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Peculiarities of Cyberspace   Dutch Version

- Building Blocks for an Internet Sociology -

Albert Benschop

Computers all over the world are connected with each other via high-speed telecommunication lines. Behind their screens there are people of all nationalities, all ethnic-cultural groups, social classes and professions, of all religions and political convictions, of all ages and life-styles, of both sexes who together, but also among themselves show such a rich diversity of preferences and disfavors, expectations for the future and fears, likes and dislikes.

They are the people who are capable of rapidly exchanging ideas and information via this network. This new person-to-person interface induces both excitement and despair. Many of the people who have met each other via internet have never met each other in reality. Often they don’t know at all what the persons looks like with whom they exchange useful or misleading information and interesting or trivial opinions on a more or less regular basis. However, without this internet they would probably never have met.

People who meet each other this way do so in a new virtual world which is ‘almost real’. It is a social world of ‘people without bodies’, because during the encounter and conversation the inhabitants of this virtual world leave their bodies at home. For some peculiarities of the human species this is a huge handicap. Many of our day-to-day worries and of our greatest pleasures are after all connected with the corporality of our existence. We have to feed our body daily to keep up the biological system, we experience it as pleasant when we feel good, when we see something beautiful or feel something nice, when we are caressed tenderly or when we come, when we eat something very tasty or smell lovely odors.

People who meet each other this way do so in a world which is ‘more than real’. It is a social world of people who communicate. Human beings are animals who make and exchange symbols. Internet facilitates our exchange of symbolic information and thus enable us to to become ‘more human’, or at least more specific human. These symbolic interactions occurring in virtual worlds are not more nor less realistic than those occurring in the ‘real’ (i.e. the local) world. Communication of human symbols (digitalised texts, sounds, stationary or moving images) generates a feeling of social presence in the participants. They start feeling related to people who share the same interest or hobby, to people who share the same preferences, or who oppose the same injustice. All social and psychological effects of this computer-mediated communication are comparable to those of the well-known face-to-face communication. The main difference is that with computer-mediated interaction we’re able to reach by far more people than with our one-to-one communication (mass communication media are organized almost completely top-down —one-to-many communication— and are therefore in the hands of established elites).

Internet includes many communication media, but in any case it’s a medium which enables many-to-many communication. Besides, via internet we can communicate at a distance. Once somebody has gained access to internet he or she can communicate with anybody linked to this open network, everywhere in the world. We need not move our bodies any more if we want to communicate with somebody who lives at the other end of our planet. We don’t even have to be present behind our computers at the same moment. We can retrieve information relevant to us when it’s convenient: just-in-time.

CyberSociology is the study of social action of human individuals in virtual communities and networks, organizations and personal relations. These new virtual entities are no longer defined by geographic or even semiotic boundaries. Instead, communities and networks, organizations and personal relations are being constructed in cyberspace on the basis of common affiliative interests.

Cyberspace is an illusion, it is a consensual hallucination that is not anywhere in our physical reality. It is a no-place that exists only within headspace. Cyberspace is something that cannot be demarcated in geographical terms at all. It is a reality that can be localized ‘nowhere’ and yet its presence is felt ‘everywhere’. It is a new form of social reality that is a challenge for sociologists who don’t recoil from analyzing such ostensible ‘metaphysical’ realities. One thing seems to be sure: more and more people define and experience cyberspace as real. And sociologists ought to know that “if people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” [W.I. Thomas].

Nowadays sociology is developing somewhere in this virtual reality. And just like their colleagues in other disciplines, sociologists are spending more and more time in this new reality of electronic communication that is “just like reality” — they share the same hallucination with other netizens, in a way that is fully interactive and mutual.

The virtual reality which has developed in and through the internet is a peculiar phenomenon. These peculiarities of cyberspace are the subject of the sociological explorations in this electronic book. At this stage of the project I can only present some notes and quotes on the peculiarities of internet, which might be interesting for social scientists. They could be building blocks for a sociology of the internet: cybersociology.

The sociology of the internet is by definition a work in progress. Never completed and always on the move. Cybersociology is a very youthful discipline which shows all the characteristics of adolescent behavior. She is uncertain and impertinent, wants very much and is able to do so little, searches her own identity and is opposed to the status quo.

Cybersociology is an inconvenient, troublesome discipline because it has to shoot at fast moving objects with a permanently changing character. It can be compared with the problems of earlier days when new continents were discovered. Suppose that, more or less by accident, you discover that there exists a new continent and you put the first foot on this unknown territory (‘a small step for a man, but a big step for mankind’). However, you don't know precisely what you have discovered: what does the territory look like, what are the possibilities and limititations for cultivation, what are you going to do and what do you have to abstain from, and whose territory is this anyway? These are the kinds of questions that have to be solved in cybersociology. The answers will come up, but only if we are able to find some well-defined questions.

Cybersociology is by definition an interdisciplinary science that should not be afraid to meddle with problems and issues that used to be analyzed by other social sciences. Cybersociology can only grow up when she knows how to combine several disciplinary perspectives: historical, anthropological, technological, economical, sociological, cultural, psychological and political perspectives. This looks like an impossible and certainly a very ambitious task. But that’s quite normal for a youthful-puberal, troublesome-innovative science of the virtual social reality.

And finally, cybersociology is a programme and a challenge. It is a research programme that operates on assumptions that still have to be clarified and for which the theoretical foundation still has to be laid. That’s exactly the reason why cybersociology is a challenge for social scientists who find it exciting to get into a plane that travels through a space that doesn’t exists in our physical reality, nobody knows how long it will take and where the plane will land. For these are at least three peculiarities of cyberspace:

  1. It is a world in which we are able to travel in one twinkling of an eye —that is with mouse click— from one place of the earth to another: distance does not play a role in computer-mediated interactions and communications.

  2. the times that count in cyberspace are highly accelerated and strongly individualized.

  3. nobody knows what the virtual social reality which is established via the internet will look like in the future. The possible futures of the internet totally depend on how people will act and react, how they organize their operations and transactions, and how they can realize their own needs and interests, aspirations and phantasies in cyberspace.
The mission of cybersociology is to study these and related peculiarities of virtual social interactions and communications, networks and communities, organizations and institutions, societal figurations and globalized cultures. Virtual space is a structuring main point with effects on all societal fields. Virtual space creates a virtual working-method, establishes virtual inequality and class systems, realizes a qualitative structural change of the political public realm and changes cultural patterns and life-styles.

Cybersociology is the science which concentrates on the transition of industrial to informational capitalism and on the the new virtual forms of society and societal processes developing in it via open electronic networks. Therefore cybersociology is, in a certain way, nothing else but a sociology of the internet: n e t s o c i o l o g y.

Index


Peculiarities SocioSite Subject Areas Society Search About us Contact

dr. Albert Benschop
Social & Behavioral Sciences
Sociology & Anthropology University of Amsterdam
Published: October, 1997
Last modified: 13th September, 2013