Social Dynamics of the Internet

Availability: Compulsory for OII MSc and DPhil students.

Schedule: Michaelmas Term (Weeks 1-8). Tuesdays 10:00-11:00.

Location: Seminar Room, Oxford Internet Institute, 1 St Giles, Oxford OX1 3JS.

Reading list: Social Dynamics of the Internet

Convenors

Background and Aims

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 ongoing. 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.

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.

Key Themes

Three key themes will run through all the topics discussed in this course, and students are expected to bear these in mind when undertaking course readings or attending classes:

  • Do online relations depart from, reflect, or complement offline social structures?

  • Which disciplines contribute most to our understanding and knowledge of the social implications of the Internet? What are the assumptions made, and how powerful - or uncertain - are the findings? Are the findings from different disciplines complementary, or at odds with another?

  • Does the Internet have one effect, or many? What is different about this technology, and sets its implications apart from those of other technologies?

Course Objectives

The course will identify the strengths and weaknesses of different social science approaches. It will cover major theoretical debates and the empirical evidence that is needed to assess them. The course will range across some key topics – including the role of information and communication technology in everyday life, digital divides between developed and developing societies, and the relation between the Internet and other technologies such as mobile phones – in order to illustrate the breadth and variety of substantive areas of study of the Internet.

The course will also introduce the different social science disciplines that address the social implications Internet and related information and communication technologies. These include media and communications, certain areas within computer science (Human-Computer Interaction, Computer-supported Cooperative Work), politics, sociology, psychology, economics, and anthropology.

By the end of the course, students will have a thorough understanding of the main perspectives and key findings about the social implications of the Internet and other new media technologies.

Learning Outcomes

At the end of the course students will:

  • Have a thorough grasp of major concepts 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.

Teaching Arrangements

The course will be taught in eight weekly classes, each consisting of a lecture followed by student presentations and seminar discussion.

Each student will be required to give one ten minute presentation on a specific aspect of the session topic or to review the argument of one of the books under the additional readings for each session topic. Details of these presentations will be agreed in Week 1. Students will also be required to write two short (1000-1500 word) essays on any two of the eight topics covered (by agreement with the Course Tutor in advance, a different essay question may chosen). These essays will provide a means for students to obtain feedback on the progress they have achieved.

Schedule for Social Dynamics of the Internet

Week

Session

Week 1

Theories of Society and the Internet

Week 2

Globalization and Domestication

Week 3

Online Social Networks

Week 4

Mobile Phones, the Internet and Perpetual Contact

Week 5

Search and Access to Knowledge and Information

Week 6

Microblogging among New and Old Media

Week 7

The Internet and Politics in India and China

Week 8

The Media and Democracy

Assessment

The course will be formally assessed by an examination of three hours that will take place in the 0 week of Hilary term. The examination will consist of eight questions of which any three must be answered. Please note that the assessment for this course is different for DPhil students. DPhil students should please refer to the Graduate Studies Handbook for guidance. If a student fails the exam they will need to resit in September. The resit dates will be assigned by the examinations school nearer the date. Please refer the examinations school website at: http://www.admin.ox.ac.uk/schools/oxonly/timetables/index.shtml

Each student will be required to give one ten minute presentation on a specific aspect of the session topic or to review the argument of one of the books under the additional readings for each session topic. Details of these presentations will be agreed in Week 1. Students will also be required to write one short (advised length: 1500-3000 words) essay on any of the eight topics covered. This essay will provide a means for students to obtain feedback on the progress they have achieved.