In the past, most researchers looked at internet access. Who had access to the internet and who did not? Why? However, recent research has delved deeper by asking what internet users are doing once they are online. In the article “The digital production gap: The digital divide and Web 2.0 collide”, Jen Schradie found a class-based gap where internet users of high economic classes create internet content more often. The article by Hoffmann et al. was particularly interesting because it showed the influence of cognitive factors, such as self-efficacy, also influence if internet users post content online. While we like to believe the internet is a democratizing force, scholarly research has shown otherwise.
While digital inequality is a problem for many reasons, I don’t find the results of the scholarly research surprising. The internet is a place for major companies and (smaller businesses) to make money. A lot of companies create content for economic purposes, and not to contribute to the “marketplace of ideas.” While libertarian theories regarding internet use sound tempting, it is not how our society operates. The United States values a free-market economy, and the internet is the same system. Consumer attention is viewed as a product, and content creation is often a great way to capture it. Larger companies, news organizations, or influencers have much higher readerships and viewerships than say, me. I can write all my thoughts and opinions pretty easily on this blog, but not many people are going to read it.
Sometimes we believe that gatekeeping theory is no longer relevant due to the development of social media. While it is certainly not the same, I would argue that gatekeeping theory is still relevant. Major news organizations, such as the New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and Fox News, ect., still choose what news to discuss and what news to omit. These organizations still have immense power and influence over what type of news and what content internet users see and read.
For example, in the case of health communication, Dr. Oz is probably the most well-known media figure who exclusively covers health issues. Dr. Oz is incredibly wealthy. I found different numbers, but according to a quick google search, his net worth is between $7 – $14 million. Other online influencers who share health information are often paid to promote specific products within their content. Individuals who produce health content on their own blog because they enjoy it do not earn a profit. Therefore, the content that is not profit driven may be the best source of information. However, when it comes to health information, credibility is a critical and very valid concern. Anybody can start posting content online that contains information that is factually incorrect, spreading misinformation.
One limitation of the current scholarly research on digital inequalities is they do not study the different type of content that users are posting. I also think it is important to study who is reading what online. Someone may not be highly educated and may not post online, but reads the New York Times every morning. For this person, this “digital inequality” may not affect them on an individual level. However, certain problems may affect people on an individual level. For example, health communication scholars know that lower income people do not read health information as frequently as higher income people. This affects people on an individual level and could cause negative health outcomes.
While it is important to study who is producing content and who is not, major companies still have much greater power because they have the attention of consumers, which means they make a lot more money than smaller companies or individuals in terms of ad revenue. Well-off people may post on the internet more, but that does not mean anyone is reading it. I think it is critical to study the receiving end of the content so that we can address further social issues, and further understand who is doing what online.