Sociology of the Internet
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Sociology of the Internet or sociology of cyberspace explores the social implications of the Internet, new social networks, online societies (virtual communities) and social interaction on the Internet.
The Internet - the newest in the 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. Sociology of the Internet in the last sense includes analysis of online communities (e.g. as found in newsgroups), virtual communities and virtual worlds, organizational change catalyzed through new media like 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 though 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 however "took place yesterday, or the day before, depending on how you measure it." 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 early 1990s, when graphical interface and services like email became popular and reached wider (non-scientific and non-military) audiences and commerce. Internet Explorer was first released in 1995; Netscape a year earlier. Google was founded barely a decade ago, in 1998.
According to DiMaggio et al. (2001), research tends to focus on the Internet's implications in five domains:
- inequality (the issues of digital divide)
- community and social capital (the issues of time displacement)
- political participation (the issues of public sphere, deliberative democracy and civil society)
- organizations and other economic institutions
- cultural participation and cultural diversity
After an early period in which there were predictions that the Internet will change everything (or nothing), a consensus has emerged that the Internet tends to complement rather than displace existing media.
The Internet has made possible entirely new forms of social interaction, activities and organizing, thanks to its basic features such as widespread usability and access.
Social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace have created a new form of socialization and interaction. Users of these sites are able to add a wide variety of items to their personal pages, to indicate common interests, and to connect with others. It is also possible to find a large circle of existing acquaintances, especially if a site allows users to utilize their real names, and to allow communication among large existing groups of people.
Sites like meetup.com exist to allow wider announcement of groups which may exist mainly for face-to-face meetings, but which may have a variety of minor interactions over their group's site at meetup.org, or other similar sites.
Political organization and censorship
In democratic societies, 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. Many political groups use the Internet to achieve a whole new method of organizing, in order to carry out Internet activism.
Some governments, such as those of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Myanmar, the People's Republic of China, and Saudi Arabia, restrict what people in their countries can access on the Internet, especially political and religious content. This is accomplished through software that filters domains and content so that they may not be easily accessed or obtained without elaborate circumvention.
In Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden, major Internet service providers have voluntarily (possibly to avoid such an arrangement being turned into law) agreed to restrict access to sites listed by police. While this list of forbidden URLs is only supposed to contain addresses of known child pornography sites, the content of the list is secret.Template:Fact
Many 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.
There are many free and commercially available software programs with which a user can choose to block offensive websites on individual computers or networks, such as to limit a child's access to pornography or violence. See Content-control software.
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 many governments have attempted to put restrictions on both industries' use of the Internet, this has generally failed to stop their widespread popularity.
One main area of leisure on the Internet is multiplayer 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 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.
Socially Identifible Groups/Individuals
The Internet has given rise to a new sense of individualism much like the Renaissance. However what has cateogorized the internet's individualism is its grouping and collectivisation of like mindeness or 'Super individualism' (the state of socialising with groups of the same or similar interests). An emergant socialisation of this individualism has arisen akin to Social Isolation. Traditional media has cateogorized this positively and pejoratively, most notorious of this type of behaviour has been the Bridgend Sucides, where the internet was seen as decisive in forming a like minded group.
- John A. Bargh and Katelyn Y. A. McKenna, The Internet and Social Life, Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 55: 573-590 (Volume publication date February 2004), (doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.141922) 
- Allison Cavanagh, Sociology in the Age of the Internet, McGraw-Hill International, 2007, ISBN 0335217257
- Christine Hine, Virtual Methods: Issues in Social Research on the Internet, Berg Publishers, 2005, ISBN 1845200853
- Rob Kling, The Internet for Sociologists, Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Jul., 1997), pp. 434-444
- Joan Ferrante-Wallace, Joan Ferrante, Sociology.net: Sociology on the Internet, Thomson Wadsworth, 1996, ISBN 0534527566
- D. R. Wilson, Researching Sociology on the Internet, Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004, ISBN 0534624375