Inaugural Lecture of Prof. Dr. Eszter Hargittai: Copy-Paste Privilege?

Eszter Hargittai gave her Inaugural Lecture on "Copy-Paste Privilege? Inequalities in Internet Uses and Skills" in October. She holds the Chair in Internet Use and Society at IPMZ, a position she started in August, 2016.  Her talk focused on how differences in Internet user skills vary in the population, how this relates to what people do online, and ultimately what it says about questions of social inequality. 

 

Professor Hargittai explained that traditional notions of the digital divide as a two-sided approach of haves and have-nots regarding technology use is too simplistic as it tends to ignore the many differences that still exist among people even once they become users. Regarding digital media, important aspects of use context to keep in mind are quality of harder, software and connectivity, autonomy of use, social support, and skills. Professor Hargittai noted that skills are an important area of research, because they are ripe for intervention that could help people improve their know-how and thus become more informed Internet users. 

 

After explaining the methodological aspects of gathering data on Internet skills, the talk presented data that debunk two myths about age and Internet use showing that all young people are not universally digitally savvy despite having grown up with technologies, and nor are they necessarily savvier than adults older than them. Professor Hargittai focused on two important variables related to Internet skills: gender and socioeconomic status. She emphasized that studying gender and Internet skills is especially complicated given that women tend to underestimate their skills even when in reality their skills are not any worse than those of men, yet even simply thinking that your skills are lower may influence what you do online so it is a complex issue requiring more research. The talk also showed that socioeconomic status and skills are inversely related across time, those who are more privileged tend to have higher-level skills and these differences persist long-term, something Professor Hargittai is able to demonstrate thanks to panel data she has collected about the same young adults over a seven-year time span. 

 

The final section of the presentation considered the widely-discussed puzzle of why women are much less likely to edit Wikipedia than men. Drawing on work she has conducted with Professor Aaron Shaw at Northwestern University, Professor Hargittai argued for a pipeline approach to online participation, i.e., actively contributing online, by explaining that it is not enough to look at who contributes, rather, it is important to break down the steps of how we get from a user to a contributor. In particular, researchers must pay attention to who knows about sites where contributions can happen, who visits them, and who knows that they can contribute, before examining who actually contributes. For Wikipedia, the talk demonstrated that Internet skills and education are the two factors that matter at all steps of the pipeline while other factors like gender mainly matter at specific steps (in the case of gender, at the latter steps). 

 

Professor Hargittai finished her talk by cautioning that researchers as well as others must not make too many assumptions about how widespread participation is in online spaces since the research she presented shows that there are serious inequalities in whose voices show up online for others to see and engage. More research is indeed to uncover the best ways to address such inequalities.