Social Implications of the Internet

Authors: Paul DiMaggio, Eszter Hargittai, W. Russell Neuman, and John P. Robinson

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Citation: DiMaggio, P.J., Hargittai, E., Neuman, W.R. & Robinson, J. 2001. Social Implications of the Internet. Annual Review of Sociology. 27, 307-336.


The Internet is a critically important research site for sociologists testing theories of technology diffusion and media effects, particularly because it is a medium uniquely capable of integrating modes of communication and forms of content. Current research tends to focus on the Internet’s implications in five domains: 1) inequality (the digital divide); 2) community and social capital; 3) political participation; 4) organizations and other economic institutions; and 5) cultural participation and cultural diversity. A recurrent theme across domains is that the Internet tends to complement rather than displace existing media and patterns of behavior. Thus in each domain, utopian claims and dystopic warnings based on extrapolations from technical possibilities have given way to more nuanced and circumscribed understandings of how Internet use adapts to existing patterns, permits certain innovations, and reinforces particular kinds of change. Moreover, in each domain the ultimate social implications of this new technology depend on economic, legal, and policy decisions that are shaping the Internet as it becomes institutionalized. Sociologists need to study the Internet more actively and, particularly, to synthesize research findings on individual user behavior with macroscopic analyses of institutional and political-economic factors that constrain that behavior.


  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Context
  • Major Research Questions
    • The Internet and Inequality: Opportunity or Reproduction
    • Impact on Time Use and Community: Social Isolation or Social Capital Formation
    • Impact on Politics: Renewed Public Sphere or Electronic Background
    • Impact on Organizations: Flexible Networks or Panopticons
    • Impact on Culture: Bountiful Diversity, Hypersegmentation, or Massification
  • The Evoloving Internet
  • Conclusion


We are grateful to Phil Agre, Philip Howard, and Barry Wellman for wise and helpful comments on earlier drafts, and we take full responsibility for persistent defects and limitations. Research support to the authors from the National Science Foundation (Grants SBR9710662, SES9819907, and IIS0086143), the Russell Sage Foundation, the Markle Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts is gratefully acknowledged.

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