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The International Journal of

Technology, Knowledge,
and Society
Cyberspatial Transformations of Society


First published in 2013 in Champaign, Illinois, USA
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ISSN: 1832-3669

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Cyberspatial Transformations of Society:
Applying Durkheimian and Weberian
Perspectives to the Internet
David Drissel, Iowa Central Community College, IA, USA
Abstract: In the years since the life and times of Emile Durkheim(18581917) and Max Weber
(18641920), the worlds economic systems and related social structures have undergone pro-
found transformations. Probably more than any other single invention or technological innov-
ation in recent decades, the Internet has transformed societies profoundly, propelling the In-
formation Revolution to unprecedented heights. This paper examines the major sociological
theories of Durkheim and Weber, assessing their relevancy and applicability to contemporary
social structures that have been dramatically transformed by the ongoing Information Revolu-
tion. Howwould Durkheimand Weber react to the ubiquitous presence of the Internet, e-mail,
social networking websites, smart cell phones, and other information technologies in todays
world? Using the theories of Durkheim and Weber as a guide, this paper will evaluate the soci-
etal implications of information technologies in general and the Internet in particular, focusing
on changing structures of authority, social solidarity, interpersonal relations, and the economy.
Durkheimian and Weberian perspectives will be applied to several of the most perplexing
questions facing the increasingly digitized world of the 21st century.
Keywords: Internet, Cyberspace, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Social Networks, Information
Revolution, Industrial Revolution
n the years since the life and times of the noted sociologists, Emile Durkheim (18581917)
and Max Weber (18641920), various social structures and related economic systems
around the world have undergone profound transformations. Writing in the late 19
early 20
centuries, Durkheim and Weber were responding to widespread socioeconomic
changes (e.g., industrialization, urbanization, capitalization, bureaucratization), which
were occurring in Western Europe and North America. But soon after the Industrial Revolution
reached its apogee by the mid-20
century, many corresponding social structures and production
methods started to become obsolete. This was due in large measure to the ascendancy of the
Information Revolution, which has its origins in the mid-1940s with the invention of the first
electronic computer. This latest revolution in technology reached its apparent zenith in the
1990s and early 2000s with the mass proliferation of personal computers, word processing
software, the Internet, e-mail, and related information technologies.
Just as the Industrial Revolution resulted in the systemic transition of agricultural and guild-
based production modes to mostly factory-based manufacturing, the Information Revolution
has sparked commensurate national/global changes in economic systems and social structures.
As a result of this new revolution, a dramatic shift of national and global economic resources
has occurred, transforming much of the world from labor-intensive to knowledge-intensive
production. The declining size of the blue-collar workforce in North America and Western
The International Journal of Technology, Knowledge, and Society
Volume 8, Issue 3, 2013,, ISSN 1832-3669
Common Ground, David Drissel, All Rights Reserved, Permissions:
Europe, coupled with a corresponding increase in the number of white-collar and service
workers, is one of the most visible manifestations of this ongoing technological transition.
Many manufacturing jobs have been rendered redundant or irrelevant as a result; while new
professions, vocations, and occupational specializations tied to the digital sector have emerged
in their stead. In effect, much of the developed world has undergone an informative-driven
changeover from an industrial to a postindustrial economy that is based primarily on human,
commercial, and financial services. As an apparent consequence of such technological and so-
cioeconomic changes, social values are also undergoing a dramatic metamorphosis. Indeed, the
Internet and other tools of postindustrialization are having a socially liberalizing effect on
human attitudes and behavior, thereby facilitating the emancipation of people from bureau-
cratic hierarchies and related authoritarian strictures (Inglehart and Welzel 2005:29).
Originally designed by civilian scientists and engineers working for the Pentagon in the 1960s,
the Internet was envisioned to be a computer-mediated communication system that would be
effectively invulnerable, even to a nuclear attack. The United States Department of Defense
(DOD) became involved in the project soon after a groundbreaking Rand Corporation paper
(Packet Switching Networks for Secure Voice) was published in 1964. The papers premise
of a computer network of nodes equal in status and lacking any identifiable central authority
was particularly attractive to Cold War-era military planners. Concerned about the survivability
of command and control systems during wartime, the DODquickly embraced the concept (Bell
2001:12). With the DOD underwriting the project through the Advanced Research Projects
Agency (ARPA), research was conducted jointly at Rand, the Massachusetts Institute of Tech-
nology, UCLA, and the British National Physical Laboratory; eventually leading to the first
successful test of the system in 1969 (Kizza 1998).
The subsequent development of hypertext markup language (HTML) in the late 1980s greatly
enhanced Internet accessibility for personal and non-technical uses. Tim Bernes-Lee, a British
researcher working at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN)
in Switzerland, had
proposed a point and click system for browsing online documents. This proposal evolved
into HTML, which enabled users to jump automatically from one Internet site to another.
By linking sites to others through HTML, a dispersed yet interconnected web-like infrastructure
was created (Marsden 2000:4). Christened the World Wide Web (WWW) in 1989, this new
systemwas designed to facilitate the diffusion of global information through a systemof hyper-
links, universal resource locators (URLs), and web servers (Bell 2001). As a relatively efficient
and user-friendly system, the WWWquickly opened the door to widespread electronic commerce.
