Once again, it’s time for my quarterly comment on how quickly time has passed, marked by the publishing of the latest ONS statistics into Internet Access. So, here it goes – doesn’t time fly!The good news is that the number of offline people has decreased again in the first quarter of 2012, down by 1% to 8.12 million. Things are definitely moving in the right direction. I like to look on the bright side of life, but I think there might be some disappointment in the sector that the rate of movement seems to have slowed down, with the stats only down by 83,000 in the past quarter, compared to 229,000 for the last quarter of 2011. There are lots of reasons for this, but for me the main one is clear – and it’s a pretty straightforward one. It’s just getting more difficult to encourage people to get online. It makes sense really – the more people we get online, the further away those who are offline become.
One thing the ONS data doesn’t give us is more information on these 8.12 million people, who can be categorised in lots of different ways. For a start, we know that some of these 8.12 million people want to be online. Lots of the people we help in UK online centres probably fall in this category, as they’ve decided for one reason or another – grandchildren in Australia, wanting to check the football scores online or save a bit of money by using comparison sites – that there are benefits to being online.
And then of course there’s another group which is people who are pretty resistant to getting online, and have decided that the internet’s definitely not for them. And as much as I hate to admit it, there may come a time when we need to accept that despite our efforts we just can’t get this group online. (I’m not giving up yet though!)
So although in this 8.12 million there are people that feel positive about getting online, they’re still amongst the most excluded in our society, which is why they aren’t online yet. They’re the easiest-to-reach of the hardest-to-reach, if you like. As we, and all of our centres all over the country know, getting these people online certainly isn’t easy, and it’s not going to get any easier.
And I know from talking to a lot of people about getting online that a lot of them are indifferent. They could be persuaded (and I can often be seen trying to persuade them!) but they need inspiring and supporting to discover the benefits of the internet. With these people it’s a bit about showing them to great things the internet can do, and a bit about giving them a push – which is what things like having to search and apply for a new job online, or in the future having to apply for benefits online, will hopefully do.
If we think of closing this divide as a metaphor, we’d all love to think of it as a car. Just a little bit of momentum and we’re off – there’s just no stopping us! Unfortunately, I think it’s more like a marathon (or the London to Brighton bike ride I somehow seem to have signed up for!) The first few miles seem easy, but as you get further from the start line every movement seems like an effort, and it feels like you’ll never reach the cheering crowds at the end. In our marathon, at the moment it feels a bit like we’ve hit the wall and, despite our efforts, we’re not getting much further. But I’m really positive that with some perseverance, a few gritted teeth and a bit of determination, we’ll get to the finish line. It’s just a bit further away than we’d hoped.