HT: Ben Byerly
The New Digital Divide
Overcoming online segregation.
by Andrew Sears
TechMission, the Christian nonprofit I lead, was founded out of
black and Latino churches and ministries that often found themselves on
the wrong side of the “digital divide.” They lacked Web sites and
computers, and church members were finding it increasingly difficult to
get jobs without computer skills. So Bruce Wall Ministries, a community
organization in Dorchester, Massachusetts, began a training program
that provided computer classes to thousands of at-risk youth and
But as more people get online, they are encountering another type of
digital divide: the online segregation of Christians. As Martin Luther
King Jr. famously said, “Eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most
segregated hour in America.” Most Christians are friends with and
worship largely with people of their own racial background. We are
segregated not only by race, but also by social class and income. As a
result of injustice, the average income and wealth of African-American
and Latino Christians are lower than that of white Christians.
As the recent book Divided by Faith points out, the
segregation of the church results in a separation between rich and poor
communities, which in turn perpetuates injustice. For example, a church
member in a very resourced church who is looking for a job may get 10
referrals from friends in the church, whereas someone in a church where
half of the attendees are unemployed might not get any referrals.
You can see a similar segregation reflected in profiles of
Christians on online social networking sites such as Facebook and
MySpace; most people will have friends with backgrounds similar to
their own. If everyone links to people they know, the result is that a
disproportionate number of resourced individuals and ministries will
link to each other, while ministries serving under-resourced
communities are stuck in a virtual ghetto. The rich link to the rich,
while the poor link to the poor.
TechMission started to see these effects when we launched our Web
site ChristianVolunteering.org to match Christians with volunteer
opportunities. Within a few months, our organization had secured
partnerships with the Christian Community Development Association, the
Salvation Army, World Vision, the Association of Gospel Rescue
Missions, and most other major national Christian organizations serving
under-resourced communities—not surprising, since we had strong
relationships with people in those organizations.
Then we did a similar push for partnerships with Christian
organizations with ties into wealthier communities and suburban
churches—the same amount of effort, but with almost zero results.
LINKS ON the Internet are big business because they drive Web
traffic. The value of those links can be quantified, using models like
the ones I developed when I was a researcher at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. I estimate that in the U.S. alone, online
segregation gives resourced ministries a net benefit of $432 million
each year, while ministries serving under-resourced communities are
losing the same amount.
This is a big deal to ministries serving the poor. For every click
we get from another Web site, Christian Volunteering.org is able on
average to turn that into $5 worth of volunteer time donated to serve
the poor. That $432 million of lost Web traffic could easily be
translated into more than $2 billion of additional volunteer time
donated to serve the poor.
So what can we do about online segregation? It’s actually very
simple compared to segregation in the physical world. It is very easy
to put links on your MySpace profile, blog, or Web site to ministries
such as Christian Volunteering.org, UrbanMinistry.org, the Salvation Army, and Rescue Missions.
Each link not only refers people to those sites, but it also boosts
their popularity in search engines. It may not seem like much, but it
quickly adds up.
This is not yet happening enough in the Christian community. In
fact, secular commercial companies such as MySpace have driven much
more traffic to our Web sites than Christian sites have, because these
companies realize the value of corporate philanthropy.
I am confident that this will change as people get educated about
what Christian justice means in an online world. Who wouldn’t add a
free Web link that could result in hundreds of dollars of resources
going to the poor each year?
By addressing segregation online, we will make a start toward
addressing segregation offline. In doing this, we can regain our
witness to the world as a church that lives out the values of
Christ. —Andrew Sears
Andrew Sears is executive director of TechMission (www.tech mission.org), a Christian nonprofit that uses technology and the Internet to help serve under-resourced communities.