More than any other invention or technological innovation in recent decades, the Internet
has transformed societies profoundly, propelling the Information Revolution to unprecedented
heights. Simply put, the Internet and related computer-mediated communication systems allow
for information to be both collected and disseminated faster and more cheaply than ever before
(Metzel 1997:711). Countless documents, files, databases, contacts, products, and services are
only a mouse click away, as interconnected electronic threads link potential consumers with
direct distributors and suppliers instantaneously. With approximately two billion people wired
worldwide, businesses and consumers increasingly conduct their transactions online. The Internet
has almost completely blurred the distinction between the producers and consumers of techno-
logy, contributing directly to heightened levels of technological diffusion, organizational innov-
ation, and international competition. Consumers frequently adapt and expand upon new
technologies and related organizational strategies, with such innovations quickly adopted by
firms, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Fueling globalization
with its ubiquitous network-based transnational operating system, the Internet has penetrated
CERN was funded by an intergovernmental consortium and was primarily concerned with particle acceleration ex-
periments (Marsden 2000:4)
virtually every major economic sector and industry on the planet, thereby enabling all sorts
of businesses to become borderless (Micklethwait and Wooldridge 2000:36).
This paper examines the major sociological theories of Durkheim and Weber, assessing their
relevancy and applicability to contemporary social structures that have been radically trans-
formed by the ongoing Information Revolution. Research questions include the following: How
would Durkheim and Weber react to the Internet, e-mail, social networking websites, smart
cell phones, and other information technologies that have emerged in recent decades? How has
the Internet transformed social relationships and social stratification systems in societies around
the world, given the ubiquitous presence of cyberspatial applications in everyday life? Using
the theories of Durkheimand Weber as a guide, this paper will evaluate the societal implications
of information technologies in general and the Internet in particular, focusing on changing
structures of power and authority, social solidarity, interpersonal relations, and the economy.
Durkheimian and Weberian perspectives will be applied to several of the most perplexing
questions facing the increasingly digitized world of the 21
The Transitional Era of Durkheim and Weber
The theories of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber have several important similarities but even
more significant differences, as would be expected given their unique life experiences. The social
environment that existed in France during the last fewdecades of the 19
century largely shaped
Durkheims view of the world. Capitalism had become firmly entrenched in French society by
the time of Durkheim, with rugged individualismand a highly competitive work ethic percolating
throughout the nation. Such individualism, which Durkheimviewed as an ideological byproduct
of the French Revolution and similar anti-feudal transformations of the early 19
century, had
begun to erode the nations collectivist ethos by the later part of the century. Durkheim found
himself in a country that was suffering from a growing identity crisis, as the national social
fabric seemingly was unraveling before his eyes. Compounding this troublesome social milieu
was the emergence of the Dreyfus Affair of 1894, which threatened to divide the country even
further (Morrison 2006:148149).
Though Weber lived in approximately the same time period as Durkheim, he was the product
of a very different social and political environment, that of the newly reunified, politically as-
cendant, German empire. Under the authoritarian rule of a conservative military-monarchical
governing elite, Germany underwent rapid modernization during Webers lifetime. Being raised
in a middle class household, Weber witnessed the decline of village life and the growth of cities,
along with a dramatic expansion of factory-based production and the related military-industrial
complex. The German national ethos, which had been fragmented in the countrys political-
religious spheres for centuries, crystallized in the mid-to-late 19
century under the iron hand
of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Waging a kulturkampf (literally, culture struggle) against
the hegemonic power of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany, Bismarck had largely suc-
ceeded in secularizing the country. Growing up in this historic epoch, Weber came to view re-
ligion, politics, and the law as key overlapping spheres directly impacting the socioeconomic
transformation of Germany and other countries (Morrison 2006:7).
Both Durkheim and Weber were clearly dissatisfied with the largely philosophical and/or
purely economic approaches that had been offered by other social theorists in the study of
industrial societies. Along these lines, they both viewed utopian socialist, scientific socialist,
communist, Social Darwinist, and social psychological theories as insufficient for describing
modern urban life. Instead, they proposed structural-functional approaches for investigating
macro-socioeconomic institutions that transcended or went beyond social class interests and
individual merit and concerns. Notably, both theorists emphasized social cosmologies based
on grand unifying concepts and multiple interrelated social factors that deemphasized social
class antagonisms and other sources of purely economic conflict highlighted by theorists such
as Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.
Durkheim focused his research on society as a holistic entitywhich emerged as central to
his theoretical paradigm because no individual is sufficient unto himself. As Durkheim ob-
served, It is from society that he (man) receives all that is needful, just as it is for society that
he labors (Durkheim 1984:173). In this regard, members of society are linked together in
various ways that often (though not always) transcend or supersede social class distinctions.
Weber similarly emphasized the existence of numerous overlapping spheres in the political,
legal, economic, and religious realms that collectively impact societal development, while often
transcending social class and status groupings. As he noted in Economy and Society (1914),
The interpretive understanding of human social action is paramount in the study of society
(quoted in Morris 2006:348).
Durkheimian Perspectives of Society
First and foremost, Durkheim was a social realist (or rationalist) that emphasized the ob-
jective existence of scientifically verifiable social realties, not dependent upon individual actions
or perceptions (Morrison 2006:152; Lukes in Durkheim 1982:3). Every society is filled with
various social facts and other collective elements that exist as real things and are external
to the individual (Durkheim 1982:51). Such social facts consist of various types of acting,
thinking, and feeling that reflect societys coercive power over individuals in constraining
their personal behavior (Durkheim 1982:52). In this respect, society is the result of social facts
taking precedence over individual idiosyncrasies or other internal psychological facts. While
some social facts are material (e.g., society, religion, government), others are nonmaterial (e.g.,
morality, collective conscience, social currents) (Ritzer 2000:7577; Lukes in Durkheim1982:7).
