In a recent post, former U.K. parliamentarian and current Vice President for Global Affairs and Communications at Facebook, Nick Clegg wrote an extensive defense of the company’s role in political polarization and the spread of hate speech, among other contemporary issues. Clegg’s argument is summed up in the title of the piece: “You and the Algorithm: It Takes Two to Tango.”
Basically, Clegg’s point is that Facebook’s algorithm only accounts for half of the platform’s role in the world: the other half is contributed by the user. The friends we choose to connect with, the pages we follow, the groups we join, and posts we engage with all contribute to how we experience the platform. In some sense, Facebook is now simulating a foundational question that has had a long tradition in philosophical thought: do structures (such as political institutions, social norms, or, in this case, algorithms) determine outcomes, or do individual choice and human agency win the day? Is Facebook (or YouTube or Instagram or TikTok) responsible for what Facebook has become, or are users to blame? The point of this post isn’t to debate or defend Clegg—I’ll leave that to sharper minds than mine. But I do think his piece—and many other discussions about Big Tech—reveals a Western centricism that simply does not account for the experience of the newly online, especially in developing country contexts.
Digital Natives, Immigrants, and Explorers
In the early, 2000s, Marc Prensky introduced the terms ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant.’ Digital natives—largely born after 1980—have lived their entire lives digitally, while older digital immigrants are skeptical of, or uncomfortable with, technology. While this is a useful division in Western country settings, the concepts become less salient when applied to newly emerging digital ecosystems. In a Western setting, digital immigrants can conceivably find a trusted digital native—a child, a niece, a young friend—to help navigate new digital territory. The digital immigrant has some chance at ‘digital assimilation,’ guided by a native. But, in developing countries, entire populations are coming online quickly and en masse. A more apt term for them would perhaps be ‘digital explorers’—a group of people navigating unfamiliar territory together. Digital explorers do not have the benefit of a digital native population that they know and trust to help them navigate the digital marketplace.
Later in his piece, Clegg describes the various mechanisms that Facebook has put into place, from its Community Standards to its independent Oversight Board, which has the power to “review and to uphold or reverse Facebook’s content decisions.” He then presents a host of product changes, from a favorites setting to the option to turn off algorithmic rankings in the newsfeed. These are all important changes, but they are designed primarily for digital natives and digital immigrants. I wonder whether they will provide meaningful improvements, especially for users in emerging markets. For a digital explorer, new product features that expand choice and agency are relatively meaningless if these users lack the skills and awareness needed to navigate these features.
What Can We Do?
In the past we have called for a 10th Principle of Digital Development, focusing on advancing digital and media literacy for users. In our studies of users in emerging markets, digital literacy and skills—not just design and features—are often a critical missing factor that can facilitate a trusted relationship between users and digital platforms.
Technology platforms and digital development projects alike would do well to invest in building those digital skills, making sure that digital explorers can quickly transition to being empowered users who can shape their digital experience in meaningful ways. There is also an opportunity to incorporate digital explorers into design decisions that shape and re-shape digital platforms, creating long-term pathways for these explorers to become active agents in holding at bay some of the wider societal risks and harms that have accompanied the digital revolution.