The new Facebook report, State of Connectivity 2015: A Report on Global Internet Access, both demonstrates how the company is dedicated to making a better world, and frames the problem such that the company’s approach seem like the only one worth considering. Along the way it reveals, inadvertently I think, that connectivity isn’t the primary problem that organizations as well-funded and far-flung as Facebook ought to be solving.
The Facebook report is a formidable document (PDF). Sixty-one pages deep, it clearly aims to justify Facebook’s commercial and associated philanthropic work (with a strong, smart emphasis on capturing and learning from data). Yet it tries hard to be evenhanded. You’d never know from reading this report the intensity of the competitive and political issues Facebook encounters in its attempts to get more people connected. Best of all, it emphasizes parts of the connectivity story that are rarely considered in the West, such as the fact that more than four billion people don’t have any Internet connectivity. That number is decreasing — the report notes that from 2014 to 2015 the number of people using the Internet increased by 300 million — but more than half of the world’s population remains offline. It is, as both the for-profit and philanthropic parts of Facebook and its competitors recognize, the biggest business opportunity on the planet.
However, some of the data offered in this report might point efforts in a different direction. The report notes that more than two-thirds of those not on the Internet don’t understand what the Internet is. And roughly one billion people on Earth remain illiterate.
That last nugget is the most trenchant. At least one-quarter of what big-thinking companies in the connectivity business (Facebook, Google, Microsoft) are framing as a connectivity problem is simply not a connectivity problem. It’s a literacy problem. The Facebook report notes that: “The ability to read and write remains essential to make the most of the internet, which excludes one billion illiterate people.” So why isn’t that what the company, with its tremendous resources and commitment to world-improving, seeks to solve first if it acknowledges the primacy of literacy?
Because Facebook is a technology company, it looks at technology and business problems as the ones worth solving first: giving more people access, making connectivity more affordable. Those are worthy goals and the world is improving because resources are being directed that way. But part of creating positive change is deciding where to focus your efforts. The key question — which the report does not address — is how these connectivity efforts might improve literacy (or whether literacy efforts need to precede connectivity efforts). That might not be the biggest market opportunity, but it might be the one that could have the greatest impact on the planet.
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