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The Real Digital Divide

Geeks live in a dream world — a world of Twitter-Twhirl-Friendfeed-AlertThingy-Seesmic. And if you think most people reading this can identify any of those things, think again. Moreover, if you think there's a chance of any of those crossing the real chasm in the next ten years, think again.

Why? Because the rest of the world just isn't ready. We live in a rarified world of social media consultants and early adopters. Where is the rest of the world? Well, I hate to tell you this, but it's back at YAHOO.

Why does Microsoft futz with buying Yahoo? Because the rest of the world is still there. At least it is from a social media standpoint. This morning on Twitter, Scoble asked why CNET still existed, when all he read was Tech Crunch. None of those names mean anything to the people I meet in Phoenix.

I have been facilitating technical assistance groups for SLHI, a foundation in Arizona that helps non-profit organizations collaborate. This is my second group.

The first group was called "social media," but most of the people who signed up didn't know what social media was. They signed up because we marketed the group as "free web site tools."

These were non-profit executives who had built websites (or hired someone to do it for them), but a few years later, the sites were out of date, the designers out of business, and keeping their sites current is impossible for them. Most did not even know who owned their domains (not usually their charity) or hosted their sites (often the owner of the domain).

What tool did I use to teach them to build web sites? Blogger. How long did it take? Six weeks. Why? Because most of them had to be taught how to log on to a computer, launch a browser, and find a URL.

The second group is quite different. This group is called simply "free web tools." I started off by asking people what they needed in their organizations. From their answers, I selected a group of tools I thought they could use. In this group, I had to start by teaching people Yahoo Groups, so they could communicate with their constituencies and I could communicate with them. I answered questions like "if I join Yahoo, will it put a virus on my computer." Once I had them signed into Yahoo, I went down the entire left navigation bar to show them how to upload photos, post files, and use the calendar.

These were half a dozen people who can use Microsoft Word and answer email. One woman even carried a thumb dirve with her church files on it, and knew how to upload from the drive to a computer — but then not how to post a photo on a photo-sharing site.

What I've learned is that computer training is all over the map. While almost everyone who works in an office can now use email and perhaps word processing, the level of competency after that is all over the map.

These are not people in undeveloped countries; they are not residents of the barrio; they are professional people who have been taught a small piece of a very big puzzle, and don't have a sense of what the completed puzzle should look like.

We hold this program in the Phoenix Indian Center, a building full of resources for urban Native Americans. I've been told that most of the Center's clients do not have access to computers at home, so they come to the resource room in the Center to use the computers. There, they can check the things they already know, such as job listings or email, but there's no systematic training for them here, either.

What this means to me is that it will take a generation for the kids who may be growing up with social media now to be comfortable with it, as it has taken ten years for the current generation of employed professionals to get comfortable even with the amount of collaboration and transparency represented by Yahoo.

I am so grateful for my life, because I have the privilege of experiencing both ends of the spectrum, and therefore getting some perspective.