Connective Ambition and Creative Caution: Facebook Use among Unstably Housed Adults in Chicago

35 Pages Posted: 29 Aug 2019

Date Written: July 26, 2019


Because poverty is in part a factor of social networks that are local and homophilous, the ability to connect to the wider world through social network sites is a potential boon for residents of economically depressed communities. At the same time, low-income and particularly older adults are shown to have the lowest level of digital skills while at once being those who are most targeted by online scams and hacks. For those seeking connection as a means to survive life in poverty, then, digital inclusion through social network sites presents unique promise and risk.

Studies of younger and middle-class social media users argue that users negotiate opportunity and risk in reference to personal experience and levels of digital skill. How do economically marginalized adults approach such a balance based on their experience of poverty and limited digital skills? The aim of this study is to understand how unstably housed adults in the inner city approach social networking on Facebook. The method of study – ethnography and in-depth interviews – allows insights into how practices follow from attitudes, and attitudes from experience. The study explores in-depth the cases of low-income adults in Chicago who consider Facebook one tool for getting off the street and into self-sufficiency in income and housing, an digital-age optimism I refer to as “connective ambition.” To shield themselves from risk, users engage in atypical tactics to avoid unwanted exposure and root out scammers, tactics of “creative caution”. The study concludes that promoting privacy skills is a frontier for the digital inclusion for disadvantaged users on social network sites. Yet skills are not a silver bullet: disadvantaged users such as those experiencing homelessness face difficult choices in whether to present themselves as homeless online in order to appeal for help. The barriers to digital inclusion are thus not only instrumental – as in access and skills – but also social and perceptual – including the stigma that follows marginalized users as they venture into networked publics.

Keywords: digital inequality, social media, poverty, digital skills, social capital

Suggested Citation

Marler, William, Connective Ambition and Creative Caution: Facebook Use among Unstably Housed Adults in Chicago (July 26, 2019). TPRC47: The 47th Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy 2019, Available at SSRN: or

William Marler (Contact Author)

Northwestern University ( email )

2001 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics