Type of work: Article (academic)
The Internet is a critically important research site for sociologists testing theories of technology diffusion and media effects, particularly because it is a medium uniquely capable of integrating modes of communication and forms of content. Current research tends to focus on the Internet’s implications in five domains:
1) inequality (the “digital divide”); 2) community and social capital; 3) political participation;
4) organizations and other economic institutions; and 5) cultural participation and cultural diversity. A recurrent theme across domains is that the Internet tends to complement rather than displace existing media and patterns of behavior. Thus in each domain, utopian claims and dystopic warnings based on extrapolations from technical possibilities have given way to more nuanced and circumscribed understandings of how Internet use adapts to existing patterns, permits certain innovations, and reinforces particular kinds of change. Moreover, in each domain the ultimate social implications of this new technology depend on economic, legal, and policy decisions that are shaping the Internet as it becomes institutionalized. Sociologists need to study the Internet more actively and, particularly, to synthesize research findings on individual user behavior with macroscopic analyses of institutional and political-economic factors that constrain that behavior.