We live in a world of labels. It is a world that has given us the ability to segment in marketing, and use small terms to mean big ideas in public policy – among many other examples.
However, this world is clearly much more complex, and subtle, than simple labels. Simple terms can crystallise a vision, but this simplicity also brings the potential danger of the inability to communicate anything other than simplicity.
Throughout Ellen Helsper's career as a researcher and lecturer, latterly at the LSE, she has uncovered data and insights which have challenged the use of catch-all terms.
We start with talking about digital inclusion. Millions of pounds have been piled in, from the public and private sectors, to persuade people to get online. Helsper picks up the story. "In the beginning, a lot of the policies and research were aimed at getting people online - in the sense of giving people access - and trying to explain which factors made people get access to the technology. Soon after that, we started to realise that if we just make it cheaper, then people will buy it, because it's so clear what the advantages are, of being connected... Why would you not want to be connected? There was a little bit of optimism there, and an underestimation of the factors that play a role in the decisions that people make about technologies and media, that actually, historically, we do know are important."
After that, in Helsper's view, was a focus on access which made policymakers rather depressed. Because people that could afford to get access often chose not to, simply because they were not interested, and were not sure if getting online was "good" for them or not. These people were not necessarily in economic poverty, although as Helsper acknowledges, there was a relationship between those with a lack of access, and a lack of funds to facilitate access.
This attempt to simply persuade was eventually phased out by a concentration on digital skills: the belief that access to the technology was then superseded with the need to understand what to do with it – and, over time, connected digital media would become increasingly relevant to a mass audience. Policies now aim to give everybody an informed choice, about whether to use it or not.
Helsper believes that this particular credo – updated and revised - also has not happened.
"30% of the UK population still doesn't have access to the internet, and a lot of people that have the skills and have been exposed to the technology, are not using it. They might have access, but they're not doing anything with it - or at least, in the eyes of some, anything beneficial. One of the things that we can see in the research that I have been doing, is that there is something like corresponding fields of exclusion.
"For example, if people don't have an extensive social life, or have problems in terms of social isolation and being lonely in the 'real world', then when they get access, even if they have digital skills... they don't tend to socialise. People that don't have much money tend to use [digital technology] more for socialising, but not for those purposes that might help them overcome some of their disadvantages. There's a big problem there."
What Helsper and her team have concluded is that income, educational level, and socio-cultural literacy are the three most important factors in determining technological use in a household. Her work with teenagers across ethnic groups, shows that different groups have different attitudes to the use of technologies and who those technologies are for. The historical perception of groups that are not white males, for example, is that the Internet is something which is positioned for an audience which is white and male. Work with Afro-Caribbean teenagers told a very different story, which is that they like to hang out on the street with friends, and visit their families. This greater reliance on face-to-face communication therefore makes it harder to promote the Internet as a way to enhance their social networks.
Recent conversations on the extent of online activity has led Helsper to consider whether a blanket, default use is both accurate and correct. "Where are the limits? What do we consider optimal? It's not as easy as it first seemed to be, in terms of giving everybody access. This is all very nice, if it would be a real choice. But, it's not a choice for many of us. It has become almost impossible to fill out your tax return offline, and there are huge benefits in doing some of these things online. However, choosing to do something offline can result in an economic loss, and the people that can benefit the most from saving money, are exactly those people who are choosing not to do it. So, this is quite a problematic idea; if you live in a society where everything is becoming digital, then the element of skills and capability becomes more problematic when there's no real choice any more."
Parents and kids online
"Being digital" blinds us to the fact that parents actually have a lot of knowledge that could be applied to their understanding of digital media use by their children.
Helsper's conversations with parents about social media has echoed the wider belief that because something is online, all the things that parents have learned when they were actively social, are no longer applicable. The result is that "being digital" is completely different, and therefore parents and kids have a gulf of a lack of understanding. "I think that it is often a revolution when you talk to parents and say 'just because it's online, it doesn't mean that the principle of making sure that talking to strangers requires accompaniment', is over. The questions that young people have has nothing to do with the technology, but to do with issues such as bullying."
Where digital media has required new thinking is in how we present ourselves. Publicly-accessible profiles have facilitated a more strategic view of presentation, although what these new social norms actually consist of, remains an area for analysis and debate. Helsper believes social media has enabled researchers to revisit older theories of digital media use, because questions such as "How do we establish relationships?" are now much more relevant, rather than questions simply about technological use.
Of course, an implication of such openness is a lack of privacy. Helsper believes that the difference in how people congregate socialise across the generations is very important when it comes to understanding this topic. "There's a lot of talk about people not caring about their privacy when they're online, and 'young people don't care about their privacy any more'. This is because people interpret a certain context online, as a different type of context. So, let's say that the young people who are there, might see this as a playground, or the mall. The stuff that they do there means that they use the norms that they have when they go out with their friends and stand in a public space, but talk about very intimate things. Parents might look at these platforms in a completely different light, with other parallels - as if you were screaming about your latest sexual exploits in Trafalgar Square. People are trying to make links with contexts that they can understand, so that they know which norms or ways of behaving are appropriate. But, this is where we are in flux. Maybe in 15 years' time, we will have a better idea of how these norms develop."
Many of these disrupting factors are common to earlier revolutions in communication. When the telephone was introduced into households, people were extremely worried about privacy. Strangers could call; their voice was in your living room; and everyone could listen in. Every new technology has a period where social norms are in flux and in development, although it is clear that different ways and levels of interaction are already apparent in social media. "There is a little bit of a myth forming, about these differences between generations, that almost tries to pull them apart. Actually, they are a lot closer than we think."
It will start to make less and less sense to have generational distinctions, and make more sense to talk about different interest groups.
The generation gap
Age also presents an opportunity to label generational groups in the same way, although Helsper believes that such groupings ("Generation Y", "Silver Surfers") are irrelevant. "When you look at the research that has been done, there is no difference between an older person that has been using the internet for 15 years and uses it every day; and a younger person that has been using the internet for 15 years, and uses it every day."
Helsper believes that other factors, such as educational standards in the family that were mentioned earlier, are far more important in terms of levels of adoption in digital technology. Therefore, labelling generations with terms like "Digital natives" is not very helpful term, as it assumes that there is a generation of natives and a generation of immigrants that cannot talk to each other. Helsper's research underlines the argument that age is less important than a level of personal experience. As soon as older people become experienced in digital media, the generational gap ceases to exist.
As a result, Helsper believes that marketing needs to change the way in which it perceives target groups. "You can do almost anything now, digitally, that you can do offline. It will start to make less and less sense to have generational distinctions, and make more sense to talk about different interest groups. An aspect of that might be age, but it's not age that drives that. It's the interest, or your experiences."
The recent Kids Online survey within 25 EU countries reported that around a third of surveyed children said that they know more about the Internet than their parents, but another third said that it is their parents who know more. All of this paints a very different picture: even though there is a popular discourse about a generation of digital natives that cannot talk to their parents, when people are asked directly for their experiences, it is not such a black-and-white issue.
Overall, Helsper believes that the past two decades of her work have become more complex, because of a wider view that digital media has brought a thought pattern in areas such as policy, or marketing, that needs to change. "People think that there are more complex arguments, or are thinking about it in more nuanced ways, but when you go and talk to them - in policy and in marketing - the policymakers will say 'How can we get people to use superfast broadband?' - or if you talk to marketers, 'How can we reach parents as opposed to children?' These things are now so stuck, that trying to get people to engage and think in a different way has become harder."
Dr. Ellen Helsper is a Lecturer in Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is speaking at the Mashup* Family 2.0 event, taking place in London on 17th February. For further information, visit the Mashup* website.