Part 5 of a series of blogposts I wrote for the recent Annual Meeting of the Medical Library Association.
Is the Internet good or bad? Safe or dangerous? The answer from Eszter Hargittai at the MLAnet15 Closing Plenary was, “It depends.” Even if I was tracking tech events at the conference, even if this topic wasn’t my own bread-&-butter, even though Natalie has already done an completely excellent blogpost about this session, I would (and do!) still want to blog on this.
“It depends,” is the correct answer to most debates about anything to do with the Internet. Eszter Hargittai has hard data, and strong methodologies behind it, to show that most of our stereotypes about Internet use, audiences, abilities, etc. are considerably more subtle, nuanced, granular, and shaded than commonly believed.
In her research, there were a surprising or worrying number of students who were unable to distinguish phishing URLs from real URLs, to define fundamental Internet jargon terms, to determine accurate versus biased news, to leverage social sharing appropriately for employment, to find accurate and useful health information for common search topics, and more. She described impacts of lower socioeconomic status, gender differences that carry over to online environment, and importantly reframed the “digital divide” as “digital inequalities.” The example which most impressed me related to emergency contraception use. I suspect I’m not the only medical librarian who’s been approached by friends or neighbors with questions related to this topic. In Dr. Hargittai’s sample, a full third were unable to discover that it was possible to buy this over the counter at your neighborhood drug store. And that doesn’t even touch on the question of the other two thirds who do know how to find and purchase it, but do they know how to use it appropriately and safely in the context of their own health history?
The Internet can empower as much as it can endanger. What makes the difference? Hargittai says skills.
And the skills that are needed are ones that can largely be taught and learned. Librarians are people who generally (“It depends”, remember?) have both the needed skills and know how to teach them. This was a talk that the librarians who attended are still talking about, and I suspect that will continue in months to come.
You can explore the Storify, and its over 300 tweets to see what else people had to say about the talk.