The Sociology of the Internet and Digital Sociology

People sit before computers and imagery that signals online and digital communications circles them. The sociology of the internet and digital sociology feature research that interrogates how the internet and digital technology fit into and shape our lives.
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The sociology of the internet is a subfield of sociology in which researchers focus on how the internet plays a role in mediating and facilitating communication and interaction, and on how it affects and is affected by social life more broadly. Digital sociology is a related and similar subfield, however, researchers within it focus on such questions as they pertain to the more recent technologies and forms of online communication, interaction, and commerce associated with Web 2.0, social media, and the internet of things.

Sociology of the Internet: An Historical Overview

In the late 1990s, the sociology of the internet took shape as a subfield. The sudden widespread diffusion and adoption of the internet in the U.S. and other Western nations drew the attention of sociologists because the early platforms enabled by this technology--email, list-serves, discussion boards and forums, online news and writing, and early forms of chat programs--were seen as having significant impacts on communication and social interaction. Internet technology allowed for new forms of communication, new sources of information, and new ways of disseminating it, and sociologists wanted to understand how these would impact people's lives, cultural patterns, and social trends, as well as larger social structures, like the economy and politics.

Sociologists who first studied internet-based forms of communication took interest in impacts on identity and social networks that online discussion forums and chat rooms might have, especially for people experiencing social marginalization because of their identity. They came to understand these as "online communities" that might become important in a person's life, as either a replacement or a supplement to existing forms of community in their immediate surroundings.

Sociologists also took interest in the concept of virtual reality and its implications for identity and social interaction, and the implications of the society-wide shift from an industrial to an information economy, enabled by the technological advent of the internet. Others studied the potential political implications of the adoption of internet technology by activist groups and politicians. Across most topics of study, sociologists paid close attention to the way online activities and relationships might be related to or have impacts on those a person engages in offline.

One of the earliest sociological essays pertinent to this subfield was written by Paul DiMaggio and colleagues in 2001, titled "Social Implications of the Internet," and published in Annual Review of Sociology. In it, DiMaggio and his colleagues outlined then-current concerns within the sociology of the internet. These included the digital divide, relationships between the internet and community and social capital (social ties), the impact of the internet on political participation, how internet technology impacts organizations and economic institutions and our relationships to them, and cultural participation and cultural diversity.

Common methods during this early stage of studying the online world included network analysis, used to study the ties between people facilitated by the internet, virtual ethnography conducted in discussion forums and chat rooms, and content analysis of information published online.

Digital Sociology in Today's World

As internet communication technologies (ICTs) have evolved, so too have their roles in our lives and their impacts on social relations and society overall. As such, so too has the sociological approach to studying these evolved. The sociology of the internet dealt with users who sat before wired desktop PCs to participate in various forms of online communities, and while that practice still exists and has even become more common, the way we connect to the internet now--mostly via wireless mobile devices, the advent of a wide variety of new communication platforms and tools, and the general diffusion of ICTs into all aspects of social structure and our lives requires new research questions and methods of study. These shifts also enable new and larger scales of research--think "big data"--never before seen in the history of science.

Digital sociology, the contemporary subfield that has subsumed and taken over from the sociology of the internet since the late 2000s, takes into account the variety of ICT devices that populate our lives, the variety of ways in which we use them (communication and networking, documentation, cultural and intellectual production and sharing of content, consuming content/entertainment, for education, organization and the management of productivity, as vehicles for commerce and consumption, and on and on), and the many and varied implications these technologies have for social life and society overall (in terms of identity, belonging and loneliness, politics, and safety and security, among many others).

EDIT: Role of digital media in social life, and how digital technologies and media are related to behavior, relationships, and identity. Recognizes the central role that these now play in all aspects of our lives. Sociologists must take them into account, and they have done so in terms of the kinds of research questions they ask, how they conduct research, how they publish it, how they teach, and how they engage with audiences.

The widespread adoption of social media and the use of hashtags have been a data boon for sociologists, many of whom now turn to Twitter and Facebook to study public engagement with and perception of contemporary social issues and trends. Outside the academy, Facebook assembled a team of social scientists to mine the site's data for trends and insights and regularly publishes research on topics like how people use the site during periods of romantic courtship, relationship, and what happens before and after people break up.

The subfield of digital sociology also includes research that focuses on how sociologists use digital platforms and data to conduct and disseminate research, how digital technology shapes the teaching of sociology, and on the rise of a digitally enabled public sociology that brings social science findings and insights to large audiences outside of academia. In fact, this site is a prime example of this.

Development of Digital Sociology

Since 2012 a handful of sociologists have focused on defining the subfield of digital sociology, and on promoting it as an area of research and teaching. Australian sociologist Deborah Lupton recounts in her 2015 book on the topic, titled simply Digital Sociology, that U.S. sociologists Dan Farrell and James C. Peterson in 2010 called sociologists to task for not yet embracing web-based data and research, though many other fields had. In 2012 the subfield became formalized in the UK when members of the British Sociological Association, including Mark Carrigan, Emma Head, and Huw Davies created a new study group designed to develop a set of best practices for digital sociology. Then, in 2013, the first edited volume on the topic was published, titled Digital Sociology: Critical Perspectives. First focused conference in New York in 2015.

In the U.S. there is no formalized organization around the subfield, however many sociologists have turned to the digital, in both research focus and methods. Sociologists who do so can be found among research groups including the American Sociological Association's sections on Communication, Information Technologies, and Media Sociology, Science, Knowledge and Technology, Environment and Technology, and Consumers and Consumption, among others.

Digital Sociology: Key Areas of Study

Researchers within the subfield of digital sociology study a wide range of topics and phenomena, but some areas have emerged as of particular interest. These include:

  • The impact of ICTs on social relationships, like the role that social media plays in teen friendships today, how and which rules of etiquette have emerged around smartphone use in the company of others, and how they impact dating and romance in today's world.
  • How ICTs are a part of the processes of crafting and expressing identity, like through creation of social media profiles on popular sites including Facebook and Instagram, how selfies are a part of those processes in today's world, and the extent to which there may be benefits or drawbacks to expressing ourselves online.
  • The impact of ICTs and social media on political expression, activism, and campaigning. For example, some sociologists are curious about the role and impacts of changing one's Facebook profile picture to reflect solidarity with a cause, and others, in how online activism might impact and/or advance issues offline.
  • The role and impact of ICTs and the web in processes of building group affiliation and community, particularly among marginalized groups like LGBT individuals, racial minorities, and among extremist groups like anti-vaxxers and hate groups.
  • Since the early days of the sociology of the internet, the digital divide has been an area of concern for sociologists. Historically that has referred to the way wealth brokers access to ICTs and all the resources of the web-connected to them. That issue remains relevant today, however others kinds of divides have emerged, like how race affects the use of social media in the U.S.

​Notable Digital Sociologists

  • Mark Carrigan, University of Warwick (education, capitalism, and big data)
  • Deborah Lupton, University of Canberra (defining digital sociology as a subfield)
  • Mary Ingram-Waters, Arizona State University (fantasy football and identity and ethics)
  • C.J. Pascoe, University of Oregon (teen use of social media and ICTs)
  • Jennifer Earl, Arizona State University (politics and activism)
  • Juliet Schor, Boston College (peer-to-peer and connected consumption)
  • Alison Dahl Crossley, Stanford University (feminist identities and activism)
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Your Citation
Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "The Sociology of the Internet and Digital Sociology." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2021, February 16). The Sociology of the Internet and Digital Sociology. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "The Sociology of the Internet and Digital Sociology." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).