One example of an important social fact emphasized by Durkheim is social solidarity, which
refers to societys overall unity and common consciousness. Various social bonds link individuals
together in a given society, but are affected by changes in the mode of production. Durkheim
contended that modifications in the social division of labor occur as societies progress from
artisanal to industrial modes of production (Coser in Durkheim 1984). As occupational duties
become more specialized and detailed in the modern production process, social solidarity is
impacted. The diminishing role of religion and related moral codes further transform social
solidarity. Along these lines, Durkheim described societies as evolving from a state in which
social solidarity is mechanical (i.e., based on common sources of identity and a shared value
system existing in rural/village-based feudal settings) to one that is organic (i.e., based on
differentiated sources of identity and specialized but interdependent roles found in urban/factory-
based capitalist settings) (Morrison 2006:160161; Hawkins 1994:464).
According to Durkheim, primitive rural societies with mechanical solidarity are more ho-
mogeneous, conformist, and tend to be banded together in segmented consanguineous clans
and castes. In such an environment, cooperative and non-specialized forms of labor are the
norm. Religious rites and other practices shared by the entire community greatly enhance
mechanical solidarity. But as labor tasks become more complex and fragmented in modern
factory settings, many of the old mechanical ties atrophy and dissipate (Durkheim
1984:127129). Durkheim argued that labor thus becomes disassociated from families and
friends; instead focusing on specialized job tasks and related occupational functions. New
organic forms of reciprocal dependency normally emerge as a result; with social links being
established primarily out of economic necessity rather than family/tribal ties (Durkheim
1984:160). These links are not simply ephemeral economic exchanges between financial actors,
but instead are indicative of interdependent functions that bind individuals to each other and
to society as a whole (Morrison 2006:160).
However, such an organic form of social cohesion is the ideal, but not always the reality in
modern societies. Durkheim emphasized that there are many potential social pathologies that
arise as an unintended consequence of the social division of labor. More specifically, he conten-
ded that the demise of communal social bonds and tribal linkages associated with mechanical
(pre-capitalist) forms of solidarity, together with economic crises in capitalist societies; sometimes
result in newabnormal societal maladies. Such problems include social disorganization, social
inequality, and anomie (or normlessness), leading to the forced division of labor. Durkheim
contended that the forced division of labor is inherently exploitative and can lead to downward
mobility for those at the lower end of the social hierarchy. Under such aberrational social
conditions, particular interest groups or social classes attempt to use their position for personal
advancement or enrichment by dominating other groups in society. Workers in the lower classes,
under such a scenario, may be compelled to work in jobs for which they are not suited, largely
out of economic necessity. Or in a related vein, such workers may be excluded from particular
professions by anachronistic biases or preferences that have nothing to do with ones actual
talents and skills.
Castes and classes, in this regard, can become constraining in a negative sense when more
powerful groups compel such a division of labor without any moral foundation; i.e., disreg-
arding the natural abilities of the workers and denying them the opportunity to achieve a pos-
ition that is commensurate to their abilities (Durkheim 1984:312313). Durkheim depicted
these problems as arising or becoming more acute during periods of serious economic downturns
or relatively rapid systemic transitions. Such crises can result in the erosion of social solidarity,
leading various interest groups to compete against each other, further disrupting the social
fabric of society (Durkheim 1984:311).
Weberian Perspectives of Society
Like Durkheim, Weber sought to apply many scientific concepts to the study of society, as he
looked for distinct patterns of behavior within particular civilizations. His emphasis on ration-
alization and rationality, for instance, highlighted the significance that he attached to ra-
tional means-end calculations undertaken by actors in largely capitalist industrial societies. In
this regard, activities and beliefs found in various spheres (including religion, politics, and the
law) are directly correlated with pragmatic and egoistic interests in the economy (Ritzer and
Goodman 1997:220). This emphasis on rational behavior is found extensively in Webers best-
known tome, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), in which he argued that
the Calvinist doctrine of predestination (i.e., otherworldly salvation or damnation being preor-
dained for all persons) has facilitated the development of a distinctly rational capitalist ethos
and organization of business in the West (Weber 2003:2122).
In contrast to Durkheim, Weber rejected the idea that the methodology of the natural sciences
should be applied en masse to the social sciences. He characterized such an empirical approach
as overly constraining and excessively scientific. Devising an eclectic middle-ground between
competing German schools of positivism and subjectivism, Weber sought to fuse scientific ob-
servation with a sociological understanding (verstehen) of human behavior and social life.
Though his concept of verstehen was certainly subjective to some extent, it was not based simply
on feelings or intuition but rather on intense and rigorous research. Correspondingly,
Weber emphasized the importance of causality; i.e., the existence of observable connections
and effects resulting from socio-historical phenomena (Ritzer and Goodman 2004:198202).
Weber argued, for instance, that there was a direct causal link between the development of
modern capitalism and the rational ethics of an ascetic Calvinist work ethic. As he noted,
the influence of certain religious ideas have played a direct role in the development of an
economic spirit, or the ethos of an economic system (Weber 2003:27).
Just as Durkheim sought to create and utilize conceptual tools (e.g., social facts) for investig-
ating society, Weber also sought to devise theoretical concepts that would facilitate an under-
standing of societal phenomena. Webers most significant conceptual tool in this regard was
the ideal type, which was intended to reflect the elemental and basic qualities of particular
social institutions. Such a fundamental typology of constructs was designed to encapsulate the
essential features of what is being studied in its pure form, rather than reflecting what may ac-
tually be observed in the field. Such ideal types serve as measuring rods for analyzing what
actually exists in reality. From a sociological standpoint, the differences between ideal types
and real cases are compared, with the goal of determining the cause of any deviations between
the two. As Weber explained, An ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one
or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less
present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena. These viewpoints are unified
into a conceptually pure mental construct that cannot be found empirically anywhere in
reality (Weber quoted in Ritzer and Goodman 2004:204).
