Spring-Summer 2005

The Digital Divide Network — Impact and Meaning

I was homeless until Friday, June 18, 2004.  Not physically homeless. I was homeless in my career. The career I had chosen for myself, to be a technology access activist, was unrecognized and in some ways nonexistent.

And then I read an email message by Cedar Pruitt on the Digital Divide Network (DDN) email list. The message talked about plans to build an interactive DDN web site.  Here are the opening sentences of that email:

Date: Fri, 18 Jun 2004
From: Cedar Pruitt < CPruitt@EDC.ORG>
Subject: Seeking your articles and ideas for the DDN re-launch
As we gear up to re-launch the Digital Divide Network Web site this fall, we're focused on making it interesting, engaging, and dynamic, and we need your input.

Cedar Pruitt

DDN Editor Cedar Pruitt

In reading that email, I knew my life would be changed. I knew that the technology access movement was about to rocket into public view. What was previously a private discussion on an email list was going to be more of a public discussion on the web. And while reporters are good at ignoring private conversations, they're not so good at ignoring public conversations. Especially lively, dynamic, informative public conversations on issues of widespread public importance.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I read Cedar's email. The career I had chosen for myself would no longer live in the shadows. Quite the opposite. The technology access movement was about to build a fierce momentum.

Andy Carvin

CMC Program Director/DDN Coordinator Andy Carvin

In November, when I was invited to view a beta version of the new DDN site, it didn't take long to realize how well-designed it was. The site had personal profiles, user-created communities, blogging, discussion boards, news headlines, and an event calendar. Everything that you could want was there. It had all been planned and thought out carefully. Andy Carvin and Cedar provided a useful overview of all its features in the January 2005 Community Technology Review. By that time, less than a month after the DDN site went public, a wiki was added for members to use for free.

Of all the features on the site, the one I find the most useful is the personal profiles. I have come to learn much from reading the narrative life journeys of my peers, fellow DDN members. While it's never easy to write free form about oneself, people on the DDN site have risen to the task. DDN profiles allow hyperlinking, so it's possible to link to external text, images and sites that expand your DDN profile.

A shiver went down my spine when I saw how the DDN blogging feature works. It works perfectly.  While each person on the DDN site is given their own blog, you can read all the new blog postings with a click. It's like reading Slashdot, except many more of the blog postings are on topics of wider interest. If you find a particular blog posting engaging, you can easily browse through all the other postings by the same person by clicking on their blog link at the top right of the site (when you're on the blog reading page.) This is a fine way to track down kindred spirits. While reading a person's blog postings, see if there is a resonance of spirit. If so, you can easily dash off a message to them from the bottom of their DDN profile. You might also leave a supportive comment on any of their postings, or link to their posting from a DDN blog posting of your own.

Blogs rock. Why do they rock? Because it's totally fine to post a blog entry with just two or three sentences. You can do it the next time someone puts you on hold on the telephone. The company that put you on hold thinks you're listening to their terrible music, when in fact you're using your blog to share the most interesting ideas and observations with a worldwide audience.

And then the icing on the cake came in March, when the "Add Friends" feature went up on the DDN site.  Now DDN members can easily link to one another, allowing circles of colleagues to intertwine. A fabric emerges. A social fabric.

Let me tell you a little more about how homeless I was in my career. In 1997 a Washington Post reporter was writing a profile article about Corliss Grimes, a revered educator and community builder in Washington , D.C. I had volunteered at Corliss' after school tutorial program for eight years, so the reporter called me at home to get background info about her. The reporter wanted to list my name in the article, so she asked for my occupation.  I explained in a friendly way, "I work as a technology access activist it's a branch of civil rights activism."

"I can't write that," she replied matter-of-factly.

"Why not," I inquired politely and with some surprise.

"My editor won't let me," she replied.

I paused and then asked, "You let your editor tell you what's true and not true in this world?"

Today that reporter would have a more difficult time dismissing my work. She had no hesitation dismissing it back then. As of April, the Digital Divide Network web site had 6,700 members in 115 countries. The technology access movement is unstoppable both in growth and momentum. Are you a part of it?

Phil Shapiro Phil Shapiro is a long-time community technology educator and advocate, and contributor to the Community Technology Review. He can be reached though his Digital Divide Network profile.


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