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- Published: 23 May 2022
The impact of COVID-19 on digital communication patterns
- Evan DeFilippis ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-9757-4374 1 ,
- Stephen Michael Impink ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-5910-642X 2 ,
- Madison Singell 3 ,
- Jeffrey T. Polzer 1 &
- Raffaella Sadun 1
Humanities and Social Sciences Communications volume 9 , Article number: 180 ( 2022 ) Cite this article
- Business and management
We explore the impact of COVID-19 on employees’ digital communication patterns through an event study of lockdowns in 16 large metropolitan areas in North America, Europe, and the Middle East. Using de-identified, aggregated meeting and email meta-data from 3,143,270 users, we find, compared to pre-pandemic levels, increases in the number of meetings per person (+12.9 percent) and the number of attendees per meeting (+13.5 percent), but decreases in the average length of meetings (−20.1 percent). Collectively, the net effect is that people spent less time in meetings per day (−11.5 percent) in the post-lockdown period. We also find significant and durable increases in length of the average workday (+8.2 percent, or +48.5 min), along with short-term increases in email activity. These findings provide insight into how formal communication patterns have changed for a large sample of knowledge workers in major cities. We discuss these changes in light of the ongoing challenges faced by organizations and workers struggling to adapt and perform in the face of a global pandemic.
The COVID-19 global pandemic disrupted the way organizations function, just as it disrupted life more generally. As the number of infections increased, governments across the globe closed their borders and shut down physical work sites to reduce the spread of infection caused by the virus. By April 7, 2020, 95 percent of Americans were required to shelter-in-place within their homes, similar to the citizens of many other countries. Organizations responded by altering their work arrangements to accommodate these new realities, including a rapid shift to working from home for large segments of knowledge workers. Many workers were forced to work remotely to perform their jobs regardless of how conducive their home environment or task requirements were to such arrangements. Given the large-scale economic and social upheaval wrought by COVID-19, this abrupt transition to remote work occurred at a time when organizational coordination, decision-making processes, and productivity were never more consequential.
This paper provides a large-scale analysis of how formal digital communication patterns changed in the early stages of the pandemic. For all the anecdotes and speculation about working from home during the pandemic, there is still little systematic evidence on how day-to-day work activities changed due to these unexpected shocks. This paper explores, in particular, how the pandemic altered patterns of interactions—measured through a comprehensive set of meeting and email activity metrics—as organizations rapidly moved their activity to remote work. The analysis is based on de-identified meta-data from an information technology services provider that licenses digital communications solutions to organizations worldwide. We use digital meta-data on emails and meetings for 3,143,270 users across 21,478 de-identified firms located in 16 large metropolitan areas, aggregated by the provider to the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) and day across all available firms (see Appendix, Figs. B1 and B2 ). The meta-data provides information on both email and meeting frequency, as well as other salient aspects of digital communications, such as meeting size, meeting duration, the number of email recipients, the time an email was sent, and related dimensions (see Appendix, Table A1 ).
The precise geographical and longitudinal information contained in the communication meta-data allows us to study the evolution of meeting and email activity before and throughout the first stage of the pandemic. To identify the time at which workers presumably shifted to remote work, we selected 16 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) that experienced government-mandated lockdowns. These lockdowns established a clear breakpoint, after which we could infer that people were working away from their offices. The earliest lockdown in our data occurred on March 8, 2020, in Milan, Italy, and the latest lockdown occurred on March 25, 2020, in Washington, DC (see Table 1 for more information). We report data from a window starting 8 weeks before the lockdown and ending 8 weeks after the lockdown in each MSA to explore how the behavior of workers changed.
Digital communication and remote work
Theorizing about how employees might have responded to the COVID-19 crisis is challenging for many reasons. First, research conducted before the pandemic examined transitions to remote work that were voluntary, less widespread, and performed under less dramatic circumstances (Bloom et al., 2013 ; Choudhury et al., 2019 ). These circumstances are fundamentally different from the situation that organizations found themselves in shortly after the start of the pandemic.
Second, the few examples of forced transitions to remote work which do exist occurred in the aftermath of acute disasters, such as the Christchurch earthquakes in New Zealand or the 2011 Tōhoku tsunami in Japan (e.g. Donnelly and Proctor-Thomson, 2015 ; Dye et al., 2014 ), rather than a persistent crisis more similar to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, these transitions typically involved a smaller fraction of the workforce over a shorter duration, making it harder to generalize from them to the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Third, there is scarce prior evidence on digital communication across many firms, even in the absence of a crisis. For example, the nascent literature on the “science of meetings” tends to examine the behavior of a single or handful of firms, or use self-report measures derived from survey responses from a subset of firms or workers, instead of digitally-stored communications data at the scale examined in this paper (e.g. Rogelberg et al., 2006 , 2010 ; Allen et al., 2015 ). While there is a growing body of research examining how digital communications have changed since the pandemic (e.g. Cao et al., 2021 ; Yang et al., 2021 ), these studies tend to examine a single company, making it difficult to generalize results across different organizational features, such as size and industry.
Finally, existing research provides little guidance on how various dimensions of organizational communication activities relate to each other, even though they are likely to be interdependent. For example, meeting count—the number of meetings employees attend in a day—is likely to depend on other dimensions of meeting activity, such as meeting duration or size. Organizations may be reluctant to have meetings that are too long, involve many participants, and occur too frequently, as this may inhibit employees from accomplishing their individual work. Similarly, having infrequent, short, and small meetings may also be suboptimal, as it would limit opportunities for organization-wide coordination on broader tasks. The lack of research about how organizations navigate this balancing act makes it difficult to distill clear hypotheses about how the forced shift to remote work during the pandemic affected the different, interrelated dimensions of communication activity examined in this paper.
Because of the lack of existing theory and the novelty of these widespread, forced transitions to remote work, we do not generate a set of hypotheses. Instead, we summarize what we might infer from adjacent research on the individual variables considered in this paper.
The communication literature shows that digital communication is generally less information-dense than face-to-face interaction (Sproull and Kiesler, 1986 ; Daft and Lengel, 1986 ). Because virtual work must take place via “lean” informational channels, such as emails and videoconferences, certain social cues that are readily apprehended in-person can be lost when translated into digital mediums (Denstadli et al., 2012 ; Han et al., 2011 ). According to this reasoning, newly virtual teams adjusting to the pandemic should communicate more frequently via email and meet more often to compensate for the lack of rich social and contextual information previously conveyed through face-to-face interaction (Carletta et al., 2000 ; DeSanctis et al., 1993 ). We can arrive at a similar prediction by examining research on virtual teams, which finds that teams working remotely often suffer from a lack of formal accountability as managers cannot directly observe their employees’ performance (Kurland and Bailey, 1999 ). To compensate for this fact, managers on virtual teams may meet more frequently to ensure that employees accomplish organizational tasks (Maurer, 2020 ; White, 2014 ; Wiesenfeld et al., 1999 , 2001 ).
However, emerging research suggests that an unconditional increase in meeting frequency is unlikely, given that virtual meetings tend to be more cognitively demanding, more prone to distraction, and less effective in many ways than their in-person counterparts (Wiederhold, 2020 ). Adding to this problem are the unique challenges associated with technological adoption, including unanticipated service interruptions and the need for skilled meeting organizers who are fluent in the advanced features of meeting platforms and can resolve issues when they arise (Deakin and Wakefield, 2014 ; Seitz, 2016 ). These issues might offset the inclination to hold more meetings if managers acknowledge the diminishing returns to virtual meetings and modulate their frequency as teams transition remotely (Nardi and Whittaker, 2002 ; Wiederhold, 2020 ).
The literature is equally equivocal when it comes to the topic of meeting size. Research on collaboration, for example, observes that organizations often have different norms and conventions governing average meeting size, and that these norms are important predictors of meeting effectiveness, task performance, and inclusiveness in remote collaboration (Allen et al., 2020 ). But the literature is largely silent on whether these pre-existing organizational differences in meeting norms are likely to be preserved as firms transition remotely, or if organizations will be forced to adopt new norms as employees adjust to working from home. Convincing cases can be made for either prediction. For example, we might expect meetings to become larger as organizations shift to remote work since meeting organizers can be more inclusive about who gets invited to virtual meetings, since they do not have to worry about the physical capacity of meeting rooms. Managers may even see advantages to increasing the total number of people invited to meetings, as the problems that organizations face during this time will likely be relevant to a greater fraction of the workforce.
On the other hand, there are also good reasons to predict that meetings would become smaller as organizations get accustomed to remote work. Managers who use meetings primarily as an accountability tool to check-in with remote employees could increase the frequency of one-on-one meetings, which would drive the average size of meetings downward. Meeting organizers are also likely to consider workers’ attentional limitations, which are exacerbated in larger digital meetings where expectations regarding listening behaviors and interaction are less strict (Lyons and Kim, 2010 ). To mitigate these concerns, managers may opt for smaller meetings to minimize the risk of distraction.
Meeting length is another topic about which the literature is inconclusive. While there is a wealth of research discussing the challenges of long or inefficiently staggered meetings (e.g. Rogelberg et al., 2006 ; Stray et al., 2013 ), there is very little empirical research directly testing the dimension of meeting length, and few theoretical pieces that might inform predictions about what to expect as organizations transition remotely. As with other dimensions of meeting activity, plausible cases can be made for expecting either an increase or a decrease in the average length of meetings that employees attend. For example, employees are likely to have a hard time staying engaged in long virtual meetings (Wiederhold, 2020 ), which may force managers to respond by decreasing the length of meetings to reduce strain on employees’ attention. Similarly, as a greater proportion of meetings are used as a “check-in” tool to enforce employee accountability remotely, we might also expect a decrease in average meeting length, since check-in meetings can be completed in a shorter amount of time than other meeting types (Arnfalk and Kogg, 2003 ).
However, we might also expect the average meeting length to increase for a different set of reasons. For example, organizations may simply face more severe and frequent problems in the middle of a pandemic than they usually do. These problems may require longer meetings to adequately share information and ensure tasks are effectively coordinated across employees. Online meetings may also be less efficient than their in-person counterparts, owing to technical problems, communication challenges, and distractions at home. These inefficiencies may require meeting organizers to schedule relatively longer meetings to accommodate challenges inherent to digital media.
The trade-offs entailed in these decisions not only affect meeting activity, but communication activity more broadly. After all, much of the information that is exchanged in meetings could be conveyed in written form via email or other text-based tools. For this reason, our paper also focuses on email activity, which continues to be a prominent channel of communication in many organizations. In the context of this paper, email is a particularly important communication stream because it can act as both a complement to and substitute for meeting activity. Many tasks, for example, can be more efficiently accomplished via email, given its asynchronous, text-based format and the potential for one-to-many communication (Larsen et al., 2008 ). Other tasks which may require significant coordination or a large amount of social context and nuance may be better suited for meetings. The degree to which organizations will rely on emails as a complement to or substitute for meeting activity as they transition remotely remains an open question.
To understand how organizations changed their digital communication patterns in response to the pandemic, we analyzed a large sample of aggregated meeting and email meta-data from 3,143,270 users across 21,478 firms in 16 international cities that have been affected by official lockdown orders, reported in Appendix, Figures B1 and B2 . From this meta-data, our data provider, which licenses digital communications services to organizations around the world, built measures of the communication frequency for email (the average count of distinct, internal, and external emails and the average count of recipients) and meetings (the average count of meetings, average meeting duration, and the average count of attendees per meeting). Additionally, we measured broader changes to work patterns, such as the average length of workday (measured from the first communication to the last communication in a given day), the cumulative number of hours people spent in meetings, and the average number of emails sent outside of regular business hours, reported in the Appendix, Table A1 . More details on our measures are reported in the Appendix, Note A6 .
Our data provider cleaned the data in several ways to increase the likelihood that calendar metadata reflected actual organizational activity. First, they dropped meetings with only one attendee or meetings that lasted longer than 8 h since those meetings overwhelmingly corresponded with out-of-office notices or people blocking out personal time on their calendar rather than formal meeting activity. Next, they excluded meetings with greater than 250 attendees to filter out company-wide notices and spam invitations. Lastly, they only provided internal emails based on correspondence between two employees who shared the same corporate domain address (e.g. @company.com).
The data provider matched meeting and email metadata to a list of metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). For each MSA in our data, we included the central business district of the cities and surrounding suburbs and townships within the MSA with populations greater than 100,000 people. The 16 major cities included in the sample were selected based on the following criteria: (1) each city must average at least 50,000 active users across 500 firms in the time period examined; (2) each city must have implemented a clear, government-mandated order for non-essential employees to work from home; and (3) these orders had to take effect around the same time (between March 8 and 28) to more explicitly control for time-specific factors related to the organizational response to COVID-19. The third criteria resulted in the exclusion of Asian cities from the analysis since their lockdowns took place at least a month before other major international cities. Each variable used in this analysis was computed by our provider and delivered to us pre-aggregated at the MSA-level. At no point did the research team have access to personally identifiable or user-level data.
In a secondary data set, our provider calculated and shared email communication aggregates at the industry (SIC-1) and organization size level (i.e., small <250 users, medium 250–500 users, large 1000–2500 users, and enterprise 2500+ users) for each of the 16 MSAs included in this study. Our email provider was unable to provide the industry-level data for meeting measures. We use this dataset only to show that our results are consistent across industry and size levels in various robustness tests.
For the main set of results, we used average meeting and email activity aggregated at the MSA level in the post-lockdown period relative to the pre-lockdown period. We used the following specification for our first set of results, which uses a single dummy variable to test the overall difference between pre- and post-lockdown periods for each outcome variable.
To analyze the change in email and meeting measures over different weeks, we used the following specification:
where y i , t are logged email and meeting data at the MSA i and day t level, post is an indicator variable for the period after lockdown, Dτ t is a week indicator variable, relative to the lockdown week, γ i are MSA-level fixed effects, d t are day of the week indicator variables (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc.), and u i,t is an error-term. Note that MSA-level fixed effects were selected since that was the level at which our communication data was aggregated by our data provider. MSA-level fixed effects control for average differences across MSAs for the outcome of interest, enabling us to report within-MSA changes.
The “lockdown week” is the 7-day period that includes the lockdown date at its center. Every prior and subsequent week indicator is defined relative to that week. The base week for our regression is defined as one week before the lockdown week since many organizations began making arrangements days in advance of official lockdowns based on news of impending policy changes. Email and meeting measures do not display evidence of a pre-trend in the weeks leading up to the base week and lockdown week. All standard errors are clustered at the MSA level (see Tables 2a , b for details).
