John Galloway asks whether our social networks live up to their name when it comes to inclusion
What a phenomenon Facebook is. After 12 years it had grown to 1.59 billion active accounts worldwide at the end of 2015; that’s about a quarter of the planet. In the UK there are over 38 million accounts, about 60 per cent of the population, three-quarters of all those who are internet users. For sure, some of these will be people with multiple accounts, people like teachers for instance who may have a personal one and a professional one. Or others who may want to disguise their online self for some reason, exploring their sexuality perhaps, or finding others with a particular medical condition. But no matter how we crunch the numbers it is clear that our online social connections are significant for very large numbers of the population, both nationally and globally. And that’s just Facebook. Then there’s What’sApp, Twitter, SnapChat, Skype, Oovoo, Xbox and all the many others that seem to arrive almost on a daily basis, each becoming the system of choice for another group of users. We are living highly interconnected lives.
Or most of us in the UK are, at least. Many of the other 25 per cent of internet users, or the 40 per cent of the overall population aren’t part of the statistic because they don’t want to have an online presence, perhaps fulfilled without sharing news articles, campaigns, videos of cats or snapshots of lattes. I can appreciate that. But I also think that some of those missing from this growing virtual society aren’t there for other reasons.
Some might not have the technology, or the money to get it. I suspect that there are also others who would like to be online, but who need help and support, accommodations and adaptions, subsidies and special considerations even. Although I only ‘suspect’ this, I don’t know it. I can’t know it, because no-one is collecting the data. No-one seems bothered enough to ask the question.
Yet data is something these services thrive on. They exist to gather information about us, to use themselves or sell on to entice us with stuff: goods, activities, media, donations, subscriptions, offers, experiences — anything that our online activities and our particular interests suggest we might be tempted to buy.
The data tells us that over half of UK Facebook users are women; a quarter are aged 18-24; another quarter 25-34; a third are married. Yet one of the things we know very little about is whether any of those who sign up for social networks have disabilities, including learning disabilities. It is possible to assume from some of the groups that get set up who might be disabled and in what way, or have an interest in that area. But there seems to be no formal data collection or analysis. Not even government supported surveys, academic research or consumer polling seems to want to know, from what I can tell.
Which I find odd. We work hard to make the physical world accessible, with standards for door widths on new buildings, for instance, wheelchair ramps on buses, braille on buttons in lifts, disabled toilets in restaurants. Yet we don’t seem to be making the same effort in this very new virtual world we are building. It seems to me that some people in society who we are working hard to include in the offline, physical world, may be absent from the virtual one. But we don’t know. We don’t seem inclined to find out whether this is true and, better still, to do something about it.
We know that there are about 80 million people in the European Union who have some sort of disability, including learning disabilities. The EU offers guidelines and standards for accessible online services, both public and private, and for specifications of hardware, such as smartphones. However, social networking isn’t something people have to use, so it falls outside of these requirements. This doesn’t mean social networking providers won’t comply, because many of these users are in older age groups, groups that hold the continent’s wealth, and who therefore swell the market. Some groups of people with disabilities are at the other end of the financial spectrum, over-represented in the poverty statistics.
We are not thinking about a homogenous group with a single set of needs. Someone with physical disabilities might need hardware adaptations to gain access; someone with a learning disability might need a simplified interface and additional software, such as a symbolised text creation tool; others might need someone to sit and help them.
I believe there may be benefits to improving access. The virtual world can be a leveller. With the dominance of text and visual media in social networking someone who is deaf, for instance, can operate in much the same way as anyone else and have their disability ‘disappear’ whilst online.
This is not always the case. Someone who is severely dyslexic might find it difficult to communicate and connect in a text-driven environment and will need additional tools that social networking sites may or may not support.
There can be good reasons for users to want to get connected. Some low-incidence needs can mean people are educated a long way from home, perhaps in a residential establishment, or they may have to travel halfway across the county everyday, or even in a big city, to get to school. Their classmates, their peer group, their friends, are similarly spread out. To have a social life outside of school realistically means being online, and to keep up with everyone once school days are over, too.
We can speculate on other reasons for why those with disabilities, and with mental health issues, will be attracted to social networking. They may be looking for others in a similar situation to themselves, or a similar condition, finding a peer group, people who can empathise and understand, when there is no-one locally. Then there are those who may find the anonymity of the web a safe place to explore sensitive personal matters, such as sexuality, or what is going on inside their heads.
There are many reasons why people use social networking — those with disabilities might have some that are less obvious. Perhaps there are particular benefits, like keeping up with carers who can look out for them remotely, or having relationships where others perceive them without looking through the filter of their disability. The reasons will be as diverse as the users.
The reasons for not using social networks will be similarly diverse, too. For some people it will be by choice. For others their absence may not be optional, but imposed by factors beyond their control. It is time we recognised that some people are missing from the virtual world. We need to find out who, work out why, and then give them the choice of coming on in.