As an example of such pure ideal types, Weber outlined three major forms of authority
that can legitimize power domination in a given society: traditional, charismatic, and legal-ra-
tional. Somewhat similar to Durkheims concept of mechanical solidarity, Weber contended
that primitive societies are distinguished by ritualistic observances of the eternal yesterday;
i.e., of the mores sanctified through the unimaginably ancient recognition and habitual orient-
ation to conform. He explained that such traditional authority is administered by a patriarch
that embodies tradition and for this reason commands personal loyalty fromhis subjects (Weber
in Curtis 1981:427). Weber maintained that in many societies charismatic authority eventually
emerges, which is based not on tradition but rather on the distinct personality of the ruler. Such
a ruler has an extraordinary and personal gift of grace (charisma) that inspires absolute
personal devotion in his followers. Under such conditions, the religious prophet or political
demagogue assumes absolute power on the strength of his own personal charismatic appeal
(Weber in Curtis 1981:427).
Ultimately, the more advanced rational societies legitimize authority and domination by
virtue of the belief in the validity of legal statute and functional competence based on rationally
created rules. Within such an ideal bureaucratic environment, obedience to authority is a
statutory obligation (i.e., based on rational laws) rather than simply a reflection of conformist
traditions or cults of personality. The bureaucrat, in this regard, is responsible for particular
occupational tasks and becomes a servant of the state rather than a servant of a patriarch
or demagogue (Weber in Curtis 1981:427). Bureaucracy, in this ideal sense, is organized hier-
archically with specific levels of authority, written rules, sanctions, and functions assigned to
each office. For this reason, Weber contended that bureaucratic organizations are capable of
attaining the highest degree of efficiency, and is in this sense formally the most rational known
means of exercising authority over human beings (Weber quoted in Ritzer and Goodman
Just as Durkheim contended that organic solidarity is not always fully achieved in industrial
societies, Weber noted that legal-rational authority is not always the predominant or exclusive
form of authority existing in the modern era. In the real world, he observed, there is often a
combination of all three forms of authority (Weber in Curtis 1981:428). As an ideal type, Weber
depicted bureaucracy as having certain advantages over previous administrative systems. At
the same time, he recognized that bureaucratization is often problematic and counterproductive
to individual liberty when actually implemented. Ironically, Weber viewed capitalism as the
best antidote to over-bureaucratization, which might otherwise lead to the dissipation of per-
sonal freedom (Ritzer and Goodman 2004:214216).
Durkheimian Perspectives Applied to the Internet
From a Durkheimian perspective, the Internet is a social fact that has transformed society in
numerous ways, from the workplace to the home. As a social fact, cyberspace is not dependent
in its existence upon any particular individual actions, psychological perceptions, or idiosyn-
crasies. Though liberating in many respects, the Internet also has exhibited a coercive power
over society by constraining personal behavior and mandating new ways of acting, thinking
and feeling (Durkheim1982:51), particularly at the workplace. The use of e-mail, for instance,
has become compulsory for countless millions of employees; thus profoundly modifying inter-
personal relations among and between workers. Indeed, new mandatory workplace functions
and labor specializations have emerged as a result of the Information Revolution. In Durkheims
view, society is akin to a biological organism, with solidarity in general being dependent
upon the functional activity of its specialized parts (Durkheim 1984:324). Like a biological
organism, the Internet has become intertwined throughout and within the various structures
and functions of society, thus compelling individuals to adjust and adapt accordingly. In this
regard, the Internet is akin to a rhizome; i.e., a subterranean stem lacking a definite beginning
or end that continues to grow in all directions, constantly building new connections while old
ones die (Froehling 1997:293).
Many of the Internets rules of conduct (e.g., technical protocols and online norms and
etiquette) were devised in online consensus-building discussions among the original digerati
(e.g., scientists and academicians who created the Internet and adapted it from its original
military incarnation to the civilian sector). Such rules, though mostly voluntary in an absolute
sense, are in Durkheims words clearly withdrawn from individual discretion (quoted in
Morrison 2006:189). Indeed, the creation and early development of the Internet represented a
truly significant occurrence of collective effervescence, a termthat Durkheimused to describe
such historic moments. In this regard, new social facts came together and congealed after the
digeratioperating with similar mindsets and residing within an interconnected scientific-cultural
milieuhad reached important decisions through electronic consensus. As Durkheim has con-
tended: Just as opposing states of consciousness are mutually enfeebling to one another,
identical states of consciousness, intermingling with one another, strengthen one another
The Internet has demonstrated the potential to generate new forms of social solidarity that
effectively accentuate and/or synthesize many mechanical and organic social bonds. As contem-
porary theorists have noted, interpersonal attachments have been created or strengthened by
computer-mediated forms of communication, though disparities in online accessibility (i.e.,
the digital divide) certainly have diminished such trends in many impoverished global envir-
In effect, the Internet has anointed a new technocratic oligarchy while marginalizing
the masses of humanity that lack affordable Internet access. Nonetheless, an increasingly large
number of persons living in technology-poor regions of the world are unable to use the tech-
nology to disseminate what they believe are accurate and sensitive representations of themselves
and their cultures (Lengel and Murphy 2001:194195).