We use an OLS regression-based event study to examine how these measures vary before and after government-mandated lockdowns. Our method is similar to other approaches in the literature used to evaluate event-related changes in an outcome of interest (e.g. Henderson, 1990 ; Kothari and Warner, 2007 ). We group digital communication measures into three categories of interest: meeting, email, and work–life balance.
We find an increase in the total meeting count (+12.9% [CI: +11.4% to +14.4%], +0.8 meetings per person per day) Footnote 1 , a decrease in the average meeting duration (−20.1% [−23.0% to −17.1%], −12.1 min per meeting), and an increase in the average number of attendees (+13.5% [+10.6% to +16.5%], +2.1 attendees per meeting). Our results suggest that organizations in the post-lockdown period had shorter, more frequent meetings with more attendees than in the prior period. Additionally, we find that the net effect of all these changes was to significantly reduce the total number of hours employees spent in meetings during the post-lockdown period (−11.5% [−14.3% to −8.7%], −18.6 min per person per day). We report these models in the Appendix in Table A2 .
After assessing the overall post-lockdown changes in meeting activities, we conducted more granular tests to understand how these changes unfolded week by week. Using a similar regression specification, but with dummy variables corresponding to each week, we computed the weekly change in digital communication patterns following the enacted lockdown relative to the base week. In this weekly specification, we find consistent increases in the size and count of meetings and consistent decreases in the length of meetings each week after the lockdown date. The cumulative effect of these changes is a decrease in the total amount of hours employees spend in meetings each week after the lockdown date, relative to the base week. We report the coefficients, denoting the weekly changes in communication relative to the base week and corresponding standard errors, in Table 2a , and graph these coefficients in Fig. 1 .
Depiction of the coefficients from Table 2a .
Turning to emails, we find that two types of email communication increased in the post-lockdown period. First, the average number of internal emails sent increased (+5.2% [+3.0% to +7.6%], +1.4 emails per person per day). Additionally, there is a significant increase in the average number of recipients included in emails sent in the post-lockdown period (+2.9% [+0.3% to +5.5%], +0.25 recipients per email sent). However, external emails did not significantly change in the post-lockdown period. We report the coefficients, denoting the weekly changes in communication relative to the base week and corresponding standard errors, in Table 2b , and graph these coefficients in Fig. 2 . To better understand how these results unfold over time, we analyze our main email measures up to nine months after the initial lockdowns. Appendix Table A5 depicts results from our main specification for all email measures, controlling for industry-level fixed effects. We find that, even 9 months after the lockdown, the total number of internal emails sent remains significantly higher than pre-lockdown levels. However, the average number of email recipients appears to return to pre-lockdown levels by the third month. We interpret this as evidence that certain changes to communication activity, such as increases in the total number of emails sent, reflect enduring changes to digital communication that are associated with the semi-permanent adoption of remote work. In contrast, other changes, such as increases in the average number of recipients per email, are less durable and fade in the immediate aftermath of lockdowns.
Depiction of the coefficients from Table 2b .
We find that the average workday span, defined as the span of time from the first to the last email sent or meeting attended in a 24-h period, increased by +48.5 min (+8.2% [+7.1% to +9.3%]). Consistent with longer workdays, emails sent after business hours also increased (+8.3% [+4.0% to +12.7%], +0.63 emails per person per day). We report these details in the Appendix in Table A2 . Even in the weekly specification, the employee’s average workday span remains elevated, higher than pre-pandemic levels, for the eight post-lockdown weeks examined in the weekly specification. Furthermore, the total number of emails sent increases steeply the week of the lockdown and then decreases persistently in the weeks after, returning to pre-lockdown levels around week four.
We run numerous analyses with different weighting and aggregation schemes to ensure that our results are consistent across specifications. All results, except for email recipients, are robust to weighting regressions by the total number of users in each MSA, as described in the Appendix in Table A3 . Next, we run additional analyses using weekly instead of daily aggregations, reported in the Appendix in Table A4 . These models are consistent with our main set of findings, regardless of the level of aggregation chosen. Furthermore, in additional analysis (available upon request), we examined whether the changes in communication activity observed in the data were driven by specific sectors of the economy, but found similar responses, both in terms of sign and magnitude, across various industries.
Interestingly, Europe is more negatively impacted by the lockdowns than other cities in our sample when controlling for relevant holidays. However, this could be due to a greater intensity of the lockdown regulations in these areas, disrupting life more in the first two months of the pandemic. It is also possible that pre-existing work–life balance norms in European countries contributed to this result due to a ceiling effect. That is, cities with low baseline levels of communication, perhaps owing to stronger work–life balance norms, have more room to increase their email and meeting activity than cities with higher baseline levels of communication. Lastly, we confirm that the user base remains similar throughout this period and share a graphical depiction of meeting and email users in the Appendix in Figs. B1 and B2 .
Careful inspection of these weekly results reveals that some communication patterns began to change even earlier than one week before the lockdown. To account for this variation, we reran the main analysis, but set the reference category to 8 weeks before the lockdown date to formally test whether meeting and email trends 8 weeks into a lockdown were different from the trends observed 8 weeks before the lockdown. We share these results in the Appendix in Figs. B3 and B4 . With few exceptions, we find that the broad trends in meeting and email activity described above hold regardless of whether the reference week is 8 weeks before the lockdown or one week before the lockdown.
Furthermore, we share additional analysis by MSA and industry. We graph each measure by MSA in the Appendix in Figs. B5 – B14 . Lastly, in Appendix Fig. B15 , we provide an industry analysis showing the heterogeneous effect of industry on email intensity, based on the additional industry-level data provided in the secondary data set. This analysis confirms that our results do not vary much by industry. The only industry differentially affected by the pandemic lockdown is the services industry (excluding financial services). In the services industry, we find that email communication does not recover as quickly as other industries after the lockdown, possibly suggesting a reduction in demand for in-person services.
With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing employees worldwide to work from home, organizations have had to make challenging and urgent decisions about how best to utilize digital communication technology in the absence of a shared physical workspace. Our paper examines two important types of digital communication—meeting and email activity—and shows that on average, employees significantly changed their communication behavior in response to the pandemic. While our results are more descriptive in nature and cannot rule out several competing explanations for the observed findings, the existing literature does help us to identify which explanations are most plausible. Overall, our results suggest that the organizations made communication trade-offs in response to the pandemic, increasing meeting and email activity in terms of frequency and the number of people included, but decreasing the overall time spent doing these activities. While our data cannot speak to whether these changes were due to explicit strategic managerial decisions or a consequence of organizations transitioning to remote work, these patterns are consistent with the idea that virtual forms of communication were leveraged to replace the face-to-face interaction typical in an office setting in a way that might have freed up time for employees to get work accomplished throughout the day.
Though an increase in the quantity of virtual communication is perhaps unsurprising in the middle of a pandemic, the extant literature could not have predicted the specific ways in which this occurred. The literature does, however, help us interpret our findings. For example, despite the potential drawbacks of large meetings or emails with many recipients, these forms of communication practices may help synchronize how information is shared (Allen et al., 2015 ; Cohen et al., 2011 ; Mroz et al., 2018 ). Furthermore, expanding the number of email recipients and meeting attendees increases the likelihood that important information is received by all relevant individuals in an organization (Skovholt and Svennevig, 2006 ).
The hypothesis that organizations were forced to leverage meetings and emails as an imperfect substitute to face-to-face interaction is plausible. Still, one finding that should be explained is why internal emails increased (and remained significantly higher than pre-lockdown levels even 9 months after lockdowns), but external email communication did not. One possibility is that communication turned inward as organizations adapted to remote work. Organizations working remotely for the first time likely have a greater need to use email for internal activities (e.g. synchronizing work activity, enforcing accountability, and communicating information), than for external activities, such as establishing new external partnerships. Another important possibility is that a meaningful amount of external communication in our dataset consisted of mass emails sent out as part of newsletters or promotional campaigns, rather than unique external communication efforts with specific individuals. If these mass emails were automated before the pandemic, and therefore not subject to changes in remote working status, then we would not expect to observe significant increases in external communication.
In addition to observing increases in internal email communication, we also observed important changes to meeting activity. Specifically, we found an increase in the frequency and size of meetings, which can be explained by the fact that virtual work limits opportunities for in-office social engagement and serendipitous information sharing with other employees. Managers may have found it necessary to correct this problem by increasing the frequency of “all-hands” meetings for their teams or departments to overcome feelings of social isolation (Carletta et al., 2000 ; Nilles, 1994 ) and maintain a sense of identification with the organization (Wiesenfeld et al., 1999 ).
The observed decline in meeting length is also consistent with research on virtual teams, which finds that employees find it harder to stay engaged in long, virtual meetings compared to in-person meetings (Wasson, 2004 ; Cummins, 2020 ). Additionally, natural distractions at home which compete for attention, such as demands from family and household responsibilities, may make it even harder to focus during a working day (Cummins, 2020 ; Davis and Green, 2020 ). The collective effect of these demands on attention may have motivated managers to shorten the average length of meetings to avoid overwhelming employees adjusting to working-from-home.
The joint effect of having both an increase in meeting frequency and a decrease in meeting length suggests an interesting possibility that meetings may have become more difficult to coordinate efficiently while organizations adapted to working remotely. A greater quantity of meetings involving a greater number of people implies a substantial requirement for coordination among attendees to schedule these meetings. For at least some of these employees, it would be impossible to schedule meetings consecutively so as to minimize interruption to work activity. From the perspective of employee well-being, the total amount of time spent in meetings is less important than the total number of interruptions (Rogelberg et al., 2006 ). For employees involved in highly interdependent tasks (Barrick et al., 2002 ), an increased quantity of meetings may result in greater distraction and deterioration of well-being over time, even if the net amount of time spent in these meetings is decreasing.
Consistent with this possibility, our findings also point to a spillover of virtual communication beyond normal working hours. Employees worked an average of 48.5 min longer after COVID-19 lockdowns, and were significantly more likely to send emails outside of standard working hours. This points to yet another trade-off organizations should be sensitive to—the decision to expand the scope and frequency of communications, with all its attendant coordination costs, is synonymous with a decision to expand the working day for employees. Even with reduced time spent in meetings, the work demands brought about by the pandemic, coupled with personal demands that are always close at hand, likely made it hard to meet obligations within the bounds of normal working hours.
One explanation for why employees might be working more while working from home comes from research on non-traditional work schedules. This literature has shown that managers have a tendency to view employees who take advantage of flexible working hours as less productive or committed to the organization (Chung, 2020 ; Kaplan et al., 2018 ). Given this perception, employees in virtual teams tend to work longer hours to overcome this “flexibility stigma” and to signal progress on certain assignments by communicating more regularly with managers (Chung, 2020 ; Golden and Eddleston, 2020 ). Another worrying possibility is that workers who would rather not work remotely consider having an office away from their home as essential to keeping their work and personal lives separate. For these workers, working from home may blur the distinction between work and other aspects of their personal life, which may result in them working longer hours without being fully aware of doing so.
Some employees may work a similar amount of time, but spread across an irregular schedule, increasing the span of their workdays. Employees working from home, for example, may decide to take periodic breaks throughout the day to accommodate idiosyncratic demands associated with home life (e.g. childcare, spousal responsibilities, etc.) and compensate for these breaks by working later. Because our measure of the working day is computed by taking the length of time between the first and last meeting or email each day, it does not necessarily capture the total amount or intensity of working time. Despite this caveat, the possibility that employees’ working hours have become less regular is still an important feature of work during the pandemic, as there are well-studied consequences to deviating from formal, organization-wide working schedules (e.g. Piasna, 2018 ; Joshi and Bogen, 2007 ).
In addition to estimating the effects of COVID-related lockdowns on patterns of digital communication, our results also offer a few relevant insights for managers and leaders within organizations. First, our data show that organizations are not merely reactive, but remarkably proactive to external shocks. Organizations of different sizes, in different industries, in different parts of the world, changed their patterns of digital communication at least one full week, on average, before government-imposed lockdowns. That is, our findings show that organizations can (and did) rapidly adjust their communication patterns in anticipation of formal policy requirements or response to local environmental conditions (e.g., the increasing spread of the virus in workplaces.) This degree of responsiveness is surprising when juxtaposed with the literature showing that many organizations can be slow to adapt and change, especially as they become large or are required to respond to rapid political and regulatory change (Woods, 2020 ; Wright et al., 2004 ).
Second, our findings point to the utility of passively collected digital communications data. It is worth noting that this study would not have been possible 20 years ago. Researchers would have had to infer the organizational impact of the crisis via survey data shared from a smaller number of organizations, and such data would have taken months, if not years, to collect. Today, however, because of the widespread use of calendar platforms by organizations that automatically collect communications meta-data, it is now possible to glimpse the impact of any event on organizational communication in real-time (Salganik et al., 2020 ). Because we wanted to ensure our results apply to a large number of organizations, we limited our analysis to broad communication measures shared across organizations worldwide. However, communications data can be collected at a much more granular level than the measures used in this paper. For example, Yang et al. ( 2021 ), in a study that complements our broader approach, examines network data at greater depth for a single firm to show that collaboration networks have become more siloed since the adoption of remote work.
Lastly, our findings have implications for managers by highlighting the importance of considering the trade-offs in organizational communication. Shortly after COVID-related lockdowns were imposed, managers found themselves in charge of newly remote workers and had to decide, in real-time, how best to communicate with employees. Difficult decisions had to be made regarding how many emails to send to employees, how many people to include on meeting invitations, and how frequently to schedule “check-in” meetings to heighten accountability. While our data cannot speak to whether managers consciously made these decisions, our data do show meaningful trade-offs in the dimensions of communication activity. In the context of meetings, organizations varied along different dimensions of meeting activity: the number of meetings, the size of meetings, and the length of meetings. While our paper focuses on the short-term response to the emergency situation created by the pandemic, in the long run, the correct balance of these parameters may vary across organizations. How managers and organizations proactively think about the ideal balance of these parameters (if at all) is an important question for future research.
