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No. WP-97-02


Rob Kling
Center for Social Informatics
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN 47405
kling@indiana.edu http://www.slis.indiana.edu/kling
March 1997

In Contemporary Sociology July 1997


Within the last five years, many sociologists have discovered electronic mail (e-mail) discussion lists (such as LISTSERVs) and the World Wide Web (WWW)-- services, that are associated with a network of computer networks popularly referred to as "the Internet." Over the last twenty years, academics in certain disciplines, especially the lab sciences, have found computer networking to be a viable means for sharing data, organizing professionals discussions, keeping in touch with colleagues, and distributing documents, such as conference programs, preprints, and syllabi. Within the last five years, many sociologists have discovered electronic mail (e-mail) discussion lists (such as LISTSERVs) and the World Wide Web (WWW)-- services, that are associated with a network of computer networks popularly referred to as "the Internet." Over the last twenty years, academics in certain disciplines, especially the lab sciences, have found computer networking to be a viable means for sharing data, organizing professionals discussions, keeping in touch with colleagues, and distributing documents, such as conference programs, preprints, and syllabi. This brief article has the unmodest ambition of explaining to sociologists why they should take the Internet seriously as a medium of professional communication, and why some sociologists should be specially interested in the Internet (or other computer networks) as social spaces in which to study shifting social relationships in our society. Part I may be specially useful to sociologists who have relatively limited experience with Internet services. Part II discusses sociological uses of the Internet to support research, teaching, and professional communication that could interest readers with significant Internet experiences.
Within the last five years, many sociologists have discovered electronic mail (e-mail) discussion lists (such as LISTSERVs) and the World Wide Web (WWW)-- services, that are associated with a network of computer networks popularly referred to as "the Internet." Over the last twenty years, academics in certain disciplines, especially the lab sciences, have found computer networking to be a viable means for sharing data, organizing professionals discussions, keeping in touch with colleagues, and distributing documents, such as conference programs, preprints, and syllabi. Some academics in other disciplines -- from archeology to women's studies, and including sociology -- have also found the computer networks similarly helpful media for scholarly communication. Since the Clinton-Gore administration's strong promotion of National Information Infrastructure (popularly referred to as "information superhighways") and the opening of the Internet to broad public access, the Internet has become a high profile topic. It has been widely discussed, and often highly hyped, as a medium for commerce, entertainment, and various kinds of public communication.

It is likely that many sociologists will learn about Internet services and come to use them through social relationships other than their professional sociological ties. Some will turn to services such as America-on-Line or CompuServe to stay in touch with family members and then see a wider array of useful Internet services; and others will be lured to some Internet services by their interest in managing their mutual funds, conducting genealogical searches, or some other personal interest.

There are probably several thousand books in English about some aspect of the Internet -- from the particular technologies for various Internet services to ways that lay people can use them. There are specialized books about the Internet (and its information resources) for people in specific professions, such as teachers, people with special topical interests, such as legal materials, and people with distinctive self-definitions, such as trendy women whose interests lie outside North American mainstream cultures. To my knowledge, there is no current book about the Internet that has been written specially for sociologists. No one book could effectively serve such a purpose for the diversity of sociologists. This brief article has the unmodest ambition of explaining to sociologists why they should take the Internet seriously as a medium of professional communication, and why some sociologists should be specially interested in the Internet (or other computer networks) as social spaces in which to study shifting social relationships in our society. Part I may be specially useful to sociologists who have relatively limited experience with Internet services, while Part II discusses sociological uses of the Internet that could interest readers with significant Internet experiences.



The Internet is a simple catchword with many meanings. In simplest and most practical terms, the computer networks that most academic sociologists use and will use to support professional communication will be part of the Internet. These networks include those run by universities and certain private services (such as America-OnLine) -- and also other computer networks that interconnect them.

One way to view the Internet (or an Internet service provider) is in terms of the services it provides. The most basic service is some form of email. Even a relatively simple service like email has subtle variations. Some systems allow people to quickly organize their incoming mail into specialized folders, while others make it hard or impossible to do so,. Further, some systems enable the sharing of formatted documents as "attachments" to their email, while other people's systems don't allow them to readily decipher any or all attachments and to read them in their wordprocessor, graphics programs or spreadsheets. In short, email may simply be a service that supports sending simple notes without much formatting; or it can enable people to share complex documents. In any of these cases, email is point-to-point; like a letter, one sends email to a specific address.

There are numerous additional services that the Internet supports today, including distribution lists (to simplify sending email to groups of people), file transfer protocols (to enable people to get files from another computer elsewhere on the Internet), the WWW, and crude forms of audio and video conferencing. The range of services is open-ended. The services that a specific sociologist who "is on the Internet" can effectively use depends upon a constellation of social and technical practices of her colleagues, including the services supported by their Internet service providers, their specific PC and associated hardware (such as a camera for video-conferencing), and their technical support.

