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What’s so Bad about the Internet? Reflections from the OII Connected Life Conference & the EU Referendum

Naturally the EU referendum came up for discussion during the Oxford Internet Institute’s recent Connected Life conference, but as an afterthought and an aside.  I believe everyone present was nearly certain that Britain would vote to retain the status quo, and as subsequent reaction in the media demonstrated we were in good company.  Even those voting to leave primarily believed that the outcome would be a remain vote, as this analysis from Lord Ashcroft Polls shows.  Seven in ten voters expected Britain to vote remain.

The most interesting part of this analysis to me was this visualisation showing voter affiliation based on their perception of a variety of social forces.ill-vs-goodThe Leave voters’ alignment to conservative positions on immigration, multiculturalism, and feminism was not surprising to me, but their perception that the internet is a force for ill was unexpected.  As someone who works in the digital sector I always take for granted that the good or ill of digital technologies is in how people design, build, use, and craft policy around them, not inherent within the technologies themselves.

Several panels and plenary discussions during the Connected Life conference raised the point that digital technology can be a vehicle for breaking down barriers to participation in social and political action, but that we (researchers, analysts, etc) underestimate the ways in which existing hierarchies of power are replicated through digital technologies.  Digital technology does have the potential to be a force for social good but does it live up to that potential?  Seen through that lens it’s possible to interpret these results as an expression that the internet is yet another channel that has failed to facilitate the voice of disenfranchised populations in public discourse, instead continuing to widen the gap between those with cultural, social, and political capital and those without it.

I have no idea if that is what the respondents really intended to express or if there is a more specific ill that the internet represents to them.  Given the high penetration of internet use within the UK population (87.9% of the adult population had used the internet within the past 3 months per the linked ONS report from May 2016), this really is a fascinating question.  What do people (likely internet users) who think the internet is bad think of when asked to think about the internet?

PS: I was at the conference to present a visualization about my research on digital communities of practice with case studies from the global belly dance community.  The conference focused on collective action and naturally included swathes of digitally savvy attendees who tweeted furiously throughout at the hashtag #OxCL16.  You can view my Storify of the conference here, but the wealth of material available far exceeds what I could include.  I’m hoping some speakers will share their slides publicly also as there were several very interesting and topical presentations.