Another Covid book, this one about the digital context

by Eszter Hargittai on January 22, 2021

I’m joining John in going all in on Covid research. In the Fall, I signed a contract with The MIT Press for a book about the digital aspects of the pandemic’s early weeks. Scoping is tricky with an ongoing event not just in terms of topical focus, but also time span. I imagine we’ll be trying to make sense of what happened and how people experienced the events with what long-term implications for quite some time. I’m taking on the digital aspects of the first month or so. I’m basing the book on survey data I collected in April and May in the US, and in April in Switzerland and Italy.

It’s a digital inequality story whereby people in more privileged positions were able to pivot to online resources better, which may not be shocking, but worth exploring in detail given the extreme reliance on virtual communication in these times and many assumptions that such resources are readily available to all. There are also interesting nuances. Not all groups that one may expect to experience the circumstances negatively necessarily did so. For example, people with disabilities were more active on social media discussing the pandemic than those without disabilities. Whether this was a good thing or not is, of course, another question, one I plan to dig into through looking at knowledge about the pandemic and also people’s feelings of social connectedness. (This being a cross-sectional study, however, will limit my ability to comment on changes concerning survey participants’ specific circumstances.)

After explaining why a focus on the digital is relevant and giving some general social context as well as digital context of people’s situations, chapters focus on communicating during lockdown, how people used social media to connect about the pandemic in particular, what information sources people used for pandemic content and how this related to their knowledge about the virus, and who was able to pivot to working from home and what types of online learning people engaged in during this time. The book is about adults only so I will not be addressing things like how children’s homeschooling worked out.

This may be putting the cart before the horse, but I’m not sure how to think about the title. I’ve been playing with different ideas and would appreciate input. I started with Digital Survival: Who Thrives in Unsettled Times, but some reviewers of the proposal thought “digital survival” was too extreme. I’m not ready to abandon it as I do think digital connectivity has been very important and survival is not always used as a life-death distinction, but perhaps in this context it doesn’t work. What do you think? Or should I just go with Digital Inequality directly? I’m concerned that’s a bit jargony. (The book will be an academic trade publication.) Regarding the second half of the title, another approach is to foreground Covid instead of referring to unsettled times, but the idea is that the lessons learned would apply to other situations as well (e.g. political upheavals, natural disasters) so I don’t want it to sound narrower than necessary. I welcome your thoughts on this.



hix 01.22.21 at 9:34 pm

Looking forward to it. The digital inequality aspect remains rather puzzling to me at least on an emotional personal level. The technology just does not look that complicated or that expensive to me. Still just about nothing seems to happen further down the social ladder.

(now i’ll go back banging my head against the wall, it might be easier to get it to break than to get any social worker to seriously try to use digital technology)


KT2 01.22.21 at 11:42 pm

EH initial title: “Digital Survival: Who Thrives in Unsettled Times”

Digital droughts: who thirsts or thrives in tense times
Digital Inequality – covid shows us how to help under pressure.
Connectivity, Covid and Inequality. Lessons for the future
Digital drought,  disability & decision. Lessons for equality.

My contention is that “the zeitgeist” for change, lasted for about 2 weeks for those connected. 2 weeks only. Initial fear, then rapidly “I know I won’t die so I will just wait for ‘snap-back'”. Snap-back was Australia PM’s snappy “she’ll be right mate”. Shades of t’rump.

EH said: “There are also interesting nuances. Not all groups that one may expect to experience the circumstances negatively necessarily did so.”

Gapminder has a presentation showing exactly this relating to personal vs country wealth of Africa’s poor vs rulers. Couldn’t find this presentation – done while Hans Rosling was alive. This may be customised to connectivity vs individual subsets :

EH said: “also people’s feelings of social connectedness.”. This code is totally free to customise. I’d ask you / MIT to produce a bespoke version allowing your “academic trade publication” to become what you are asking – a better wider less unequal communication. An academic trade publication is not enough to my visual kinesthetic brain. Maybe I am disabled. Or didn’t connect.

“But why do some crowds turn to wisdom or madness?”

I hope to interact with the books concepts and contentions.

P.S. to JQ. I’d appreciated to interact with TECOTP too.

Thanks as always.


Eszter Hargittai 01.23.21 at 1:22 am

Hix, this is partly what’s so interesting about this puzzle. Once you know how to use it, it’s very difficult to go back to imagining when you couldn’t or who may not be able to. (Would riding the bicycle or swimming be a good analogy? Once you know how to do those, it’s very hard to put yourself in the shoes of those who don’t.) So even if we set aside financial resources – not that we should, but for a moment we will – there are all sorts of skills that go into using digital media, both at the social and at the technical level. I’ll have to make sure to get into these in considerable detail to remind heavy users of all the things they take for granted that are non-trivial to those who are less familiar with the options. It’s also worth noting that some people can be very savvy with certain tools, but not with others as skills don’t necessarily transfer. (So much more research needs to be done on that aspect though.)

KT2, thanks for engaging! Have I already said things that are too academic? Even for academic writing I don’t believe in jargon, but there are certainly methodological discussions and certain styles that make an academic paper less accessible. For blogging, I avoid using such language, but do let me know if I’ve already gone too technical.

I like the alliteration of Connectivity, Covid, so what could be a third Co word that signals inequality? The other suggestions are helpful, too. Disability won’t be a central theme at that level so that won’t make it into the title.


flubber 01.23.21 at 9:19 am

“Digital Lifeboats?”
Gated Digital Communities?
Some takeoff of the SF uploading yourself concept?



Anders Widebrant 01.23.21 at 10:48 am

How about “Digital Division”?

/I/ would subtitle it “Winners and Losers in the New New Economy”, but that would be an inappropriate deep cut. (


Eszter Hargittai 01.23.21 at 12:17 pm

Thanks, while I don’t know how much of Covid/unsettled times to have in the title, I do want to highlight that this is not only a general digital inequality book, that it draws on evidence from a special time. Anders, I like the subtitle idea, but I likely wouldn’t get into the new newness of it. ;-)


notGoodenough 01.23.21 at 12:56 pm

Eszter Hargittai

This sounds like an excellent exploration of an important topic – I am very glad to hear you are planning on writing about this.

In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with emulating some of Jane Austen’s works and just having two, e.g.
Connectivity & Covid: Exploring the Digital Deserts
or going with a 2 and 2 format, e.g.:
Connectivity, Covid, & the Impact of Inequality

Just to add my handful of grit to the machine :-)


Philip 01.23.21 at 1:10 pm

I like the original title, it emphasises the difficulty of people on the wrong side of the divide. For an alliterative title how about Connectivity, Covid, and Coping in Uncertain Times/Times of Crisis. ‘Crisis’ is a bit ambiguous but I like that, it could scale from personal to global and be a turning point or unmanageable situation.

I have found anecdotes from disability social media to be very interesting. Some people seem to feel that they have managed to cope better because they have been less impacted as they were already isolated or used to adapting to difficult circumstances whereas others have found it more difficult.


Eszter Hargittai 01.23.21 at 5:26 pm

NotGoodenough – I am not planning on writing about it, I AM writing about it. :-) (It’s due in a few months so I better be!) I’m glad to hear you like the idea. You’re right that 2 Cs could also work. Since the book is only about people who are online (sadly I don’t have data about those who are entirely in a digital desert), the first iteration doesn’t quite fit, but the second nicely captures a lot of the focus.

Philip, that is the likely explanation for people with disabilities (PWD), I agree. There is also at least some evidence that older people weren’t necessarily doing worse than younger people, likely for similar reasons. For PWD, already a few years ago we found that, when controlling for other factors, they were more likely to be actively engaged online in various ways (such as posting reviews) so in some ways they haven’t been behind at all anyway. [preprint] I like the addition of “Coping” to the C list!


notGoodenough 01.23.21 at 8:38 pm

Eszter Hargittai @ 9

Thank you for the response. It really sounds like Good Stuff – and I’m looking forward to it!

You have previously written some nice “for the layperson” literature and, as someone who has little knowledge of the topic, I find you manage to make it understandable even to me.

Indeed, one of the things I enjoy a great deal about CT is that many of the hosts (such as yourself, Chris, John, etc.) try to explain quite complex topics in a way which is readily accessable – it is very much appreciated!


Matt 01.24.21 at 2:10 am

Your original title is hard to beat. I think the reviewers are simply wrong.