There is considerable variation in estimates of the number of people who use the Internet in the United States, or Worldwide. The estimates in the US, as of mid-1996 range from 10 million to 35 million. However, most observers agree that overall uses of the Internet are growing rapidly, and that some uses have been growing exponentially - almost doubling every two years. But estimates of the number of Internet users differ for various reasons, including differing conceptions of which networks should be included in "the Internet," and differing conceptions over which kinds and intensities of usage constitute meaningful "Internet use," and, predictably, differing methodologies for assessing these.
Sociologists need not know much about the varying estimates, or of competing ways to conceptualize "the Internet" (such as networks that share a specific technical communication protocol, TCP/IP, or networks that go beyond email and enable people to use "highly interactive" services such as the WWW and video-conferencing, or only networks that don't hide their information resources from outsiders). But sociologists should be aware that there are a broad range of estimates that differ substantially in what they may signify about the role of the Internet as a public communication medium, including possible uses for "distance education." The Internet is not simply a technological system -- or only a socio-technical system, but also a "floating signifier" -- a symbol whose vague referents have enabled numerous enthusiasts used to connote a complex marriage of computers, networked communications, and images of expressiveness, social connections, sharing knowledge, and a dynamic future.


Many of the published compendia of Internet resources either skip sociology (jumping, say, from Shakespeare to "space"), or confuse sociology with psychology, social services, or socializing. There are in fact some interesting Internet services that sociologists have organized for their peers. These include some LISTSERVs (on-line discussion groups) as well as compendia of materials collected in specific WWW sites discussed below.


Most sociologists have discovered email, a basic communication service that fueled the growth of computer networking in academia. Discussion lists are a relatively simple extension of email; anyone who can send and receive email has the technology for participating in electronic discussions groups. LISTSERVs are one form of electronic mailing list that have proven helpful in facilitating communication among academics. The Internet supports thousands of mailing lists whose topical content covers numerous academic topics and many more purely recreational topics. There appear to be several dozen lists whose topical orientation is dominantly sociological, such as Durkheim, Social Theory, Social Networks research, applied sociology, and teaching sociology. (For a list of LISTSERVs, see http://www.w3.org/pub/DataSources/bySubject/Sociology/listserv.html.) The actual contents, activity levels, and perceived quality of electronic mailing lists varies considerably. Some lists emphasize sustained discussion while others serve primarily to facilitate announcements and inquiries (ie., "does anyone know a good review article for topic X or a study that effectively illustrates the use of method Y?), and others intersperse both.

One subscribes (and unsubscribes) to a LISTSERV by sending a special email messages to a specific address, such as listproc@sun.soci.niu.edu for a list named "interact" that is devoted to Symbolic Interaction. The formats differ slightly from one LISTSERV to another. In the case of "interact," the message body simply says, "subscribe name-of-the list", as in "subscribe interact." People who read the list receive messages as normal email, and respond to the list using normal email commands. Of course, the social protocols for sending a message to a list of people that is likely to include many strangers differs from sending an email message to a close colleague.

The pragmatics of participating in a LISTSERV discussion can range from the routine of expected on-line conversation to some vexing social and technological events. Sometimes groups which are relatively quite erupt into furious discussions and debates that can lead to dozens of unexpected email messages a day. Technological problems can also lead to dozens or even hundreds of repeated messages. These relatively rare blizzards of email require lots of shoveling to read one's serious messages; and in some cases the avalanche can clog one's mailbox, preventing other messages from being received.

The number of sociologically-oriented discussion lists is likely to increase. Two years ago, a colleague asked me for a lead to a list about social movement theories. I haven't yet found one, although I wouldn't be surprised to see one develop soon. One can find compendia of discussions lists of interest to sociologists on certain WWW sites, such as The WWW Virtual Library Sociology section (http://www.w3.org/vl/Sociology/listserv.html), in the Mailing Lists section of Julian Dierkes Sociology Links at Princeton (http://www.princeton.edu/~sociolog/links-list.html) and on the ASA's new WWW pages (http://www.asanet.org). (See below for a discussion of WWW and addresses that begin http://.)

Electronic discussions lists seem to be especially helpful for academics who want to reach out beyond their immediate colleagues for specialized discussion. They seem to provide special value to academics who are not in elite positions in their own specialty networks -- especially faculty who are not at the major research universities and advanced graduate students almost anywhere.