While our data establish that employees changed their email and meeting activity patterns in response to lockdowns, our findings are not without limitations. First, our data only represent a subset of the possible communication occurring within a firm. Non-email communication, such as messaging via consumer or other business communication platforms, and informal meetings not scheduled via calendar invitations, are not reflected in our data. Our analysis does not capture these cross-platform substitutions outside our provider’s data. Therefore, this paper’s findings should be interpreted cautiously as the effect of COVID-19 lockdowns on more formal digital communication patterns, the email and meeting activity facilitated through the company’s communication platform, rather than the net effect of all communication occurring within a firm. As such, other types of communication (e.g. watercooler conversations, instant messenger, phone calls, etc.) were not captured by our email provider’s email and calendar system and were not analyzed in our study. As a result, our analysis may miss important ways in which organizations responded to the pandemic by increasing their use of non-email and meeting channels. For example, organizations might have reacted to the loss of serendipitous in-person conversation by increasing their use of other business communication platforms, like Slack or Microsoft Teams, which are not captured in our data.
A second limitation is that at least three distinct events or phenomena can occur in concert with COVID-related lockdowns: firms transition to remote work, there is a shock to demand due to macroeconomic forces, and behavior is changed for non-work-related reasons. Even controlling for industry and firm size, we cannot disentangle which of these forces is responsible for the effects observed in the paper. As such, the effects documented in the paper should be interpreted as the joint effect of all the forces that co-occur with COVID-19 lockdowns. Related to this, we treat all government-mandated lockdowns as similar in terms of their influence on organizational communication. In reality, firms may have responded to lockdowns in distinct and important ways. For example, Yang et al. ( 2021 ) note that some firms may have adopted a “hybrid work model” in response to the pandemic in which employees spend part of their week working remotely and the other part working in the office. Other organizations are more likely to adopt a “mixed-mode” model in which some employees work remotely full-time, and other employees are full-time office workers. Whether a firm adopted a hybrid working model, a mixed-mode model, or something more extreme has important implications for assessing the impact of remote work on organizational communication.
Third, even though we take great lengths to ensure that calendar data reflects real organizational activity, there is still the possibility that some fraction of our meeting meta-data may not perfectly capture organizational work. For our meeting length variable, a similar problem occurs if a meeting lasts longer or shorter than scheduled on the calendar. The extent to which meeting length, frequency, and size are incorrectly estimated will likely vary substantially across firms, but we have no reason to expect that this bias will vary systematically in a particular direction rendering our estimates unreliable. Measurement error of this sort also does not diminish the practical significance of the results.
Given the unprecedented nature of the changes wrought by COVID-19, it was unclear from the outset how employees would adapt their communication patterns as they transitioned to working from outside their offices. We find that COVID-related lockdowns are associated with: (1) an increase in the total volume of meeting and email activity; (2) a decrease in the average length of meetings; and (3) an increase in the span of the workday. We also found an increase in the average size of meetings and a decrease in the total amount of time spent in meetings after the implementation of COVID-19 lockdowns.
In analyzing digital communication patterns across a large number of firms and regions, we build upon an emerging literature that uses communication meta-data to measure the relationship between patterns of communication and organizational outcomes (Impink et al., 2020 ; Polzer et al., 2018 ; Kleinbaum et al., 2013 ; Srivastava et al., 2018 ). More substantively, we contribute to the literature on virtual work, which has traditionally focused on the impact to organizations when a small subset of employees voluntarily transition to remote work (e.g., Bloom et al., 2013 ; Choudhury et al., 2019 ). Our findings clarify how core communicative functions in an organization change when remote work is implemented under less auspicious conditions—when the transition is mandatory and involves entire organizations.
Please contact the corresponding author: Jeffrey Polzer ([email protected]) to be provided with information on how to contact the email provider in our study to apply for access to use the data or to be provided with the code (R and STATA) used to run our analyses.
The details reported in parentheticals are the following: the percentage change of the outcome variable compared to pre-lockdown levels computed from the regression, the 95% confidence interval for this percentage change, and the raw change in the outcome variable in its original units.
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DeFilippis, E., Impink, S.M., Singell, M. et al. The impact of COVID-19 on digital communication patterns. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 9 , 180 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-022-01190-9
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Emphasizing the phenomenon not the technology, cultivating a focus on mediation across technologies, emphasizing theoretical mechanisms of technological mediation, synthesizing perspectives on digital communication.
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The Conduct and Consequence of Research on Digital Communication
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Andrew J Flanagin, The Conduct and Consequence of Research on Digital Communication, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication , Volume 25, Issue 1, January 2020, Pages 23–31, https://doi.org/10.1093/jcmc/zmz019
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Research on digital communication is best served by concentrating not on current technological tools , but rather on the novel processes of social and communicative change to which such technologies are often closely linked. Thus, scholarship should consider contemporary technologies mainly as manifestations of underlying phenomena rather than as particular objects of study and should cultivate a focus on the capabilities that span technologies. Theories in this domain, in turn, must concentrate on what is exceptional about technologies in terms of the psychological, social, and behavioral mechanisms that help to comprehend them in the long term. Seen this way, the key to understanding technological mediation is remarkably consistent even in the face of radical technological change.
Although the technologies of communication have changed radically in the last several decades, the key to understanding technological mediation has remained the same. Indeed, technological upheaval paradoxically demands that researchers focus their efforts not on novel tools of communication, but rather on the novel processes of social and communicative change to which technologies are often closely linked. Without recognition of this basic insight researchers stand to neglect the most critical elements of technological change in favor of enticing and important—but overly specific and fleeting—shifts in technological products, features, and outcomes. Thus, answers to the questions of what computer-mediated communication (CMC) research is today and should be tomorrow are one and the same: research on communication mediated by contemporary technological tools must focus squarely on what is exceptional about such tools in terms of the psychological, social, and behavioral mechanisms that help to comprehend them in the long term. Only by doing so will research produce an enduring understanding of communicative phenomena in a context of swift technological change.
To do this, scholarship should: (a) consider current technological tools or products mainly as manifestations of underlying phenomena rather than as objects of study in their own right, (b) cultivate a focus on the capabilities of technologies that spans technological tools, and (c) emphasize the identification, development, and modification of theoretical mechanisms describing the core processes of human communication as fundamentally connected to technological mediation. Adhering to these ideals stands to produce explanations of human responses to mediation that reach beyond current technical manifestations and therefore endure over time. Each of these standards is next explicated in turn, followed by their synthesis and an assessment of the challenges and potential advantages that might accrue to the study of mediated communication.
Although technological changes are often prominent in perspectives on social history and societal transformation, decontextualized studies of particular technological tools or their usage often fail to provide broad or long-term insight. Such “object-centered” research tends to focus on the technology as a whole, emphasizing its uniqueness or newness in time or place “because the technology, as a material thing, has some particularly interesting feature[s]” ( Nass & Mason, 1990 , p. 46). Yet, new technologies soon become old and the very instinct that prompts consideration of these new tools also foreshadows their eventual modification or demise. A more sustainable approach is therefore to privilege strategies that emphasize the aspects of technology that are likely to endure in their importance over time and across tools.
Yet, the bias toward tools-based studies is reflected even in the longstanding label of “ computer -mediated” communication, which emphasizes the means of mediation over its processes. To partially redress this bias, researchers might alternatively consider current technological tools or products mainly as exemplars exhibiting underlying phenomena rather than as particular objects of study in their own right. In this fashion, studies should emphasize the core processes of interest (e.g., studies of mediation in its various forms) over the particular tools that exhibit the capacity for such processes (e.g., studies of Twitter, etc.). Doing so mitigates against findings becoming outdated with changes to the technological tool under study and appropriately shifts focus from a particular tool to the underlying phenomena of interest.
As a simple example, consider hypothetical studies of a particular communication tool, such as the messaging application Snapchat, for instance. A typical strategy might be to query or observe some dimension(s) of people’s Snapchat usage, such as their motivations or intentions for, or their frequency and outcomes of, use of the technology, perhaps within a particular subpopulation, geographic location, or culture of interest. Such studies might be considered research of Snapchat (i.e., as an object of study in its own right), and they would provide largely descriptive data on the state of Snapchat use today, while providing little insight into the cross-cutting or underlying capabilities of messaging tools in general. The value of research findings, however, would be dramatically different before and after Snapchat’s relaxation of several features where messages are permanently deleted shortly after receipt. Thus, research on any technology as an object of study may not necessarily endure over time as technical modifications occur, does not generalize well to other tools unless capabilities are shared among them, and may not provide deep insight into underlying communicative processes more broadly if they are not the focus of study specifically.
Yet, Snapchat could nonetheless provide a valid site (versus subject) of study for an underlying phenomenon, such as the transmission of sensitive information to others, as long as the core capability of interest (e.g., information ephemerality) is appropriately manipulated or highlighted by the method of inquiry. There is thus a critical difference between studying a specific technology (e.g., a study of Snapchat behaviors) versus studying a phenomenon that happens to take place on or is currently manifest in a technology, as a site of study (e.g., a study of a particular behavior that happens currently to be prevalent on Snapchat). In the latter case, Snapchat may serve, for example, as an instance of the underlying phenomenon of information ephemerality or persistence, which might affect the sharing of sensitive information. The implication is that other tools exhibit the same capability, potentially providing greater robustness and generalizability of findings. Focused studies of a specific capability manifest in multiple technologies thus make it easier to identify the most important aspects of influence, as discussed next.
To uncover the enduring aspects of technological mediation, research must emphasize the basic communicative and social processes that are evolving as a consequence of contemporary technologies, rather than the specific tools that currently facilitate them. This entails identifying the critical elements of mediation as they occur in various forms of digital communication and then dedicating sustained attention to them across multiple studies, preferably across multiple technologies. Looking across technologies, then, researchers should be able to identify and understand the most critical and enduring components of mediated communication.
Many perspectives advocate this type of examination. The variable-centered approach, for example, is offered as a corrective to object-centered research (where technologies are examined holistically, as a consequence of material features thought to be new) and social-actor-centered studies (where technologies are subservient to variation across individuals or groups; Nass & Mason, 1990 ). In these latter cases, “theories that are specified or operationalized in terms of one technology can never be applied to any other technology” because it is not known “what feature or characteristic of the technology has been caused or has led to the effect under study … [since] any single technology represents a particular value on a number of variables” (p. 49).
To resolve this, the variable-centered approach proposes examining features that span multiple technologies to isolate their influence. By decomposing technologies into their component pieces they can be understood in terms of their relation with other variables of interest. Advantages include that the variables examined are likely to fluctuate across technologies, will be relevant across time as technologies wax and wane, may help to demonstrate similarities and differences between technologies, and can serve as independent, dependent, or intervening variables depending on the research question at hand.
Similarly, the mix of attributes perspective ( Eveland, 2003 ) was proposed to redress media effects research that privileges the effects of different content, while treating media technologies largely as static delivery tools, thereby ignoring their actual impact. To do so, the perspective advocates considering media technologies as quantitatively different from one another, composed of a potentially wide variety of attributes, and as historically situated inasmuch as truly novel media attributes are rare. In this manner, attributes such as interactivity, control, or channel are manifest in multiple technologies and can be studied within and across them. Benefits from doing so include clarity in technology explication, a clear focus on the effects of media (versus content), identification of new variables that are shared among technologies, and the ability to focus on attributes spanning technological tools.
Finally, affordance approaches to the study of technology (e.g., Fox & McEwan, 2017 ; Gibson, 1979 ; Norman, 1988 , 2013 ; Treem & Leonardi, 2012 ) note that technological tools are each composed of a host of features that are common to those who encounter them. The potential capabilities or uses of a technology, though, are potentially unique to each individual since every person interprets a technology in terms of its distinct utility to them (i.e., the uses it “affords” them). The same tool may therefore afford different people different things and affordances are relational in that they are formed through interaction between technological features and the subjective interpretations and goals of individuals. Thus, affordances are the capabilities of technologies that can be exploited to facilitate an action or outcome and are rooted in particular technological features.
Consider an example of studying the potential relationship between the use of social media tools and opinion conformity: A simple hypothesis of digital mediation would be that Facebook use is positively related to group-level political opinion conformity (due perhaps to peer pressures to adapt to shared group norms). Facebook use (the independent variable) is measured and correlated with the amount of political opinion conformity among people’s Facebook contacts (the dependent variable). This clearly constitutes an object-centered study of a technology (Facebook), and it therefore fails to capture the nuances of the technological mediation at play, saying merely that use of Facebook is related to conformity, without specifying the particular mechanisms underlying this relationship. This shortcoming is not addressed even if the proposed relationship is extended by, for instance, noting that the relationship exists among members of some subpopulation, such as those of a common location or cultural group, or if the outcomes are extended to include other factors, such as group polarization.
Reconsidering the same phenomenon along the lines of variable-centered, mix of attributes, and affordance perspectives, however, suggests a different and more enduring strategy. In these terms a simple hypothesis might be that enhanced opinion visibility (the independent variable) in social media environments prompts more group-level political opinion conformity (the dependent variable), again perhaps due to pressures to adapt to group norms. Indicators of agreement, such as the “like” option (in Facebook or Instagram), or re-tweeting (on Twitter), or “upvoting” (in Reddit), could be invoked to operationalize opinion visibility. In this way, cross-cutting features can be identified that, while embedded in particular tools, might also span multiple technologies. Liking, retweeting, or upvoting (as well as functions not yet invented that serve similar purposes) are specific to particular technologies and yet perhaps sufficiently similar to one another to span multiple tools. Consequently, valid research sites in this context include any venue where such features are prominent, thus extending both research opportunities and the applicability of research findings.
Put another way, opinion visibility is an affordance that might be manifest in the material feature of a “like” button (for instance), which may affect group-level political opinion conformity. The affordance of opinion visibility can thus be exploited by people via particular features (e.g., “likes”) to signal outcomes, such as their dis/approval of others’ opinions (perhaps resulting in more or less conformity, etc.). In this way, affordances draw specific attention to digital mediation , as they accentuate the novel processes of social and communicative change to which technologies are often closely connected. Because the affordance links the technology to an outcome “ignoring this [mediating] aspect of affordances reflects a theoretical leap and implies a deterministic argument where an object [technology] leads to the outcome without any indication of the process or reasons for the relationship ” ( Evans, Pearce, Vitak, & Treem, 2017 , p. 39; emphasis added). Positing that Facebook use is positively related to political opinion conformity, as mentioned earlier, constitutes precisely this type of leap. By contrast, the explicit examination of affordances (e.g., opinion visibility) as manifest in features (e.g., likes) can provide a critical key to understanding the crucial processes of mediation that commonly occur through, and across, contemporary technologies.
