Sarah Gram is a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Michigan. Her current research focuses on gender, race, and knowledge diffusion in online communities. She also keeps a blog at Textual Relations, where she writes about gender, technology, scifi, and more. This post is part of a series about why and how sociologists should study the internet.
The number of pop science/business/cultural studies books that have come out on the subject of the Internet in the past few years has been staggering. Off the top of my head, we’ve got Nick Carr’s The Shallows, Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus, Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, Evengy Morozov’s The Net Delusion, Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget, Johnathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet; and How to Stop It, Don Tapscott’s Grown Up Digital, Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, and John Palfrey & Urs Gasser’s Born Digital. Now, some of these books are better than others, and the perspectives they offer tell valuable stories about the way the Internet is changing human life. But if you look at the authors listed, not a single one of them is a (working) sociologist. There are business consultants, psychologists, veterans of Silicon Valley utopianism, computer scientists, law professors, and journalists. But there’s not a single sociologist up there.
This is not to say that there isn’t some great internet research out there being done by sociologists. There is. We have excellent data on the digital divide, and a lot of fascinating qualitative and quantitative work on the impact of online social networks on offline relationships. But this hasn’t translated into sociologists being asked to give TED talks on the future of social interaction online, and it hasn’t led to the social/cultural studies section of your local bookstore being flooded with crossover books by academics who are invested in doing a more public sociology. The last time I saw a sociologist (actually two sociologists) cited in a tech-oriented article in the New Yorker, it was in a Malcolm Gladwell-penned piece on social media and revolutions, and they were social movements scholar Doug McAdams, and network theorist Mark Granovetter. Not to begrudge the usefulness of either scholar’s work in understanding social change sparked by social media, but I’ve never seen a sociologist cited when “the Internet is bad for your social life” comes up for the millionth time.
On the subject of online interaction, we’re once again dropping the public sociology ball. By evacuating from the public forum when it comes to the Internet, we’ve leaving the field to neuro-psychologists who want to talk about “re-wiring the brain” and business people who want to know how better to promote their brand on Twitter. We’ve got law professors writing books not only on the response of the legal system to the problems posed by the Internet (of which there are many), but also publishing on the subject of what online communication means for social life. What we don’t have is a proliferation of solid, meaningful interpretive research on social life on the Internet. I don’t know if this is because, as a discipline, we still prefer to treat text as artifact, rather than action, or because we can’t find a way to talk about online activity that doesn’t have major offline consequences in a way that makes it seem important.
Whatever the problem is, we should get over it, and quick. The internet has played a defining role in the social lives of millions for almost two decades. I got Facebook when it was first made available to Canadian university students, in 2005; my younger cousins got Facebook when they were eight. And from the time I was thirteen until today, I’ve watched online communities blossom and wither, morph into offline organizations or maintain their virtual character. I’ve seen entire communities pick up and switch mediums when the Usenet infrastructure got too outdated. I’ve seen people get excited about blogs and about Second Life, about Facebook and Twitter, and about forums that allow threaded comments. But I don’t see a lot of solid sociological research on any of these things, with perhaps the exception paid to the Internet by network sociologists.
There are plenty of sociologically interesting questions that need answering when it comes to the Internet. In an invitation to a network of scholars devoted to exploring social media monopolies (reposted here by Bruce Sterling), some of them are laid out straight. How do the political economies of social media work? Which social media platforms are privileged over others in media discourse and why? How are websites gendered? What is the cultural significance of a Facebook ‘like’? How do digital infrastructures influence the content and expressions produces in online communities? What are the cultural assumptions embedded in interface design and development? How does software interpellate the user? How do we experience the transition from platform to platform, from community to community? What role do developed nations in social change play when they promote technologies of circumvention for use in the global south? These are not just questions for network theorists or researchers interested in communications technology. There are important avenues of research here for political sociologists, economic sociologists, race & gender theorists, cultural sociologists, sociologists of sexuality and labour. The Internet is at once a site of community, of culture, of labour and work, of gendered and racialized performances, of technological innovation and neoliberal business practice. The virtual web plays host to knowledge creation and diffusion, political debate, emotional connection, and symbolic violence, while the physical infrastructure of the Internet opens up new avenues for thinking about commerce, warfare, censorship, and social upheaval.
What are the consequences of not asking these questions in an sociological, academic context? Let me give an example that’s caught my sociological attention:
A confluence of events this past spring had me thinking about the ways that we privilege speech that happens on some online platforms over others. Back in April, LiveJournal — a popular blogging service — experienced a number of serious functionality problems due to a series of distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks. As an advanced skimmer of the internet, I came across a number of comments that expressed disbelief that anyone would want to take down a journalling service populated mostly by teenage girls. Fourteen year old girls writing emo poetry and Harry Potter fanfiction: this is LiveJournal in the social media imaginary.