This selection bias about who is willing to make the time and effort, and to communicate somewhat publicly privileges some kinds of discussions over others. In 1995-96, the editors of the organizational theory journal, Administrative Science Quarterly, created a discussion list of about 500 people that they hoped would support intensive research discussion in the field. But they abandoned it after a year when it did not meet this high standard (See http://www.umich.edu/~asq). In contrast, the Academy of Management has organized a LISTSERV for their Organization and Management Theory Division (OMTNET) that has about 800 active subscribers, that serves as a vital medium for more varied scholarly and professional communication. Some participants on OMTNET debate theory and methods, while others post inquiries to help choose a good textbook. Creating a viable electronic forum is complex social-technical design, and academics are still experimenting to learn how various social practices and social structures support or undermines certain kinds of on-line conversations (Kling, 1996c).


The World Wide Web (WWW) is a means of publishing materials (including documents, software, photographs and movies) on the Internet, and linking them to other materials on the Internet. Some WWW pages may be completely text (such as a journal article or course syllabus), while others may contain primarily links to other materials. The primary way to follow links on WWW documents is to click on them with a mouse button. When one follows a link on a Web page, she may load more files from the same computer, or end up on another computer six thousand miles from where she started.

The WWW was developed around 1990 at a European high-energy physics lab as a medium to enable international research team to share their notes and data. The first browsers, such as Lynx, relied upon text interfaces. The WWW became very popular in the mid-1990's after some young computer scientists developed a cute graphical interface (browser) called Mosaic. Today, the most popular browsers include Netscape (a much refined offshoot of Mosaic) and Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

The WWW played a major role in popularizing the Internet by adding a visual allure accessible to a larger public, and thus the possibility of mass-entertainment and commerce. It should be no surprise that the most visually engaging WWW sites have been developed by entertainment and media firms, although some newspapers, such as the New York Times' CyberTimes (http://www.nytimes.com), and Wall Street Journal (http://www.wsj.com), have developed sites that reprint some of their paper editions' content, but also add new materials, such as background data for stories and some searchable financial databases. CyberTimes also includes some (moderated) on-line discussions of specific articles which are organized as "threaded discussions" with special web software.

Scholars in various disciplines have been exploring ways to use the WWW to support scholarly communication and activity. I will briefly highlight a few interesting kinds of uses with suggestive examples from several disciplines.

Searching the WWW

Searching (or "surfing" ) the WWW brings in a new set of concepts and jargon. The WWW is organized in "pages" in locations called "a site;" linked groups of pages are referred to as hypertext. The ubiquitous http:// refers to "hypertext transfer protocol." Web pages are coded with commands to format materials on-screen, load pictures, play sounds, and so on. These command languages are called HTML (for Hypertext Markup Language); different dialects of HTML abound and will doubtless continue to proliferate as a byproduct of innovation and inter-firm competition. People who design WWW sites often try to use HTML commands that make their pages readable by a majority of people who are using the mainstream choices in browsers. However, some site designers are interested in exploring new formats, and the same WWW pages can appear somewhat differently on screen with different browsers.

One locates web pages (or collections of them) by several means. One can be given a URL (Uniform Resource Locator), such as http://www.asanet.org and type it into a search field of a web browser such as Netscape. One can view a web page, such as "Selected Sociology and Demography Resources on the Web" (http://www.lib.umich.edu/libhome/rrs/classes/socdemog.html) with links to other pages, and click on a link. Sociologists, like Susan Brumbaugh (who organized the WWW Resources for Sociologists, (http://socsci.colorado.edu/SOC/RES/) have taken on significant service roles by organizing elaborate collections of resources for specific fields or specialties. (Yahoo, is the most popular enormous topically-organized link collection that aims at a mass audience; see http://www.yahoo.com).

One can also use a "search engine" to help locate pages for a specific topic. Search engines are part of an information system that catalogs the pages at numerous web sites, indexes them, and makes them searchable through simple command languages. My favorite search engine for academic purposes is Alta Vista (http://www.altavista.digital.com) which is operated by computer manufacturer Digital Equipment Corporation to showcase their computer technologies. By May 1996, Alta Vista had indexed 30 million web pages. Unfortunately, each of the search engines uses a somewhat different command syntax. Alta Vista's simplest interface allows one to locate texts that include or exclude keywords by prefacing them with a + or -, and by search for phrases by enclosing them in quotes.

As an example, I searched Alta Vista for "Georg Simmel" and it returned a list of about 200 pages with his name. These pages were a mixed lot, including the program of a 1996 conference on Simmel's role in sociological theory, a short biography of Simmel, various working papers that mentioned Simmel centrally or peripherally, book announcements, the syllabus for Edward Tiryakian's Fall 1995 course on the History of Social Thought at Duke, and the reading notes of a Ph.D. student. The search netted materials dominantly in English, but also in French, German, Italian and Danish. A search for +"Georg Simmel" +conference would have retrieved only the conference.

