Sociology of the Internet is one of the youngest sub-disciplines of Sociology. Digital Sociology is another relational sub-field which almost deals with similar sociological aspects. The term first appeared in 2009 in an article written by Wynn (Digital Sociology: emergent technologies in the field of the classroom) and later in 2013, a purely academic book on Digital Sociology was published and the first academic conference on the same was held in New York, in 2015. Hence, as a discipline, it is still at the initial stage of its emergence and development. Whereas Digital Sociology mainly focuses on new technologies and forms of online communication and commerce mainly associated with Web 2.0 and social media, Sociology of the Internet majorly involves the application of sociological theories to the internet and throws light on how it acts as a source of communication and information. It analyses the formation of social networks and virtual communities and how they activate various social institutions and facts like politics, social capital, participatory culture, economies, and so on.
Modernisation, Globalisation and Cultural Aspects of the Internet
Slevin (2002) says that to understand the impact of the internet, we must study the cultural changes in the contemporary world. To further analyse the cultural changes, we must take a look at the cultural transmission that we are subjected to. Undoubtedly, sociologists like Anthony Giddens, Ulrich Beck and Scott Lash refer to the rise of the internet as the thesis of ‘reflexive modernization’ (Beck et al, 1994). With the rise of post-traditional forms of organization, intensification of globalization, and reflexivity, which further are engaged in the process of generating a possible future with both positive and negative aspects, Beck (1994) calls it as the emergence of a ‘world of risky society’. When the concept of ‘risk society’ was first developed by Beck, it initially meant the hampering of the dynamic equilibrium of our society through various disasters, mostly natural. Over time, prominent scholars have applied it to refer to technological, political, and economic fallacies that distort peaceful existence.
The Internet is time and again acting as a catalyst in reorganising information and social relationships. Media also supposedly contributed to the development of modernity as it stimulates far-reaching cultural and social change. As internet initiates publicity and the public sphere, it also adds on to the creation and promotion of a democratic structure. Slevin (2002) points out that unlike the traditional forms of mass media, the internet allows space for the people to engage in dialogue. With the advent of apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like, more and more people have taken to sharing their opinions, criticising the state’s action, and mostly bringing out the truth at the forefront. Undoubtedly, it has given rise to social movements through internet activism. The Black Lives Matter or #BLM protests spread like wildfire all over the world due to the mobilization and collectivisation of the internet population or the virtual community. Another prominent feature that makes it one of the active sources of disseminating information is the lowering gap between time and space and the allowance of invisibility or anonymity. With time, political campaigns have become heavily dependent on the internet. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was massively popularised by digital media. Hence, Slevin illustrates the four prominent democratic aspects of the internet — controversial questions are kept open, provision of ‘criticisable rationality’, provision of rights, or provision of a platform to use these rights, and recognition of moral principles.
Countries like Cuba, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea, and Myanmar heavily depend on the internet to monitor law and order among their citizens. This is where Foucault’s concept of ‘panoptic’ comes into play, which he developed from Jeremy Bentham’s panopticons or prison houses built in a structured way whereby the prison guard could look at all the cellmates and monitor their activities but the prisoners wouldn’t be able to have a sight of the guard. Hence, Foucault says that “power should be visible and unverifiable”. Supposedly the inmates are aware that there stands a tall wall, on top of which is mounted the guard and they are looking at them but they don’t know whether the guard is present at all times. This is exactly the purpose served by the internet when used by legal authorities. In a way, it prevents people from engaging in fraudulent activities because they have that constant fear in mind that they are under observation. Hence, the internet also contributes to social control.
Social and Economic Capital
Most importantly, the internet adds on to one’s social capital. Supposedly, bonds formed over the internet continue in real-life behind the digital screen too. Moreover, the majority of the young population suffering from extreme anxiety, prefer to stay connected through texts instead of face-to-face interactions. Hence, it serves as a great platform to keep social relations and ties intact. The Internet also serves as a philanthropic network as more and more crowdfunding platforms have emerged digitally.
The internet also brings about socio-economic advancement both in terms of lowering inequality and in pointing out the inequality through the digital divide. Platforms like YouTube, TikTok and the like have provided a voice and opportunity to everyone, irrespective of their social class. People from the working class and lower-middle-class background are making money from the same. They are also putting forward their opinion. On the other hand, in third-world and developing countries, the digital divide is so much so that majority of the people who live below the poverty line do not have access to the internet. As a result of it, these historically marginalised people are further pushed backward with the complete digitisation of society.
Challenges posed by The Internet that Leads to Social Disorganisation
Besides its numerous benefits, the internet also poses great challenges to democracy and promotes fragmentation. The propagation of fake news through the monopolisation of digital media channels by the ruling party hate speeches, cyberbullying and harassment has increased over time. A digital game named Blue Whale formulated online suicide challenges and claimed the lives of hundreds of teenagers in Russia, India, Ukraine, and the United States. Biopolitics says that the cellphone has become a prosthetic part of the ‘gamified’ body. The self has become a matter of optics and the body as a bearer of data. This self can be programmed as people engage in parallel fiction through the use of the internet. Hence, it somehow contributes to social disorganisation as well. People who develop their social networks within social groups are connected through commodified relations. This is where the concept of Foucauldian surveillance comes into play. Somehow, we develop a narcissistic self and constantly discipline others. We are constantly searching for the mistakes of others either in the comment boxes, circulated videos, posts, or tweets but somehow, we are always scared because we know that we, too, are being watched and observed and for any mistake that we commit, however, minute it is, we would be judged and disciplined.
Studies on and pertaining to Sociology of the Internet must be given more importance in the near future, solely because of their sociological and psychological relevance. The approach will and should further help in serious policy framing which might as well add on to social wellbeing.
- Brügger, N. & Bødker, H. (eds). (2001). The Internet and Society? Questioning Answers and Answering Questions. Denmark: The Center for Internet Research.
- Daniels, J., Gregory, K., Cottom, T.M. Digital Sociology MiniConference, organized in conjunction with the Eastern Sociological Society meetings, February 27–28, 2015. http://digsoc.commons.gc.cuny.edu/conference-papers-2015/
- Dasgupta, R. After Bare Life: Politics in Times of Exception, organized by the Department of Political Science, Presidency University, October 16, 2020.
- Digital Sociology. (October 14, 2020). In Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on October 19 2020 from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_sociology#:~:text=Digital%20sociology%20is%20a%20sub,and%20concepts%20of%20the%20self.
- Orton-Johnson, K. and Prior, N. (eds) (2013) Digital Sociology: Critical Perspectives. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan
- Revised Sociology. (2016). Foucault – Surveillance and Crime Control. Retrieved from https://revisesociology.com/2016/09/21/foucault-surveillance-crime-control/
- Sociology of Internet. (October 14, 2020). In Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on October 19 2020 from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sociology_of_the #:~:text=The%20sociology%20of%20the%20Internet%