Reaching the Unconnected

There’s an interesting report in a local newspaper today here in Glasgow which suggests that half of the households in the city do not have access to the internet. The local library service is trying to give people computing skills and access via community hubs in local libraries.

I’ve long had a concern about a developing digital underclass in society and yet I also lead a congregation which is very much online and which couldn’t really function now without the expectation that nearly everyone involved has access to the internet. That means a wee bit of careful thinking. After all, if we claim to be an inclusive congregation then what does that mean if half the people in the city don’t have access to the primary means of communication that the congregation uses?

Some of my answers to this have changed a little since I first started using the internet in order to be able to reach people.

Here’s a few things I think people in churches need to remember.

  • Friends are the best evangelists for new technology (and most other things too). Getting people to buddy up to learn new skills is one of the most effective ways of getting people online.
  • Tablets and phones are much easier for some people to get their heads around than sitting at a computer. Some people may not even think they have internet access when it may in fact be sitting in their pocket. For a long time, optimising web-pages for mobile access and visibility on smaller screens didn’t really matter in terms of the reach that a website would have. Now it matters hugely. I think  it is more likely that many people will get themselves connected through such devices than by going to sign up for a course at a local library which demands going and sitting at a frightening machine worrying about not being able to type.
  • Churches do need to think about the unconnected. Do they need a champion? Do they need a missionary? Will some congregations specialise in reaching the diminishing group of people who remain unconnected?
  • There are different types of unconnected people. The church should worry far more about those who are unconnected due to issues of poverty or lack of education than those for whom opting out of the internet age is a preference. There is a huge difference between a late middle aged man who runs a company who has simply relied upon his secretary to do all of this in his working life to someone who simply can’t afford a decent phone contract. Some people genuinely need help in order to get online. Others are choosing to be people who will increasingly matter less in society and who will have particular disadvantages. There is little that we can do but to respect that choice but we should not pander to that choice by devising our communication systems around it. For example, we’ve just started an online magazine and there will be those who want to say to me that we shouldn’t do it that way because of those who are not online. My reply to that is to ask them to show me a church where everyone reads a printed out magazine and then I’ll take what they have to say seriously. Print was never a magic bullet and isn’t now. Some people choose not to read what you have to say no matter how you say it.
  • So, it remains my view that the existence of people who can’t access the internet should not prevent churches from using the internet in order to communicate with those who are online. The reality is that vast numbers of people in Scotland don’t read newspapers and have no knowledge of what lies therein.  It just means we need to have some consciousness of those who don’t. I’ve come across a number of people who are very willing to buddy up with those who are not online and who are happy to print out snippets for their friends from time to time.
  • Remember that digital access is a justice issue that should from time to time be addressed by our Church in Society people. But remember – the primary task is to work for greater access, not to limit the use of the internet because of those who have none.  The progressive thing to do is work for digital inclusion not dumb-down or limit effective online ways communicating.
  • Think about where the internet is going. Text is still important online but the truth is, video is snapping at its heels. Remember too the ways in which the web is sneaking into the living room. Many of those who are currently unconnected are going to get their first taste of the web through their tv. That means ever increasing use of video and if people want to reach others in the years that are to come then now is the time to brush up on video skills.


  1. David Kenvyn says

    The way the story has been presented in the press is somewhat misleading. What Glasgow Libraries are offering is not a new service. ICT equipment and training has been available in libraries throughout the UK, since the Blair government made the funding available in 1997.

    One of my first tasks in East Dunbartonshire was to write the successful bid for government funds from what was then known as the People’s Network. PCs, because that was the cutting edge technology at the time, were installed in libraries across the UK. Buddies were recruited for training programmes. People were taught, and can still be taught to use the appropriate technology in classes run through the various library services.

    Unfortunately, once the initial tranche of funding was exhausted, libraries were required to have their own sustainability programmes, but no funding was ring-fenced for this purpose.

    It is hardly surprising that there are differences in digital uptake between Dowanhill and Possilpark, or between Shawlands and Cardonald. Glasgow Libraries are now trying to deal with that digital difference, without any funding from the Scottish or UK Governments to do so. It is my view that they should be applauded for this initiative, which is an extension of the work that has been done over the last 18 years.

    You are quite right to say that this is a social justice issue. It is also vital to the success of the economy of the country. Perhaps we need to think about the creation of a new tranche of funding so that libraries can offer the cutting edge resources in ICT that people across Scotland need.

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