Alta Vista can be both boon and bane. If what one wants is indexed in Alta Vista, carefully focussed searches may turn it up in few minutes. But it is also easy to become distracted by materials that catch one's side interests; or to waste hours on a fruitless search. Search engines are Wonderland rabbit holes into the bowels of the WWW. In my experience, other search engines, such as Excite (http://www.excite.com), are more productive for searching for the WWW for non-academic materials (travel guides, product catalogs).

Sociologist David Zaret posted the preprint of a forthcoming book chapter about print formats and social change in catalyzing the development of civil society on his Indiana University web page (Zaret, forthcoming). Chapters like Zaret's might be located through the set of links created by someone who is organizing resources for a subfield, or more idiosyncratically through by working with a search engine.

The boon and bane of search engines is their epistemological insensitivity. A search for sources about "printing and public opinion" could turn up Zaret's article somewhere in a list that includes materials of highly varying quality and relevance. The search engines rank documents by mechanical criteria of relevance, based on keyword counts; the search can turn up articles by political scientists and ads for advertising agencies as well as materials of sociological interest. Adding sociological terms such as +"social theory" or +Weber to the search specification could effectively narrow the search. Zaret's article might bubble up near the top of the resulting list; or it could be buried 50 deep, five screens down in a list that starts with self-published articles by undergrads, graduate students, and more junior historical sociologists. Zaret's preprint contains some epistemological markers -- a citation to its forthcoming publication in a book edited by Jeffrey Alexander and to be published by Sage. It is also possible that a few of these other works would be more helpful, or even perhaps more insightful, for the searcher's purpose. But the search engines rank documents with syntactic criteria that don't reflect scholarly ranking criteria such as novelty, clarity, coherence, theoretical orientation, and methodological reliability. Consequently, effectively using WWW search engines requires persistence, time, and scholarly insight as well as technical skills; it can be problematic when students rely upon Internet searches as their primary source for materials (See Crawford, 1994).

The Internet generally privileges speed of connecting authors and readers, serendipity and, novelty over epistemological reliability (as mediated by peer review, publishing houses, and curated libraries). Some of the arguments that the Internet enhances democracy rest upon the ability of a wider array of people to post materials for broad readership. But the materials may range from works of genius to foolish ramblings; and it is also possible to easily create spoof sites that are designed to misinform --such as posting "translations of the secret correspondence between Durkheim and Marx"!



In some fields, such as computer science, information science, and information systems, it is now routine for conference organizers to create a web site that describes the conference organization, and includes calls for papers, as well as descriptions of the conference facilities, and links to travel guides for the meeting location. Some workshop and conference organizers go much farther, by posting the schedule of papers/presentations, and short or extended abstracts as the conference program takes shape. Sociologists are developing a similar practice (see for example, the materials for a 1996 conference on the actual and potential impact of Georg Simmel on contemporary sociology at http://socsci.colorado.edu/simmel/).

Some workshop organizers post whole position papers. But the practice of posting whole papers is more complicated and controversial since conference organizers do not want to dilute attendance, and there is concern that some publishers are treating web publishing as a form of prior publication. I have found conference web sites to be helpful in learning about work presented at conferences that I can't attend; and also helpful in selecting between conferences by being able to scrutinize the evolving programs.

Conferences are complex social arenas for meeting old friends, making new acquaintances, tuning in to gossip of interest, hearing debates, and doing various kinds of professional business. The informational dynamics of today's Internet emphasizes highly focussed and purposive communication, while the social dynamics of conferencing rests, in part, on serendipitous hallway and mealtime conversations and social groupings. In short, conference web sites -- even with more elaborate realtime multimedia are unlikely to substitute for the social vitality of conferences. But they can amplify a conferences' role in supporting certain kinds of focussed scholarly communication -- for potential attendees, for participants, and for scholars and students who locate a documents months or even a few years after the conference has passed. Probably the greatest differential advantage of such web uses are not to insiders in tight knit specialty areas, but to the rest of us.


Scholarly practices for sharing manuscripts prior to formal publication varies greatly across the disciplines. For example, many humanists share a manuscript with a few carefully selected colleagues; experimental biologists routinely share preprints with colleagues in several dozen labs that do closely related work; and computer scientists publish preprints in a technical reports series organized by their departments or laboratories.

