Representation & the Digital Divide

We received the following comment via email. It raises a really interesting question:  how representative can a project be of Londoners’ experiences that exists solely on a social media platform? The original email is in italics below followed by our reply.

Dear friends   [...]
I’m wondering how representative this project can be of people’s
experience during this period – after all, it’s confined to people who use Twitter, thereby excluding a large proportion of Londoners who are too poor, or too “un-techy” to do that. (Few of my very ordinary neighbours would have any idea about Twitter; there are lots of people with no internet access and who are too poor to afford a mobile phone – I don’t have a mobile phone, for example, and have no internet access at home.)
Since it’s especially the poorer and more vulnerable people in society
who are going to suffer most from the imposition of the Olympics on London -
although few of us will escape the consequences entirely – then it seems
absolutely inevitable that the input you receive will be extremely
unrepresentative of the experiences of Londoners as a whole.
Many thanks for your response.
Best wishes

Our reply:

Many thanks for your email. [...] Your email raises some really interesting and important questions regarding the digital divide or digital poverty in London.

When we started this project we were interested in exploring how social media, if at all, can be used to collect the immediacy of events. The main impetus for the Museum being events in London’s recent history such as the 7/7 bombings and last summer’s riots that were spontaneous thus the ability to react quickly in order to collect the process of what happened and how the events unfolded immediately was lost. It is often easier for a museum to collect objects that represent what happened after the event, as curators have time to understand the complexities and represent different perspectives and views about what happened in their collecting strategies. But sometimes how an event unfolds is often not captured retrospectively because the moment has been lost or the methods of communicating that information are not easily collectable. So our first aim of this project was to try to address this gap in collecting the immediacy of events, to explore whether Twitter feeds would provide us with this snapshot. The social media platform Twitter was chosen because this does appear to be one way that some Londoners’ communicate and gather immediate information on a daily basis.

Since that initial starting point our thinking and questions have developed throughout the design and implementation of the project.

When we were designing the recruitment strategy for the project we were highly aware that a project based on a social media platform may exclude a large proportion of people who do not have access to these types of media. We understood that there were limits to participation as the project is based on Twitter and requires access to either a handheld device such as a mobile phone that is equipped with internet access or readily available access to a computer. In order to mitigate against this as much as we could we were therefore keen to ensure that we reached as wide a range of people from as diverse a range of backgrounds as possible. We tried to encourage as much participation as possible via the Museum’s and University’s already existing partnerships with community groups across London’s boroughs. One of the interesting things that has happened through our call is that people have contacted us who use twitter not just in a personal capacity but as a way of voicing the opinions of their local communities and the residents who are elderly or not technologically well equipped but who feel they are being affected by the Olympics.

However, as with every self-identifying voluntary project (whether online or not) we understand that there are groups of people who we will not reach or will not step forward to participate as they are at the extremes. The Museum recognises that these groups are often the groups who are not represented within history. And it is often the case that the Museum needs to think strategically about how to collect different experiences that form a representative picture.  One method might not be the only or best way to collect different experiences. And although we have tried to address the digital poverty question within our recruitment for the project #Citizencurators is only one strand of the Museum’s collecting strategy about people’s experiences and the impact of the Olympics on Londoners.

The Museum has already collected several oral history interviews with people who live in and around the Stratford site and whose local communities and day to day life have been affected. A joint initiative between MA Art and Politics students studying at Goldsmiths College and the Museum of London, aimed to record the impact on local people of the London Olympics 2012. The students produced a film called On The Edge that explores how the process of gentrification spurred on by the Olympics as opposed to regeneration is affecting residents in their day-to-day life, focusing on housing issues, the effect it is having on communities and local businesses and looks into their impressions of the London Olympics 2012 at-large. The Museum has also collected photographs that document the changes around the site of the Olympics. The Museum is also currently working on another oral history collecting project with a group of elders. And of course the traditional methods of collecting objects and reflecting on the impact will continue after the “Olympic family” leave town.

We anticipated that #citizencurators would open up questions about how to engage those people who are most severely cut off by digital poverty.
And from what we learn from this project, the Museum’s first digital collecting project, we hope to be able to readdress in any collecting project in the future. As the Museum’s Digital Curator I would especially be interested in addressing the subject of digital poverty head on.

Thank you again for getting in touch and raising this important question.

Best wishes,

Hilary Young (Museum of London)

Peter Ride (University of Westminster)

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One thought on “Representation & the Digital Divide

  1. Pingback: Museum Will Use Twitter To Gather Public Experience Of Olympics - PSFK

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