Sociology studies the different aspects of social life. This means that, virtually, any context or situation where some kind of social action takes place may be the subject of sociological analysis.
Sociologists have tried to understand social phenomena so diverse as religion, work, family, education, sports or fashion, for example. This is why it is so surprising that the Internet, with over 2.267 million users in 2011 (Internet World Stats) has merited so little attention (with notable exceptions).
Obviously, we could find many sociological publications related directly or indirectly to the Internet, but most times they are approached from a perspective of the explorer who comes across an exotic tribe. This is not a true Sociology of the Internet.
Despite being a relatively recent phenomenon in historical terms (the ARPANET computer network was established in 1969), the Internet has penetrated society at a speed and with an intensity that makes it impossible to imagine daily life without it. Perhaps this short life is the cause of this look of surprise from the establishment in Sociology.
Thus, the works devoted to the Internet are mainly focused on analyzing what kind of people are social networks users, if they are more or less sociable, how the Internet affects their “real” life, for what purposes do people use the Internet, etc.
One of the aspects that is attracting more attention in Sociology is cooperation among Internet users. Still attached to the myth of the homo economicus, sociologists are puzzled by phenomena like Wikipedia, open source software, forums, blogs or open innovation, to name a few.
How can people collaborate freely on the Internet? Who are these people who offer their expertise and time with no guarantee of receiving any (material) thing in return?
First, Sociology has enough (the best) conceptual tools to understand why people behave on the Internet the way they do. It became clear long ago even to economists that the homo economicus is based purely on imaginary scenarios.
Second, Internet users are no different from the other people. Nor are they “normal” people who behave irrationally because of the Wi-Fi radiation.
Elisabeth Einstein explains in her work, entitled The printing press as an agent of change (1979), how publishers in the sixteenth century used to take into account the contributions of readers, about new information or errors to be corrected, in each new edition.
Cooperation is nothing new or exceptional. People cooperate on the Internet because the Internet gives them the opportunity. The explanation is not in technology but in people.
Besides the disappointing sociological work about the Internet, authors from many other different fields are explaining to the world what is happening on the Net. It would be a shame that, as it has happened many times, other disciplines end up explaining social phenomena for which Sociology is the best suitable.
We the sociologists should join social networking sites, publish a blog, participate in support forums. In short, do field research. On the Internet we will recognize familiar behaviors related to roles, reputation, rules or reciprocity. We will find that companies are beginning to interact with clients on the Net and that is transforming them internally. We will discover that leisure is not a substitute of job in the construction of identity, but creativity.
Do not miss this opportunity.