Researchers in some of the fields with strongly institutionalized forms of preprint publication, and high levels of extramural funding, have begun to organize searchable corpuses of preprints on the Internet. One of the more elaborate organizations of searchable abstracts and downloadable article preprints is that of the high energy physics community (as well as some other branches of physics and mathematics) hosted at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (see http://xxx.lanl.gov). Computer Scientists have organized a searchable index of the technical report series of over 70 major academic computer science departments in North America and Western Europe -- the Networked Computer Science Technical Reports Library (http://www.ncstrl.org/Dienst/htdocs/Info).

Few sociologists participate in institutionally organized arrangements for sharing printed pre-prints or working papers, although many sociologists share their working manuscripts and preprints informally with selected colleagues. Those sociologists, like David Zaret, who want to make these documents in electronic form, do so on their own web pages.

Scholars are also finding that the WWW can be useful for increasing the readership of their published work. For example, Howie Becker has organized his WWW page ("http://weber.u.washington.edu/~hbecker/) to include articles that he has published in an eclectic set of specialty journals and books. Anyone interested in following Becker's writing would not have been likely to locate many of these articles by relying upon disciplinary journal indices, such as Sociofile.

Electronic Journals: Tables of Contents and Abstracts Indices

Some editors of journals and books are creating on-line archives of tables of contents and abstracts that may be browsed or searched. For example, the Annual Review of Sociology has organized the last 12 years of tables of contents and the last several years of abstracts for online review (http://www.annurev.org/soc/home.htm). However, the full text of materials are available in paper form and readers must obtain them via routine means. These decentralized indices are more cumbersome for comprehensive searching than agglomerated indices such as Sociofile; but they allow more convenient browsing of specific publications. In addition, they may offer other kinds of additional value. For example, the editors of Sociological Methodology (http://weber.u.washington.edu/~socmeth2/) offer abstracts and free copies of the software that authors mention in their book chapters.

There are a huge variety of ways to organize electronic publications or electronic supplements to paper publications. Journal editors and others who are interested in expanding the range of materials in electronic formats could usefully examine a the various strategies tried in other fields. For example, there is a huge collection of medical and bio-science journals that illustrate various electronic formats collected on MedWeb (http://www.gen.emory.edu/MEDWEB/alphakey/Electronic_publications.html). There is an interesting set of electronic versions of paper science journals, including Science and the Journal of Biological Chemistry, that are distributed by the Highwire Press at http://highwire.stanford.edu

Electronic Journals

The distribution of a journal's full text is a major next step in using the Internet to leverage scholarly communication. We will define an electronic journal (e-journal) as one which is distributed to most of its primary subscribers in electronic form. In contrast, a paper journal (p-journal) is one that is distributed primarily in paper form. In this view, the Electronic Journal of Sociology and Online Sociological Research are e-journals, since they are not primarily distributed in a printed version, even though some readers may create private hard copies. In contrast, Science is (today) a p-journal, since it is primarily distributed as a paper journal. The number of scholarly e-journals is growing annually and includes fields from theoretical computer science to medieval literature, and some scholars have learned of new results or studies more rapidly by using electronic media.

When university librarians provide them to their clients, they link them to library web pages and the journals are not yet well integrated into central collections and local serials catalogs. Nor are they (yet) indexed in the Science Citation Index (with the exception of the Journal of Current Clinical Trials) or Social Science Citation indices, or in abstracting services such as Sociological Abstracts or Sociofile. There are serious questions about what a library should deliver when a client requests an article from an e-journal -- a printout, a file, or a URL, for example.

With a few exceptions, e-journals circulate in a kind of ghostly netherworld of academic publishing. While some academics project the future of vital scholarly communication onto e-journals, relatively few scholars read them routinely. Established scholars in strong universities have built their careers through a paper publication system that serves them well enough, and it is hard to change institutions from the periphery.

In principle, the choice of paper and electronic media need not influence the scholarly quality of a book or journal. But paper and electronic media do have significantly different material properties, and that influences some of their social properties. It is usually easier to transform an electronic document into a paper form, than vice versa. In practice, paper and electronic formats have complementary virtues and vices. A key point is that most scholarly documents that start in electronic form will end up in paper form sooner or later. Readers may scan articles on-line, but are likely to download them for sustained reading. They may like having both paper versions for reading in an easy chair, and an electronic version to annotate and to more readily excerpt for other purposes. When authors, publishers and readers (and their assistants) transform electronic documents into paper (and sometimes back again) is part of the story of electronic publishing, but the sociology of e-journals is beyond the scope of this review (see Fuller, 1995; Kling and Covi, 1995).

The Internet and Books

It is hard for most people to carefully read a 6,000 word scholarly article or book-chapter on-line. It is even harder for people to carefully read whole books on-line. Even so, the Internet is proving to be a helpful medium in locating appropriate books. Both academic and trade publishers are mounting WWW sites with searchable book lists, tables of contents and brief book descriptions. Amazon, an online bookstore (http://www.amazon.com) claims to list over 1 million titles, and to be able to rapidly ship most books in print. Amazon also invites comments about books from readers and authors.


Some sociologists are finding the Internet to be a useful medium for sharing (or at least accessing) sets of data that have been collected by conventional means. It is much harder to effectively use the Internet as a medium for systematically collecting data, although some sociologists are exploring these opportunities.

Before the popularization of the WWW, researchers who wanted to retrieve data files from other computers used a relatively cumbersome command language called ftp (file transfer protocol). Web browsers are able to effectively interpret ftp commands so that transferring files is usually much simplified. Two entry points to collections of datasets of sociological interest are the Selected Sociology and Demography Resources on the Web (http://www.lib.umich.edu/libhome/rrs/classes/socdemog.html) with links to census and demographic datasets worldwide (and others social science sources), and a set of links to social science datasets hosted by Western Washington University (http://www.wwu.edu/~socdept/Data.html). Federal agencies, such as the U.S. Census Bureau (http://www.census.gov)and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (http://www.bls.gov/datahome.htm), have taken a lead in publishing various searchable databases, popular data tables and downloadable datasets on the WWW. Sociologists who find value in official statistics are likely to find this practice expanding across Federal and state agencies in the coming years.

Sociologists are also sharing software via the Internet, and not all of the software supports quantitative analysis. For example, sociologist David Heise uses his Indiana University homepage (http://php.ucs.indiana.edu/~heise) to publish some articles about qualitative data analysis, and to provide downloadable software, such as ETHNO.

Some social scientists have used the Internet for collecting original data. The Internet has been helpful for those who are specially interested in studying social behavior on computer networks (e.g., Herring, 1993; Kiesler, in press; Smith & Kollock, in press). Some researchers have collected and analyzed the full text of discussions from LISTSERVs and other electronic forums. The Internet seems to offer the possibility of inexpensive ethnography, but the access is to limited verbal accounts; there are fewer "reality checks" about the veracity of participants self-presentations. In addition, there are ethical issues of disclosure and voluntary participation when researchers collect postings from newsgroups (See the 1995 issue of The Information Society devoted to this topic that was edited by sociologist Jim Thomas).

Survey researchers have a harder time using the Internet to collect original data because it is hard to define populations and to identify systematic samples. Much depends upon one's research questions: it may be possible to use computer networks to reach known populations that are online -- such as the students on a campus where all of the students have email accounts or the members of a specific organization whose members are electronically connected. There is not, as yet, an effective analog to random digit dialing that will produce a useful group of email addresses of URLs. It is however, possible to use the Internet for collecting some kinds of institutional data, such as studies that use official documents as parts of a data set.


The Internet enriches the resources available for sociologists as teachers. It is now remarkably easy to share and to locate syllabi and other instructional materials. There are at least several hundred syllabi for sociology classes published on the WWW. Syllabi have been relatively private documents that faculty have usually been willing to share, but which are rarely published. Faculty who are trying to develop new courses, update courses, or track trends in teaching can find some of these syllabi to be useful. I have found some syllabi useful for both their content, and also the way that faculty characterize course goals and student projects. Syllabi, like any other genre of document, vary in quality and relevance for specific purposes. However, the WWW does offer a workable way for an instructor who is revising a syllabus this summer to learn about some alternative course structuring ideas, even though the faculty who posted the syllabi may be on vacation or not even known to the searcher.

Some faculty have gone further than posting their syllabi; one can find some lecture topic outlines and even detailed lecture notes, as well as other instructional materials. These publishing efforts can take significant time and some skill, so they are relatively rare. But some instructors undertake these projects to experiment with the medium, to reach out to their off-campus students, or simply to publicize their courses. As universities encourage some of their faculty to explore "distance education," we can expect to see more instructional resources on-line. However, producing and updating a collection of class materials that is spread over dozens and even hundreds of WWW pages takes immense amounts of time, some skill and notable computing resources.

In addition, some authors use the WWW to publish instructor's guides to paper books and to update dynamic resources. For example, in 1996 Academic Press published my 950 page paper anthology, Computerization and Controversy. Tom Jewett and I developed a small instructional guide to help prospective faculty teach courses about the social issues of computerization (Jewett and Kling, 1996) that uses examples from the anthology, but that can also help faculty who use other books instead. Academic Press distributes a paperbound version of our guide for prospective adopters in North America. Tom translated the guide into an electronic format so that it could be available to anyone, regardless of their interest in the anthology, and added links to over 35 related course syllabi and a growing set of WWW links to related sources http://www.engr.csulb.edu/~jewett/social/.

