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Apr.7, 2010

Vol. 110, No. 11

Features

Rethinking the digital divide

Communications scholar Eszter Hargittai *03 asks: Is the Web helping those who most need a boost?

By Brett Tomlinson
Published in the April7, 2010, issue


Communications scholar and Northwestern University professor Eszter Hargittai *03
Grant Kessler s’90
Communications scholar and Northwestern University professor Eszter Hargittai *03

Eszter Hargittai *03 spends a fair amount of time online, by choice and by necessity. She has been a fan of the Web since its infancy, and when you teach courses like “Internet and Society” and “Adolescents’ Digital Media Uses,” you need to stay close to technology’s leading edge.

An associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, Hargittai keeps in touch with colleagues through Facebook and Twitter. She posts on Crooked Timber, a group blog about current events written by academics, and maintains her own Web site, eszter.com. She even teaches a class via video Web link, for graduate students at Northwestern and Harvard. In her spare time, Hargittai, an avid photographer, posts photos — nearly 12,000 so far — on the photo-sharing site Flickr.

Her newest hobby is geocaching, which bills itself as “a worldwide game of hiding and seeking treasure,” usually pocket-sized trinkets and visitor logs. With the help of online maps and GPS devices, people follow coded clues to locate tiny caches — sometimes no larger than a pill bottle — stashed alongside hiking trails and city streets.

Walking along a footpath near the snowy shoreline of Lake Michigan with a visitor, Hargittai points out one well-camouflaged cache, a spice bottle wrapped in black tape and wired to a tree limb. About a quarter-mile to the south, in the median of a busy street, she reveals another, inside an old public fountain. She detaches a loose pipe and gently removes the secret logbook scrolled inside.

“Thousands of people pass by,” Hargittai says, glancing at the cars on either side of her, “and they have no idea.”

Geocaching may be just for fun, but to Hargittai, it also illustrates how an offline activity can be so intertwined with online communication. You can’t find a cache without the online clues and coordinates. Each component is dependent on the other.

The same link appears in more important aspects of our lives. You interview for a job in person, but in many cases, you search and apply online. Far-flung people with common offline interests congregate in online communities. User reviews on Web sites help us make important decisions, from choosing a doctor to buying a car. In politics, Internet fundraising and citizen-generated blogs have become integral parts of campaigns. Access to government services increasingly relies on online components.

“There’s absolutely no doubt that the Internet allows for all sorts of amazing things,” Hargittai says, “and if you are educated and have the resources and have the most recent technology to take advantage of it, then you have a good chance to benefit from it.”

But “if” is the operative word. People have a wide range of skills in navigating the Web, and those skills are linked to age, education, and socioeconomic factors, according to Hargittai’s research. Even those in the so-called net generation have a wide spectrum of Web savvy.

Hargittai’s work has shown that young people with higher levels of education and skill are more likely to use the Web for “capital-enhancing” activities like career advancement and political participation. But the user’s age and education are not the only factors: In a study focused on first-year college students, she found that one’s parents’ level of education was correlated with skill and patterns of Web use.

For those who once hailed the Internet as a level playing field filled with opportunity and free information, Hargittai’s work raises a critical question: Is the Web aiding those who need a boost, or helping those who already are better off?

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CURRENT ISSUE: Apr.7, 2010
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Video: Digital natives
Even among young people, says communications scholar Eszter Hargittai *03, there's a digital divide.