Importantly, the key to digital mediation lies in the fact that technologies can facilitate relatively novel affordances by virtue of their features, compared to non-digital communication, such as the vastly extended reach, immediacy, or volume of opinion visibility facilitated by contemporary tools. Of course, these same features prompt studies that are both object-centered and more nuanced, which as noted are distinguished by their focus on the novel features of such tools versus the sustained affordances they enable. To understand the lasting contribution of this perspective, though, requires a clear view of why the underlying relationships might occur, as informed by relevant theory, the importance of which is considered next.
Technological mediation is fundamental to contemporary social, economic, organizational, and relational contexts. The study of each specific technology, unique population, and particular outcome serves to incrementally illuminate these complex phenomena. Perhaps naturally then, studies that seek to explain these contexts are plentiful among research on digital communication. Research in this vein typically probes these complex and pervasive phenomena by examining particular communication technologies among specific populations toward identifiable outcomes, most commonly in the general form “what is the effect of technology X among Y users on outcome Z.”
Yet, theory testing and development require sustained comparisons across substantially similar (or specifiably different) contexts ( Walther, 2013 ) with a focus on established technologies, or on the variables or affordances that comprise them. Comparisons enable replication which, in turn, enables claims to be in/validated over time and theories to be appropriately refined. When studies are largely un-tethered to past (or future) work by virtue of their unique concerns, specific populations, particular tools under study at a specific point in time, or focused societal or organizational context, it is difficult to maintain consistency across studies, and therefore to isolate and compare the key phenomena of interest. Moreover, if effects are partially reproduced between studies that vary in these ways, it is unclear why. Due to this, conclusions drawn in one context may have limited generalizability and, in spite of the considerable value of such studies, their immediate and sustained contribution to theory are undermined.
Returning to the example of opinion visibility and conformity on Facebook, if the context of Facebook is unique or nearly so, findings will lose relevance through their lack of applicability across domains. Further refinement to populations under study, affordances or features exclusive to a particular tool, or historically-specific circumstances would further constrain the results, to the detriment of theory formulation, since comparability across studies would be undercut. And, if researchers cling too strongly to perceived differences in new technological contexts, for example by generalizing findings from users of Facebook to nonusers or users of other tools without consideration of important population or contextual differences, invalid findings would accrue. Similarly, such research could suffer if not appropriately informed by decades of research on the general dynamics of conformity, largely established by studies in face-to-face contexts. Because conformity is likely to be affected by group size, status, or cohesion, foundational findings in one domain (face-to-face) should to a large degree be expected to endure in others (e.g., online), and therefore should inform both contexts.
Many theories avoid these pitfalls by invoking the basic strategies articulated here. For example, rational choice theories of media selection (social presence and media richness theories; respectively, Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976 ; Daft & Lengel, 1986 ) share a focus on the degree to which users perceive particular technologies as conveying the physical presence of communicators or their “richness,” and the degree to which they are therefore appropriate for addressing phenomena ranging in complexity. These perspectives thus focus on the affordances of presence/richness, as facilitated by various features of different technologies (e.g., the number and variety of communication channels available), to predict technology selection and/or the degree to which tools are invoked to address complex communication situations. In spite of their clear focus on communication technologies, these perspectives avoid being object-oriented since they are agnostic about the particular tools invoked, focusing instead on the degree to which tools are capable of supporting the affordance of socially present/rich communication. Indeed, these theories’ longevity is due, in part, to the fact that by focusing on the affordances supported by the features of technologies, rather than on the technologies exhibiting these features, they have remained relevant in the face of considerable technological evolution.
Accordingly, a core characteristic of the perspective proposed herein is the directive to identify and research the fundamental features of digital tools that represent enduring concerns, rather than focusing on fleeting capabilities or technological tools as a whole. Several strategies can address the related question of how to identify which among many possibilities constitute fundamental and enduring concerns and, therefore, which are most likely to offer the greatest long term value.
Relevant theoretical perspectives pertinent to the digital domain are an important source of identifying which phenomena should be the focus of research. For example, anonymity is an affordance that in social identity and deindividuation theories naturally emerges as an explanatory mechanism, since it can explain both the circumstances under which personal versus social identity is likely to be salient and the loss of self-awareness in groups, which are foundational to those theories. This was the impetus for the SIDE perspective (social identity model of deindividuation effects; Reicher, Spears, & Postmes, 1995 ), which explains online behaviors by examining the affordance of anonymity across technological tools. A key to SIDE’s relevance is that the degree of anonymity is likely to vary across digital tools according to their features and users’ perceptions of them. Nonetheless, SIDE’s applicability is somewhat undermined as the visual anonymity on which SIDE effects depend are becoming less common (as, for example, social network venues that diminish anonymity have increasingly dominated people’s online presence), suggesting that the phenomena researchers focus on are likely to evolve based on new knowledge, theoretical development, and shifts in the digital media environment.
Focusing on factors germane to digital communication that have garnered sustained concentration across studies is another useful strategy to identify which are the fundamental and enduring features of digital tools. Sundar (2008) , for instance, has advocated examining the affordances articulated in the MAIN (modality, agency, interactivity, and navigability) model since they are useful factors invoked in many studies to explain the perceived credibility of online sources and information, given their applicability and relevance. Similarly, Fox and McEwan (2017) selected an inventory of affordances examined in prior research based in part on their incorporation in theories that feature communication channel selection, use, and effects. In this way, relevant features for study emerge from sustained bodies of research addressing them.
Finally, the identification of which underlying features are worthy of study can be facilitated through the deep understanding of technological tools gained from detailed, descriptive studies. Although idiographic research favors contingent, situated descriptions of human behavior, which suggests unique rather than generalized explanations, the rich insights from such work often suggest patterned behaviors that can reach well beyond any particular study. Re-framing particular observations in terms of technological affordances, for instance, might reveal broader insights about the processes of digital communication that become visible when linked across multiple studies. In this way, descriptive—even esoteric—studies can be used in the service of theory development by focusing on the social dynamics surfaced in such work.
Descriptive research can thus draw attention to (oftentimes initially novel) behaviors that emerge from technology use and can be used to link these phenomena together, thereby helping to demonstrate patterns that no one study could establish alone. For instance, whereas the first observation of technologies being used in a nonconventional or unintended way might be viewed as interesting but atypical, patterned behaviors of the same form across contexts and over time may in fact signal a sustained tendency for people to appropriate technologies in an “ironic” fashion to achieve goals that were formerly unarticulated ( Poole & DeSanctis, 1990 ), or may highlight intriguing “second-level” technology effects ( Sproull & Kiesler, 1991 ), which may themselves signal important social behaviors, preferences, and patterns. A critical requirement in using descriptive studies to highlight generalizable social processes rooted in technological deployment, however, is to examine the insights achieved via description in a fashion that both leverages their considerable value while not merely producing object-oriented accounts of the tools involved. To achieve this requires specific effort to aptly describe the present research context while forging connections to existing findings in allied contexts, or even to extrapolate to potential future ones. Attention to such issues can be a critical complement to more nomothetic research as studies with a focus on emergent factors accrue across research over time. Building theoretical value in this way requires a specific focus on the relevant facets of mediation, an explicit statement of the behavioral and attitudinal mechanisms at play, and a clear articulation of theoretical boundary conditions.
Digital communication describes the process of information transmission in a fashion that emphasizes the relatively recent and comparatively novel interventions facilitated by contemporary communication and information technologies. These technologies intercede in important ways to influence communicative processes, and by extension outcomes. The types of intercession assume many forms, but among the most prominent are recent shifts in the scale, reach, identifiability, immediacy, and scope of human communication and information sharing.
Accordingly, digital communication includes direct, intentional communication among interactants as well as the residues of interaction resulting from tools of mediation that people subsequently invoke to make sense of their environments. Although many outcomes are posited to arise from digital communication—such as digital divides, group polarization, or political knowledge patterns, to name only a few—outcomes are best framed as the products of digital communication rather than part of the process of digital communication. The value in this distinction is in retaining a focus on the fundamental dynamics of digital communication, which are necessarily directly affected by technological mediation, over its downstream effects, which are not.
Perspectives that highlight the specific processes of mediation that occur across technological tools are useful in making this distinction clear. Although differences in terminology may at first appear to differentiate them, the variable-centered, mix of attributes, and affordance perspectives discussed earlier are united by their focus on the aspects of technologies that are potentially common across them, as opposed to the circumstances or features that distinguish them. These perspectives thus draw attention to processes of digital communication, since they accentuate the capabilities of technologies that are embedded in particular technological features across tools that can be exploited to facilitate actions or outcomes (see also Sundar, 2009 ). This attention to shared aspects across distinct technologies permits the identification of the critical dimensions of digital communication, while also enabling comparisons over time and tools that are the basis of theoretical formulation, testing, and revision. Seen this way, contemporary tools of communication are important mainly in terms of the capabilities they afford users, who exploit those affordances through a complex interaction between technological features and their subjective interpretations and goals.
Yet, there are considerable challenges to the perspective advocated here. For instance, affordances are presumed to be shared across diverse technologies and abstract features are conceived to adhere across platforms, tools, and contexts. Can affordances, though, be separated from the specific communication environments in which they exist and are similar features thought to signal common phenomena truly comparable? To some extent the manner in which researchers address these issues depends on particular research goals. For example, the experimental induction of opinion visibility by manipulation of the volume of likes and the measurement of opinion visibility as a perceived affordance represent different research strategies under the same basic conceptual umbrella. In the former case opinion visibility is viewed as a variable signaled by environmental features with substantial shared meaning across tools or venues, and in the latter case it is seen as an affordance potentially perceived across various channels. Overall, if research is to view current technological tools mainly as manifestations of underlying phenomena and focus on the capabilities that span across them, these concerns need to be carefully considered.
More specifically, to address whether decomposition of technological usage across time is tenable as the technological context changes, researchers should periodically revisit conceptual and operational definitions, and the fidelity between them. For example, as technologies have evolved the affordance of interactivity has no doubt taken on new forms. To benefit from the research heritage on interactivity over time therefore requires both a consistent conceptualization of it, in order that its meaning endures across studies, and an appropriately flexible operationalization as well, in order that its measurement continues to capture its prominent and relevant manifestations. This level of adaptability is critical in a swiftly-changing media environment.
The main goal of this article is to articulate a set of research directives intended to facilitate a lasting and theoretically rich understanding of the processes of social and communicative change in an environment of rapid technological evolution. A general presumption has been that nomothetic research bests suits this goal. The principles advocated therefore privilege particular research heritages, strategies, and assumptions. For instance, emphasis has been placed on perspectives that help to divine variables that might apply across multiple technologies, research strategies that facilitate replication, and sampling procedures that enable generalization to populations. Although there is no necessary connection between this perspective and particular research methods, some strategies lend themselves well to such outcomes. For instance, experimental designs can isolate variables of interest and help to establish causality and survey research can be used to access representative samples of populations, to which inferences can therefore be drawn. In spite of the considerable value of other research approaches and methods, they are often less directly compatible with these particular goals.
Ultimately, research on contemporary communication and information technologies is best served by the paradoxical recognition that such tools are both the most and least interesting thing to study. Although communication technologies extend human capabilities tremendously, which makes them fascinating in their own right, they should not therefore constitute the subject of study. Rather, communication technologies must be understood to be the objects engaged by people in their pursuit of particular goals, and the processes of realizing such goals should constitute the focus of research into them. Theories in this domain, in turn, must focus on what is exceptional about technologies in terms of the psychological, social, and behavioral mechanisms that explain them in the long term. In this way, the key to understanding technological mediation has remained remarkably consistent even in the face of radical technological change, and demands that researchers focus their efforts not on novel tools of communication, but rather on the novel processes of social and communicative change with which technologies are often closely aligned.
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Bridging Digital Divides: a Literature Review and Research Agenda for Information Systems Research
- Polyxeni Vassilakopoulou ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-5947-4070 1 &
- Eli Hustad ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-1150-1850 1
Information Systems Frontiers volume 25 , pages 955–969 ( 2023 ) Cite this article
Extant literature has increased our understanding of the multifaceted nature of the digital divide, showing that it entails more than access to information and communication resources. Research indicates that digital inequality mirrors to a significant extent offline inequality related to socioeconomic resources. Bridging digital divides is critical for sustainable digitalized societies. Ιn this paper, we present a literature review of Information Systems research on the digital divide within settings with advanced technological infrastructures and economies over the last decade (2010–2020). The review results are organized in a concept matrix mapping contributing factors and measures for crossing the divides. Building on the results, we elaborate a research agenda that proposes  extending established models of digital inequalities with new variables and use of theory,  critically examining the effects of digital divide interventions, and  better linking digital divide research with research on sustainability.
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Digital inequalities have emerged as a growing concern in modern societies. These inequalities relate to disparities in access, actual use and use efficacy of digital resources. Digital resources including transformative technologies, such as business analytics, big data and artificial intelligence are key for the transition of societies towards sustainability (Pappas et al. 2018 ; United Nations 2018 ). Reducing digital inequalities is critical for sustainable digitalized societies. At a high level, all types of digital inequalities are encompassed in the term digital divide . One of the first uses of the term is traced back in a US government report published in 1999 referring to the divide between those with access to new technologies and those without (NTIA 1999 ). The term was soon broadened to signify the “gap between those who can effectively use new information and communication tools, such as the Internet, and those who cannot” (Gunkel 2003 ). Overall, the term digital divide includes digital inequalities between individuals, households, businesses or geographic areas (Pick and Sarkar 2016 ; OECD 2001 ). The conceptual broadness of the term aims to capture a multifaceted economic and civil rights issue in an era of continuous efforts to digitalize society. The ongoing digitalization poses a challenge for individuals who are not fully capable of using digital resources and may feel partially excluded or completely left out of the society.
