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Guest Column: Content - the driver of the coming digital divide

29-April-2013
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Guest Column: Content - the driver of the coming digital divide

The Reach
When the international chartbuster, ‘Gangnam Style’, had reached its zenith, it had broken all previous records, setting a new milestone of 100 million views on the video networking site YouTube. It had not only become an all-time mega hit, but had also outclassed the reigning No. 1 and reached this unprecedented number within 27 days of surpassing it. In fact, it still remains unrivalled with a sustained 6.5 million views per day, that is, approximately 76.4 views per second!

This is just one instance of the phenomenal impact of the burgeoning internet and mobile communication technology. The quiet revolution that has swept across the globe has empowered billions with a level of connectivity that has been both mind-boggling and overwhelming. Today, over 75 per cent of the world’s population is able to access a wide range of innovative services that goes beyond staying in touch with family and friends. Even the world’s poorest continent, Africa, has embraced modern technology. Recent statistics show that more than half of Africa’s population owns a mobile phone – and not just for talking and texting. Cellular communication is forging a new enterprise across banking, agriculture and healthcare.

It used to be that the digital divide was caused by the high cost of access devices, low connectivity and the low penetration of fixed line telephony. All that has fundamentally changed now. Falling handset prices, broadband and mobile technology are spurring the rise in connectivity to narrow the digital divide.

On the other hand, a new form of digital divide is emerging caused by the lack of appropriate content, the heavy bias of the English language in content creation and acquisition and the low user-centricity of the content. It is these critical gaps and impediments that are restricting a large percentage of population from accessing content in the online public domain. And, this community is at a huge disadvantage as they are being denied access to valuable information and resources.

The English Barrier
That English is the predominant language of the Internet is a given. But, given that nearly 75 per cent of the web users are non-English speaking, it isn’t surprising that multi-lingual websites are mushrooming alongside of late.

Even so, the principal device for searching the web and browsing the web continues to be English based, requiring non-English speakers to transliterate their native language in the English script to be able to access content. It does not seem to have occurred to the technical panjandrums that were a user to be sufficiently literate in English to transliterate local idiom in English, then the user doesn’t actually need to read content in the local language. So, the net result is that those who do not know English continue to remain access-less to the vast information trove of the Internet. Of course, some exceptions exist – Japanese, Chinese and Russian web browsers and search engines, for instance. However, that is of least interest to the vast legions of Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Swahili, Gujarati, etc., speakers who do not know English.

Does this have an impact? Let’s take the Indian market, for instance. Internet connections have surprisingly grown at a blistering pace. Thanks to a combination of favourable factors that have brought down prices of hardware and made connectivity cheaper and more accessible, the Internet is now within hand’s reach of over 100 million Indians. Even, the rural subscriber base, which accounts for 35.2 per cent of all mobile subscribers, added seven times more subscribers as compared to urban India in June 2012.

Quite obviously, the English barrier is a high one for the growing legions of Indians who now have the means to access the Internet, but not the language knowledge.

Oceans of content, but not many drops that can be used
What should have been a boon to major user groups, particularly in rural communities, such as the fishing and farming community, is unfortunately being heavily misunderstood. Fishermen should have been able to get latest information of the prevailing rates in the surrounding markets, so that they could get the best rates for their catch; farmers should be able to be clued in to weather reports and even be warned about any impending natural disaster; the common citizen should be able to make an application for a ration card online. Alas, these remain distant dreams, simply because the content is just not available in the user’s native language, and, to boot, so user unfriendly, that it would take an individual enormous patience to sift through the meaningless chaff to get the desired information.

Unlike linguistically homogeneous countries such as Russia or China, India’s 22 official languages (and several hundred unofficial ones) pose a huge challenge. Even as software companies battle to customise phone features for the local masses, the beneficiaries who have instant access to news, health information, banking services, travel booking will be restricted unless we find a solution to the language disparity.

User-centricity will be the key to content
If the above were not sufficient retardants, it seems that most content creators seem to think of online content, only as a website. This narrow focus of content delivery misses out the many other means by which users access content, viz. via apps, social media, widgets, etc.

Content not only needs to be created for such means of content acquisition by users, but also designed for the device and purpose for which the content is acquired. So, unless, these are tackled on an intense footing, the digital divide will continue to remain, notwithstanding the significant developments in making internet accessible.

The author is Director, Rage Communications
 

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