The Internet is a relatively new phenomenon. While the Internet originally developed from the ARPNET, dating back to 1969, the World Wide Web as we know it today was shaped in the mid 1990s. Internet Explorer was first released in 1995 and Netscape came out one year later. Google was founded in 1998, Wikipedia in 2001, and MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube in 2003, 2004, and 2005, respectively.
This growing world of societies is an amusement park for the field of sociology. It is a whole new way of looking at how we group ourselves and what it is that forms and regulates these groups. For the first time in history, location is not one of the boundaries for societies. In the virtual world, physical interaction rarely occurs, yet there are thousands upon thousands of Internet societies. One thing that sociologists analyze is how these Internet communities intertwine and affect us in real world societies.
One area that sociologists are interested in is how the Internet leads to social inequality and social exclusion. Many people access and use the Internet every day, doing things such as paying bills online to doing research or connecting socially with people. For this segment of the population, the Internet is improving and modernizing their lives. But the individuals who do not have access to the Internet or do not know how to use it are being deprived of the benefits, social opportunities, and time saving methods the Internet provides. This further segregates certain groups of society. For example, most uneducated people probably do not have access to the Internet, and if they did, they would not be able to use it as efficiently as more educated people. The gap between the young as the old is also increasing as older people find the Internet harder to use than the younger generations.
As the Internet becomes more prevalent, things such as political participation, newspapers, books, and social networking are all becoming virtual. In fact, certain information is now only available through the Internet, a practice that is becoming increasingly common. Because certain daily activities are being transformed to the Internet only, those without it are becoming excluded from the larger society. Participation in public life is becoming increasingly reliant on Internet access and competency, so those without an e-mail address or a Facebook profile are becoming victims of social inequality.
Websites such as MySpace and Facebook, as well as online chat rooms and dating websites, allow you to categorize yourself into dozens of categories, which automatically leads to division within the larger group. As people are placed into categories and grouped together, social networks and communities are created. Physical location no longer plays a role in belonging to a community and individuals may come to know and connect with other individuals without ever meeting them in person. These online communities, just like real world communities, even have their own guidelines, cultures, norms, and expectations, which sociologists are interested in studying.
The Internet has also changed how we shop and purchase goods and services. While only several years ago it would be unheard of, it is now possible for an individual to live day-to-day without ever leaving the house. One can buy groceries online and have them delivered to their residence, along with any other good or service they might want. This can ultimately lead to social seclusion and withdrawal from the larger society, which has several implications that sociologists are interested in studying.
In addition to changing the way we purchase things, the Internet has also changed the exchange of information about goods, services, and businesses. Before the Internet existed, people often relied on reviews and referrals from family and friends regarding which goods and services to buy and which to avoid. For example, if an individual were on the market for a new television set, he or she would usually rely on advice from friends and family. Now, with the Internet making information more widely available, consumer research is becoming an increasingly large activity online. If someone wants to research televisions, there is certainly no shortage of information and opinions on the Internet. This has also led to an increase in consumer advocacy businesses such as Rip Off Report, Pissed Consumer, and Complaints Board, which allow consumers to report about their negative experiences with companies, providing a vast array of information for other consumers to read.
The Internet has changed the way we live, interact with others, and go about our daily lives. Social interaction no longer relies on physical location, which has many implications that sociologists are interested in studying. As a relatively new invention, we have yet to see the full implications and effects that the Internet has on societies around the world. This opens up an entirely new and exciting field within sociology and it will be interesting to see where it takes us.
AppliedSoc.org. (2011). Using Applied Sociology To Navigate Internet Communities. http://www.appliedsoc.org/internet/