Extant research has contributed insights on the different aspects of the digital divide phenomenon. In the past, the digital divide literature was mostly driven by policy-oriented reports that focused on access. Nevertheless, scientific research expanded to digital inequalities beyond access. Researchers foregrounded digital inequalities related to knowledge, economic and social resources, attributes of technology such as performance and reliability, and utility realization (DiMaggio et al. 2004 ; Van Dijk 2006 ; Van Deursen and Helsper 2015 ). In technologically and economically advanced settings, digital divides seem to be closing in terms of access, but inequalities that affect people’s ability to make good use of digital resources persist (Lameijer et al. 2017 ; Hsieh et al. 2011 ; Bucea et al. 2020 ). As digitalization becomes increasingly pervasive in work and everyday life, concerns are rising about continuing inequalities within societies that are at the digital forefront. At the same time, in low-resource settings there are still significant access issues. For instance, in the least developed countries (as defined by the United Nations) only 19 per cent of individuals had online access in 2019 while in developed countries, close to 87 per cent of individuals access the internet (Int.Telecom.Union 2019 ). Beyond big differences across settings in terms of access, low-resource settings are tormented by particular political, economic and social conditions inflicting digital divides (Venkatesh et al. 2014 ; Srivastava and Shainesh 2015 ; Luo and Chea 2018 ). Overall, prior research has shown that the modalities of digital inequalities are context-specific and it is important to be explicit about the context when researching the digital divide (Barzilai-Nahon 2006 ). This work is focused on digital divide research within settings with advanced technological infrastructures and economies.
The digital divide is an exemplary sociotechnical phenomenon and has attracted the interest of Information System (IS) researchers. IS research examines more than technologies or social phenomena, or even the two side by side; it investigates emergent sociotechnical phenomena (Lee 2001 ). Hence, IS researchers are well-positioned to study the digital divide phenomenon and have been producing a significant volume of related research. Nevertheless, no systematic review of the IS body of literature on the digital divide exists. Our study identifies, analyses, and integrates a critical mass of recent IS research on the digital divide focused on settings where the technological infrastructures and economies are advanced. To ensure a robust result, we performed a systematic literature review (Kitchenham 2004 ) guided by the following question: What are the key findings identified in extant IS research related to the digital divide in contemporary technologically and economically advanced settings?
Our contribution is threefold. First, we identify recurring digital divide factors for population groups threatened by digital inequalities. The factors identified indicate that digital inequalities frequently mirror offline inequalities (for instance, in terms of socioeconomic resources, knowledge and physical abilities). Second, we present measures proposed in the literature and organize them in three key intervention domains that can contribute to closing the gap (related to policies, training initiatives and tailored design). Finally, as a third contribution, we identify areas for future research providing a research agenda.
The remainder of the paper is organized as follows. First, we present the method used for selecting and analyzing the articles for this review. Then, we offer a synthesis of our findings related to digital divide factors and related measures and present them in a concise concept matrix. We continue by discussing the implications for further research and we end with overall concluding remarks.
The literature review is conceptual providing a synthesis of prior research and identifying areas for future research (Ortiz de Guinea and Paré 2017 ; Schryen et al. 2015 ). It includes research published during the last decade (2010–2020). The approach followed is based on the three-step structured literature review process proposed by Kitchenham ( 2004 ). Specifically, the three-step process includes: (a) planning the review, where a detailed protocol containing specific search terms and inclusion/exclusion criteria is developed, (b) conducting the review, where the identification, selection, quality appraisal, examination and synthesis of prior published research is performed and (c) reporting the review, where the write-up is prepared. We used these steps as our methodological framework. In addition, we utilized principles suggested by Webster and Watson ( 2002 ) for sorting the articles included in the review. Following these principles, we identified key concepts and created a concept-centric matrix that provides an overview of the literature reviewed.
To identify articles to be reviewed, we searched for “Digital” and “Divide” in the abstract, title or keywords within published Information Systems research. Inclusion and exclusion criteria were established to reduce selection bias, guarantee the quality of the papers selected and increase the review validity. Peer-reviewed, empirical papers, written in English were included. Conceptual papers that lack empirical evidence and papers focusing on the digital divide in developing countries were excluded. Figure 1 provides an overview of the selection process. To ensure a good coverage of Information Systems research we searched within the eight top journals in the field i.e. the basket of eight (AIS 2019 ). The journals included in the basket are: European Journal of Information Systems, Information Systems Journal, Information Systems Research, Journal of AIS, Journal of Information Technology, Journal of MIS, Journal of Strategic Information Systems and MIS Quarterly. Additionally, we searched within the journal Communications of the Association for Information Systems (CAIS) which has a key role within the IS research community communicating swiftly novel, original research. We also included in our search the journal Information Technology (IT) & People because it focuses on IS research that explores the interplay between technology individuals and society and the journal Information Systems Frontiers because it covers behavioural perspectives on IS research. Both journals are high quality IS outlets especially relevant for research on the digital divide. Furthermore, we included in our search the conferences of the Association of Information Systems (ICIS, ECIS; AMCIS; PACIS) and the Hawaiian International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS). We utilized Scopus as our search engine.
The literature selection process
In Scopus, we searched for papers from the selected journals and conferences excluding books, book chapters, commentaries, letters and short surveys. For the journal article search, the ISSNs of the selected journals were used for filtering the search results in Scopus. In total, 45 journal papers were identified. For the conference article search, the conference names were used in Scopus and 91 conference papers were identified. Overall, the search yielded 136 unique articles in total. The next step was to read the titles and abstracts of the articles identified checking their relevance to the research question. For this step, the exclusion criteria were used. Specifically, we excluded papers that only casually mentioned the digital divide but had a different focus, literature reviews and conceptual papers and papers focused on developing countries. After this step, 79 articles were shortlisted. The full text of each of the shortlisted articles was assessed for relevance applying the inclusion-exclusion criteria to the full content. Additionally, the quality of the research reported was assessed. For the quality assessment, each article´s method description was first checked. At this stage, conference papers reporting early stages of ongoing research were removed. In several cases of conference papers that were removed, we found that more mature and extensive results from the same studies were reported in journal articles that were already included in our shortlist and were published after the conference papers. After this step, a final corpus of 33 articles was defined (Table 1 ). A detailed overview of the reviewed articles is included in an electronic supplementary file that can be accessed in the journal´s web site (see Online Resource 1 ).
After selecting the papers, we analyzed their content. We started with extracting meta-data of the papers such as type of study, year of study, study context, research method and theoretical framework applied. In addition, we identified the study subjects for each paper distinguishing between papers that engage with the general population, or specific groups of people including the elderly and marginalized population groups (e.g. refugees, migrants). We continued with an intra-analysis of the content of the papers by looking for core themes in each paper. The themes that were identified for each paper were registered, and as a next step, we performed an inter-analysis and comparison across papers. Based on the comparison, recurring themes and patterns across the papers were discovered and further categorized. The outcomes of the papers´analysis are presented in the " Results " section that follows.
This section presents the key findings from the literature reviewed. First, we present the theoretical premises and the methodological approaches of extant publications on the Digital Divide within IS research and their evolution from 2010 to 2020. Table 2 provides an overview of the theories and concepts, methods and data sources in the literature reviewed. Then, recurring digital divide factors are presented for population segments that are particularly digitally challenged (the elderly and marginalized population groups) and also, for the general population. Finally, measures for addressing the digital divide are presented and organized in three key intervention domains (policy measures, education/training and design tailoring). The section also includes a concept matrix which provides an overview of digital divide factors and related measures identified in the literature reviewed (Table 3 ).
3.1 Trends, Methods and Theoretical Frames in IS Research on the Digital Divide
The work of Information Systems´ researchers on the digital divide has been influenced by policy-oriented reports that tend to be based on macro-level analyses. This influence is clear in the first half of the 2010–2020 period while in the second half, research extends towards a more complex and contextualized picture of digital divides. Newer papers tend to ask a wider range of questions related to access and use of information technologies and investigate a greater variety of factors. For instance, skill related factors are explored in about half of both earlier and later studies, but, newer studies tend to additionally explore motivation and personality aspects (about half of the newer studies include such aspects). Interestingly, several of the newer papers only focus on technology use. In these papers, researchers explore the second order digital divide and the extent of inclusion or involuntary exclusion of those that already have access to technologies. Furthermore, most earlier papers tend to investigate the general population while the majority of newer studies focus on specific population groups.
Overall, most of the studies employ quantitative research methods utilizing well-established survey instruments adapted for studying digital inequalities for certain groups (e.g. older adults) or re-using existing data sets from organizations like the International Telecommunication Union, the World Bank and the United Nations. A few studies use a mixed-method approach combining interviews with survey data, while the rest employ qualitative approaches. Well-known technology acceptance models such as TAM (Technology Acceptance Model), UTAUT (Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology) and MATH (Model of Adoption of Technology in Households) and theories on motivation and human behavior have been used to explore the digital divide. Typical variables included in the investigations are self-efficacy, performance and effort expectancy. Furthermore, social cognitive theories, social support theories and social capital conceptualizations have been used while some of the papers utilize selectively digital divide conceptualizations combined with constructs from social, sociotechnical or economic research.
3.2 Factors Contributing to the Digital Divide
The digital divide is often characterized as a digital divide cascade which is nuanced into different types of inequalities including unequal capabilities, engagement, and use outcomes in addition to inequalities of access and use. This points to the importance of identifying and aiming to remedy inequalities in what people are actually able to do and achieve with digital technologies (Burtch and Chan 2019 ; Díaz Andrade and Doolin 2016 ). In settings with advanced infrastructures and economy, physical access is not a key source of digital inequalities and IS studies that examine issues of unequal access show that access gaps are closing with the exception of marginalized population groups. Nevertheless, there is still a stark difference between access (first-order divide) and actual use (second-order divide) (Bucea et al. 2020 ). The latter relates to differences in digital skills, autonomy, social support and the aims of digital technology use (Rockmann et al. 2018 ). Going beyond socioeconomic demographics, additional personal contributing factors have been identified in the literature related to: (a) motivation, (b) personality traits (e.g. openness, extraversion, conscientiousness), (c) digital skills. Many of the studies reviewed focus on the elderly who are also referred to as “digital immigrants” (as opposed to digital natives that have been interacting with digital technology since childhood). Additionally, several studies focus on marginalized population groups. In the paragraphs that follow, we present research findings organizing them according to the different groups studied.
Although digital technologies have been around for several decades, some of the elderly members of society have difficulties familiarizing with and adopting digital tools and services. Nevertheless, although a decade ago age-related underutilization of IT was significant (Niehaves and Plattfaut 2010 ), over the years, information and communication technologies (ICTs) have been gradually better integrated in the lives of elderly adults. A recent study on the digital divide related to mobile phone use among old adults in UK found that more than 70% have adopted smartphones (Choudrie et al. 2018 ). Specifically, research findings indicate that older adults frequently use internet-related smartphone features such as emailing and browsing although only very few use smartphones to access public services such as the National Health Service. One potential reason for the limited use of specialized web-based services among the elderly despite the wide adoption of smartphones, is that their former workplaces may have been characterized by low IT intensity causing a lower exploratory IT behavior when seniors are retiring (Rockmann et al. 2018 ). Niehaves and Plattfaut ( 2014 ) used the unified theory of acceptance and use of technology (UTAUT) and the model of adoption of technology in households (MATH) to explain internet acceptance and usage by the elderly. Performance expectancy was found to be the main use driver among senior citizens. These models were able to predict how the elderly could be encouraged to learn to use digital technologies.
When asked, the elderly themselves identified several key impeding factors for their digital involvement: fear and anxiety of using digital technology and services, negative attitude, a sense of feeling too old for learning, lack of knowledge, difficulties understanding digital terminology (Holgersson and Söderström 2019 ). Family support is key for developing mobile internet skill literacy and mobile internet information literacy among older adults (Xiong and Zuo 2019 ). Seniors become better positioned to take advantage of digital resources when they have cognitive and emotional support. Cognitive support from family facilitates learning and digital skills´ development, and also, the development of skills for judging, analyzing and selecting information (Xiong and Zuo 2019 ). Emotional support based on patience, praise, encouragement and comfort can help the elderly avoid computer anxiety and stress (Xiong and Zuo 2019 ). Emotional support is important because unwillingness to adopt advanced digital services by the elderly was found to stem from mistrust, high-risk perceptions, and privacy concerns (Fox and Connolly 2018 ).
Overall, older people are a heterogeneous group, and it is important not to overlook their differences in digital skills and digital practice. Klier and colleagues conducted a survey on older unemployed individulas in Germany and showed that they can be grouped into four different types of digital media users ranging from very active users (digital contributors) to sceptics with limited or no use (digital sceptics) characterised by their negative attitude towards digital media (Klier et al. 2020 ). Digitalization efforts should take into account “the various shades of grey in older adults’ ability to draw on IT-based innovations” (Lameijer et al. 2017 , p. 6).
Marginalized Population Groups
Language barriers as for instance, in the case of refugees and immigrants, and practical resource limitations as in the case of distressed urban areas and remote rural areas can cause social exclusion and hinder the process of digital technologies´ assimilation throughout society. Several researchers have studied specifically issues related to the digital divide within marginalized population groups. Alam and Imram ( 2015 ) found in their research that although refugees and immigrants in the US are motivated to learn about new technology, many are not able to do so because of unaffordable cost, language barriers and lack of skills. Refugees and immigrants realize that technology is helpful for finding new jobs or facilitating social engagement. Digital technologies are of particular value to refugees for multiple reasons: to participate in an information society; to communicate effectively; to understand a new society; to be socially connected; to express their cultural identities (Díaz Andrade and Doolin 2016 ). A study on mobile communications by labor migrants (Aricat 2015 ) showed that mobile phones may also facilitate the development of ghettos and the lack of integration in the new countries by easing communications between the migrants and their home countries. The study identified a visible divide in the framing of the prospects and potentialities of mobile phones related to acculturation.
Enhancing the relationship between citizens and government through digital services requires reaching out to individuals and communities on the unfortunate side of the divide. Digital technology access and use in the context of e-government services were explored within one of the most distressed cities in the US (Sipior et al. 2011 ). This study showed that socioeconomic characteristics (educational level and household income) have significant impact on access barriers, but they also found that employment plays a critical role and is associated both with perceived access barriers and with perceived ease of use. A study conducted among governmental participants representing rural communities in Australia suggests that rural digital exclusion can result from three intertwined layers: availability (elements of infrastructure and connectivity), adoption, and digital engagement (Park et al. 2015 ). Among these layers, availability is probably not as important as one could expect. Similarly, one large household study conducted across the US found that the availability of Internet Supply Providers (ISP) had little impact on Internet adoption, and that Internet adoption can almost exclusively be attached to differences in household attributes and not to ISP availability (Ma and Huang 2015 ).