In effect, the Internet has given rise to virtual communities, which are the social aggrega-
tions that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long
enough, with sufficient feeling, to formwebs of personal relationships in cyberspace (Howard
Rheingold, quoted in Foster 1997:24). According to Durkheim, communities by definition in-
volve strong voluntary bonds and reciprocal social relations. Thus, for virtual communities to
be genuine, members must have an identifiable sense of togetherness and a distinctive we-
feeling. Online contact alone is not sufficient for solidarity to occur, though the Internet and
other interactive technologies may facilitate the creation of virtual communities and social
For example, Bhalla (1996) argues that the so-called technology revolution is more myth than reality for many
developing nations.
bonds if other factors (e.g., shared social norms) are present. Along these lines, Foster (1997)
claims that the Internet possesses the dialectical capacity to synthesize the public self (Ge-
meinschaft) with the private self (Gesellschaft). Cyberspace magnifies this ability simultan-
eously to express the self and the other, the individual and the community, he contends (27).
Durkheim indicated that there is a significant danger of industrial societies falling prey to
anomie and other maladies that adversely affect social norms and weaken social bonds between
individuals and the community, particularly when undergoing relatively rapid systemic trans-
itions. In particular, Durkheim contended that the forced division of labor could lead to
downward mobility for those at the lower end of the social hierarchy (Durkheim1984:312313).
In the case of the Information Revolution, tech-savvy elites often use their knowledge-based
positions for personal advancement or enrichment by exploiting or excluding the digital have-
nots and other technologically deficient groups in society. It is therefore imperative, Durkheim
notes, that society has the capability for constructing a general consensus to avoid or minimize
such dysfunctions (Durkheim 1984:316).
To some extent, Durkheim seemed to blame urbanization for such problems in his day,
noting that personal bonds become rare and weak as population density increases in cites.
He observed that social ties undergo a shift from communities of necessity in rural settings
to elective affinities in urban environs (Inglehart and Welzel 2005:29). As a result, individuals
more easily lose sight of one another, with various social problems emerging as a result
(Durkheim quoted in Morrison 2006:167). Durkheims prescription for such difficulties was
to reformthe social systemthrough the strengthening of interdependent organic corporations
based on occupation. By corporation, he meant, all those working in the same industry, as-
sembled together and organized in a single body (Durkheim in Grusky 2001:178).
In the contemporary postindustrial era, the Internet and other forms of computer-mediated
communication have generated the capability to facilitate the creation of various new organic
bonds, albeit in a mostly virtual environment. Indeed, many new networks of professional/oc-
cupational cohort groups, as well as various subcultures and social movements, have crystallized
and flourished in cyberspace. Individuals and groups are able to formcybernetworks voluntarily
for the purpose of exchanges, including resource transactions and relations reinforcements
(Lin 2001:212). Such cybernetworks effectively provide social capital in the sense that that
they carry resources that go beyond mere information purposes (215). From the earliest days
of the civilian/academic Internet, collaborative voluntary organizations such as the Internet
Society (ISOC) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) rendered decisions regarding
cyberspace management and engineering protocols by achieving a rough consensus (Gould
2000). More recently, American political blog sites such as The Daily Kos and The Huffington
Post have generated unofficial political platforms through electronic consensus, which formed
in opposition to the conservative status quo of the Bush years. In turn, conservative social media
sites have flourished in opposition to the reputedly liberal policies of the Obama Administration,
including websites such as Newsmax and The Drudge Report.
Significantly, various online social networking sites (SNSs) have enabled like-minded members
to connect one-on-one, thereby forging expansive networks based on friendly consensus
building. Within the past decade, social networking services such as Facebook, MySpace, and
Twitter, have risen to the digital forefront through the use of highly novel, user-driven, profiling
systems. In spite of their underlying technological complexity, SNSs have a simple missionnet-
work through existing and compound relations (i.e., friends of friends) (Murthy 2008:844).
In this regard, online network members can easily search for current or prospective friends.
Such browsing is largely automated and based on relevant demographic factors such as loc-
ation, school affiliation, age, ethnicity, gender, religion, political ideology, income, and sexual
orientation. Social networking services have enabled like-minded members to connect one-on-
one, thereby forging expansive networks based on friendly consensus building. The relatively
high levels of immediacy, intimacy, and communal interactivity found on social networking
sites tend to enhance interpersonal performances and impression management. Members of
such sites effectively contextualize their online personas by uploading photographs to their
profile page, selecting popular songs and video clips to be featured for public perusal, listing
their interests and activities, and leaving public comments on other friends pages that may in-
clude selected images, videos, or web links (Tufekci 2008).
It is important to note that becoming someones Facebook friend or Twitter follower
does not necessarily result in any meaningful communication. Indeed, social media participants
often seek to collect as many friends or followers as possible; thus friendship on social
networking sites can be completely superficial in some instances. Nonetheless, millions of people
worldwide are reconnecting online with lost friends and acquaintances that they knew in
the offline world years ago, thereby expanding their social networks exponentially. The devel-
opment of such virtual networks, which often are more expansive than offline networks, could
be characterized as the next big step in the evolutionary development of social solidarity. As
Durkheim noted, social bonds ideally are reconfigured as societies evolve from simple to more
complex states (1984:310311).
In theory, the Internet could strengthen mechanical social bonds existing in developing soci-
eties, thereby reinvigorating indigenous tribal cultures whose very survival has been threatened
by the encroaching forces of globalization. In point of fact, various indigenous rights movements
in developing countries such as Mexico, China, Guatemala, Myanmar, Brazil, India, and Ecuador
have utilized the Internet in recent years to disseminate information about their respective cul-
tures and concerns. Many such movements (e.g., Zapatistas/Mayans in Mexico, Tibetan freedom
activists in China) have established meaningful connections with diasporic cohorts and supporters
in non-governmental organizations via cyberspace. Notably, MySpace users often join group
sites, and Facebook members frequently affiliate with causes, devoted to various social
movements, including those on behalf of indigenous rights. On such sites, members who are
situated in a variety of geographic locales express their common concerns and post comments
in a highly interactive format, with discussion and debate often ensuing.
As Durkheim has noted, communities situated in preindustrial milieus tend to band together
in interconnected segmented clans (Durkheim 1984:127129). Over the centuries, such
multiple clan connections have become what Durkheim termed polysegmentals (Morrison
2006:198). As an inherently polycentric and interdependent communication medium, the Internet
is in many respects similar to the tribal structures described by Durkheim. Notably, Rheingold
(2002) has described the newest wave of 21
century cybernetic human interaction as e-tribal-
ism, with members of various thumb tribes essentially linked together through networked
handheld computers and smart cell phones, often aware of each others precise physical
location through texting and geographic positioning systems (GPS). In effect, SNSs and other
computer-mediated applications potentially can strengthen both the more intimate bonding
ties found within a localized community, and the relatively looser bridging ties that are
prevalent within a more borderless association of like-minded peers. Thus, a single thumb-tribe
could consist of family members, close friendsboth old and new, acquaintances, and individuals
who have established reciprocal relationships in cyberspace but have never met in person. As
a consequence of SNSs and other information technologies, both social bonding and social
bridging are no longer limited by time and space. Accordingly, it is no wonder that many
young people in particular use SNSs principally to maintain contact with their peers and to
become acquainted with new people (Brandtzaeg et al. 2010:1718).
Recent revolutionary events in the Middle East and North Africa have illustrated such e-tri-
balism, which has facilitated the crystallization of diverse grassroots movements acting in op-
position to traditional authoritarian elites. Dubbed the Arab Spring (or Arab Rebellion), the
wave of revolutions that swept the old guard from power in Tunisia and Egypt were both
transnational and transformational, involving a sustained campaign of relatively non-violent
tactics such as strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins, marches, and rallies. FromArab Springs inception,
the mostly youthful participants made extensive use of social media including Twitter, Facebook,
and YouTube. Viewed as emblematic of globalization, such online networks facilitated the
mobilization of social movement participants, and aided in the coordination of civil resistance
The youthful protestors of Arab Spring were labeled a global generationrather than simply
Muslim youth or Arab nationalists. Indeed, Arab Spring participants reportedly shared a
feeling a connectivity that includes but is not limited to social media and a striking sense of
global citizenship, itself a product of technological change and expanding networks of commu-
nication (Coll 2011:1). One of the main strengths of social media and other information
technologies in sparking such political protest movements is that many different individuals
and groups are easily able to propagate and propagandize for their cause outside the media
and norms traditionally instituted by the pre-Internet society (Kahn and Kellner 2003:300).
Weberian Perspectives Applied to the Internet
Invoking a Weberian perspective, the origins and development of the Internet can be depicted
as the result of an ascendant and largely esoteric ideology that has become the contemporary
equivalent of the Protestant work ethic. Indeed, several contemporary theorists (e.g., Rheingold
2002; Uimonen 2003) have dubbed this overarching cyberspace philosophy, the ethos of the
Internet, which dates back to a highly idealistic countercultural perspective embraced by many
pioneers of digital technology in the 1960s and early seventies. Invoking an anti-authoritarian
libertarian ideal, the Internet ethos depicts cyberspace as a unique electronic frontier, one that
steadfastly resists any and all attempts at governmental control or state-imposed regulation
and economic monopolization. As an ideal type, the Internet facilitates the transmission of in-
formational and technical resources to entrepreneurs and other go-getters, due in large measure
to its decentralized character.
However, this new ethos also has a metaphysical communal side; with the Internet being
described as a diffuse parallel universe that effectively links individuals who hold similar interests
and concerns, regardless of their national origin or locale. Based on such cosmopolitan logic,
entering cyberspace essentially transforms national citizens into global netizens, imbued with
unique characteristics and prerogatives unrestrained by physical space or time. From a
Weberian vantage point, the rigorous workload of the digerati who established much of the
original Internet infrastructure and related industries reflects a tireless asceticism that
envisions both monetary reward on earth and otherworldly acclaim in cyberspace. A kind
of causal relationship exists between communal recognition in the ethereal world of the inform-
ation society on the one hand, and individual financial gain in the capitalist system on the
other, which serves as definitive proof of such cyberspace acclaim.
In this regard, cyberspaces cosmopolitanism is a quasi-religious form of predestination that
is semi-messianic in character. This new postmodern ethic has encouraged the development of
an individualistic-libertarian spirit that encourages short-termsacrifice in the formof an incred-
ibly heavy workload, combined with occupational piety. The fact that American scientists
primarily invented the Internet and an Englishman created the World Wide Web (while in
Switzerland) would only seem to reinforce Webers thesis that there is something uniquely ex-
ceptional about the Western-Protestant mindset and its cultural tableau. Notably, unemployment
and poverty in todays world are often linked to technological illiteracy and the corresponding
digital divide, thereby reinforcing the importance of a new ethos of technological predestin-
ation; i.e., either salvation or damnation.
