Social Dynamics of the Internet

Tutor: Ralph Schroeder
Details: Compulsory course for MSc and DPhil; Michaelmas Term
Examined: Examination
Reading list: Social Dynamics of the Internet (PDF)

“This course is designed to create a common core to discuss the Internet on the whole rest of the degree — to create a shared understanding of the social implications of the Internet.”

The internet has been associated with social changes in government, business, research, and many other areas of everyday life. Moreover, in the short time in which it has been in widespread use, the technology itself has changed rapidly. The Internet was initially mainly used for communication via email, but with the Web it has, among things, also become a vast repository of online information. This transformation is still incomplete: the embedding of the Internet in other technologies such as digital television and mobile phones is still on going. Nevertheless, throughout the developed world, the Internet and related information and communication technologies have already become a well-established and integral part of social life.

Research on the social implications of the Internet is still at an early stage, but there are already some key insights. This course will provide an overview of the major findings to date within several social science disciplines, including communication studies, sociology, and political science. One aim of the course is to identify the overlaps and divergences among different research approaches. Another is to give students who come from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds a common grounding in research on the Internet, its social shaping and impact. It will also introduce some of the main theoretical traditions in the social sciences, and assess their strengths and limitations in relation to analysing the Internet.

The debates about the social implications of the Internet have focused on the digital divide, potential for e-government and social mobilization, distributed work, impact on economic growth and commerce, and governance and regulation of the Internet. Within these topics, debate has often tended towards extremes, claiming revolutionizing effects of the Internet or arguing that little if anything is changed by the technology. There has also been a tendency to highlight the utopian and dystopian effects in a one-sided way. This course will attempt go beyond these extremes and identify which research agendas have yielded the most promising results and are based on the strongest evidence.

Outcomes: At the end of the course students will: Have a thorough grasp of major theories and debates about new information and communication technologies and social change; be able to identify where insights from across the social sciences overlap or diverge; be familiar with a number of substantive topics that will be relevant for research on many aspects of Internet studies; be able to relate social science research on the Internet to policy questions and to questions about the design and development of the Internet.