As access gaps are closing in settings with advanced infrastructures and economy, those who do not have access are easily overlooked (Davis et al. 2020 ). Nevertheless, the first-level digital divide still requires attention for marginalized population groups. Furthermore, socioeconomic factors that were found to affect uptake more than two decades ago (for instance, education level and income) are still relevant in today’s context for particular segments of our societies. Contrary to traditional views, the availability of digital solutions does not always facilitate the resolution of long-standing problems for those that are less well-off in our societies (for instance, immigrants or financially troubled individuals). What people are actually able to do and achieve with digital technologies relates to their greater positioning in society (Burtch and Chan 2019 ) and affects their potential for improvement. As digital technologies are becoming indispensable for participating in the economy and engaging in society, sustained digital divides amplify marginalization.
A study by Pick and colleagues ( 2018 ) showed the positive influence of managerial/science/arts occupations, innovation, and social capital on the use of digital technologies (Pick et al. 2018 ). Nevertheless, unreasonably high expectations are found to have a negative impact on ICT acceptance (Ebermann et al. 2016 ). Findings from a study conducted within White and Hispanic-owned SMEs in the US (Middleton and Chambers 2010 ) indicate some level of inequality related to ethnicity and age (younger white SME owners being better positioned). Davis and colleagues (Davis et al. 2020 ) analyzed the influence of income, income distribution, education levels, and ethnicity on levels of access to Internet in the US. The findings show that low levels of education and levels of income below the poverty line still tend to lead to higher proportion of people with no Internet access (Davis et al. 2020 ). Even when individuals do have equal access to digital technologies, differences in skills can lead to digital inequalities (Burtch and Chan 2019 ). Taking a differentiated view on skills is needed to understand technology use and no-use (Reinartz et al. 2018 ). Physical skills matter; users with disabilities can be digitally disadvantaged and despite the benefits promised by specialized assistive technologies their adoption rate falls short of expectations (Pethig and Kroenung 2019 ).
Some groups may be challenged because they are too far embedded in older systems, which makes it difficult for them to adopt newer ICTs (Abdelfattah 2012 ). Social capital can trigger ICT awareness changing individual dispositions, thus converting social capital into cultural capital (Reinartz et al. 2018 ). An interesting study on crowdfunding showed that the benefits of medical crowdfunding accrue systematically less to racial minorities and less educated population segments (Burtch and Chan 2019 ). One of the reasons for this is the communication-rich nature of the context: less educated persons are not always capable of producing polished, persuasive pitches to solicit funds. Furthermore, digital inequality manifests on the efficacy of using crowdfunding platforms, due to a lack of critical mass in the number of potential transaction partners (donors). The results show the importance of looking beyond access or connectivity to investigate efficacy (in this case, expressed as success in fundraising), and how it associates with different population segments (Burtch and Chan 2019 ).
At the country level, a number of studies examined socio-economic influences on access and use of particular forms of technologies as for instance, personal computers and broadband internet (Zhao et al. 2014 ; Pick and Azari 2011 ; Dewan et al. 2010 ). A world-wide study found complementarities in the diffusion of PCs and the Internet leading to narrower digital divides (Dewan et al. 2010 ). These findings challenge the dominant understanding of characteristics such as country wealth, education levels and telecommunications infrastructure leading to the widening of the digital divide. Country-level studies are based on the analysis of data from census surveys, national statistics, and datasets from organizations like UNDP and ITO. The use of such datasets is helpful for performing comparisons across countries but due to the generic nature of data the purpose of digital technology use has been scarcely examined in country-level studies. This may be attributed to the fact that comparable data on specific online activities are not easy to collect across countries (Zhao et al. 2014 ). A study conducted by Bucea and colleagues ( 2020 ), is an exception to this. The study assessed specifically the use of e-Services and Social Networks within the 28 member-states of the European Union analyzing four socio-demographic factors (age, education, gender, and income). The findings showed that for e-Services, disparities relate mostly to education while for Social Networks age is the most important factor (Bucea et al. 2020 ). Overall, country level studies are important for assessing disparities across countries and can lead to the identification of factors reinforcing inequalities. At the same time, macro studies can not bring insights about digital inequalities across different population segments within countries.
3.3 Overcoming Digital Divides
Policy-making is considered instrumental for closing the digital gap and a mix of policy measures has been suggested in prior research. In general, policy initiatives can include subsidies targeting specific digitally disadvantaged segments as for instance rural populations (Talukdar and Gauri 2011 ). For instance, governments can apply strong intervention policies to provide equitable ICT access also in rural areas (Park et al. 2015 ). Furthermore, digital divides may be addressed at scale by crafting policies to equip underprivileged groups with better communication skills (reading, writing, and software use) enabling meaningful engagement with digital platforms (Burtch and Chan 2019 ). Government policy makers can collaborate with schools to support students from low-income households through the provision of home computers aiming to reduce the effect of socio-economic inequalities among students (Wei et al. 2011 ). Policies raising the priority of IT, protecting property rights, and enhancing freedom of the press and openness, can help to stimulate educational advances, labor-force participation and income growth, all of which contribute to advancing technology use (Pick and Azari 2011 ). Policy measures should allow room for local adaptations, as contextual and local elements seem to play a role for technology users and could influence policy success (Racherla and Mandviwalla 2013 ). Effective evaluation mechanisms make it easier to develop new policies addressing digital divides (Chang et al. 2012 ) helping policy-makers to refine initiatives targeting certain segments of society, such as elderly people and socio-economically disadvantaged groups (Hsieh et al. 2011 ).
Contemporary workplaces can help by taking greater responsibility for IT education of their employees even when they are close to retirement. Developing the digital skills of seniors while they are still employed is important for preventing digital exclusion after retirement (Rockmann et al. 2018 ). Overall, employment has a pivotal role in explaining citizen usage of e-government initiatives (Sipior et al. 2011 ). As an employee, an individual may have access to the Internet at the place of employment. Furthermore, employment demands may increase the confidence of an individual in performing new tasks. Thinking beyond workplaces, policies that leverage existing communities, social structures, and local actors can also help in reducing digital inequalities (Racherla and Mandviwalla 2013 ). Such policies can stimulate public/private partnerships with grassroots organizations that already have “hooks” in local communities. Moreover, long-term government policies could set a goal of encouraging growth in social capital within communities (Pick et al. 2018 ).
Proper training and education can help mitigate digital inequalities (Van Dijk 2012 ). For instance, platform operators can provide coaching services for underprivileged populations (Burtch and Chan 2019 ). Furthermore, information campaigns also have a significant role to play, digital divides may be narrowed if vendors engage in trust-building campaigns (Fox and Connolly 2018 ). Integrating digital education into curricula can also contribute to reducing digital inequalities (Reinartz et al. 2018 ), and education campaigns can stimulate the adoption and usage of ICTs bridging rural-urban digital gaps. Rural communities typically lag in digital skills, and digital literacy training programs can improve digital engagement in rural communities. Digital literacy programs targeting senior citizens can help them develop the necessary skills and abilities to use digital mobile devices so that they could be part of the Digital Society (Carvalho et al. 2018 ; Fox and Connolly 2018 ; Klier et al. 2020 ). Educational efforts for the elderly must be practically oriented in order to show directly what is to be gained by becoming more digital (Holgersson and Söderström 2019 ). In addition, social networks, friends and family are important for supporting the training of disadvantaged people in technologies; family emotional and cognitive support can increase the elderly’s digital capabilities, reduce computer anxiety and increase trust and motivation for learning (Xiong and Zuo 2019 ).
The design and development of ICT solutions should take into account individual differences for creating proper stimuli to different user groups. For instance, the use of governmental e-services can be improved by making them more engaging, interactive, and personal to address a country’s or region’s cultural norms (Zhao et al. 2014 ). This makes the role of appropriate design for overcoming the digital divide a center of attention. Lameijer et al. ( 2017 ) propose that design-related issues should be considered and evaluated to better understand technology adoption patterns among elderly. Also, the study by Klier and colleagues showed that there is a potential to shift older individuals towards a more active engagement with digital media by ensuring ease of use in the design of digital services (Klier et al. 2020 ). Furthermore, the needs of groups with disabilities ought to be taken into account when designing information systems for the general public (Pethig and Kroenung 2019 ). It is important to integrate assistive functionalities in general IS to emphasize authentic inclusiveness. Overall, research points to the importance of functionalities that suit the needs of specific user groups to stimulate the use of digital technologies.
4 Crossing Digital Divides: a Research Agenda
The evolution of IS research on the digital divide during the last decade shows the richness of this research area. As digitalization becomes pervasive in our societies, digital inequalities emerge in different contexts and communities renewing the interest on digital divide research. In recent years, researchers have been shifting away from macro-level studies and are re-orienting towards developing nuanced and contextualized insights about digital inequalities. The analysis of published research allows the identification of gaps and opportunities for further research. Furthermore, there are specific research directions proposed in several of the reviewed papers. The synthesis of suggestions from the papers reviewed with the results of our analysis led to the identification of three research avenues that bring exciting opportunities for researchers to engage with topics that are highly relevant with our digitalization era. Specifically, we suggest a research agenda that proposes:  extending established digital divide models with new variables and use of theory,  examining the effects of interventions, and  addressing societal challenges and especially sustainability goals through the lens of digital divide. Social inclusion and digital equality are crucial for a sustainable digitalized society.
4.1 Avenue I: Extending Established Digital Divide Models and Use of Theory
Extant research shows that physical access divides are being reduced in technologically and economically advanced societies but, inequalities in use persist (Hsieh et al. 2011 ; Lameijer et al. 2017 ). These use inequalities are found to be related to socioeconomic characteristics and also, personality traits, motivation and digital skills. A better understanding of the complex phenomenon of digital divide is needed combining multiple aspects to form comprehensive models (Choudrie et al. 2018 ) and further explore the concept itself to get more explanatory power (Lameijer et al. 2017 ). The emphasis, to date, has been on describing the digital divide by identifying gaps between actual technology access and use against an ideal situation. Work should be undertaken to investigate different national, social and cultural settings (Niehaves and Plattfaut 2010 ) across geographical contexts (Niehaves and Plattfaut 2014 ) and the influence of institutional and environmental factors on individuals’ ability and motivation to access and use technology (Racherla and Mandviwalla 2013 ). Furthermore, researchers may explore the values and interests of those abstraining from the use of digital resources and the implications of the overemphasis to digital inclusion (Díaz Andrade and Techatassanasoontorn 2020 ).
Further research is also needed to extend established models with new variables. Future investigations may add variables related to social theories (Abdelfattah et al. 2010 ; Hsieh et al. 2011 ; Niehaves and Plattfaut 2014 ), personal traits models (Ebermann et al. 2016 ), and capital theory (Hsieh et al. 2011 ; Reinartz et al. 2018 ). Additionally, future research should consider testing psychological variables (Niehaves and Plattfaut 2010 ) and additional socio-economical aspects (Hsieh et al. 2011 ; Reisdorf and Rikard 2018 ) including support from friends and family (Xiong and Zuo 2019 ; Holgersson and Söderström 2019 ) to develop a more fine-grained understanding of the association between the digital divide phenomenon and contributing variables (Hsieh et al. 2011 ; Niehaves and Plattfaut 2014 ; Fox and Connolly 2018 ). Qualitative research is important for revealing factors that influence inequalities and can become the basis for model building and testing using quantitative data.
Interestingly, fully developed theoretical frameworks that have been extensively used in other streams of exploratory information systems research related to the introduction and use of ICTs were not present in the papers reviewed. For instance, Activity theory and Institutional theory can be used as lenses for understanding and analyzing the digital divide phenomenon. Activity theory (Allen et al. 2011 ; Engeström 1999 ) can help in developing a nuanced understanding of the relationship between ICT artifacts and purposeful individuals taking into account the environment, culture, motivations, and complexity of real-life settings. Institutional theory (Jepperson 1991 ; Scott 2005 ) can contribute to developing insights related to societal structures, norms and routines shifting attention to units of analysis that cannot be reduced to individuals’ attributes or motives. Overall, we observed that digital divide research could benefit from better leveraging theory to extend established digital divide models.
4.2 Avenue II: Examining the Effects of Interventions to Cross the Digital Divide
Measures for crossing digital divides include policy interventions, training and design. Information Systems research can be especially relevant by developing design knowledge for the development and deployment of digital technology artifacts in different settings. Although several measures are proposed in the literature, further work is required to research the effect of interventions to avoid the exclusion of citizens from the digital realm addressing inequalities (Alam and Imran 2015 ; Reisdorf and Rikard 2018 ; Reinartz et al. 2018 ). In particular, appropriate design approaches for digital technologies should be investigated and tested to avoid involuntary exclusion of marginalized groups, elderly people or any other group of individuals affected by digital inequalities (Rockmann et al. 2018 ; Lameijer et al. 2017 ; Alam and Imran 2015 ; Fox and Connolly 2018 ). Additionally, comparative research can be undertaken investigating the effects and attractiveness of different design solutions in different cultural settings (Pethig and Kroenung 2019 ). Overall, although many studies include insights related to measures for bridging digital divides, there is a clear need for studies with a longitudinal research design to investigate the impact of measures over time. Interestingly, little research has been performed up to now on the potentially negative unexpected effects of measures for bridging digital divides (Díaz Andrade and Techatassanasoontorn 2020 ). This is certainly an area that needs to be further developed. The use of technologies might lead to advantages or disadvantages, which are unevenly distributed in society. Focusing only on benefits, researchers miss the opportunity to connect to emerging literature on the dark side of Internet and unexpected outcomes of digitalization including privacy risks. Scholars of information systems can develop novel avenues of critical thinking on the effects of interventions to cross the digital divide.
4.3 Avenue III: Linking Digital Divide Research With Research on Sustainability
There were no studies in our literature review that focused specifically on sustainability topics, and future research should pay attention to this gap. The United Nations´ sustainability goals focus on reducing inequality within and among countries to avoid biased economic development, social exclusion, and environmentally untenable practices. Important dimensions of sustainable development are human rights and social inclusion, shared responsibilities and opportunities (United Nations 2020 ). An essential part of social inclusion in our societies is e-inclusion (Pentzaropoulos and Tsiougou 2014 ). At the same time, it is important to research the risks and ethical implications of depriving individuals from offline choices (Díaz Andrade and Techatassanasoontorn 2020 ). Furthermore, we need to support sustainability in rural areas reducing the urban - rural digital divide. Sustainability researchers have identified the issue pointing to the vulnerabilities of rural communities that are in particular need of bridging inequalities (Onitsuka 2019 ). Future empirical studies on the digital divide should therefore pay attention to sustainability topics in terms of social exclusion and digital inequality to better understand underlying factors and potential remedies.
