Man with mask using computer

Book review: ‘Connected in Isolation’ by Eszter Hargittai

Image credit: David Moreno/Dreamstime

A review of the impact digital media had on the spread of information during the Covid-19 pandemic benefits from how quickly the research was initiated.

Uniqueness of circumstance isn’t always the best environment for scientific research. As Eszter Hargittai suggests in the introduction to ‘Connected in Isolation: Digital Privilege in Unsettled Times’ (The MIT Press, £22, ISBN 9780262047371), events that have journalists scrambling to deploy that much-overused epithet ‘unprecedented’ inevitably tend to produce ‘unreproducible’ observations, which is something scientists like to avoid where possible.

And yet, there are events such as the Covid lockdowns (9/11 is another) in which “capturing the uniqueness of the moment is itself an important contribution”, not least because times were – especially at the beginning of the pandemic – ‘unusual’.

With ‘Connected in Isolation’ the author’s goals are threefold. First is to “document people’s digital media experiences during lockdown, especially as these pertain to communicating and learning about the pandemic.” Second is to show how these experiences “varied by societal positions.” Finally, she links digital contexts and online behaviour to “life outcomes –namely, being informed about the pandemic, avoiding misconceptions about it, and staying safe amid a quickly spreading deadly virus.”

In other words, to the layperson it is a book that sets out to answer questions that could be framed in less formal phraseology. How much help was digitally connected media to people in lockdown? Who benefitted most, and did it make us more vulnerable to fake news?

One of the great strengths of Hargittai’s survey-based approach to gathering response data to these questions is simply how quickly she mobilised. In her prefatory remarks she explains (perhaps for the non-academic) that preparing research projects like this can take months. The problem she identified was that such delays would mean missing the boat, because no one could know how long the containment measures would last, or in what direction they would lead us. Then there was the ironic subtext of her conducting this research into societal response to the use of ubiquitous digital technology while using that same machinery, living under the similar conditions to her subjects.

While Hargittai’s quest to discover how “long-existing social and digital inequalities played a critical role in … computer-mediated communication,” confirms our common- sense suspicions, it’s good to see that they are supported by data. The internet truly was a lifeline for people “suddenly relying on it for the most essential of daily needs.” Richer, better-educated people gained more from the digital ecosystem, while the benefits of access to reliable information was offset by the internet’s rapid dissemination of misinformation.

‘Connected in Isolation’ is an extraordinary document based on rigorous academic research principles. And while today, in the context of the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, it is without doubt a fascinating read, the full value of Hargittai’s work is yet to be realised. In the decades to come, ‘Connected in Isolation’ will become required reading and an important research resource for those wishing to analyse society’s response to the pandemic with the added perspective of elapsed time.

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