Sociology Internet
by
Coye Cheshire, Ashwin Mathew
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0028

Introduction

The Internet is a worldwide system of computer networks (a network of networks). It is a technical network (involving computer hardware, systems for connecting computers to one another, and communication protocols) and a social network (involving human users sharing, storing, and retrieving information with one another). The global Internet is an instance of an “internet,” a much larger network of various interconnected networks. Each of these networks optimizes data flows within itself across various technical parameters (e.g., latency across different links in the network and overall bandwidth utilization). The Internet was designed to allow individual network administrations to operate as they pleased internally, but still interconnect to allow data to flow from one network to another, creating a seamless whole. Because the Internet is a type of network, it facilitates the connection of people using computers through interconnecting technologies. Thus, the Internet is not only a social and technical marvel in terms of size and scale of use, but it is also a critically important research site for sociologists. As stated in DiMaggio, et al. 2001 (cited under Social Uses of Information Technology) in a review of early sociological research on the Internet, the Internet is important for sociology because it allows researchers to test theories of diffusion and media effects. In addition, DiMaggio, et al. 2001 notes that the Internet as a medium is distinctive because it allows the integration of different modes of digital communication (e.g., voice, data, video, and text chat) and forms of content.

History

The technologies of the Internet have their origin in the ARPANET, a network funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the US Department of Defense (Beranek 2000, Abbate 1999, Hafner and Lyon 1998). Although these technologies were developed in a nonmilitary academic context, it cannot be forgotten that they have their roots in the Cold War (Edwards 1997) and the counterculture movement of the 1960s (Turner 2006). The ARPANET was initially funded to provide access to ARPA-funded computing installations from remote academic sites. These technologies were later extended to provide “internetworking” facilities connecting the ARPANET and the ARPA packet radio network. The ARPANET was succeeded by the NSFNET, a more modern network, funded by the National Science Foundation, intended to facilitate communications among research institutions across the United States and to serve as a test bed for evolving Internet technologies. The development of Internet technologies was not without incident, especially in the face of competing technologies (Russell 2006). The Internet as it is known today was born in 1994, when the NSFNET infrastructure was privatized and numerous independent networks interconnected to form a seamless whole (Abbate 1999; Leiner, et al. 1997). The deployment of World Wide Web technologies allowed the Internet to move beyond the realm of researchers to become accessible to ordinary citizens (Berners-Lee 2000).

  • Abbate, Janet. 1999. Inventing the Internet. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the most thorough histories of the development of the Internet, tracing its roots from Baran’s work on a survivable military data network in the 1960s through the ARPANET and NSFNET eras to the founding of the Internet in the 1990s.

  • Beranek, Leo. 2000. Roots of the Internet: A personal history. Massachusetts Historical Review 2:55–75.

    E-mail Citation »

    A firsthand account of the development of the ARPANET, beginning with the formation of the firm of Bolt Beranek and Newman in 1948, which played a key role in the ARPANET.

  • Berners-Lee, Tim. 2000. Weaving the web: The original design and ultimate destiny of the World Wide Web. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

    E-mail Citation »

    A firsthand account of the development of the technologies that created the World Wide Web over the infrastructure of the Internet.

  • Edwards, Paul N. 1997. The closed world: Computers and the politics of discourse in Cold War America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Although the book is not about the Internet, Edwards places the development of computing technology in the political context of the Cold War.

  • Hafner, Katie, and Mathew Lyon. 1998. Where wizards stay up late: The origins of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    E-mail Citation »

    A more accessible history of the Internet, beginning with the development of the ARPANET.

  • Leiner, Barry M., Vinton G. Cerf, David D. Clark, et al. 1997. The past and future history of the Internet. Communications of the ACM 40.2: 102–108.

    DOI: 10.1145/253671.253741E-mail Citation »

    A brief history of the Internet, as related firsthand by several of the most significant individuals in its development. Available online by subscription.

  • Russell, A. L. 2006. “Rough consensus and running code” and the Internet-OSI standards war. Annals of the History of Computing, IEEE 28.3: 48–61.

    DOI: 10.1109/MAHC.2006.42E-mail Citation »

    An account of one of the most significant periods in the development of the Internet, the competition between the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) network technology standards put forward by the International Standards Organization (a body in which nation-states have formal standing), and those developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force, a self-governing organization of computer scientists and network engineers.

  • Turner, Fred. 2006. From counterculture to cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the whole earth network, and the rise of digital utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Illustrates the emergence of libertarian cyberculture from the counterculture movements of the 1960s, with special attention to the counterculture figures who helped frame the utopian discourse around computer networks.

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