The covid-19 pandemic made digital inequalities even more evident. In periods of social distancing to minimize infection risks, individuals sustain their connections with colleagues, friends, and family through online connections. Furthermore, people need digital skills to keep updated on crucial information and to continue working when possible using home offices and digital connections. In addition, recent crisis response experiences have shown that switching to digital education may lead to exclusion of the few that cannot afford physical digital tools (Desrosiers 2020 ), or do not have access to sustainable infrastructures and ICT access. This crisis has shown that digital divides can become a great challenge aggravating inequalities experienced by marginalized communities such as urban poor and under-resourced businesses. Digital inequalities are a major factor of health-related and socio-economical vulnerability (Beaunoyer et al. 2020 ).
The role of Information Systems researchers is critical for the development of digital capital contributing to sustainable development. Digital capital refers to the resources that can be utilized by communities including digital technology ecosystems and related digital literacy and skills. General policy measures related to stimulating regional economic growth, strengthening tertiary education, or discouraging early leaving from education can be developed by scientists in other domains. However, thinking about inclusive configurations of digital infrastructures and ecosystems and developing related design principles entails specialized knowledge from the Information Systems domain. Furthermore, Information Systems researchers can provide insights about the development of capabilities required for leveraging digital resources such as digital infrastructures (Hustad and Olsen 2020 ; Grisot and Vassilakopoulou 2017 ), big data and business analytics (Mikalef et al. 2020 ). Innovative approaches for leveraging digital resources will be pivotal for addressing grand challenges related to poverty, healthcare and climate change. Information Systems researchers can contribute insights for bridging digital divides to promote an agenda towards a sustainable future.
The present work takes stock of Information Systems research on the digital divide by synthesizing insights from publications in the 2010–2020 period. The review process was performed with rigor while selecting and critically assessing earlier research. Nevertheless, this work is not without limitations. We have confined the literature search within one specific discipline (Information Systems research). This limits the breadth of the review but facilitates comprehensiveness and depth in the development of insights about the body of literature analyzed. Furthermore, focusing on Information Systems research facilitates the development of a research agenda that is relevant to the target discipline through the identification of gaps and extrapolations from previous work.
The review showed that within digital divide research, the attention of Information Systems research has gradually shifted from access to use and now needs to shift further towards better understanding use outcomes. Digital inequalities are a serious threat to civil society in an era where societies are rapidly going digital. For instance, daily activities such as paying bills, filling in application forms, filing tax returns, are all expected to be carried out electronically. There are high expectations for active citizens´ role based on online services (Axelsson et al. 2013 ; Vassilakopoulou et al. 2016 ); hence, we need to be concerned of digital inequalities ensuring fairness and inclusiveness. Furthermore, digital resources such as big data and business analytics are key enablers of sustainable value creation within societies (Pappas et al. 2018 ; Mikalef et al. 2020 ). Bridging digital divides is critical for sustainable digitalized societies. The findings of this literature review can provide a foundation for further research and a basis for researchers to orient themselves and position their own work.
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We want to acknowledge June Lithell Hansen and Andreas Skaiaa for their contribution in an early stage of this study during fall 2018. The contribution was part of their master course work performed at the University of Agder.
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Vassilakopoulou, P., Hustad, E. Bridging Digital Divides: a Literature Review and Research Agenda for Information Systems Research. Inf Syst Front 25 , 955–969 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10796-020-10096-3
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A systematic review on digital literacy
1 AI & Big Data Department, Endicott College of International Studies, Woosong University, Daejeon, South Korea
2 Endicott College of International Studies, Woosong University, Daejeon, South Korea
3 Department of Economics and Economic Policies, Bucharest University of Economic Studies, Bucharest, Romania
4 Abu Dhabi School of Management, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
The authors present the articles used for the study in “ Appendix A ”.
The purpose of this study is to discover the main themes and categories of the research studies regarding digital literacy. To serve this purpose, the databases of WoS/Clarivate Analytics, Proquest Central, Emerald Management Journals, Jstor Business College Collections and Scopus/Elsevier were searched with four keyword-combinations and final forty-three articles were included in the dataset. The researchers applied a systematic literature review method to the dataset. The preliminary findings demonstrated that there is a growing prevalence of digital literacy articles starting from the year 2013. The dominant research methodology of the reviewed articles is qualitative. The four major themes revealed from the qualitative content analysis are: digital literacy, digital competencies, digital skills and digital thinking. Under each theme, the categories and their frequencies are analysed. Recommendations for further research and for real life implementations are generated.
The extant literature on digital literacy, skills and competencies is rich in definitions and classifications, but there is still no consensus on the larger themes and subsumed themes categories. (Heitin, 2016 ). To exemplify, existing inventories of Internet skills suffer from ‘incompleteness and over-simplification, conceptual ambiguity’ (van Deursen et al., 2015 ), and Internet skills are only a part of digital skills. While there is already a plethora of research in this field, this research paper hereby aims to provide a general framework of digital areas and themes that can best describe digital (cap)abilities in the novel context of Industry 4.0 and the accelerated pandemic-triggered digitalisation. The areas and themes can represent the starting point for drafting a contemporary digital literacy framework.
Sousa and Rocha ( 2019 ) explained that there is a stake of digital skills for disruptive digital business, and they connect it to the latest developments, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud technology, big data, artificial intelligence, and robotics. The topic is even more important given the large disparities in digital literacy across regions (Tinmaz et al., 2022 ). More precisely, digital inequalities encompass skills, along with access, usage and self-perceptions. These inequalities need to be addressed, as they are credited with a ‘potential to shape life chances in multiple ways’ (Robinson et al., 2015 ), e.g., academic performance, labour market competitiveness, health, civic and political participation. Steps have been successfully taken to address physical access gaps, but skills gaps are still looming (Van Deursen & Van Dijk, 2010a ). Moreover, digital inequalities have grown larger due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they influenced the very state of health of the most vulnerable categories of population or their employability in a time when digital skills are required (Baber et al., 2022 ; Beaunoyer, Dupéré & Guitton, 2020 ).
The systematic review the researchers propose is a useful updated instrument of classification and inventory for digital literacy. Considering the latest developments in the economy and in line with current digitalisation needs, digitally literate population may assist policymakers in various fields, e.g., education, administration, healthcare system, and managers of companies and other concerned organisations that need to stay competitive and to employ competitive workforce. Therefore, it is indispensably vital to comprehend the big picture of digital literacy related research.
Since the advent of Digital Literacy, scholars have been concerned with identifying and classifying the various (cap)abilities related to its operation. Using the most cited academic papers in this stream of research, several classifications of digital-related literacies, competencies, and skills emerged.
Digital literacy, which is one of the challenges of integration of technology in academic courses (Blau, Shamir-Inbal & Avdiel, 2020 ), has been defined in the current literature as the competencies and skills required for navigating a fragmented and complex information ecosystem (Eshet, 2004 ). A ‘Digital Literacy Framework’ was designed by Eshet-Alkalai ( 2012 ), comprising six categories: (a) photo-visual thinking (understanding and using visual information); (b) real-time thinking (simultaneously processing a variety of stimuli); (c) information thinking (evaluating and combining information from multiple digital sources); (d) branching thinking (navigating in non-linear hyper-media environments); (e) reproduction thinking (creating outcomes using technological tools by designing new content or remixing existing digital content); (f) social-emotional thinking (understanding and applying cyberspace rules). According to Heitin ( 2016 ), digital literacy groups the following clusters: (a) finding and consuming digital content; (b) creating digital content; (c) communicating or sharing digital content. Hence, the literature describes the digital literacy in many ways by associating a set of various technical and non-technical elements.
The Digital Competence Framework for Citizens (DigComp 2.1.), the most recent framework proposed by the European Union, which is currently under review and undergoing an updating process, contains five competency areas: (a) information and data literacy, (b) communication and collaboration, (c) digital content creation, (d) safety, and (e) problem solving (Carretero, Vuorikari & Punie, 2017 ). Digital competency had previously been described in a technical fashion by Ferrari ( 2012 ) as a set comprising information skills, communication skills, content creation skills, safety skills, and problem-solving skills, which later outlined the areas of competence in DigComp 2.1, too.
Ng ( 2012 ) pointed out the following three categories of digital skills: (a) technological (using technological tools); (b) cognitive (thinking critically when managing information); (c) social (communicating and socialising). A set of Internet skill was suggested by Van Deursen and Van Dijk ( 2009 , 2010b ), which contains: (a) operational skills (basic skills in using internet technology), (b) formal Internet skills (navigation and orientation skills); (c) information Internet skills (fulfilling information needs), and (d) strategic Internet skills (using the internet to reach goals). In 2014, the same authors added communication and content creation skills to the initial framework (van Dijk & van Deursen). Similarly, Helsper and Eynon ( 2013 ) put forward a set of four digital skills: technical, social, critical, and creative skills. Furthermore, van Deursen et al. ( 2015 ) built a set of items and factors to measure Internet skills: operational, information navigation, social, creative, mobile. More recent literature (vaan Laar et al., 2017 ) divides digital skills into seven core categories: technical, information management, communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving.
It is worth mentioning that the various methodologies used to classify digital literacy are overlapping or non-exhaustive, which confirms the conceptual ambiguity mentioned by van Deursen et al. ( 2015 ).
Thinking skills (along with digital skills) have been acknowledged to be a significant element of digital literacy in the educational process context (Ferrari, 2012 ). In fact, critical thinking, creativity, and innovation are at the very core of DigComp. Information and Communication Technology as a support for thinking is a learning objective in any school curriculum. In the same vein, analytical thinking and interdisciplinary thinking, which help solve problems, are yet other concerns of educators in the Industry 4.0 (Ozkan-Ozen & Kazancoglu, 2021 ).
However, we have recently witnessed a shift of focus from learning how to use information and communication technologies to using it while staying safe in the cyber-environment and being aware of alternative facts. Digital thinking would encompass identifying fake news, misinformation, and echo chambers (Sulzer, 2018 ). Not least important, concern about cybersecurity has grown especially in times of political, social or economic turmoil, such as the elections or the Covid-19 crisis (Sulzer, 2018 ; Puig, Blanco-Anaya & Perez-Maceira, 2021 ).
Ultimately, this systematic review paper focuses on the following major research questions as follows:
- Research question 1: What is the yearly distribution of digital literacy related papers?
- Research question 2: What are the research methods for digital literacy related papers?
- Research question 3: What are the main themes in digital literacy related papers?
- Research question 4: What are the concentrated categories (under revealed main themes) in digital literacy related papers?
This study employed the systematic review method where the authors scrutinized the existing literature around the major research question of digital literacy. As Uman ( 2011 ) pointed, in systematic literature review, the findings of the earlier research are examined for the identification of consistent and repetitive themes. The systematic review method differs from literature review with its well managed and highly organized qualitative scrutiny processes where researchers tend to cover less materials from fewer number of databases to write their literature review (Kowalczyk & Truluck, 2013 ; Robinson & Lowe, 2015 ).
To address major research objectives, the following five important databases are selected due to their digital literacy focused research dominance: 1. WoS/Clarivate Analytics, 2. Proquest Central; 3. Emerald Management Journals; 4. Jstor Business College Collections; 5. Scopus/Elsevier.
The search was made in the second half of June 2021, in abstract and key words written in English language. We only kept research articles and book chapters (herein referred to as papers). Our purpose was to identify a set of digital literacy areas, or an inventory of such areas and topics. To serve that purpose, systematic review was utilized with the following synonym key words for the search: ‘digital literacy’, ‘digital skills’, ‘digital competence’ and ‘digital fluency’, to find the mainstream literature dealing with the topic. These key words were unfolded as a result of the consultation with the subject matter experts (two board members from Korean Digital Literacy Association and two professors from technology studies department). Below are the four key word combinations used in the search: “Digital literacy AND systematic review”, “Digital skills AND systematic review”, “Digital competence AND systematic review”, and “Digital fluency AND systematic review”.
A sequential systematic search was made in the five databases mentioned above. Thus, from one database to another, duplicate papers were manually excluded in a cascade manner to extract only unique results and to make the research smoother to conduct. At this stage, we kept 47 papers. Further exclusion criteria were applied. Thus, only full-text items written in English were selected, and in doing so, three papers were excluded (no full text available), and one other paper was excluded because it was not written in English, but in Spanish. Therefore, we investigated a total number of 43 papers, as shown in Table Table1. 1 . “ Appendix A ” shows the list of these papers with full references.
Number of papers identified sequentially after applying all inclusion and exclusion criteria
The 43 papers selected after the application of the inclusion and exclusion criteria, respectively, were reviewed the materials independently by two researchers who were from two different countries. The researchers identified all topics pertaining to digital literacy, as they appeared in the papers. Next, a third researcher independently analysed these findings by excluded duplicates A qualitative content analysis was manually performed by calculating the frequency of major themes in all papers, where the raw data was compared and contrasted (Fraenkel et al., 2012 ). All three reviewers independently list the words and how the context in which they appeared and then the three reviewers collectively decided for how it should be categorized. Lastly, it is vital to remind that literature review of this article was written after the identification of the themes appeared as a result of our qualitative analyses. Therefore, the authors decided to shape the literature review structure based on the themes.
As an answer to the first research question (the yearly distribution of digital literacy related papers), Fig. 1 demonstrates the yearly distribution of digital literacy related papers. It is seen that there is an increasing trend about the digital literacy papers.
Yearly distribution of digital literacy related papers
Research question number two (The research methods for digital literacy related papers) concentrates on what research methods are employed for these digital literacy related papers. As Fig. 2 shows, most of the papers were using the qualitative method. Not stated refers to book chapters.
Research methods used in the reviewed articles
When forty-three articles were analysed for the main themes as in research question number three (The main themes in digital literacy related papers), the overall findings were categorized around four major themes: (i) literacies, (ii) competencies, (iii) skills, and (iv) thinking. Under every major theme, the categories were listed and explained as in research question number four (The concentrated categories (under revealed main themes) in digital literacy related papers).
The authors utilized an overt categorization for the depiction of these major themes. For example, when the ‘creativity’ was labelled as a skill, the authors also categorized it under the ‘skills’ theme. Similarly, when ‘creativity’ was mentioned as a competency, the authors listed it under the ‘competencies’ theme. Therefore, it is possible to recognize the same finding under different major themes.
