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Communities and Identities: What are the Impacts of Digital Technology?

It is widely acknowledged that the take-up of digital technologies is on the increase, and that more and more people are interacting digitally. But how does this change our sense of community – of how and where we belong? And might it affect also our sense of identity – do we need to re-think how we define ourselves in a digital age?

In our review of what’s being written and what’s being said on how our relationships are being shaped in the digital age, under this heading, we posed two main questions to our experts: firstly, how do we define and authenticate ourselves in a digital age? And secondly, what new forms of communities and work emerge as a result of digital technologies?

Findings from our initial survey of experts – drawn from academia, the public, and the private sector – reveal that this domain shares concerns with some of the other domains, particularly with ‘Citizenship and Politics’ and ‘Communication and Relationships’.  This initial expert survey highlighted some important questions and raised some issues that have helped shape and influence future reviews in the domain of communities and identities.

One key issue that has emerged is that not enough research has been done to date on how linguistic and cultural specificities affect communities and the ways in which they engage with and utilise digital technologies. For instance, variances in language may affect the choice of interface; or search engine recognition may be less successful at reading some languages than others.

A further issue highlighted was that of access. We know that some individuals are at risk of being left behind in the digital age but what about whole communities? What exactly are they missing out on and are there ways of ensuring equality of access? Our experts highlighted here issues of infrastructure and digitisation as crucial, and mentioned community broadband initiatives, as well as urban/rural digital divides. These issues can’t be ignored when addressing the conceptual concerns such as how digital technology mediates social cohesion within communities, or whether it potentially widens existing divisions.

Other key areas flagged up by respondents included:

  • Workplace communities (which also links into our workshops on the digitisation of the workplace), and how the digital age will impact on organisations.
  • What will happen to community boundaries?
  • Will traditional identities be maintained as new digital diasporas, communities and identities are formed?
  • How might individuals express different overlapping identities digitally?
  • How might these identities exercise a powerful influence on the health and wellbeing of communities, and the degree to which they can build up social capital?
  • How might we understand the continuing evolution of these communities and identities, and what might the policy implications be?

To conclude this blog post, one particularly revealing response drew all of these issues together: if recent ESRC-funded research has  demonstrated that the greater the number of social groups (e.g. family, local community or a leisure group) one identifies with, the lower the odds of being depressed and the greater the likelihood of feeling satisfied with life, then research into communities and identities is indeed fundamental to understanding how we live in the digital age.

Citizenship and Politics: How does Digital Technology Impact on our Autonomy, Agency and Privacy?

As part of the Being Digital Scoping Review, the ESRC asked how digital technology impacts on our autonomy, agency and privacy, as illustrated by the paradox of emancipation and control.

An initial survey of experts from academia, the public and private sector, comprising experts who had agreed to both steer and contribute to the ESRC Ways of Being Digital scoping review, revealed that issues in this domain have enduring qualities. As each new round of technology enters everyday usage, any advantages are accompanied by a range of concerns. Although our experts recognise that these concerns have been raised in earlier digital developments, in this domain they nonetheless feel that questions about how digital technology shapes our senses of autonomy, agency and privacy continue to be central to our understanding of how notions of citizenship and politics evolve in the digital age. Some of the feedback from this initial survey challenged the very concept of citizenship and the way that politics is done in the digital age.

Context and the way in which the subject area is contextualised will dash hopes of a ‘one size fits all’ because it is impossible to capture the complexity of the circumstances that citizens might find themselves in. There are the commonplace differences in geography and socio-economic backgrounds, but at the extreme there are situations where people have been displaced due to natural disasters, conflict or economic need. In dangerous or changing situations, expressing citizenship via digital technologies may be the only means available to an individual.

Experts advised that while digital technologies can mediate a participatory space where communication between citizens and elected representatives can take place, it may be naïve or even impractical to expect this to quickly lead to more meaningful decision-making and better governance. The potential for improved decision-making mediated by digital technologies is evident but may take time as experts felt there was a gap in what we know of citizens’ current behaviours (“Are people really becoming more civically engaged through the use of digital devices?” “How do we measure the efficacy of this process?”). Experts suggested that digitally mediated decision-making may be severely tested by the various contradictions and tensions that surround notions of emancipation and control.

The digital age is much wider than just its technology and it was emphasised that conceptual aspects of the digital age, such as interactive and targeted marketing, are steadily becoming pervasive and that any research investigation must go beyond being simply technologically deterministic. So, for example, the use of social media as a communication media for formal and informal political and civic participation needs to be understood in terms of the social relations. The ubiquitous character of digital means addressing some of the specificity of the technology but also the way the digital aspect features in the structuring of action.

Enormous expectation is now placed upon the users of government services to become ‘digitally savvy’ and to navigate knowingly through the content and services on offer. This must extend beyond having access to computers (and being digitally literate) towards consideration of how digital technology and services can get people to meaningfully engage with government; how service co-creation can be facilitated; and, importantly, ensuring that citizens do not have to worry about personal safety and data protection throughout the process. In fact, some experts thought that concerns about privacy may prove to be the game-changer in how this agenda evolves (it was even thought that individual privacy should become a topic in its own right).

The ESRC wants to know whether our collective understanding of citizenship is evolving in the digital age, whether technology is helping or hindering participation at individual and community levels, and whether evidence is out there to support arguments one way or another. Yet, precise perceptions of citizenship and politics in the digital age are problematic and we would welcome your views and pointers to research evidence that helps us to explore these questions.

Communication and Relationships: Digital Natives and/or Digital Immigrants?

The ESRC have asked us to systematically review what’s being written and what’s being said on how our relationships are being shaped and sustained by digital technology in and between various domains, including family and work.

An initial survey of experts highlighted the similarities and cross-overs with other domains in the scoping review because much that deals with communication and relationships also touches on communities, identities, citizenship and politics amongst other things.

Some of the more specific issues being raised include how the digital interacts with:

  • People at particular stages in the life course, e.g. children, adolescents, students, adults and seniors.
  • Social relations, e.g. friendship, dating and romance, marriage and family
  • Social conventions around self-disclosure and support
  • Hate speech and crime online, including online bullying
  • Communication and intercultural and intergroup dynamics
  • Communicating in contexts of diaspora and immigration
  • Gender and parental control, social networks, etc.

Should we be thinking of communication and relationships in terms of interaction and behaviour across interpersonal sectors? And, in turn, the question of the foundation of the digital age beliefs for open, free and networked communication and if this is having an effect on the other ways we communicate with each other?

A whole new axis in communication has been brought about by the development and use of social media. Although relatively new, there is already a large body of literature about it. However, experts pointed to various areas that were less well researched such as:

  • Gaming as an activity and a set of relationships
  • Social media and its use in the workplace; the blurring of professional boundaries
  • Workplace interactions and behaviours
  • The collapse of context
  • Do we communicate differently because of social media?

Although experts acknowledge the benefits and potential of social media, they also reiterate that some of the concerns are not well evidenced. These include a range of behaviours that could be normatively described as negative, for example sexting, cyber bullying, online grooming, internet safety and trolling.

An overall question that emerges is one that returns to the issues surrounding the characteristics of the intersection between digital media and daily life. This question leads to another one, which is whether this intersection influences and changes our relationships over time – thus raising questions of personal agency to manage digital media communication and to shape it through ways of using it.  Further, what do these changes mean in normative terms about the quality of our communication and relationships?