The Common Good
January 2009

The New Digital Divide

by Andrew Sears | January 2009

Overcoming online segregation.

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 unemployed adults.

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.

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