In Weberian terms, cyberspace is a highly rational ideal type, with individuals and firms
employing precise means-end calculations in their web-based marketing and promotional
strategies. With many-to-many media outlets via the web, business and commerce promo-
tionsas in spam, pop-ups, etc.-have become ubiquitous. The Internet has dramatically increased
the level and scope of economic competition amongst firms, due in part to the plethora of online
distributors and elimination of many middlemen through direct online transactions. Profiles
of consumers by businesses are nowthe norm, with bits of information compiled surreptitiously
from online corporate surveillance. Thus, the libertarian ideal of an electronic frontier appears
to be at risk. Recent years have witnessed the gradual bureaucratization of cyberspace as a
result, with voluntary rules and protocols gradually being replaced by national and transnational
regulatory regimes.
The charismatic authority of highly successful and seemingly messianic pioneers
such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, and Michael Dell remains signi-
ficant, but appears to be in decline when viewed fromthe total realmof the information society.
Certainly, such men are often depicted as exemplary larger-than-life figures or technological
prophets that inspire personal devotion in their followers. As Weber contended, traditional
religious values have an enduring influence (Inglehart and Welzel 2005:21), even after being
reframed within the context of otherwise rational societies and social structures. The transference
of value-laden characteristics such as messianism, asceticism, hard work, and enlightenment
fromtraditional Calvinismto a newbreed of techno-prophets and their followers is noteworthy.
Postman (1993) has observed that the postindustrial deification of technology has generated
a new kind of social order (technopoly) that is devoid of traditional checks and balances in
the political realm. Barber (1996) echoes this concern, noting that the reputedly neutral tool
of technology has become an instrument of oppression and disenfranchisement. He warns of
privacy rights eroding further as a result of public and private sector electronic surveillance.
Rather than heralding a new era of unrestricted media expression, Barber argues that the In-
formation Age has witnessed an unprecedented corporate takeover of most media and enter-
tainment outlets, including the gateways and tollbooths of the information superhighway
However, rational-legal authority increasingly has intruded into what was once the pristine,
untamed wilderness of the electronic frontier, given the relatively recent reality of the Net be-
coming a worldwide phenomenon. Probably the best example of a powerful, rational-legal
regulatory body in this regard is the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers
(ICANN), responsible for managing the Nets global domain name system(DNS) and mediating
domain-name disputes between firms. Ostensibly nongovernmental, though licensed directly
by the U.S. Department of Commerce, ICANNis often accused of favoring American corporate
and political interests over West European and especially Third World concerns. Most signific-
antly, the root zone file-a master list of all registered numbered sites on the Internet Protocol
System (IPS)-is managed by ICANN but ultimately controlled by the U.S. government.
Many contemporary theorists postulate that a borderless Internet necessitates a more direct
systemof regulatory action by intergovernmental bodies.
Milton Mueller (2010),
for instance,
has been very critical of ICANN and the U.S. hegemonic self-regulating system, arguing in
favor of a more multilateral and internationalized arrangement. Though some regulation of
cyberspace is undoubtedly needed and necessary, Weber recognized that bureaucratization is
often counterproductive to individual freedom. Certainly, Weber would seek to achieve some
sort of a regulatory balance in this regard, so as to preserve cyberspaces entrepreneurial spirit
while at the same time insuring the maintenance of a relatively open-access system. Given the
systemic transition from an industrial to postindustrial society, structural changes in the gov-
ernance of the Internet are likely necessary from a Weberian vantage point. As Inglehart and
Welzel (2005) have observed, Industrialization gives rise to one major process of cultural
change: bringing bureaucratization and secularization. The rise of postindustrial society leads
to a second major process of cultural change: instead of rationalization, centralization, and
See Feld (2003) and Samuelson (2000).
Also see Drissel (2006).
bureaucratization, the new trend is toward increasing emphasis on individual autonomy and
self-expression values (25).
In his writings, Weber focused a great deal on social status; i.e., the prestige or honor attached
to ones position in society; noting that societies are often organized in terms of social status
hierarchies. In this respect, social stratification in a given society is partly the result of variations
and disparities in status-based prestige; which is primarily based on perceptions of lifestyle-
based proclivities and related conspicuous consumption patterns or lack thereof. As Weber
theorized, status situation refers to every typical component of the life of men that is de-
termined by a specific positive or negative, social estimation of honor (quoted in Ritzer and
Goodman 1997:212).
From this vantage point, social networking services such as Facebook and MySpace are very
status-driven, often creating new social hierarchies and reinforcing existing forms of offline
social stratification based on lifestyle. By creating personal profile pages via such sites, users
essentially type oneself into being (Sundn, 2003:3), thus visibly staging ones own self-
presentation and constructing status-based public identities in a highly interactive online envir-
onment. Indeed, what makes SNSs distinctive and transformative is not that they allow indi-
viduals to meet strangers, but rather that they enable users to articulate and make visible their
social networks (Boyd and Elisson 2007). Members of social networking sites often strive to
impress or influence others in some capacity, particularly among their current or prospective
group of computer-mediated friends. Many types of presumably non-financial, online per-
formances accord hierarchical-based status or notoriety, including adding or accepting someone
as a friend, visibly displaying the number of friends on a given profile page (with large
numbers of friends accruing greater status), and revealing in ranked order ones top
friendswhich are accorded relatively higher status than other friends on a given profile page.