John Quiggin 01.24.21 at 3:18 am

Eszter, you’ve made a good decision in focusing on a specific time interval in the past. I’ve found myself trying to guess where the policy debate will be when the manuscript is submitted. At least the US election is done, and the outcome is good enough that there is some point in writing.


John Quiggin 01.24.21 at 3:25 am

My impression is that inequality in access to digital resources (including the knowledge required to gain access) has diminished. As an example, regrettable though it is to me, the replacement of blogs by platforms like Facebook has certainly made the capacity to publish your thoughts to the world more generally available.

What has been crucial in the pandemic is whether your life in general (work, kids and so on) can easily be adapted to a world where the only connections were digital. If your job is in a meatworks, or your house is too small to fit an improvised office and schoolroom at the sametime, the quality of your broadband connection is secondary.


Helen 01.24.21 at 8:21 pm

The book is about adults only so I will not be addressing things like how children’s homeschooling worked out.

I’m not sure whether analysing the often greater burden on female adults will bear not addressing this in some form. “Women often had a greater workload and more difficulties for some mysterious reason. Whatever could it be?”


KT2 01.25.21 at 2:10 am

I am an outlier. Do not base your work on my preferences.

Too technical, not for your target auidence I presume. ” too academic”. Never. Others may re-digest and communicate for a different audience. Yet MIT will have a criterion. Vs target audience.

I need works which I may also deliver to my analogue self and teenagers. Why not? So many digital forms & communication types & variety to choose from now.

And right in cue – serendipity? – an example today, able to be augmented with text data etc:

“Anatomy of our battle against COVID-19

A great example I shared with my child today, who completely understood via graphics, all the text & data in context & time.

I’d love to see your month if digital inequality, be augmented with JQ’s economics effects, leading to a model politicians and the public may set up scenarios, and gather results for future ‘tense times’.

Having read again what you wrote, and mine and others title suggestions, I’d let the title go until you are going to write the forward – ie, after you’ve finished the book. Leaving it open will allow a catchphrase to appear.

You will get positive  Aha’s! And negative Aha’s. Someone will pop out with a catch phrase. Putting aside your title preference may reward both you and the wider world with more sales and more knowledge. Tricky though.

I humbly say, it is the 21c. It may seem tardy to test market, but hey – this is important and thank you for doing it – do several press releases and titles as way of gauging title & subtitle acceptance.

And finally your book is what I have been looking for, due to my feeling that the real ‘panic leading to change’, for those hooked into comms and society, only lasted 2 weeks in my nsw town.


Eszter Hargittai 01.26.21 at 3:42 am

nGe@10, thanks, good to know!

Matt @11, that’s helpful, it’s good to hear from folks who thinks the original idea works.

JQ @12, the importance of focusing on a specific point in time became increasingly clear as the pandemic has dragged on and is likely to keep going for some time. One could make this a long-term preoccupation for research purposes, but that’s not my plan. I’d like to document what happened in the early days and then will likely be moving on to (more like back to) other things that have been on my agenda. This is certainly related, but it’s not all I want to be doing for the next x years.

JQ @13, such comments about ease of accessibility make me think I should go into some detail about examples of what is not at all trivial for many people to do. Even putting up a post on FB is not entirely obvious to those not familiar with the platform. As to your second point, yes, this is partly what I want to work through. Is what you do online really secondary per se? I am not convinced given how much now has to happen online. (It’s less about quality of broadband – something I don’t actually have data on – and more about the ability to do what you want and actually doing it.)

Helen @14, as you note this is about analyzing the female adults so that is indeed relevant for the book. Just because I don’t have data on what children are up to, I do have data like number and age of children in the household and who is providing childcare in the home so I have some context. How much I can make it part of this book is another question. Let’s just say I have a ton of fascinating data that are beyond the scope of this one book. I hope there will be ways to benefit from those data in other ways.

KT2 @15, wow, what a rich document that link, thanks for sharing! My goal is to have lessons learned for future times, precisely. I can definitely hold off on finalizing the title. :) Not sure I get your last comment. Can you expand?


KT2 01.27.21 at 2:06 am

Hope this is not a double post.

Expand KT2. My hypothesis :
I only perceived a 2 week window of “pandemic fear” at a level, able to provide a full bifurcation of capitalism / democratic / equality / ‘we are keynsians forever now’ fundamental change.

