As discussed in a previous post, communications & leisure tops the list of uses for public access ICT. While this is not surprising, use of public access venues for communications & leisure is often frowned upon, especially if the venue is publicly funded or has a development mission. Funders, governments, and non-governmental organizations of public access venues would often like to see lower use in the communications domain and higher use in other "development" domains such as government, health, and employment & income. The reality, however, is that communication activities, such as the use of social networking sites and emailing with family and friends, remain high across all types of venues. But does this mean other public access venue objectives, such as developing ICT skills and filling information gaps, aren't being met? How do communications & leisure activities contribute to other objectives of public access initiatives?
Communications as a means to other ends
Is communications a stand-alone domain? That is, are public access venue users just using Facebook to share funny photos with their friends and emailing their friends and family about "frivolous" things? Or does the use of social networking sites and email fulfill user information needs in other domains, such as health, culture & language, and education? Our user surveys asked what the most important online resource is for particularly activities in each domain. While websites are overwhelmingly the most important online resource, communicating with friends and family are important as well.
As illustrated in the chart above, many public access users value communicating online with their friends and family as an important resource for other domain activities. It makes sense that, for many activities, such as choosing a doctor, people seek information from the people they trust, their friends and family.
Communications & leisure activities may lead to improved overall digital skills
Through the user survey data, we have also learned that using public access venues for communications & leisure activities contribute to building better ICT skills. Using computers and the Internet at public access venues for "fun" or "trivial" activities can be an effective on-ramp to gaining overall digital skills and digital literacy. 94% of all public access users claim that using public access venues for communication & leisure activities have improved their overall ICT skills!
Given these findings that communication uses can be a means to other ends and that using public access venues for communications & leisure activities increases overall ICT skills, we recommend that funders, governments, and other public access stakeholders re-examine how they view "non-development" computer and Internet activities. Many public access venues, particularly libraries and telecenters, ban the use of Facebook and social networking and prohibit users from playing games and other "fun" activities. Perhaps these venues should reconsider their policies based on our findings presented here.
One of our in-depth studies, non-instrumental uses, is looking at if and how playing games online leads to "instrumental" ICT skills. The final report with this study's findings will be released this summer.