At least, that’s LiveJournal in the English-speaking, US-centric world. Elsewhere, things are understood a little bit differently. In Russia — where SUP, the company that owns the license to LJ is located — LiveJournal is synonymous with blogging itself. A link to an LJ in the English speaking world is a step away from the serious analysis hosted by WordPress and TypePad; a link to an LJ in Russia can be an act of political resistance.
Similarly, there’s been a lot of focus on the role that Facebook and Twitter have played in the political upheavals of the Arab Spring. There has already been some chattering class analyses of these events (Clay Shirky at Crooked Timber, and that Malcolm Gladwell piece everyone and his mother linked to from the New Yorker), but there is a imperialist undertone to the conventional news narrative that the uprisings could not have occurred without these social media platforms. By placing US-centric, English language platforms at the center of reportage on Middle Eastern unrest, we colonize the revolutions and claim them as victories of our own. Look at these tools of freedom we have created, we say, pointing towards our own techno-social accomplishments and feeling heroic that we provided such a space. This not only elides the fact that a significant proportion of political organizing outside the Western world happens outside of the services that we are most familiar with, but also diminishes our understanding of the relationship between online communication, political action, and information sharing outside the confines of those platforms we’ve deemed to be ‘important’. South Korea faced virtually-organized anti-government protests in 2008 not because of Facebook, but because of message board fan communities for popular music artists. Our unrelenting focus on Facebook and Twitter (and to a lesser extent, blogs in the WordPress genre) often directs our attention away from smaller platforms — local and global — where online organizing and interaction takes place.
Moreover, there is a significant gendering that takes place in our characterization of social media platforms–and websites in general. First, there is the usual “what are the demographics of the userbase” question. This one tends to be easily answered, and often skews male globally (although in North America the numbers are a lot more even). Second there is the question of which voices speak the loudest on the social media platform. Here things get a little more tricky. This year, The Week nominated one (out of eight) female bloggers for their “blogger of the year” award — and that blogger was Digby, who doesn’t actively construct a female identity online. We know that the feminist blogosphere runs a secondary parallel to the mainstream progressive blogosphere. Twitter — when not being used for celebrity gossip (an eminently ‘female’ pursuit) — is the outlet for male dominated news outlets, mainstream or otherwise, to make their voices relevant. Facebook, though more personal and thus less likely to carry with it the gendering that comes with public journalistic engagement, appears in the news as a gathering place for social movements gendered masculine by their leaders and tactics. LiveJournal, in the West, is female all the way down.
One of the difficulties of studying online social interactions in an environment where a large number of your colleagues aren’t regular — or particularly savvy — users of the internet is that you often find yourself trying to describe the platforms you work with to individuals whose only experience with social media is Facebook and some major blogs. The question of “why this site? why this community?” tends to come up with astonishing frequency. And while colleagues of mine have no difficulty selling their peers on an ethnographic study of dying bingo halls, it’s strangely difficult to convince anyone that a 1500-member, active LJ community is worth a (social scientific) look. This is obviously in part an outgrowth of the fact that it is simply too daunting a task to know which online interactions are sociologically significant — though my tendency would be to go with “all of them”, until proven otherwise. But I think there is also an element of privilege embedded in our practices of focusing our sociological gaze on those platforms that the mainstream media finds trendy and ‘important’. Too often, those communities and services are the ones that are dominated by white masculine voices, leaving platforms like LiveJournal — with its 14-year old girls and their emo poetry — in the abyss of the understudied and unimportant web.
So where does this leave us? What can sociology contribute to the study of the Internet, and what can the Internet contribute to the sociological lexicon? We need new and better sociological concepts to deal with the contexts of virtuality. We need a new approach to text, one that treats it as something other than an inert data resource. We need a new approach to space and place, one that allows us to talk about these things without reference to geographic clustering. We need to rethink our privileging of face-to-face relationships in our research, and of methodologies that embed and perpetuate that privileging. But most importantly, we need to stop talking about what people do online as though it isn’t real. Human beings spend hours of their lives interacting with cultural artifacts, bureaucratic institutions, entertainment and news media, economic and health information, and yes, even each other, online. Just because they do it on a computer instead of in the public square doesn’t make it any less real or any less meaningful. The sooner sociology takes that seriously, the better. Because otherwise, we’ll be letting slip the opportunity to expand the boundaries of our discipline in a way that is not only relevant to the ASA come conference time, but also to the public at large all the time. To reach for that most common of sociological cliches, C. Wright Mills, inThe Sociological Imagination, argues that the task and promise of sociology is to allow us to grasp the relation of history and biography in society. If we relegate online life to the realm of biography alone and thus abandon it to psychologists and business journalists, we are missing out on the opportunity to contribute knowledge in an area where we are uniquely qualified to speak: that of human social interaction and meaning-making. Personally, I’d like to hear what we have to say.