Sociology of the Internet

The sociology of the Internet involves the application of sociological theory and method to the Internet as a source of information and communication. Sociologists are concerned with the social implications of the technology; new social networks, virtual communities and ways of interaction that have arisen, as well as issues related to cyber crime.

The Internet—the newest in a series of major information breakthroughs—is of interest for sociologists in various ways: as a tool for research, for example, in using online questionnaires instead of paper ones, as a discussion platform, and as a research topic. The sociology of the Internet in the stricter sense concerns the analysis of online communities (e.g. as found in newsgroups), virtual communities and virtual worlds, organizational change catalyzed through new media such as the Internet, and social change at-large in the transformation from industrial to informational society (or to information society). Online communities can be studied statistically through network analysis and at the same time interpreted qualitatively, such as through virtual ethnography. Social change can be studied through statistical demographics or through the interpretation of changing messages and symbols in online media studies.

Emergence of the discipline

The Internet is a relatively new phenomenon. As Robert Darnton wrote, it is a revolutionary change that "took place yesterday, or the day before, depending on how you measure it."[1] The Internet developed from the ARPANET, dating back to 1969; as a term it was coined in 1974. The World Wide Web as we know it was shaped in the mid-1990s, when graphical interface and services like email became popular and reached wider (non-scientific and non-military) audiences and commerce.[1][2] Internet Explorer was first released in 1995; Netscape a year earlier. Google was founded in 1998.[1][2] Wikipedia was founded in 2001. Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube in the mid-2000s. Web 2.0 is still emerging. The amount of information available on the net and the number of Internet users worldwide has continued to grow rapidly.[2] The term 'digital sociology' is now becoming increasingly used to denote new directions in sociological research into digital technologies since Web 2.0.

According to DiMaggio et al. (1999),[2] research tends to focus on the Internet's implications in five domains:

  1. inequality (the issues of digital divide)
  2. public and social capital (the issues of date displacement)
  3. political participation (the issues of public sphere, deliberative democracy and civil society)
  4. organizations and other economic institutions
  5. cultural participation and cultural diversity

Early on, there were predictions that the Internet would change everything (or nothing); over time, however, a consensus emerged that the Internet, at least in the current phase of development, complements rather than displaces previously implemented media.[2] This has meant a rethinking of the 1990s ideas of "convergence of new and old media". Further, the Internet offers a rare opportunity to study changes caused by the newly emerged - and likely, still evolving - information and communication technology (ICT).[2]

Social impact

The Internet has created social network services, forums of social interaction and social relations, such as Facebook, MySpace, Meetup, and CouchSurfing which facilitate both online and offline interaction.

Though virtual communities were once thought to be composed of strictly virtual social ties, researchers often find that even those social ties formed in virtual spaces are often maintained both online and offline [3][4]

There are ongoing debates about the impact of the Internet on strong and weak ties, whether the Internet is creating more or less social capital,[5][6] the Internet's role in trends towards social isolation,[7] and whether it creates a more or less diverse social environment.

It is often said the Internet is a new frontier, and there is a line of argument to the effect that social interaction, cooperation and conflict among users resembles the anarchistic and violent American frontier of the early 19th century.[8]

In March 2014, researchers from the Benedictine University at Mesa in Arizona studied how online interactions affect face-to-face meetings. The study is titled, "Face to Face Versus Facebook: Does Exposure to Social Networking Web Sites Augment or Attenuate Physiological Arousal Among the Socially Anxious," published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.[9] They analyzed 26 female students with electrodes to measure social anxiety. Prior to meeting people, the students were shown pictures of the subject they were expected to meet. Researchers found that meeting someone face-to-face after looking at their photos increases arousal, which the study linked to an increase in social anxiety. These findings confirm previous studies that found that socially anxious people prefer online interactions. The study also recognized that the stimulated arousal can be associated with positive emotions and could lead to positive feelings.[10]

Recent research has taken the Internet of Things within its purview, as global networks of interconnected everyday objects are said to be the next step in technological advancement.[11] Certainly, global space- and earth-based networks are expanding coverage of the IoT at a fast pace. This has a wide variety of consequences, with current applications in the health, agriculture, traffic and retail fields.[12] Companies such as Samsung and Sigfox have invested heavily in said networks, and their social impact will have to be measured accordingly, with some sociologists suggesting the formation of socio-technical networks of humans and technical systems.[13][14] Issues of privacy, right to information, legislation and content creation will come into public scrutiny in light of these technological changes.[12][15]

The impact on children

Researchers have investigated the use of technology (as opposed to the Internet) by children and how it can be used excessively, where it can cause medical health and psychological issues.[16] The use of technological devices by children can cause them to become addicted to them and can lead them to experience negative effects such as depression, attention problems, loneliness, anxiety, aggression and solitude.[16] Children constantly playing video games or taking part in internet activities correlates with "ill-being".[16] Studies conducted on the use of television by children have also shown negative affects it has on them, such as causing them to have an unhealthier sleeping quality or for them to have a decrease in their ability to pay attention.[17] There are educational shows children can watch, but the ones that stand out the most to them are the ones that contain inappropriate actions or words and that is where children begin to develop behavioral issues if they decide to mimic what they see or hear.[16] Some video games contain violent elements, which cause children to partake in aggressive actions if they imitate what they see.[18] Technology has changed over the years and it not only includes the use of television, but now comprises the use of iPads and cell phones due to modernization occurring worldwide.[19] Obesity is another result from the use of technology by children, due to how children may prefer to use their technological devices rather than doing any form of physical activity.[19] Parents can take control and implement restrictions to the use of technological devices by their children, which will decrease the negative results technology can have if it is prioritized as well as help put a limit to it being used excessively.[19]

Children can use technology to enhance their learning skills - for example: using online programs to improve the way they learn how to read or do math. The resources technology provides for children may enhance their skills, but children should be cautious of what they get themselves into due to how cyber bullying may occur. Cyber bullying can cause academic and psychological affects due to how children are suppressed by people who bully them through the Internet.[20] When technology is introduced to children they are not forced to accept it, but instead children are permitted to have an input on what they feel about either deciding to use their technological device or not.[21] Social exclusion in the classroom occurs to children who associate themselves more with using computers, which causes them to exclude themselves from the classroom's everyday context due to how they grow more attached to the device. Children who are socially popular are the ones who try and get away from using any form of technological skills they can possibly develop due to how they believe technological devices, such as a computer can be a threat to their social identities.[22] The routines of children have changed due to their use of the technological device they have been introduced to, but "while the children's health and quality of life benefited from the technology, the time demands of the care routines and lack of compatibility with other social and institutional timeframes had some negative implications".[23] Children prioritizing their technological device has put a limit on their capabilities to take part in employment, school and in having a social life overall.

Technology can have negative impacts on the lives of children and can be an essential learning tool that can encourage cognitive, linguistic and social development. Children that use technological devices have had greater gains in problem-solving, intelligence, language skills and structural knowledge in comparison to those children who have not incorporated the use of technology in their learning.[24] In research conducted, "studies did find improvements in student scores on tests closely related to material covered in computer-assisted instructional packages", which demonstrates how technology can have positive influences on children by improving their learning capabilities.[25] Problems have arisen between children and their parents as well when parents limit what children can use their technological devices for, specifically what they can and cannot watch on their devices, making children frustrated.[26] Studies have found that "the average child in this country spends over 6 hours each day with some form of mediated communication", meaning that children spend more time with their technological device rather than spending that time with their family or friends.[26] The introduction of technology to children has the positive outcome of increasing a child's learning capabilities, but can have the negative outcome of affecting a child's behavior in acting more isolated from the rest of society.

Political organization and censorship

The Internet has achieved new relevance as a political tool. The presidential campaign of Howard Dean in 2004 in the United States became famous for its ability to generate donations via the Internet, and the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama became even more so. Increasingly, social movements and other organizations use the Internet to carry out both traditional and the new Internet activism.

