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"... a democratisation of publishing"

The Sociology of the Internet -
Human Rights and Online Communities

Deirdre Ní Chuanacháin, MA
Cork, Ireland 


The growth of the Internet has provided sociologists' and students' of Sociology with a tool for undertaking sociological research allied to the relatively new area for sociological investigation in the emerging portal of the sociology of cyberspace. The Internet has allowed for communication to occur between people who in the past would have been unable to do so. It has seen the evolution of a democratisation of publishing, those with access to the Internet have the potentiality to communicate with a global audience of millions of people and can virtually publish anything they wish. Computer-Mediated Communication and the ability to publish through web pages and newsgroups has brought people together in areas of every interest or concern with the resultant emergence of omnipresent sections of 'virtual communities' or 'online communities'. Viewpoints on the significance of such communities vary greatly, yet it is certain that the development of the Internet has brought about means of communication and co-operation unfettered by geographical boundaries which was not possible previously on such a large scale. Whichever of the collection of metaphors we may choose to use 'cyberspace', 'the net', 'online' and 'the web' when speaking about computer network technology, it is predicated on the belief that "computer networks allow people to create a range of new social spaces in which to meet and interact with one another". Smith & Kollock (1999: 3). The questions raised by the growth of online communities may be outlined as follows:

A. What is the level of individual members' commitment to them? When community membership is pivoted on subscribing or unsubscribing to a newsgroup or bulletin board, is the form of interaction different because people can opt out of virtual community with little consequence?

B. What do we mean by community and by extension what do we mean by community as structured by new technologies?. Is community sited in conversation and interaction? and if this is so what are the results for our longterm conceptions of community whether conversation and interaction occurs in face-to-face settings, by email or through the world wide web?

C. Does the Net increase community diversity?

D. Are online communities "real" communities?

E. If a specific category of people, for example, human rights activists use the Internet to communicate their message and ideas, how may they be said to act in some sense collectively to impart ideas, disseminate on areas of mutual concern and achieve structured goals?

Human Rights Activism and Online Communities

The filigrees of growth of online communities has opened a vista of communication for those concerned with Human and Civil Rights Issues. I have as part of a research program compiled a questionnaire of some ten questions which accompanyies this article, in it I seek to look at how people with concerns about human rights worldwide, interact and communicate with each other via the Internet, how in essence the Internet nurtures issues. As an example, can concerned citizens of cyberspace access information on human and civil rights issues which they perceive to be under represented or mis-represented in mainstream media?, how are people informed by or altered by their engagement online with human rights discussion forums etc.?

The twentieth century has bequeath to us the language of Human Rights. Words such as genocide, peaceful penetration, ethical foreign policy, constructive engagement have become part of the lexicon we hear or read daily. The internet provides human rights groups, activists, concerned individuals' with the opportunity to engage with this language to wrestle with it and achieve practical benefits from it. Thus, my empirical work in progress seeks to unearth those practical benefits and their potentialities for Human and Civil Rights in the 21st century. 

Work Cited -- Smith and Kollock, 1999.  Communities in Cyberspace

Click here to see questionnaire.

Published in In Motion Magazine February 28, 2000.

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