Although many people in the computer world might scoff at social sciences like sociology, the field provides some valuable insights, especially to people building software meant to be used by groups. After all, sociology aims to explore the forces that affect people's values, attitudes and behaviors in an effort to better understand people and their motivations. As technology becomes increaginly social and interactive, understanding social processes has becomes a key part of developing these technologies. Here we'll take a look at some very basic sociological concepts that may apply to developers.
The term alienation literally means "no ties." In the context of sociology, a person who feels alienated feels no ties to anyone else, either to family members, friends or even entire societies. An alienated person might reach out to social media services like Twitter or Facebook in order to try to find some real connections to other people. (Some people argue that social media actually causes the problem. Learn more about it in Is Social Media Making Us Socially Awkward?)
A similar sociological term that's useful in understanding online behavior is anomie. Anomie means rejecting the norms of a society. In the online world, hackers and trolls are some of the most notorious notorious examples of this type of behavior. Another good example of an anomic group is 4chan’s infamous /b/ board. If you don’t know what it is, or you happen to be viewing this at work, let’s just say that it's all the things you'd expect from an anonymous board: sometimes funny, sometimes outrageous and sometimes in very, very bad taste. The posters on 4chan are quite adamant in rejecting the norms of society, to put it mildly. Note, however, that while a group like 4chan can be anomic, this one is not alienated. In fact, the members of the board have strong bonds, even if they remain anonymous.
Deviance refers to behavior that differs from what's considered normal for a group. Good examples of deviance online are trolls and griefers. Both of these notorious groups disrupt online interactions. Trolls disrupt online conversations by posting inflammatory messages designed to upset and anger legitimate users, while griefers invade online games and attempt to mess with the game mechanics. (Learn more about trolls in this infographic, The Psychology of an Internet Troll.)
While plenty of online pundits like to champion the Internet as a great equalizer, as George Orwell might have said, some users are more equal than others. On major social networking sites like Facebook, for example, women make up nearly half of the user base. That's about the same ratio you see out in the real world. Technical forums, on the other hand, tend to be male-dominated spaces. Reddit, a social news site popular with techies, has a user base that is 86.7 percent male.
Why is this? It's hard to say, but a number of scholars have argued that gender identity is as much a social construction as it is about physical differences. That means that what's considered acceptable can change over time. However, for developers looking to build something for a specific audience, they definitely have to know both what's acceptable and what's desirable for the gender of the audience for which they are creating products.
Race is always a controversial topic, both online and offline. As with gender, sociologists argue that it’s social construction. It’s also a function of social status. Many "white" people in the U.S. don’t even think of themselves as even belonging to a race. Instead, they have a tendency to believe that race is something that other groups have.
A Pew Research survey from 2008 found that white people and African-American people made up roughly equal numbers on the Internet. However, the most visible people in technical areas has traditionally been white people, although this has shifted in recent years. This is largely a function of class, as most people who have been able to obtain college education have been white, though universities have attempted to remedy this since the 1960s.
Of course, over-representation of any group in the tech industry and in Internet forums can only hurt the tech community in the long term, since it shuts out emerging viewpoints. Just look at how "Arab Spring" protesters have used social media to both gain visibility and topple oppressive governments.
Groups form hierarchies in a number of social groups, and the same is true online. Moderators obviously have high status, with the ability to control who participates. But some users, even if they don’t have real power, enjoy high status nevertheless. Longtime users are often treated with reverence, while newcomers are viewed with suspicion.
Sociologists will say that something is functional when it contributes to the maintenance of a group. The activity of forum moderators is functional in that they attempt to keep a forum useful for its participants. Coming back to trolls, their activity is dysfunctional, because they are disrupting group discussion.
It’s also useful to examine the manifest function and the latent function of a group. A manifest function for a forum for Linux users would be for them to obtain help with their systems; the latent function is to transmit cultural norms from experienced Linux users to new users.
Uses and Gratifications
Sociologists have identified certain types of uses and gratifications that media consumers gain from consuming media. Although the theory has been applied to TV and movies, it’s equally applicable to online media. Here are some of the key motivations that drive people in the online space:
- To experience the beautiful. Just browse Flickr sometime.
- To share experiences with others. This one is also fairly obvious. You can find examples just by perusing Facebook or Twitter.
- To satisfy curiosity and be informed. Admit it, you’ve probably googled lots of things you’re curious about.
- To identify with the deity and the divine plan. Even though atheism is fashionable in some corners of the Internet, lots of people still identify with the divine. Just look at how many people post "inspirational" items in Facebook.
- To find distraction and diversion. You’re killing time reading this, aren’t you?
- To experience empathy. You’ve probably commiserated with a friend on Facebook after she had a bad day at work at some point.
- To experience, in a guilt-free and controlled situation, extreme emotions, such as love and hate, the horrible and the terrible, and similar phenomena. There are lots of sites where people can rubberneck at some of the awful things in the world. Even though they can be pretty morbid, they actually serve to bind people together.
- To gain identity. As one famous New Yorker cartoon put it, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. People can easily remake themselves into anything they want to be.
- To gain information about the world. Why do you think all those news sites exist? Plus, you can get news from any city or country in the world.
- To reinforce belief in justice. It’s always fun to see some obnoxious guy get his comeuppance in a YouTube video.
- To reinforce belief in romantic love. