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date: 04 December 2020

Internet Studies: The Foundations of a Transformative Field

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter offers a broad overview of Internet Studies. The key challenge of Internet Studies research focuses on the discovery of concepts, models, theories, and related frameworks that give a more empirically valid understanding of the factors influencing the Internet and its societal implications. The Internet can be used in everyday life and work, and in a converging media world. The study of Internet policy and regulation has focused on issues of freedom of expression, privacy, and ‘Internet governance’. Then, the chapter briefly discusses the issue on the definition of the Internet, and how its resolution is connected to how narrowly or broadly people draw the history of the Internet and the boundaries of the field. It is observed that studies of politics, relationships, news, and other phenomena are exploring the Internet within a larger ecology of information and communications technologies (ICTs). Also, the Internet and related ICTs are globally important.

Keywords: Internet Studies, everyday life, work, media world, Internet policy, Internet governance, ICTs

The rise of Internet Studies as a new field of global significance

Across the world, people from almost all sectors of society are using the Internet for a variety of purposes, from everyday life and work to local, strategic, and global issues.1 The diverse sets of practices, beliefs, and attitudes evolving around these uses have brought to prominence a mounting number of key related issues, such as the future of privacy, freedom of expression, the quality of the news and entertainment, and the nature and distribution of employment. This has driven the growth of “Internet Studies” as an important new field of research and teaching.

Internet Studies draws on multiple disciplines covering political, economic, cultural, psychological, and other social factors as well as computer studies, information sciences, and engineering. The emergence of this field has given a focus to theory and research on questions concerning social and cultural implications of the widespread diffusion and diverse uses of the Internet, the Web, and related information and communication technologies (ICTs). The field has grown in step with the rising significance of the technology for its expanding global user community. It has offered a framework within which academics from the many related disciplines have joined with interdisciplinary scholars to form growing communities of researchers. These are building new foundations and reshaping some traditional disciplines to address the rapidly changing dynamics of networked societies and the institutions and individuals within them.

(p. 2) Meta-research on academic publications provides strong indicators of this burgeoning field. For instance, Tai-Quan (Winson) Peng and others (2011) found that academic output on the Internet in refereed journals increased dramatically over the first decade of the twenty-first century.2 In this period, Internet-related studies became more prominent than work on such topics as culture, the economy, politics, or globalization, albeit less prominent than research on the environment or society.

However, the field is so diverse that it is difficult to define its scope. This is exacerbated by the pace of change in research, which mirrors the rapidly evolving technologies of the Internet. It is reasonably concentrated around key topics, such as societal implications, but more specializations are continuously being formed, such as around social networking (Peng et al. 2011; Rice and Fuller Chapter 17).

The increasing status of this new field is reflected also in the emergence of efforts to pull the field together and to define its scope, such as through the development of a number of compendiums and handbooks (Hunsinger et al. 2010; and Consalvo and Ess 2011), including the present volume, and an increasing number of academic symposia and special issues of journals,3 as well as a growing number of research centers and programs.4 This handbook builds on these foundations to provide authoritative perspectives on key areas of Internet Studies and to offer direction on the further development of research areas within this rapidly advancing field.

The broad scope of the field

Internet researchers draw from a wide array of theoretical and empirical perspectives to explore the ways in which people have shaped the Internet and its growing array of social implications in a wide variety of contexts. Studies range across three distinguishable but closely interrelated objects of study—the central focus of what research seeks to explain. These can be loosely categorized as:

  • technology, including its design and development;

  • use, including patterns of use and non-use across different kinds of users and producers in various contexts; and

  • policy, referring to law and policy in such areas as privacy and freedom of expression that shape the design or use of the Internet, as well as emerging institutions and processes of Internet governance (Table 1.1). (p. 3)

Table 1.1 The multiple foci of Internet Studies


Use (in Context)



Who shapes the design and implementation of the Internet?

Who uses (does not use) the Internet and in what ways?

Who shapes law and policy of relevance to the Internet?


What goals and objectives are driving choices in design and development?

Why do individuals, groups, communities, regions (not) use the Internet in particular ways in specific contexts?

What are the goals and objectives shaping relevant legal and policy choices governing the Internet?

With what implications for whom?

Do technical designs bias patterns of use and impacts?

Do patterns of use support different political, economic, or social aims or groups?

How is the evolving ecology of law and policy shaping the design and use of the Internet?

With respect to each category, Internet Studies raises three main types of question:5

  • Who shapes the Internet?

  • Why? What structures, cultures, aims, and objectives are shaping choices?

  • With what implications for whom?

Table 1.1 provides a more systematic framework relating objects of Internet Studies to these general issues in order to help capture the broad scope of the field.6

Technology as an object of study

The design and implementation of the underlying technology of the Internet, including the personal computer, Web, browsers, wireless networks, social networking sites, applications, and infrastructure, is a common object of study. The promise tied to the Internet as a technical innovation, which would have systematic implications for who gets access to what information, people, services, and technologies, has been one of the enduring aspects of this field. This “futures” dimension of the literature can engender much hyperbole, but also inform expectations about the implications of technological change. Visionary forecasts were prominent even before the Internet was launched, and they continue with each new stage of the Internet's design and diffusion, including developing visions of an “Internet of things,” “big data,” and other emerging technologies.

(p. 4) Students of Internet Studies most often assume that the Internet is distinctly different from earlier technologies for communication and information access and that the technology matters, making a difference that merits particular attention in theory and research (Jones 1998; Schroeder 2007). This is most often tied to the Internet and Web-enabling networks that move beyond one-to-many broadcasting, or person-to-person telecommunication, to enable users and producers to create these and other networks of access to resources, such as many-to-one and many-to-many.

For example, Ithiel de Sola Pool (1983) conceived of computer-mediated communication as inherently a “technology of freedom.” Jonathan Zittrain (2008) argued that appliances, such as tablets, would undermine the “generativity” of the PC-based Internet. These expectations of technical designs making a difference do not imply a blind acceptance of a technologically deterministic stance within the field, although theoretical perspectives that emphasize technological rather than social aspects often provide baselines for researchers who challenge assumptions about the Internet and its societal implications. Social researchers generally reject technologically deterministic notions, questioning rational forecasts of impacts that are based on extrapolations tied to features of the technology, such as its global reach or democratic implications.

The central challenge of Internet Studies research revolves around the discovery of concepts, models, theories, and related frameworks that provide a more empirically valid understanding of the factors shaping the Internet and its societal implications. These include frameworks based on the social shaping of technology—such as social informatics, the ecology of games, and network theories, but also science and technology studies, such as within the social construction of technology, actor network theory, and infrastructure studies, as well as broad conceptions of the cultures of the Internet (Castells 2001: 36–61), such as the “hacker ethic” (Himanen 2001)—as one illustration of a growing community of scholars interested in cultural attitudes about technology,7 and the rise of computerization, open source, and other social movements shaping the Internet (Elliott and Kraemer 2008).

Use as the object of study

Another common object of study is use, focusing on the patterns of (non)use across different ICTs, social, and institutional contexts, such as households, schools, businesses, and cyber cafes, as well as on the move (Howard and Jones 2004). Much of the empirical work on the Internet does not assume that features of the technology will provide an adequate basis for understanding how it will be used and with what effect. On the contrary, studies of Internet use most often assume that users will employ—and tend to “domesticate”—technologies in some unanticipated and unintended ways that could have major societal consequences (Haddon 2006). However, these patterns of use could (p. 5) vary across different institutional contexts and across different local and national legal and cultural contexts. This book is structured around three general categories of use contexts: everyday life, work, and use in a converging media world.

Use in everyday life: living in a network society

Since the household has been one of the primary social contexts of use, a great deal of empirical research focuses on how individuals and households use the Internet, much in the tradition of mass media research around newspapers, radio, and television. A number of key empirical studies in the field are based on studies of the Internet in everyday life (Wellman and Haythornthwaite 2002; Rainie and Wellman 2012), including work on the World Internet Project that also takes a comparative, cross-national perspective (Cardoso et al. Chapter 11). And use studies can focus on many different technologies, from email to blogs to social networking sites. Unlike the study of mass media, the study of Internet users also considers them not only as consumers, but also as producers of content. The potential for users to strategically “reconfigure access” to information, people, services, and technologies, and to produce as well as consume content are the defining aspects of the Internet and related ICTs (Dutton 1999, 2005).

Studies of patterns of access and use of the Internet and related ICTs often extend to study of skills (Hargittai and Hsieh Chapter 7) and the values, attitudes, and beliefs of users, such as acceptance and trust (Connolly Chapter 13). Social issues that arise in this context include (in)equality in access, creating digital divides to infrastructures and information resources, as well as implications for social relationships, community, participation, identity, and popular culture. Users can choose to open themselves to a greater plurality of messages, or create an “echo chamber” to reinforce their preconceived views (Sunstein 2009). They can create content, be more passive consumers, or create in a diverse range of activities that fall short of the full potential that the Internet enables (van Dijck 2009). Competing expectations over such patterns of choices, constraints on these choices, and their social implications, are among the big questions driving Internet Studies.

Use in work and organizations: creating and working in a network economy

Another varied range of social contexts includes the many activities and institutions involved with creating and working in a network economy. This would include studies of the Internet in the workplace, and in business and commerce, including implications for employment, online commerce, and new business models, but also government, including public services, productivity, responsiveness, e-regulation, and structural change tied to governments on the Web. Other more specific institutional contexts include studies of the Internet in science and research, and in education and learning more generally, such as related to informal and formal patterns of learning. Many empirical studies of the implications of computing and telecommunications began in organizational settings, where computing was most intensively applied before the personal computer, but researchers focused on work, and the management and cultures of (p. 6) organizations have been quick to reorient research around the Internet and such related issues as e-commerce and new business models that extend beyond the formal boundaries of the organization (Sproull et al. 2007).

Media use: (dis)empowering communication and influence

Across households and other institutional settings, such as in politics and society at large, the Internet raises issues over communication, power, and influence in a converging media world. This involves processes explicitly tied to communication and the media, including the press, online news, and new media, but also communication in other arenas, such as campaigns and elections, including remote Internet voting, use by parties and candidates, with implications for such issues as turnout in elections and the effectiveness of campaign messages. Likewise, democracy and democratic processes are an issue within government, including the use of networks by institutions, such as for online consultation, but also the Internet's use by networked individuals, such as in grassroots movements or in the potential for more democratic social accountability across many institutional arenas (Dutton 2009).

Policy as the object of study

A third major object of study has been on law and policies governing the design and use of the Internet, as well as the institutions and processes shaping Internet governance. One of the most influential works in this area was Lawrence Lessig's (1999) discussion of how copyright law has shaped code, the design of technologies, in ways that further enforce the law. That said, the area of copyright has illuminated the many ways in which neither law nor technology necessarily determine user behavior (David Chapter 22).

Early in the study of the Internet, policy research was not as prominent as it has become, in part because the future of the Internet was uncertain. Early work was more focused on policy around national and global infrastructures aimed at stimulating development (Gore 1991; Kubicek et al. 1997). As the Internet has become far more central to everyday life and work, and perceived to be critical in a variety of major events, such as the Arab Springs, the study of Internet policy and regulation has become increasingly in focus, such as on issues of freedom of expression and privacy, but also on “Internet governance,” examining the institutions and processes of governing key attributes of the Internet.

Outside the field of Internet Studies and society

Many people interested in aspects of the Internet are not necessarily engaged in Internet Studies within the social and behavioral sciences as defined by this handbook. For example, a computer scientist might primarily be interested in the design of particular technical aspects of this network of networks, such as the design of an integrated electronic circuit (p. 7) (chip), without an academic interest in how this technical artifact has been influenced by an array of social and economic considerations, or how it might influence larger technical systems and their societal implications. Also, social scientists from many disciplinary perspectives might feel that those matters of interest to them can be explained by factors other than the Internet or technology more broadly, such as through their particular social, economic, or political perspective. These are entirely legitimate disciplinary positions that help to define the boundaries, identity, and future of the field.

The scope of this handbook

These are some of the most central areas of Internet Studies in the social and behavioral sciences, and they have provided the basis for organizing the contributions to this handbook. Most closely related to the present volume are two previous handbooks devoted to Internet research (Hunsinger et al. 2010) or Internet Studies (Consalvo and Ess 2011). The Oxford Handbook seeks to complement and update these volumes, most of whose constituting chapters are centrally concerned with presenting research on a wide range of specific topics by leading Internet researchers. The Oxford Handbook's authors have focused on how research in their particular area of interest has been pursued, and have provided direction for future research. They deal primarily with Internet Studies rather than the findings of research on the Internet, although key findings and themes of the research are an inescapable added value of this volume.

This handbook does not focus on work largely outside the social and behavioral sciences, such as work purely within the computer sciences and engineering or the health and medical sciences. Moreover, this book does not give equal weight to the full range of Internet-related studies, in order to avoid duplication with other published work. For instance, there have been collections on closely related topics, such as new media (Lievrouw and Livingstone 2006), psychological aspects of the Internet (Joinson et al. 2007), on information and communication technologies (Mansell et al. 2007), and on the Internet and politics (Chadwick and Howard 2008), all of which are topics covered in this handbook to a lesser extent than they might otherwise merit. Likewise, other collections have focused on online research methods (Jones 1999; Fielding et al. 2008) and digital research innovations (Dutton and Jeffreys 2010), permitting this handbook to be primarily tied to studies of the Internet and its implications.

Competing perspectives on the field

Over the years, Internet Studies has been variously referred to as a fashionable topic, a multidisciplinary field, subfield of other disciplines, or a discipline in its own right (McLemee 2001; Baym 2005). Talk of the field as a fad has virtually disappeared with the Internet's global diffusion. Likewise, discussion within the Internet research (p. 8) community generally avoids any claim that Internet Studies is a discipline, in favor of defining it as an “interdisciplinary” or “multidisciplinary” field, particularly in light of its fragmentation across so many existing departments, disciplines, and newly formed journals (Baym 2005).

Interdisciplinary entails a recognition that research is focused most often on addressing problems, such as understanding the social implications of the Internet, like narrowing digital divides, rather than advancing a particular theory. Studies often draw from more than one disciplinary perspective, and are often anchored in multidisciplinary teams. In fact, many problems in Internet Studies require an interdisciplinary approach. For example, it would be difficult to study anonymity online without a strong background in technology as well as in the social sciences, law, and policy. Even here, some prefer to speak of “multidisciplinary” research to emphasize the degree to which studies are anchored in a variety of theories and research methods in particular disciplines, although these inter- and multidisciplinary distinctions are seldom fundamental, and the terms are used almost interchangeably.

There are other developing areas of consensus within this field, such as a move away from any strict duality between the old and the new or the real and the virtual (Consalvo and Ess 2011: 4; Woolgar 2002), as well as an evolving set of major questions, such as defined in Table 1.1 (Consalvo and Ess 2011: 4–5). Likewise, there is a general agreement that research should question taken-for-granted assumptions about the Internet and its societal implications.

Nevertheless, a lack of consensus characterizes the field on a number of issues (Schrum 2005). It is not due to major cleavages within the field, as much as to the youth, rapid development, and diversity of Internet Studies. One of the more pivotal differences of perspective surrounds the very definition of the Internet. The next section briefly discusses this issue and how its resolution is related to how narrowly or broadly people draw the history of the Internet as well as the boundaries of the field.

Defining the Internet—narrow and broad conceptions

As an interdisciplinary field, Internet Studies does not have an orthodox approach. Moreover, the culture of this developing field is highly individualistic, as reflected in its evolution as a horizontal network of individuals working across geographical and institutional boundaries, as opposed to a more highly ordered institutional structure, such as a Royal Society. For example, ambiguity surrounds many terms across Internet studies, with scholars offering various specific definitions.

This includes the very definition of the “Internet,” as well as rather trivial debates like whether or not to have an initial capital letter for “Internet” and “Web.” You will see variation within this volume on how narrowly or broadly the Internet and technology are defined. Some authors, such as Tim Unwin (Chapter 25) endorse a narrow, technical definition of the Internet as a specific set of artifacts, protocols, or standards that enable computers to be networked—Transmission Control Protocol/Internet (p. 9) Protocol (TCP/IP),8 while others, such as Christian Sandvig (Chapter 5) endorse a growing ecology of related technical and social innovations within their conception of the Internet.

A focus on the underlying technical infrastructure is correct up to a point, as these protocols have been central to the development of the Internet. However, from a social scientific perspective, they can be too limited to define the Internet. At the broadest level, even in the earliest years of the ARPANET, the Internet was conceptualized as a “network of networks” (Craven and Wellman 1973). This broad definition captures the central role of this technology in linking networks of computers in ways that they can share resources, such as information. Also it is compatible with broadly accepted definitions of technology as encompassing not just specific technological artifacts, but also the people who use and are affected by it, as well as other equipment, techniques, and skills. All these elements are critical resources in this network of networks. Moreover, it is a definition that is open to the Internet's constant state of being reinvented through a cascading array of innovations in technologies and uses.

The Internet's history

There is much debate about the history of the Internet in terms of the relative contributions of different innovations, individuals, groups, organizations, and technical advances (Abbate 1999; Castells 2001; Leiner et al. 2005). This history is likely to grow in importance and become more textured as the Internet becomes an even more central resource. No serious student of the Internet's history would subscribe to the notion of a single inventor jump-starting a predetermined trajectory of development. The reality is far more complex, as the Internet emerged through the interaction of multiple advances across different sectors, made by a variety of individuals, groups, and organizations with different objectives (Dutton et al. 2012).

Many technical developments have shaped the Internet of the twenty-first century. For example, the social role of the Internet has been dramatically affected in the earliest years by enabling email, and later by the emergence of the Web. Tim Berners-Lee and colleagues at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) in Switzerland, invented the World Wide Web from a set of networking projects (Berners-Lee 1999). As important as this development was, the Web's design and cultural ethos was strongly influenced by the open innovation principles at CERN and an earlier conception of “hypertext” inspired by Ted Nelson's (1987) visionary work on the Xanadu project, which in turn drew on Douglas Engelhard's “oN-Line System” (NLS) at Stanford Research Institute that aimed to make computers a more useful tool to help people think and work.

(p. 10) In turn, the significance of the Internet and Web owed much to the development of browsers, such as the Mosaic browser, commercialized as Netscape Navigator, and joined in competition from Windows Explorer and other browsers, which enabled personal computer users to more easily access websites through a graphical user interface (GUI). The later development of the semantic (linked data) Web promises to further enhance the role of the Web, yet the development of mobile applications, for example on smart phones and tablet computers, bypass the Web in some respects, for example by providing more direct links to Internet applications. Similarly, social networking sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, are creating new spaces for interaction that are distinct from the Web and not searchable from outside, and thus revise the structure and function of the Internet. Further emerging developments around face and posture recognition over webcams, voice search, and brain–machine interfaces could transform human computer interaction in ways that could enable a step jump in access to the Internet, for example by older people, or usher in a truly Orwellian future of surveillance.

These are just some of the many ways in which a cascading array of innovations in search, video, voice, social networking, and more, are constantly evolving the ecology of the Internet, the Web, and related ICTs, and their implications for society. Throughout their history, the Internet and the Web continued to be shaped by contributions from a vast and growing number of users around the world, pursuing a multiplicity of aims and objectives, ranging from the commercial to the public-spirited, many of which are only indirectly tied to the Internet but which nevertheless shape its uses and implications. In such ways the Internet, as defined by the TCP/IP standards, has had a rich pre- and post-history of developments and visions in computing and telecommunications. It unfolded from the choices of a large number of players in intertwined academic, commercial, technical, industrial, and other arenas making decisions about how specific aspects of the Internet should be designed, developed, used, or governed (Dutton 2008; Dutton et al. 2012). Each decision met goals and made sense within different arenas, and the interaction between choices combined to create this continually evolving twenty-first-century phenomenon represented by the Internet and a growing array of related ICTs.

Particularistic and synoptic conceptions of Internet Studies

Definitions of the Internet filter down into disagreement between the “lumpers” and the “splitters.” A developing orthodoxy around the origins of Internet Studies, which I will refer to as a particularistic perspective of the splitters, can be juxtaposed with a broader synoptic perspective of the lumpers, which anchors this handbook and places Internet Studies into a more comprehensive view of the study of ICTs.

The particularistic view sees Internet Studies as a development that arose at a specific time, most often pinned to the first conference of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) in 2000 entitled “The State of the Discipline.” This conference was organized through a mailing list that was begun in 1998, and became a landmark for attracting over two hundred participants to Lawrence, Kansas, a college town in the American Midwest (Baym 2005).

(p. 11) This particularistic view was most influentially articulated by Wellman (2004, 2011), who defined three stages of the development of Internet Studies, the third stage of which was marked by this meeting. He argued that the field progressed from an early period of Utopian-dystopian visions that were uninformed by social research, to a second stage characterized by systematic descriptive work, to a final stage of more theoretically informed research.

However, as Wesley Shrum (2005: 273) put it, the idea that the field began or consolidated with the 2000 AoIR Conference is more of an accepted myth, than a reality. Many were conducting research on the Internet and closely related ICTs well prior to this time. The Internet itself predated definition of the field of Internet Studies by decades, and much significant social research on the Internet and related ICTs came well before 2000 (Elton and Carey Chapter 2). In fact, before and throughout the stages described by Wellman, there has been a continuation of Utopian-dystopian punditry, descriptive surveys, and more theoretically driven research. As parsimonious as the particularistic stage theory might be, it is riddled with contradictions and exceptions.

More importantly, by not highlighting its foundations, the particularistic definition can isolate Internet Studies from other research traditions that provide continuity and cumulativeness to a broader field of study. The risk is that a particularistic conception of this field can disconnect Internet Studies from its past, related present, and future, leading a number of leading scholars, such as Rob Kling, to object to the concept of “Internet Studies” on the grounds that it was too narrow (Baym 2005: 231).

This has been answered by the lumpers, who take a more synoptic perspective and link Internet Studies to multidisciplinary streams of research on ICTs that predated the first discussions of Internet Studies. Since conceptualizing information technology in the 1950s, academics have been studying the implications of computing and telecommunications from multiple disciplinary perspectives in ways that feed directly into contemporary studies of the Internet.

Foundations in early research on Information and Communication Technologies

The conceptualization of information technology (IT) can be traced to the 1950s (e.g. Leavitt and Whisler 1958), and visions of a public information utility were prominent in the late 1960s (e.g. Sackman and Nie 1970). Daniel Bell's (1973) work on the information society has been complemented and advanced by Manuel Castells (1996) in conceptualizing a network society, which provides a foundation for Internet studies. Some of the earliest studies of computers and privacy, such as Westin and Baker's (1972) Databanks in a Free Society, remain relevant to ongoing debate over the implications of the Internet for privacy and surveillance (Bennett and Parsons Chapter 23). Howard Rheingold's (1993) seminal work on virtual communities continues to influence Internet research and its frequent focus on communities. Sherry Turkle's (1995) (p. 12) conceptions of the psychological implications of computing, built on the work of Seymour Papert (1980) and Joseph Weizenbaum (1976), and continue to inform work on such issues as identity. These and many other parallel streams of multidisciplinary work have provided foundations for study of the Internet from a synoptic perspective.

In addition, since the early 1970s, a number of interdisciplinary research efforts helped create foundations for Internet Studies. Jacques Vallee and others at the Institute for the Future pioneered behavioral studies of computer-mediated communication,9 as did Murray Turoff and his colleagues, who developed the Emergency Management Information Systems and Reference Index (EMISARI) in 1971, using teletype terminals that linked to a central computer over telephone lines for real time chat, polling, and threaded discussion. These projects enabled some of the first interdisciplinary studies of how social and psychological factors shape the use of computer-mediated communication (Vallee et al. 1974; Hiltz and Turoff 1978). From the mid-1970s, the Irvine Group's study of computers in government, led by Kenneth Kraemer at UC Irvine, developed theoretical perspectives such as “reinforcement politics” (Danziger et al. 1982)—a perspective that remains central to later views on the Internet in politics (van Dijk 2012).

In 1985, the UK's Economic and Social Research Council launched the “Programme on Information and Communication Technologies” (Dutton 1999), which concluded in 1995, but fed into follow-up programs, such as the “Virtual Society?” (Woolgar 2002). Similar efforts to organize the field in the US were led by Lee Sproull and Sara Kiesler who pioneered studies of computer-mediated communication from an organizational studies perspective (Sproull and Kiesler 1991). With support from the Social Science Research Council, they organized colleagues around the concept of “social informatics”—a topic championed by the late Rob Kling (Kling 1991; Kling et al. 2000), a member of the Irvine group.

In parallel, academic institutions began to reconfigure themselves in response to technical and social innovations. In the early 1970s, the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California was among the first communication departments to organize around the new media driven by the prospect of the convergence of computing, telecommunications, and the media (Williams 1982). A similar logic led the library school at Syracuse University to be renamed the School of Information Studies, and was followed by other information schools, such as the University of Michigan in 1996. In 1998, as AoIR was being organized, Harvard University supported funding of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. While based in a law school, it had a broader mission, and was soon followed by the founding of the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) in 2001 as a multidisciplinary department at the University of Oxford with a mission to focus on the societal implications of the Internet. These and related initiatives stimulated the establishment of Internet research centers around the world. (p. 13)

The transformative role of Internet Studies

From a more synoptic perspective, it is arguable that the Internet's development and convergence, creating a broader IP environment for media and related ICTs, and fostering the field of Internet Studies, has helped transform the study of ICTs and their societal implications. Increasingly, the study of computing, telecommunication, cable and satellite, mobile, and other ICTs are falling under the umbrella of Internet Studies. Increasingly, any study of the Internet is aware of the larger and often interrelated if not convergent ecology of media and ICTs within which the Internet is embedded. You will see throughout this handbook that studies of politics, relationships, news, and other phenomena are examining the Internet within a larger ecology of ICTs.

The emergence of Internet Studies, such as around AoIR, initially created a new subfield, but eventually provided an umbrella under which an increasing number of scholars could bring their work. Will Internet Studies become a more specialized niche within the study of ICTs, or continue to grow and help integrate or network this larger field?

The future of Internet Studies

The future of this field is wide open, but there are three among many general scenarios that are useful to develop as alternative normative forecasts on how scholars within this field should and could align themselves.

Networking an interdisciplinary status quo

The most likely scenario is for Internet researchers to continue to collaborate within and across the existing academic disciplines and structures of universities. Naomi Baron (2005) argued that this was a desirable approach given the existence of collaborative spaces, such as the AoIR conference, and the growing popularity of interdisciplinary studies across universities. This is also a pragmatic scenario, given that the disciplinary landscape of most universities is heavily populated with multiple disciplines each of which have a claim to particular aspects of Internet Studies, including media, communication, information studies, sociology, and more. One of the only departments of Internet Studies at a major university, the Oxford Internet Institute, was founded in a virtual disciplinary green field, since Oxford University did not have a department of media studies, communication, or information at the time of founding the OII in 2001. Networking across the disciplinary divides might continue to enable the growth of Internet Studies with a firm footing in multiple disciplines. (p. 14)

Specialization and fragmentation

Another feasible scenario is that the field peaks and disassembles as it becomes increasingly fragmented by technical and disciplinary specializations. This could undermine the strength of this field by separating pieces of the same ecology of technologies, use, and policy issues.

However, specialization can be constructive. Social informatics was an effort to broaden informatics and ensure that social aspects of technical change would be explicitly incorporated.10 Web Science (O’Hara and Hall Chapter 3) and Internet Science are both somewhat distinct from Internet Studies, founded primarily within the computer sciences. They could enable more computer scientists to pursue Internet research, and share many features, such as a commitment to including the social sciences. Nevertheless, they could further fragment Internet Studies. Likewise, efforts to focus on mobile communication have split some scholars studying this technical and social development from Internet Studies, when convergence of mobile and the Internet is defining the next generation Internet user (Blank and Dutton 2012).

Specialization can also be defined around the implications of the Internet, such as creating communities of scholars focused on geography or politics, and in specific issue-based communities of researchers, such a privacy or freedom of expression. This push toward specialization is easily supported by new journals and associations and this is one way of inventing new fields that become more significant with time, such as when mass media researchers moved away from sociology to form the communication field.

Integrative: creating a derivative discipline

A third perspective is that Internet Studies becomes a derivative discipline—an increasingly integrated multidisciplinary field with an increasingly variegated range of specialized topics. Other strong fields of research were derived from the combination of multiple disciplines. For example, political science focused on power and government as objects of study, with work in political philosophy, psychology, sociology, and economics, among other disciplines, being pulled together to form a field that has over the decades became widely recognized as a discipline. Likewise, communication has been derived from academics within sociology, social psychology, political science, and other disciplines to focus on media and the problems they raise, such as the influence of mass communication.

This might be the most promising direction for Internet Studies, but it faces resistance to strengthening Internet Studies as a field for practical and philosophical reasons tied to the individualist culture of the field. Practically, the institutional difficulties in developing new disciplines and departments have diverted many Internet researchers (p. 15) from such a pursuit. It requires dramatic change in how top academics in the major institutions think about the Internet and the mainstream disciplines. Culturally, many within the field of Internet Studies resist “institutionalization,” fearing that an increasingly well-agreed definition of the field will undermine the eclectic, creative individualism of this ever emerging field (Baym 2005)—what Wesley Shrum (2005) called “Internet Indiscipline.”

When students of Internet Studies got together in Lawrence, Kansas, in 2000, the dotcom bubble was bursting and many social scientists continued to consider the Internet a fad. By 2012 there was almost unquestioned acknowledgement that this network of networks had become not simply significant, but increasingly essential to more and more aspects of life and work (Blank and Dutton 2012). The most compelling driving force behind Internet Studies is the worldwide diffusion and increasing significance of the Internet. Globally, there is clearly the development of a “new Internet world” shaped by the global diffusion of the Internet (Dutta et al. 2011). The center of gravity of the Internet has already moved from North America and Western Europe, where it was rooted in 2000, to East Asia and the rapidly developing nations, such as Brazil, India, and China, where the greatest number of Internet users reside.

This global significance is likely to increase further in the coming years. This is because convergence across media and ICTs is actually developing in key areas, such as in mobile communications with the rise of Internet enabled “smart phones” and everyone living in an IP-environment, where television, voice, and other services are increasingly Internet applications. In addition, the Internet is becoming more embedded within the wider ecology of other media, information, and communication technologies, such as in the provision and consumption of news, which is tied to search, social media, online journalism as well as more traditional media (Newman et al. 2011; Mitchelstein and Boczkowski Chapter 18).

Across the contributions to this handbook, you will see evidence of the global significance of the Internet and related ICTs, which is a major factor shaping the future of this field. This trend is supported by the chapters of this handbook, in related research across over 30 nations of the World Internet Project (Cardoso et al. Chapter 11), as well as by other systematic empirical research in the US and worldwide. Generally, in line with the power shifts identified by Castells (2009), and my own work on the Fifth Estate (Dutton 2009), Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman (2012) write of the transformative nature of the Internet, where search, the rise of social networking, and the always-on connectivity of mobile devices are combining to empower users in ways that are making this network of networks increasingly central to social and economic development. And yet, a growing body of critical scholarship questions the empowerment thesis, seeing more reinforcement of enduring patterns of communication (Lilleker and Vedel Chapter 19; van Dijk 2012). This division between transformations of empowerment or disempowerment characterizes the debate surrounding the societal implications of the Internet that has driven the rise of Internet Studies before and since 2000 and will continue to do so well into the future. (p. 16)

Outline of this handbook

The chapters of this handbook follow the structure outlined in Table 1.1. The chapters in Part I convey selected perspectives on the Internet, World Wide Web, and related ICTs as the principle object of study. These include perspectives from the study of the history of new media, Web Science, the information sciences of Webmetrics, and conceptions of the Internet as an “infrastructure.” These contributions demonstrate the multiplicity of approaches to conceptualizing the Internet, and the changing roles of different technologies, actors, and social issues shaping its design and development.

Martin Elton and John Carey (Chapter 2) show how relevant the study of new media and telecommunication innovations, such as videotex,11 has been to research on developments around the Internet and the Web. Their chapter clarifies the distinctions between the Internet and the Web, which is the object of study in a new field of Web Science. Fostered by one of its key inventors, Tim Berners-Lee, the central motivations behind the development of a “discipline” of Web Science is the subject of Kieron O’Hara and Wendy Hall (Chapter 3), who see this research agenda as critical to shaping the future development of the Web. Internet Studies does not encompass all of what the authors define as Web Science, and is more anchored in the social than computer sciences, but these two fields assume that macro-level societal implications can flow from the micro-level decisions made about the Web's protocols, such as in creating the Web of Linked Data.

Mike Thelwall (Chapter 4) continues a discussion of the Web, but targeted on its hyperlinked structure. This structure emerges from patterns of use, but shapes the social role of the Web, such as the types of websites that people find through search engines and the degree that popular sites become even more privileged in a winner-take-all process facilitated by the technology. This chapter also argues that the structure of the Web reflects the offline world, making it a valuable lens for studying society—not just technology. In the last chapter of this section, Christian Sandvig (Chapter 5) describes how useful it can be to view the Internet as an infrastructure, a perspective emerging from science and technology studies. The argument of this chapter reinforces all the contributions to this section, showing how technical changes of the infrastructure can have unanticipated and unintended societal consequences.

Parts IIIV move away from a focus on the Internet as the object of study to its use in a variety of social contexts. Part II focuses on how choices about the (non)use of the Internet and related ICTs in everyday life can reshape access to information and people in ways that influence what people know; whom they know; how and from where they obtain services, from information to entertainment; and what individuals and households need to know to function well in a digital society. The section begins with a broad macro-level focus on the “network society,” to which Jack Linchuan Qiu (Chapter 6) brings a new perspective, anchored in his research in China. By addressing within- and cross-national differences in the nature of network societies, he provides a convincing (p. 17) case for the need for a global perspective on the social role of the Internet that will counter the potential for ethnocentric universal claims.

Jack Linchuan Qiu's research has emphasized the different role that networks can play across different social strata, a focus of Eszter Hargittai and Yuli Patrick Hsieh (Chapter 7), who examine research on inequalities in society driven by such factors as the distribution of the skills to use it effectively. Their use of stratification theory to refine research on digital divides, an enduring issue of Internet Studies, leads them to direct work on digital inequality beyond overly simplistic conceptions of access to technologies to consider related issues of skills and media literacy.

A key social implication tied to the Internet has been its role in shaping interpersonal interaction and the development of communities. Nicole Ellison and danah boyd (Chapter 8) provide authoritative insights into one of the most significant developments related to social interaction: social network sites. They provide an analytic framework for studying these new sites, while underscoring the centrality of social interaction since the Internet's earliest days, such as through email.

Interpersonal relationships carry into Barrie Gunter's (Chapter 9) synthesis of research on the many dimensions of the Internet and dating. He shows how the circumstances surrounding how people meet online provides an arena for exploring key issues, ranging from deception to reconfiguring once-in-a-lifetime decisions. Just as the Internet becomes embedded in routine practices, so online dating is becoming part of the normal repertoire, and even more important as a subject of research.

The Internet is becoming more central to entertainment, and games are one of the most central aspects of an increasingly wide range of entertaining activities, even if often used for serious purposes. Dmitri Williams and Adam Kahn (Chapter 10) describe the evolution of innovative research on game playing in the household and online, such as in studies of massive multiplayer, three-dimensional Internet game environments. This chapter illustrates the need for Internet Studies to deal with the ebbs and flows of the market and the rapid pace of technical change.

The final chapter of this section moves back to a cross-national comparative focus on the role of the Internet in society by describing the development and findings of the World Internet Project (WIP). Gustavo Cardoso, Guo Liang, and Tiago Lapa (Chapter 11) have been leaders of this work in Europe and Asia, helping to track the diffusion, uses, and impacts of the Internet worldwide and over time. Their perspective points out the challenges of this research as well as the need for complementary studies with a more global reach.

In Part III, the focus on use turns to research on creating and working in a global network economy, focusing on the Internet in key aspects of work, from business and commerce to the public sector, including academic research and education.

Michael Cusumano and Andreas Goeldi (Chapter 12) lead this part by illuminating one of the most significant issues facing old and new businesses in the digital age, the development of new business models. They identify a wide range of business models enabled by new platforms for computing and communications over the Internet. They show how these “platforms” can lead to winner-take-all scenarios or enhance (p. 18) established businesses, or enable the provision of new products and services, or create completely new types of businesses.

Most business, as well as many personal transactions online, depend on a level of trust. Regina Connolly (Chapter 13) focuses on how trust has been conceptualized and studied, providing a refined understanding of many trust-related issues that influence commerce but arguably also other online transactions in the digital age, such as in the public services.

Compared to the commercial sector, the public sector has been more challenged in adapting to the digital age. Paul Henman (Chapter 14) takes up some of these challenges in his overview of e-Government or digital government. His treatment is remarkable in the degree to which the topics of digital government incorporate nearly all of the issues tied to society and the Internet more generally, from digital divides to the impact of social networking.

While Internet researchers have explored many institutional settings, few researchers have examined the impact of the Internet and related ICTs on their own academic institutions. Eric Meyer and Ralph Schroeder (Chapter 15) have done leading research into the ways in which digital technologies could be transforming academic research across the disciplines. They convey the significance, but also highlight the conceptual challenges, of advancing work in this area.

The academy is also the subject of Chris Davies and Rebecca Eynon (Chapter 16), who take an interdisciplinary approach to examine the role of the Internet in reshaping learning and education. They draw valuable distinctions between formal education, such as in classrooms, where the Internet has made few inroads, and informal learning, where the Internet seems to have excelled. Their chapter helps guide research towards the task of disentangling and explaining the role of the Internet in these different contexts of use and impact in order to draw conclusions for policy and practice.

Part IV is the final section on patterns of use, exploring stability and change in communication, media, and politics linked to the Internet. In these contexts of Internet use, questions arise over whether the Internet is enabling a radical decentralization of control over communication and the media, such as by undermining broadcasting and the concept of the audience—while empowering individuals and networks, such as in political arenas. Despite popular conceptions of this promise, the research is mixed in its findings, but also struggling to find methods for examining these issues in complex, fast-paced, and contentious events, such as in campaigns and elections.

The first chapter in this section presents the findings of a systematic and detailed meta-analysis of research on the Internet within the field of communication. Ronald Rice and Ryan Fuller (Chapter 17), focusing on the first decade of the twenty-first century, use content analysis to uncover the prominence of different theoretical perspectives on the Internet. Although much of the early Internet research has been criticized as being atheoretical, they find that a wide range of primary and secondary theories have been increasingly applied to understanding social and communicative aspects of the Internet and the increasingly specialized areas being developed by Internet researchers, such as around social media.

(p. 19) This review of communication research is followed by a focus on one of the most critical of the media in liberal democratic societies: the news. Eugenia Mitchelstein and Pablo Boczkowski (Chapter 18) are particularly concerned with stability and change in patterns of news production and consumption with the advent of online news. The directions they provide for future research are novel and challenging.

Darren Lilleker and Thierry Vedel (Chapter 19) critically assess a number of positive claims surrounding the role of the Internet in campaigns and elections, and, in the process, examine high-profile campaigns in North America and Europe. While they are skeptical of claims about the Internet empowering citizens, they find the Internet becoming increasingly embedded within campaigns and elections, moving the study of the Internet into mainstream studies of politics—one illustration of the way in which Internet Studies is transforming other disciplines.

