John Popham is a freelance consultant in digital inclusion, social media and broadband development, as well as being a cricket nut. He can be found all over the internet, principally on twitter as @johnpopham and at http://johnpopham.com
You’re probably reading this on the internet, so this isn’t for you. You already know that the World Wide Web is an incredible resource which enhances all our lives, is full of more information than any of us could ever use, connects us with millions of people all over the world, and brings fun and joy into our lives. This is for the many millions of people who still don’t know about it. So, do me a favour, print this article off and give it to someone who doesn’t use the internet, or, better still, if you can, hand them a tablet device with this page open on it, and then encourage them to explore what else they can do with it.
Those of us who inhabit this charmed web know the advantages of being able to shop, book tickets, and use public services online. But think about what attracted you to the Web in the first place, and what are the activities you spend most of your online time doing. Did you start using the internet because you wanted to interact with your local council or do your tax return? I’d be very surprised if anyone answered “yes” to that question. Most of us got online because we wanted to communicate, with friends, family or work colleagues.
We all know there is a rapidly approaching “perfect storm”. Spending cuts are pushing more public services towards a “digital by default” approach, and, in particular, the advent of Universal Credit means that people on benefits are going to struggle if they don’t use the internet. And the people least likely to be using the internet regularly are also the poorest in society who depend most on public services and are more likely to claim benefits.
Faced with an urgent need of this nature, the temptation is to invite people to start using the internet out of necessity. Except in rare cases, this approach is not going to work. People have a variety of reasons for not using the internet, and very few of those reasons are going to be overcome by pushing public services and benefit payments at them.
The World Wide Web is a fun place to be, and those not on it are missing out on so much. I firmly believe that po-faced approaches to digital literacy and inclusion with a utilitarian focus are counter-productive and risk people seeing being pushed onto the internet as a punishment. We need people to be digitally fluent, and they will never achieve this status without regular and frequent practice, which generally only comes with enjoying something.
This is why I do things like broadcasting live village cricket matches online, and taking a bus broadcasting free wifi out to social housing estates. I believe in making the internet a visible part of people’s everyday lives, which is why I was so please to be involved with Nominet Trust’s Our Digital Planet project which put the internet in people’s faces in city centre shopping areas. Everybody has something they are passionate about, and the internet can help them pursue that passion. We just need to show them the way in to the magical kingdom. Those of us who love the internet can harness that love and spread it to those who have not discovered it yet.