Major theme 1: literacies
Digital literacy being the major concern of this paper was observed to be blatantly mentioned in five papers out forty-three. One of these articles described digital literacy as the human proficiencies to live, learn and work in the current digital society. In addition to these five articles, two additional papers used the same term as ‘critical digital literacy’ by describing it as a person’s or a society’s accessibility and assessment level interaction with digital technologies to utilize and/or create information. Table Table2 2 summarizes the major categories under ‘Literacies’ major theme.
Categories (more than one occurrence) under 'literacies' major theme
Computer literacy, media literacy and cultural literacy were the second most common literacy (n = 5). One of the article branches computer literacy as tool (detailing with software and hardware uses) and resource (focusing on information processing capacity of a computer) literacies. Cultural literacy was emphasized as a vital element for functioning in an intercultural team on a digital project.
Disciplinary literacy (n = 4) was referring to utilizing different computer programs (n = 2) or technical gadgets (n = 2) with a specific emphasis on required cognitive, affective and psychomotor skills to be able to work in any digital context (n = 3), serving for the using (n = 2), creating and applying (n = 2) digital literacy in real life.
Data literacy, technology literacy and multiliteracy were the third frequent categories (n = 3). The ‘multiliteracy’ was referring to the innate nature of digital technologies, which have been infused into many aspects of human lives.
Last but not least, Internet literacy, mobile literacy, web literacy, new literacy, personal literacy and research literacy were discussed in forty-three article findings. Web literacy was focusing on being able to connect with people on the web (n = 2), discover the web content (especially the navigation on a hyper-textual platform), and learn web related skills through practical web experiences. Personal literacy was highlighting digital identity management. Research literacy was not only concentrating on conducting scientific research ability but also finding available scholarship online.
Twenty-four other categories are unfolded from the results sections of forty-three articles. Table Table3 3 presents the list of these other literacies where the authors sorted the categories in an ascending alphabetical order without any other sorting criterion. Primarily, search, tagging, filtering and attention literacies were mainly underlining their roles in information processing. Furthermore, social-structural literacy was indicated as the recognition of the social circumstances and generation of information. Another information-related literacy was pointed as publishing literacy, which is the ability to disseminate information via different digital channels.
Other mentioned categories (n = 1)
While above listed personal literacy was referring to digital identity management, network literacy was explained as someone’s social networking ability to manage the digital relationship with other people. Additionally, participatory literacy was defined as the necessary abilities to join an online team working on online content production.
Emerging technology literacy was stipulated as an essential ability to recognize and appreciate the most recent and innovative technologies in along with smart choices related to these technologies. Additionally, the critical literacy was added as an ability to make smart judgements on the cost benefit analysis of these recent technologies.
Last of all, basic, intermediate, and advanced digital assessment literacies were specified for educational institutions that are planning to integrate various digital tools to conduct instructional assessments in their bodies.
Major theme 2: competencies
The second major theme was revealed as competencies. The authors directly categorized the findings that are specified with the word of competency. Table Table4 4 summarizes the entire category set for the competencies major theme.
Categories under 'competencies' major theme
The most common category was the ‘digital competence’ (n = 14) where one of the articles points to that category as ‘generic digital competence’ referring to someone’s creativity for multimedia development (video editing was emphasized). Under this broad category, the following sub-categories were associated:
- Problem solving (n = 10)
- Safety (n = 7)
- Information processing (n = 5)
- Content creation (n = 5)
- Communication (n = 2)
- Digital rights (n = 1)
- Digital emotional intelligence (n = 1)
- Digital teamwork (n = 1)
- Big data utilization (n = 1)
- Artificial Intelligence utilization (n = 1)
- Virtual leadership (n = 1)
- Self-disruption (in along with the pace of digitalization) (n = 1)
Like ‘digital competency’, five additional articles especially coined the term as ‘digital competence as a life skill’. Deeper analysis demonstrated the following points: social competences (n = 4), communication in mother tongue (n = 3) and foreign language (n = 2), entrepreneurship (n = 3), civic competence (n = 2), fundamental science (n = 1), technology (n = 1) and mathematics (n = 1) competences, learning to learn (n = 1) and self-initiative (n = 1).
Moreover, competencies were linked to workplace digital competencies in three articles and highlighted as significant for employability (n = 3) and ‘economic engagement’ (n = 3). Digital competencies were also detailed for leisure (n = 2) and communication (n = 2). Furthermore, two articles pointed digital competencies as an inter-cultural competency and one as a cross-cultural competency. Lastly, the ‘digital nativity’ (n = 1) was clarified as someone’s innate competency of being able to feel contented and satisfied with digital technologies.
Major theme 3: skills
The third major observed theme was ‘skills’, which was dominantly gathered around information literacy skills (n = 19) and information and communication technologies skills (n = 18). Table Table5 5 demonstrates the categories with more than one occurrence.
Categories under 'skills' major theme
Table Table6 6 summarizes the sub-categories of the two most frequent categories of ‘skills’ major theme. The information literacy skills noticeably concentrate on the steps of information processing; evaluation (n = 6), utilization (n = 4), finding (n = 3), locating (n = 2) information. Moreover, the importance of trial/error process, being a lifelong learner, feeling a need for information and so forth were evidently listed under this sub-category. On the other hand, ICT skills were grouped around cognitive and affective domains. For instance, while technical skills in general and use of social media, coding, multimedia, chat or emailing in specific were reported in cognitive domain, attitude, intention, and belief towards ICT were mentioned as the elements of affective domain.
Sub-categories under ‘information literacy’ and ‘ICT’ skills
Communication skills (n = 9) were multi-dimensional for different societies, cultures, and globalized contexts, requiring linguistic skills. Collaboration skills (n = 9) are also recurrently cited with an explicit emphasis for virtual platforms.
‘Ethics for digital environment’ encapsulated ethical use of information (n = 4) and different technologies (n = 2), knowing digital laws (n = 2) and responsibilities (n = 2) in along with digital rights and obligations (n = 1), having digital awareness (n = 1), following digital etiquettes (n = 1), treating other people with respect (n = 1) including no cyber-bullying (n = 1) and no stealing or damaging other people (n = 1).
‘Digital fluency’ involved digital access (n = 2) by using different software and hardware (n = 2) in online platforms (n = 1) or communication tools (n = 1) or within programming environments (n = 1). Digital fluency also underlined following recent technological advancements (n = 1) and knowledge (n = 1) including digital health and wellness (n = 1) dimension.
‘Social intelligence’ related to understanding digital culture (n = 1), the concept of digital exclusion (n = 1) and digital divide (n = 3). ‘Research skills’ were detailed with searching academic information (n = 3) on databases such as Web of Science and Scopus (n = 2) and their citation, summarization, and quotation (n = 2).
‘Digital teaching’ was described as a skill (n = 2) in Table Table4 4 whereas it was also labelled as a competence (n = 1) as shown in Table Table3. 3 . Similarly, while learning to learn (n = 1) was coined under competencies in Table Table3, 3 , digital learning (n = 2, Table Table4) 4 ) and life-long learning (n = 1, Table Table5) 5 ) were stated as learning related skills. Moreover, learning was used with the following three terms: learning readiness (n = 1), self-paced learning (n = 1) and learning flexibility (n = 1).
Table Table7 7 shows other categories listed below the ‘skills’ major theme. The list covers not only the software such as GIS, text mining, mapping, or bibliometric analysis programs but also the conceptual skills such as the fourth industrial revolution and information management.
Categories (one-time occurrence) under 'skills' major theme
Major theme 4: thinking
The last identified major theme was the different types of ‘thinking’. As Table Table8 8 shows, ‘critical thinking’ was the most frequent thinking category (n = 4). Except computational thinking, the other categories were not detailed.
Categories under ‘thinking’ major theme
Computational thinking (n = 3) was associated with the general logic of how a computer works and sub-categorized into the following steps; construction of the problem (n = 3), abstraction (n = 1), disintegration of the problem (n = 2), data collection, (n = 2), data analysis (n = 2), algorithmic design (n = 2), parallelization & iteration (n = 1), automation (n = 1), generalization (n = 1), and evaluation (n = 2).
A transversal analysis of digital literacy categories reveals the following fields of digital literacy application:
- Technological advancement (IT, ICT, Industry 4.0, IoT, text mining, GIS, bibliometric analysis, mapping data, technology, AI, big data)
- Networking (Internet, web, connectivity, network, safety)
- Information (media, news, communication)
- Creative-cultural industries (culture, publishing, film, TV, leisure, content creation)
- Academia (research, documentation, library)
- Citizenship (participation, society, social intelligence, awareness, politics, rights, legal use, ethics)
- Education (life skills, problem solving, teaching, learning, education, lifelong learning)
- Professional life (work, teamwork, collaboration, economy, commerce, leadership, decision making)
- Personal level (critical thinking, evaluation, analytical thinking, innovative thinking)
This systematic review on digital literacy concentrated on forty-three articles from the databases of WoS/Clarivate Analytics, Proquest Central, Emerald Management Journals, Jstor Business College Collections and Scopus/Elsevier. The initial results revealed that there is an increasing trend on digital literacy focused academic papers. Research work in digital literacy is critical in a context of disruptive digital business, and more recently, the pandemic-triggered accelerated digitalisation (Beaunoyer, Dupéré & Guitton, 2020 ; Sousa & Rocha 2019 ). Moreover, most of these papers were employing qualitative research methods. The raw data of these articles were analysed qualitatively using systematic literature review to reveal major themes and categories. Four major themes that appeared are: digital literacy, digital competencies, digital skills and thinking.
Whereas the mainstream literature describes digital literacy as a set of photo-visual, real-time, information, branching, reproduction and social-emotional thinking (Eshet-Alkalai, 2012 ) or as a set of precise specific operations, i.e., finding, consuming, creating, communicating and sharing digital content (Heitin, 2016 ), this study reveals that digital literacy revolves around and is in connection with the concepts of computer literacy, media literacy, cultural literacy or disciplinary literacy. In other words, the present systematic review indicates that digital literacy is far broader than specific tasks, englobing the entire sphere of computer operation and media use in a cultural context.
The digital competence yardstick, DigComp (Carretero, Vuorikari & Punie, 2017 ) suggests that the main digital competencies cover information and data literacy, communication and collaboration, digital content creation, safety, and problem solving. Similarly, the findings of this research place digital competencies in relation to problem solving, safety, information processing, content creation and communication. Therefore, the findings of the systematic literature review are, to a large extent, in line with the existing framework used in the European Union.
The investigation of the main keywords associated with digital skills has revealed that information literacy, ICT, communication, collaboration, digital content creation, research and decision-making skill are the most representative. In a structured way, the existing literature groups these skills in technological, cognitive, and social (Ng, 2012 ) or, more extensively, into operational, formal, information Internet, strategic, communication and content creation (van Dijk & van Deursen, 2014 ). In time, the literature has become richer in frameworks, and prolific authors have improved their results. As such, more recent research (vaan Laar et al., 2017 ) use the following categories: technical, information management, communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving.
Whereas digital thinking was observed to be mostly related with critical thinking and computational thinking, DigComp connects it with critical thinking, creativity, and innovation, on the one hand, and researchers highlight fake news, misinformation, cybersecurity, and echo chambers as exponents of digital thinking, on the other hand (Sulzer, 2018 ; Puig, Blanco-Anaya & Perez-Maceira, 2021 ).
This systematic review research study looks ahead to offer an initial step and guideline for the development of a more contemporary digital literacy framework including digital literacy major themes and factors. The researchers provide the following recommendations for both researchers and practitioners.
Recommendations for prospective research
By considering the major qualitative research trend, it seems apparent that more quantitative research-oriented studies are needed. Although it requires more effort and time, mixed method studies will help understand digital literacy holistically.
As digital literacy is an umbrella term for many different technologies, specific case studies need be designed, such as digital literacy for artificial intelligence or digital literacy for drones’ usage.
Digital literacy affects different areas of human lives, such as education, business, health, governance, and so forth. Therefore, different case studies could be carried out for each of these unique dimensions of our lives. For instance, it is worth investigating the role of digital literacy on lifelong learning in particular, and on education in general, as well as the digital upskilling effects on the labour market flexibility.
Further experimental studies on digital literacy are necessary to realize how certain variables (for instance, age, gender, socioeconomic status, cognitive abilities, etc.) affect this concept overtly or covertly. Moreover, the digital divide issue needs to be analysed through the lens of its main determinants.
New bibliometric analysis method can be implemented on digital literacy documents to reveal more information on how these works are related or centred on what major topic. This visual approach will assist to realize the big picture within the digital literacy framework.
Recommendations for practitioners
The digital literacy stakeholders, policymakers in education and managers in private organizations, need to be aware that there are many dimensions and variables regarding the implementation of digital literacy. In that case, stakeholders must comprehend their beneficiaries or the participants more deeply to increase the effect of digital literacy related activities. For example, critical thinking and problem-solving skills and abilities are mentioned to affect digital literacy. Hence, stakeholders have to initially understand whether the participants have enough entry level critical thinking and problem solving.
Development of digital literacy for different groups of people requires more energy, since each group might require a different set of skills, abilities, or competencies. Hence, different subject matter experts, such as technologists, instructional designers, content experts, should join the team.
It is indispensably vital to develop different digital frameworks for different technologies (basic or advanced) or different contexts (different levels of schooling or various industries).
These frameworks should be updated regularly as digital fields are evolving rapidly. Every year, committees should gather around to understand new technological trends and decide whether they should address the changes into their frameworks.
Understanding digital literacy in a thorough manner can enable decision makers to correctly implement and apply policies addressing the digital divide that is reflected onto various aspects of life, e.g., health, employment, education, especially in turbulent times such as the COVID-19 pandemic is.
Lastly, it is also essential to state the study limitations. This study is limited to the analysis of a certain number of papers, obtained from using the selected keywords and databases. Therefore, an extension can be made by adding other keywords and searching other databases.
See Table Management9 9 .
List of papers (n = 43) included in the qualitative analysis—ordered alphabetically by title
The authors worked together on the manuscript equally. All authors have read and approved the final manuscript.
This research is funded by Woosong University Academic Research in 2022.
Availability of data and materials
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Hasan Tinmaz, Email: rk.ca.ttocidne@zamnith .
Yoo-Taek Lee, Email: rk.ca.usw@eelty .
Mina Fanea-Ivanovici, Email: [email protected] .
Hasnan Baber, Email: [email protected] .
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