Bells de jour: online confessions of a morris dancer
"I did a morris dance in 1994", one of the speakers told a stunned audience at this week's Go ON: ND2012 national digital inclusion conference.
The stark confession came from Bob Warner, chair of Ofcom's communications consumer panel. But there was a point to the horror: "...but that doesn't make me a morris dancer."
Warner's point was that, if one applied the Office for National Statistics logic behind its measurement of who was 'online' and applied it to morris dancing, his (admittedly, already feeble) street cred would be wrecked for ever.
The ONS figures about who is online and who is offline, and the use of these figures by many other groups including the former "Race Online 2012" campaign, meant that someone who uses the internet once or twice and then stops is counted as having joined the world of technology, while the true picture is much more nuanced - and the true problem much larger.
"It is misleading because it understates the problem," Warner said. "If we focus on that one stat, we could focus on getting people to give it a try, and our targets will be skewed towards helping people take the first steps but not towards ongoing support."
In his view, there is already an imbalance between funding for citizen internet access and funding for training and support. "The former is more measurable but the latter is perhaps more important," Warner said.
Accordingly, his panel would like the government to develop a more comprehensive policy on both internet take up and usage, he said. "We need to address those people who used to go online and who don't any more - that's 4% of adults, or 2 million people". It is also the case that some 20% of home internet users make only very narrow use of what is available, Warner said. "We need great effort on sustaining the efforts of people who are struggling to make a success of it."
Recently concluded Ofcom research had found that in some areas the offline population was very large indeed - in the centre of Glasgow, for example, fewer than 50% of people are connected at home, he said. If government services are set to become digital by default, "we have got to accommodate those people", and it is important to recognise that many people are happy getting everything they want from the offline world.
Clearly, the concept of "assisted digital" - whereby intermediaries help people to interact with online services - is key, though it also needs to be recognised that too much assistance removes all need and motivation for people to engage with the online world, Warner said.
So will the day ever come when everyone in the UK is online? Pull the other one, he seemed to be saying - it might still have bells on it.
Go ON: ND2012 http://www.nd2012.co.uk/