As mentioned in an earlier blog post, one approach to reducing global poverty that is gaining momentum is to provide easy and affordable access to the Internet to the poor in developing countries through mobile phones. The principle behind this approach is that greater levels of Internet adoption and use by the poor will provide them with greater opportunities to participate in the global economy. Participation would mean not only through the purchase and sale of goods and services, but also through greater global awareness through access to and the ability to exchange a wealth of information and knowledge.
However, as outlined in a recent Wall Street Journal article, it has been an uphill battle to try to get more people around the world on the Internet. According to a study carried out by McKinsey & Co., growth of world-wide Internet users has actually slowed in recent years.
Why is global Internet adoption slowing, despite the herculean efforts of companies like Google and Facebook to make it more accessible to everyone?
Despite what most of us in the developed world might think, it isn’t just a simple matter of barriers such as poverty, lack of education, or illiteracy that is preventing more widespread Internet use. The McKinsey study found that only a small fraction of people who opted to stay offline fell into any of these categories.
"It's glamourous to say: 'I'm going to the far reaches of the earth to connect people.' But there are so many people who could technically access the Web but are not," said Ann Mei Chang, executive director of the U.S. Global Development Lab, part of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
In Indonesia, with the world’s third-largest offline population, only 16 percent of its 250 million people regularly access the Internet, according to the World Bank. Although nearly half of the country’s population lives on only $2 a day, many who can afford the Internet can’t be bothered due to a lack of content that is relevant to them.
Even though developed countries make up only a very small part of the global population – 17 percent, according to the Population Reference Bureau – they have a disproportionate amount of influence and control over Internet content. Websites dedicated to Western popular culture, first-world problems, and reviews for gadgets and toys that only the rich could possibly afford are a very large part of the options available online. For the remaining 83 percent of the world, it should come as no surprise that they would find it hard to find something on the web that they can relate to.
What can we do to make the Internet more relevant and appealing to emerging markets?
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest challenges to overcome in order to promote more widespread Internet use in developing countries is raising awareness and creating greater understanding through education. In many cases, there needs to be a larger network of content creators that can provide a steady flow of appropriate material for local audiences.
In the case of Indonesia, there are large networks of bloggers that have formed to provide a consistent flow of local content. Two such networks, Idblognetwork and B Blog, rely primarily on revenue generated from advertising paid for by companies. These ads are strategically placed within blog posts that are related to the particular product or service being promoted. Bloggers are paid from the advertising revenue, providing incentive for them to create more specific content.
For several years already, Internet giants such as Google and Facebook have been personalizing the experience of online users by tracking their behavior. As a result, any two users who search for content on the same topic will likely be given entirely different results from each other. Beyond the obvious concerns about user privacy, there is also the issue of providing too much customization of someone’s Internet experience, a phenomenon called an online echo chamber by author Eli Pariser. The result is that people browsing online are often unknowingly creating their own personalized cyber comfort zone, where the content that is suggested to them is a direct reflection of their own preferences.
While some might argue that making the Internet more relevant to each individual user is empowering, there is also another side to consider. Personalization of the Internet runs the risk of reducing any exposure to views that may differ from your own. Exchanging different viewpoints makes a society healthy, when handled in the proper context. When people are continually affirmed in their own views without an adequate balance of counterpoints, they may become more isolated from other’s opinions, making their world smaller rather than larger.
How do we strike the right balance between expanding the Internet global village and ensuring that people have access to content that’s meaningful to them?
True empowerment for Internet users would be better achieved by allowing them to find out how their behavior is being tracked and to provide the option to change these settings. Not everyone will necessarily want a fully customized browsing experience, especially if it means being monitored. Pariser also suggests that individuals intentionally seek out online opinions that may not necessarily resemble their own, such as a variety of Twitter feeds.
The key to growing the number of Internet users is to give people a reason to use it. People need to be aware of their options online and to be encouraged to be active and informed participants in consuming and creating content. As they become more engaged, they are more likely to join in discussions and dialogues that could open the door to new global opportunities and partnerships.
What do you think needs to be done to make the Internet more relevant in emerging markets?