Building Diversity Online

by Noah Romer

Before the Internet came into common use the online world tended to be a monocultural place, a world that consisted primarily of technologically advanced males in the industrialized West with higher than average income levels. This has changed substantially, but the demographics and attitudes of the online world still do not reflect the greater diversity of the general population. What is lost because of this?

For those already online there is the loss of differing viewpoints on numerous issues ranging from discussions of flaming and spamming to technical details such as how to expand the number of top level domains. The online community is also harmed because a lack of diversity often leads to "cultural inbreeding," increasing occurrences of previously pathological situations and decreasing ability of the community to respond to or even identify risks. Cultural inbreeding can also create an inability to ask fundamental questions about the place of technology in the lives of people who will be affected by it. The Internet is changing the lives of people, even those who have little or no direct contact with it. There is a responsibility to examine the intended and unintended consequences of technology - and not only after technologies have been implemented, but while they a re being conceived and designed. We must therefore ask how this can be done effectively if people from a more diverse range of geographies and cultures are not part of the online world.

The Internet provides a vast, if rather unorganized, source of research information. The Internet provides a rich source of knowledge and skill, but only to those who have access to it. The question, then, is how can diversity in the online world be built? Such efforts will be discussed in the opening panel on Friday.