In addition, the typical online social network member frequently and instantaneously dissem-
inates various status updates and bulletins to all of their networked friends, thereby enabling
discursive performances to be witnessed by large numbers of people in cyberspace. Status updates
on Facebook in particular are intended to generate acclaim from like-minded peers, with the
electronic option of hitting a like button conferring greater or lesser prestige on a given friend.
Bulletins, web links, and videos are often forwarded from multiple parties in an extended net-
work (i.e., friends of friends), thus potentially generating status-based acclaim beyond the ori-
ginal friend-based network. However, the senders of such messages tend to forward them fre-
quently to like-minded peers, but are not particularly concerned about the reliability or accuracy
of a given messages content. In fact, senders often exhibit reduced constraints about the
type of messages they send electronically, particularly in comparison to print and phone messages
(Kibby 2005:771). From a Weberian vantage point, such behaviors are indicative of the struc-
tural transformation that has occurred in modern (and postmodern) society, with values such
as individualism, status seeking, and risk-taking becoming more pronounced. Just as these
values initially fueled the development and expansion of capitalism (Weber 2003), they are
nowfacilitating the growth of online social networks and related electronic forms of commerce,
political activism, and other pursuits.
Never before in the history of humanity has a communications medium evidenced such high
levels of interpersonal interactivity, informational storage and retrieval capacity, and transna-
tional commercial and networking potential as the Internet. Based on electronic connections
between countless millions of computers, servers, and local networks located around the globe,
the Internet is linked by technical protocols that are both highly synchronized and decentralized.
Cyberspace, that otherworldly sphere created by the Internet, exists in real time as millions of
individuals are wired into its everyday material applications. The Internet has almost completely
blurred the distinction between the producers and consumers of technology, contributing directly
to heightened levels of technological diffusion, organizational innovation, and international
competition. Consumers frequently adapt and expand upon new technologies and related or-
ganizational strategies, with such innovations quickly adopted by many firms, government
agencies, and non-governmental organizations.
As has been demonstrated in this paper, the structural-functional theories of Durkheim and
Weber have a great deal of relevancy and applicability to the Information Age, particularly re-
garding the forging and strengthening of interpersonal connections linked to virtual settings.
In the phraseology of Durkheim, the Internet is a social fact that has had a transformative impact
on numerous social structures. Paraphrasing Weber, cyberspace is an ideal type, which has real-
world applications in numerous situations. Indeed, the Net has revolutionized many disparate
social structures, including the media, social networking, social movement activism, political
campaigning, stock market transactions, banking, commercial transportation, public education,
academic research, courtship and dating, shopping, workplace interaction, recorded music,
games and recreation, and travel and tourism.
Invoking Durkheims perspective, cyberspace is a public resource, a global commons in which
information and knowledge should be shared without rigid boundaries. In this regard, the
Durkheimian approach tends to emphasize the cosmopolitan side of the Internet ethos, which
envisions organic communal ties and social bonds forged in online settings. Over the years,
countless millions of virtual communities have been established in cyberspace. Citizenship
in such communities tends to empower groups that would otherwise be more directly oppressed
by hegemonic elites. However, the communal ideal of the Internet has been threatened by the
plutocratic-corporatist project of the Global North, through the inherently selfish, monopolistic
forces that have reputedly seized and hoarded the Nets technological infrastructure. Thus, the
labor market undergoes compulsory specialization, which can further erode social solidarity.
Stressing sociopolitical and technical realities, the Durkheimian perspective envisions the
global democratization of cyberspace.
In contrast, the Weberian model depicts the ethos of the Internet primarily as a modern-day
equivalent of the Protestant work ethic, which first crystallized and subsequently metastasized
in North America and Western Europe. In particular, occupations and companies that are de-
pendent on instantaneous access to information and knowledge have developed new esoteric
norms and values, based largely on an ideology that is both hyper-individualistic and ultra-
competitive. From a Weberian viewpoint, the Internet is viewed as a collection of economic
resources, easily accessed by those in the know. The decentralized-libertarian character of the
Net facilitates the transmission of information and technical resources to entrepreneurs, system-
atically bypassing anachronistic social structures. In many respects, this approach emphasizes
rational economic integration and self-governance of the Internet (including limited-bureaucracies
such as ICANN), to the exclusion of any kind of political/global amalgamation that might impose
top-down regulatory regimes.
In sum, Durkheimand Weber both experienced socioeconomic and technological transitions
in the Industrial Revolution that are indeed comparable to the contemporary postindustrial
Information Revolution. Consequently, the two men developed social theories that have survived
the test of time. Both theorists stressed the importance of abandoning traditional ways of life
and embracing social change resulting from industrialization and urbanization. If Durkheim
and Weber were alive today, they would inevitably focus much of their study and theorizing
on the transformative social impact of the Internet.
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Prof. David Drissel: David Drissel is a professor of social sciences at Iowa Central Community
College in Fort Dodge, Iowa. His undergraduate work included a double major in political
science and sociology. His graduate studies focused on comparative politics, international rela-
tions, social change and development, and social movements. Research interests include
transnational social movements and computer-mediated communication, nations/states under-
going political/economic transition, youth subcultures and collective identities, the global
politics of Internet governance, juvenile delinquency and subterranean values, diasporic youth
and social networking, and the role of interactive media and popular culture in mobilizing social
networks. Professor Drissel is a two-time Fulbright Scholar who has studied extensively in
China and the Czech/Slovak Republics, among many other countries. A frequent speaker and
conference participant, he has had several papers published in various academic journals and
compilations. He is an alumnus of the Oxford (University) Roundtable in Great Britain, where
he presented a paper on Internet governance, which was later published in the Cambridge Review
of International Affairs.
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