The Internet also offers opportunities to extend classroom discussions into on-line forums outside of class. Many instructors have set up LISTSERVs for their classes, and WWW-based forums that organize discussions by topic threads are becoming popular. While there are technological limitations to any of these arrangements (including limited student access in some cases), social practices play a major role in the extent to which electronic forums can help enrich course discussions. The "same technology" can facilitate or undermine discussion, depending upon key choices about such matters as the size of on-line groups, the role of moderators and seed questions, the frequency and number of required postings, and the extent to which some postings must respond to previous comments or threads.

One important possibility opened by electronic discussions is the possibility of linking students in different social locations in a set of discussions. For example, instructors teaching a course on marriage and family in rural and urban universities in different regions can help expand their students' worldviews by organizing cross-class electronic forums. These ventures require relatively high levels of coordination between instructors about their readings and timing of discussions, but can expand the social worlds of many students, especially undergraduates.


Most of this review has examined some ways that Internet as a communication medium can enhance teaching, research and professional development in sociology. Since millions of people use the Internet and other computer networks, it has also become a subject of serious systematic sociological investigation. Social Informatics is a new label that refers to social studies of computerization, including the shaping and use of the Internet (http://www.slis.indiana.edu/SI).

One set of studies examines the social dynamics of group formation and communication via computer networks (e.g. Kiesler, in press; Kling, 1996b; Smith and Kollock, in press; Wellman, 1996). Another line of research examines the ways that people and organizations structure work with computer networks (e.g., Fuller, 1995; Kling & Jewett, 1994; Kling, 1996a). There is a significant material foundation to creating and managing electronic documents that requires various kinds of skills, equipment, space, and time (Fuller, 1995). Professional specialists who work in electronic information environments often renegotiate boundaries of control and identity. The Internet, and associated media, are hardly frictionless neutral media for the careful sociologist of work, occupations or organizations (see Attewell, 1996).

These research streams offer interesting substantive research opportunities for sociologists to advance our understanding of the Internet as a socially structured medium. In addition, this research literature can suggest pedagogical possibilities for sociologists who want to offer new courses about "the sociology of the Internet" to a new generation of students. Such courses can be trivialized into "how to use the Internet" technique courses or emphasize cultural studies of identity online. But they also offer opportunities for students to examine issues of class and power, ethnicity and gender, social movements, and shifting professional boundaries in new media. One can find suggestive syllabi and links to appropriate research materials on the Social Informatics Home page (http://www.slis.indiana.edu/SI).


This review of the Internet has reflected my bias in viewing it as a medium that offers rich possibilities to enhance serious research and teaching by diverse sociologists. I have also suggested that curious sociologists can learn about interesting ways to organize the Internet for their advantage by examining the practices of diverse other disciplines, rather than restricting their attention to sociological or even other social science forums.

Underlying the various electronic forums is a form of work organization. One interesting social model has been developed by faculty who study information systems. Their major web forum, ISWORLD, is divided into major sections for topics such as research, conferences, and teaching; and each of these is subdivided further (http://www.isworld.org/isworld.html). The huge corpus of web links referring to courses, ever-changing conferences, research papers, teaching cases, is developed and maintained through a volunteer organization in which individuals or departments bid for the opportunity to maintain a topical portion of the corpus. Professional reputations are at stake if a section degrades in quality or reliability. ISWORLD's social organization gives professional recognition to section maintainers reduces the chances of finding broken links, as I have found for some sociological sources, even the ASA journal Teaching Sociology.

A concern for contingency also runs through this review. Many enthusiasts who have hyped the Internet rarely acknowledge its numerous technological frailties and social limitations. But those sociologists who react against the hype of the Internet and see it only as a frivolous medium or one that is overloaded with materials of questionable quality are missing interesting and important possibilities.

Internet services are neither simple nor stable. The WWW is an interesting example, since network overloads can turn it from a fast information system into a congested "World Wide Wait" at various times of the day. URLs can also be unstable: I would not be surprised if 30% of the URLs listed in this article change in a year or two. On the other hand, the amount of high quality materials relevant to scholars is also growing rapidly. More sociological journals are likely to add searchable abstracts (and perhaps the full text of older articles) in the next two years; more faculty will post rich corpuses of teaching materials, and so on.

In practice, we know little about the relative importance of Internet services compared with more traditional communication media. I have glossed serious questions about the magnitude of Internet usages with easy terms, such as "some sociologists." One can find WWW pages for most of the major sociology departments and many minor ones. But relatively few faculty -- in sociology and in other disciplines -- actively maintain WWW pages with a wide array of articles and up-to-date instructional materials. This is a relatively early period in the use of the Internet to support serious sociological work. Enthusiasts who focus on the declining unit costs and rising advantages of new technologies will see signs of rapid growth in the kinds of uses and the ways that these can help vitalize sociology; institutional analysts will anticipate much slower rates of change.

