Bypassing digital literacy: Marginalized citizens’ tactics for participation and inclusion in digital societies

Alexander Smit*, Joëlle Swart, Marcel Broersma

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
27 Downloads (Pure)


This article asks what digital literacy tactics low-literate Dutch adults employ to bypass their low-literacy to be able to participate in digital society, and what the consequences are for their socio-digital exclusion and inclusion. It contributes to a better understanding of the impact of digitalization for low-literate citizens, and the linguistic and digital barriers encountered in everyday life. Drawing upon participant observations and semi-structured interviews with low-literate adult citizens in four libraries, a community center, and a school for adult education (N = 73), this article develops a taxonomy of five tactics which enables low-literate citizens to digitally participate despite their linguistic and digital barriers: (1) informal support structures, (2) formal support structures, (3) non-written communication, (4) translation software, and (5) optimal character recognition. We show how these tactics of appropriating the affordances of information and communications technologies (ICTs), and making use of social networks enable low-literate Dutch citizens to participate in socially situated manners, making use of social support structures and digital literacies developed in relation to “foreign” languages. Consequently, this study counters the stigma on such marginalized groups, who are often assumed to be unable or unwilling to participate, and presents them as not adhering to the dominant discourse of participatory culture. Hence, the added value of this study is threefold: (1) it centers the capabilities of low-literate citizens stemming from social capital and obfuscated linguistic potential, (2) it gives visibility toward more hidden everyday (digital) practices of marginalized subgroups with a larger distance toward the digital society, and (3) it foregrounds the lived experiences of the user and their (limited) use of ICTs, and how tactics are developed and practiced to bypass linguistic and/or digital barriers showing situated agency and problem-solving capacities. We argue that digital literacies should not be considered as a prerequisite for digital participation and inclusion, as our findings show that low-literate Dutch citizens are a highly diverse group that are capable of participating, despite their low (digital)-literacy. However, they do so in socially situated and non-written manners, in line with their digital and linguistic capabilities and barriers.

Original languageEnglish
JournalNew Media and Society
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2-Jan-2024


  • Digital literacy
  • digital participation
  • inclusion
  • low-literacy
  • tactics

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