key in reaching the public. As a recently arrived foreigner in Missoula, Mont., my real-world social network here was small. I had to rely on ”online social networking” to widen my reach.

We learned to draw the community into the conversation by syndicating material and posing questions online. This was new to me and also very interesting, given how fast we were able to gather various opinions and thoughts from people with different viewpoints. There was no way we could have achieved this using the traditional method of one-on-one interviews.

On the other hand, along with the benefits, there were challenges that we faced. First, to fully use the technology that is available, technical knowledge is required; we needed skilled personnel to build and run the online service, and use appropriate techniques to syndicate content, communicate with users and evaluate the performance of the service. In our small team, a wide range of basic technological skills were required, without which designing, using and maintaining the Web site for the Internet-driven project would have been impossible.

Technical skills

For the Rethink08 team, having members with that useful knowledge was essential for the project’s success. Even then, these team members had to quickly learn more and advance their basic skills. Although online social networking has taken off at this day and age, drawing people to the Rethink08 Web site was very challenging, given the limited real social network we could promote our project to, the lack of an advertising budget and time constraints arising from the participants’ schedules and the limited duration of the project. This led to a smaller number of people participating in our project than we had hoped for.

For me, finding contacts beyond the classroom was difficult. I learned that online social networking not only needed a platform with adequate content, but also required making and maintaining contacts with the mainstream media to attract contributors/users. It involved procuring, re-publishing, linking and debating content across networked environments such as Twitter, Facebook, CoverItLive and local newspapers.

Democratization of knowledge

Online social networking supports the democratization of knowledge and information, transforming people from content consumers into content producers.

Given the variety of technology available, deciding upon the right Web site and usage was very difficult. It was important to find the right balance between transmission and generation of information. Getting responses from users was sluggish in the beginning, but as the site gained more popularity and publicity, people’s participation grew in numbers.

Today’s media play a crucial role in forming and reflecting public opinion, connecting the world to individuals and reproducing the self-image of society. Before the Internet, individuals’ capacity to act autonomously was limited. The current practice presents a more complex interaction between media and society, generating information from a network of relations and influences.

The Internet creates a space for a greater diversity of political opinions, social and cultural viewpoints, and a heightened level of consumer participation. On the other hand, online information sharing has its pitfalls. Although there is no inherent geographical, gender or racial bias, a new kind of separation arises: the digital divide, a growing challenge in many countries, and even in the United States.

Bhutan and surrounding countries

For example, in Bhutan, only 3.7 percent of the total population of 800,000 has access to the Internet. Due to limited IT skills, people use technology for basic functions only, such as word processing, data management and e-mail.

Lack of access

Online social networking and information sharing is limited to users with certain technical skills. This could possibly lead to false and even severely biased results. The ones with the most need may not have access to platforms like Rethink08.

I also found that interviewing young voters in person, the traditional form of journalism I was used to from back home, though limited in time and availability, had more depth in its content than the debate and comments online. It was more personal, and people gave deeper thought to what they said, as opposed to people blogging without a second thought. The role of journalism has evolved (yet deteriorated to some extent) with the advent and use of technology in today’s world.

Rethink08 was a group project and without each member fulfilling his or her role, it would not have come so far. Indeed, the whole is greater than the sum of individuals.

Read Passang Norbu’s profile of David Stickney

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