Communication, the media, and campaigns are all linked to aspects of democratic governance and accountability; but in the final chapter in this section, Helen Margetts (Chapter 20) deals directly and broadly with the Internet and democracy, a topic that the Arab Springs have brought to the forefront of Internet Studies. Her chapter is particularly valuable in clarifying the many ways and levels in which there are links between the Internet and different models of democracy and the institutions that support them.

Part V concludes this handbook by addressing policy and focusing on issues around governing and regulating the Internet. Early proponents of the Internet often argued that the Internet was ungovernable, but far from the proverbial “Wild West,” many laws and regulations apply to the Internet and its use around the world. Nevertheless, post Arab Springs, and England riots, even more efforts have been launched to control a technology that some politicians see to be enabling anarchy or autocracy, rather than democracy.

Major policy issues are at stake in how policy-makers respond to these uncertainties, including freedom of expression, which Victoria Nash (Chapter 21) engages through a normative and empirical overview of debate and research. Proponents of new communications tools as technologies of freedom are finding increasing pressures to control and filter online communication across an increasing number of jurisdictions. This chapter suggests that a broader theoretical framework is needed to capture the full range of law and policies shaping expression online, and develop responses for policy and practice.

Closely related to freedom of expression are efforts to stop illegal file sharing through the application of copyright and intellectual property rights in the online world. Matthew David (Chapter 22) reviews cultural, legal, technical, and economic approaches to enforcing copyright, concluding that rights holders need to rethink their business models in the digital age, such as by concentrating on live performances, rather than simply trying to shore up old business models by criminalizing copyright infringement.

Another key set of policy issues concerns privacy and surveillance, which many regard as under threat from social networks and other new Internet developments, such as the mining of big data sets created through the use of Internet services and networks. Colin Bennett and Christopher Parsons (Chapter 23) review the multidisciplinary literature on the protection of personal information in the online world, which extends back (p. 20) to the origins of social research on computing. Bennett is among the leading scholars of privacy, making this chapter an informative overview but also a valuable guide to the most promising directions for research on privacy as well as related issues of security and identity online.

Many countries are pursuing the development of digital infrastructures as a proactive approach to technology-led economic and industrial policy, such as faster broadband infrastructure initiatives. Robin Mansell and Edward Steinmueller (Chapter 24) provide a critical synthesis of research tied to such policy initiatives, focusing on Europe and North America, highlighting the complexity of the research questions, as well as the responsibility to balance economic with other cultural and societal implications.

Tim Unwin (Chapter 25) extends a critical perspective on the economic impact of the Internet to study of ICT for development. He questions taken-for-granted assumptions about the Internet as a tool for development. Focusing on the least developed nations, his observations and synthesis identify unanticipated consequences, such as the widening of inequalities, which underpin his directions for future research.

The final chapter by Laura DeNardis (Chapter 26) illuminates the significance of the emerging field of Internet governance, highlighting issues over standards, names and numbers, and net neutrality, which are unfolding in a variety of contexts around the world, including the Internet Governance Forum. She combines an engineering background with insightful social analysis of technical design issues to show how technology could bias outcomes across policy arenas, such as privacy or freedom of expression. She shows how engineering and standards are not just technical matters, but also issues of governance.


This introductory chapter has provided a broad overview of Internet Studies, seeking to place subsequent chapters in the context of one of the most dynamic fields of academic research in the early twenty-first century. In the course of editing this handbook, my view of the field has been sharpened and lifted even further by the quality of work that is being conducted across such a wide range of areas. It will be apparent from a close reading of this handbook that the field is being built on increasingly strong foundations, and that the pace of innovation in this field will not slow down. This progress will be enhanced by the work brought together in this volume and the directions the authors point to in the further development of this interdisciplinary field.


My thanks to Rebecca Eynon, Charles Ess, and Malcolm Peltu for comments on this chapter.


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(1) The Internet had over 2 billion users, nearly one-third of the world's population, by 2012 according to <>. Accessed February 8, 2012.

(2) Peng et al. (2011) based their statistical analysis on the use on selected words, such as Internet and Web, in the abstracts or keywords of scholarly journal articles published in English from 2000 to 2009 listed in the Social Science Citation Index (SSCI) and Arts & Humanities Citation Index of ISI Web of Science.

(3) As this chapter was being written, two journals key to the field (Information Communication and Society and New Media and Society) have forthcoming issues devoted to Internet Studies. An early symposium of The Information Society, 21 (2005) provides a discussion of the scope and methods of this field.

(4) Hunsinger et al. (2010: 549–604) have compiled a useful list.

(5) These are Lasswellian questions that mimic Harold Lasswell's (1971: 84) famous definition of the field of communication as the study of “Who Says What In Which Channel To Whom With What Effect?”

(6) Maria Bakardjieva (2011: 61) links these different research areas to specific epistemologies. However, it is arguable that each of these questions can be approached from multiple approaches to research.

(7) A series of conferences have been organized by scholars associated with “Cultural Attitudes towards Technology and Communication” (CATaC).

(8) TCP/IP standards were developed by Robert Kahn and Vent Cerf in 1973 through research supported by the Advanced Research Project Agency of the US Department of Defense, leading to the ARPANET adopting new protocols based on the notion that the Internet should provide a very limited role—transmitting and routing traffic through a packet switched network—with key functions being based at the nodes or ends of the network.

(9) The US National Science Foundation (NSF) supported Vallee and others to design a computer conferencing system called FORUM and explore its implications. Volume 2 of their report looks at social effects (Vallee et al. 1974).

(10) Baron argues that new disciplines arise due to new problems or questions, or for political reasons, such as to insure adequate resources.

(11) “Videotex” is accepted internationally; videotext is used in the UK.