Governments are also getting online. Some countries, such as those of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Myanmar, the People's Republic of China, and Saudi Arabia use filtering and censoring software to restrict what people in their countries can access on the Internet. In the United Kingdom, they also use software to locate and arrest various individuals they perceive as a threat. Other countries including the United States, have enacted laws making the possession or distribution of certain material such as child pornography illegal but do not use filtering software. In some countries Internet service providers have agreed to restrict access to sites listed by police.


While much has been written of the economic advantages of Internet-enabled commerce, there is also evidence that some aspects of the Internet such as maps and location-aware services may serve to reinforce economic inequality and the digital divide.[27] Electronic commerce may be responsible for consolidation and the decline of mom-and-pop, brick and mortar businesses resulting in increases in income inequality.[28]


The spread of low-cost Internet access in developing countries has opened up new possibilities for peer-to-peer charities, which allow individuals to contribute small amounts to charitable projects for other individuals. Websites such as Donors Choose and Global Giving now allow small-scale donors to direct funds to individual projects of their choice.

A popular twist on Internet-based philanthropy is the use of peer-to-peer lending for charitable purposes. Kiva pioneered this concept in 2005, offering the first web-based service to publish individual loan profiles for funding. Kiva raises funds for local intermediary microfinance organizations which post stories and updates on behalf of the borrowers. Lenders can contribute as little as $25 to loans of their choice, and receive their money back as borrowers repay. Kiva falls short of being a pure peer-to-peer charity, in that loans are disbursed before being funded by lenders and borrowers do not communicate with lenders themselves.[29][30] However, the recent spread of cheap Internet access in developing countries has made genuine peer-to-peer connections increasingly feasible. In 2009 the US-based nonprofit Zidisha tapped into this trend to offer the first peer-to-peer microlending platform to link lenders and borrowers across international borders without local intermediaries. Inspired by interactive websites such as Facebook and eBay, Zidisha's microlending platform facilitates direct dialogue between lenders and borrowers and a performance rating system for borrowers. Web users worldwide can fund loans for as little as a dollar.[31]


The Internet has been a major source of leisure since before the World Wide Web, with entertaining social experiments such as MUDs and MOOs being conducted on university servers, and humor-related Usenet groups receiving much of the main traffic. Today, many Internet forums have sections devoted to games and funny videos; short cartoons in the form of Flash movies are also popular. Over 6 million people use blogs or message boards as a means of communication and for the sharing of ideas.

The pornography and gambling industries have both taken full advantage of the World Wide Web, and often provide a significant source of advertising revenue for other websites. Although governments have made attempts to censor Internet porn, Internet service providers have told governments that these plans are not feasible.[32] Also many governments have attempted to put restrictions on both industries' use of the Internet, this has generally failed to stop their widespread popularity.

One area of leisure on the Internet is online gaming. This form of leisure creates communities, bringing people of all ages and origins to enjoy the fast-paced world of multiplayer games. These range from MMORPG to first-person shooters, from role-playing video games to online gambling. This has revolutionized the way many people interact and spend their free time on the Internet.

While online gaming has been around since the 1970s, modern modes of online gaming began with services such as GameSpy and MPlayer, to which players of games would typically subscribe. Non-subscribers were limited to certain types of gameplay or certain games.

Many use the Internet to access and download music, movies and other works for their enjoyment and relaxation. As discussed above, there are paid and unpaid sources for all of these, using centralized servers and distributed peer-to-peer technologies. Discretion is needed as some of these sources take more care over the original artists' rights and over copyright laws than others.

Many use the World Wide Web to access news, weather and sports reports, to plan and book holidays and to find out more about their random ideas and casual interests.

People use chat, messaging and e-mail to make and stay in touch with friends worldwide, sometimes in the same way as some previously had pen pals. Social networking websites like MySpace, Facebook and many others like them also put and keep people in contact for their enjoyment.

The Internet has seen a growing number of Web desktops, where users can access their files, folders, and settings via the Internet.

Cyberslacking has become a serious drain on corporate resources; the average UK employee spends 57 minutes a day surfing the Web at work, according to a study by Peninsula Business Services.[33]

See also


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  27. "How the Internet Reinforces Inequality in the Real World" The Atlantic February 6, 2013
  28. "E-commerce will make the shopping mall a retail wasteland" ZDNet, January 17, 2013
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