Scene set:-
“12 January 2021
“There’s a ban on overseas travel from Australia. …
“All our 177 travel advisories on Smartraveller are set at ‘Do not travel’ due to the health risks from the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant disruptions to global travel.”

Zero changed locally from 12th Jan 2020 until:-

The reason I say zero changed is chatter was confined to those at risk, whilst others ignored until this wake up call…
1) “Bus loads of city dwellers stripping regional shelves bare
March 17, 2020
[National paper – beat up ]
“Are bus loads of people coming out west to strip our supermarket shelves?
 [Local paper – more nuanced]

About 1 March 2020 I bought the big pack of toilet paper. No panic. Yet a week later for 10days -you had to be at supermarket the morning of delivery. No pasta, rice etc. I asked several checkout people I knew if the bus loads story was true. I was informed by two, that 2 buses had come to 4 local towns, visited every supermarket & left not to be seen again. 2 x 40 persons only. That was the extent of ‘out of towners’ stripping shelves. We had another round of restricted toilet paper pasta rice scarcity, but for 3 to 4 days.

Panic? Only those old or comorbidities or with other conditions after first flush. I did stock up, and removed grass and planted another veggie garden. Yum.

2) early Feb – March I was a canary in the coal mine type. Continued for me until the late March, after our 3 Ruby Princess (Doh!) + 2 returned os had self quarantined locally and returned negative tests.

3) by easter – 10- 14 April – due to zero O.S. travel, every person from Sydney turned up in our town! Queues everywhere. Zero beds available. We are still now enveloped, and permanent I believe (landlords all airbnb now!!) by the ‘curse of tourism’. That put the nail into the coffin of change and panic. The town hears of covid elsewhere, yet locally the pandemic seemed to be on planet 9. We were and still are, packed to the rafters with local tourists.

4) we had a well respected satarist become a local radio jock with a strong following high rating morning program. He was elected to State parliment in March 2020.

Find the missing words – covid, coronavirus, pandemic.

“Donato, SFF looking for greater voice after Saturday’s election ”

“Newly-returned member for Orange Phil Donato said he expected “business as usual” in the state government chamber and was hoping having fellow Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party MPs in the Legislative Assembly will give Western NSW a “bigger voice”.

“But a NSW Nationals Party [calling for subsidised coal fired power stations today] victory in Dubbo, where Dugald Saunders defeated independent Matthew Dickerson by 2.6 per cent despite a 17 per cent swing away from the Nationals, combined with a Liberal win in East Hills, gave Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s Coalition government a two-seat majority.”
MARCH 29 2019

Both pushed herd immunity,  and I see comments on blog articles by one, supporting the great barrington declaration and ‘lock up the infirmed let me be free ‘.

So while others were standing still, in denial or ‘keeping the curve down’, locally, any panic leading to fundamental change lasted 2 weeks.

I submit you will find such a peak of fear and commensurate drop off in ‘effect real change’ in your data. Maybe just my locality, yet I still contend it is wider.

And the washup? 6 weeks later. Relax, don’t be alarmed.
“Coronavirus (COVID-19) at a glance – 28 April 2020 a

“As at 3:00pm on 28 April 2020, a total of 6,731 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Australia, including 84 deaths and 5,626 have been reported as recovered from COVID-19. 

“Of cases with a reported place of acquisition, 64% have recent international travel history, including more than 1,200 cases associated with cruise ships.

“The overall proportion of cases under investigation in each state and territory is relatively low, indicating that public health actions, including case identification and contact tracing, is occurring in a timely manner.”…

Busting to read now. Thanks.


KT2 01.27.21 at 2:08 am

May as well post a few potentials.
‘The eye of the storm’: how 76 Days captured Wuhan’s Covid lockdown up close

“The co-director of the haunting documentary, filmed inside the city’s hospitals during the first outbreak, explains why it is so important”…


Eszter Hargittai 01.27.21 at 1:57 pm

Thanks, KT2! Reading all this makes me wish I had collected data in Australia as well. I’m sure there are data sources, but as far as I know, my data set is unique in its focus on digital media use during those first couple of months. And to be fair, my book won’t take on panic at this level given its focus on the digital. I will have a chapter that gives the social context with some data about worries and such, but that won’t be the focus. It would be great to see work on the fluctuation of panic you describe.

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