Sociologists who wish to become more effective at using the Internet can turn to a variety of resources. Departments with graduate students might designate one or two to act as departmental-wide Internet consultants to help faculty (and other graduate students) configure computer equipment, find on-line materials of sociological value, and also learn specific technical skills.

Some sociologists would also be interested in learning about the technological underpinnings of the Internet and some of the seemingly endless jargon. Of the numerous books, I have found Steele's (1996) volume with high quality colorful drawings and short low-tech explanations to stand out. In addition, the WWW is a good repository of tutorial articles and reviews about Internet services and emerging services; Yahoo's subsection on "computers and the Internet" is a good general starting point, although the staffs of academic computing centers sometimes have organized link collections for locally used software. The staff of academic computing service departments and/or campus libraries routinely offer courses and workshops about Internet services. Many of these services will organize special workshops for the faculty and/or graduate students of sociology departments, by request.

The Social Science Computer Review, a quarterly journal, devotes its Spring issue to computational resources (including Internet resources) in specific disciplines (http://hcl.chass.ncsu.edu/sscore). It also publishes diverse social science studies about the Internet and the computerization of society.

The Internet offers important opportunities to strengthen sociology as a discipline. Despite some technophiles' fervid advocacy of the position that "the Internet is free," any sociologist or work will quickly see how working the Internet, and having the Internet work for sociology is far from free. But with modest efforts, more sociologists can organize electronic forums to help energize sociological work.

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Attewell, Paul. "Information Technology and the Productivity Challenge" in Kling 1996c.

Crawford, Walt. 1994. "And Only Half of What You See, Part III: I Heard It Through the Internet." The Public-Access Computer Systems Review 5(6): 27-30. (also in Kling, 1996c).

Fuller, Steve. (1995). CyberPlatonism: An Inadequate Constitution For the Republic of Science. The Information Society 11(4):293-303.

Harrison, Teresa M. and Timothy Stephen. 1996. Computer Networking and Scholarly Communication in the Twenty-First-Century. Albany, NY: the State University of New York Press.

Herring, Susan C. 1993. "Gender and Democracy in Computer-mediated Communication." Electronic Journal of Communication/REC 3(2). reprinted in Kling, 1996c.

Jewett, Tom and Rob Kling. 1996. Teaching Social Issues of Computing. San Diego, Academic Press. (http://www.engr.csulb.edu/~jewett/social/)

Kiesler, Sara. (in press) (Ed.) Research Milestones on the Information Highway: Social Scientists Look at Electronic Communication, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Kling, Rob and Lisa Covi. 1995. "Electronic Journals and Legitimate Media in the Systems of Scholarly Communication." The Information Society. 11(4)(1995):261-271.
Kling, Rob. 1996a. "Computerization at Work" in Kling, 1996c.

Kling, Rob. 1996b. "Social Relations in Electronic Forums: Hangouts, Salons, Workplaces and Communities." in Kling, 1996c.

Kling, Rob. 1996c. Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices. (2nd edition.). San Diego, Academic Press. http://www.slis.indiana.edu/kling/cc/index.html

Kling, Rob and Tom Jewett. 1994. "The Social Design of Worklife With Computers and Networks: An Open Natural Systems Perspective." Advances in Computers, vol 39. Orlando, Fl:Academic Press (pp 239-293) http://www.slis.indiana.edu/kling/pubs/worknt.html

Peek, Robin and Gregory Newby (Eds). 1996. Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic Frontier. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Smith, Marc and Peter Kollock. (in press). Communities in Cyberspace. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Steele, Heidi. 1996. How to Use the Internet (3rd Ed). Ziff-Davis Press. Emeryville, Ca.

Thomas, Jim. 1995. A Debate About the Ethics of Fair Practices for Collecting Social Science Data in Cyberspace, The Information Society. 12(2).

Wellman, Barry, Janet Salaff, Dimitrina Dimitrova, Laura Garton, Milena Gulia and Caroline Haythornthwaite. 1996. "Computer Networks as Social Networks: Virtual Community, Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Telework." Annual Review of Sociology 22: 213-38.

Zaret, David (forthcoming) "Neither Faith nor Commerce: Printing and the Unintended Origins of English Public Opinion." in Real Civil Societies: The Dilemmas of Institutionalization, Jeffrey Alexander (Ed.). London: Sage Publications. (http://php.ucs.indiana.edu/~zaret/sage.htm)

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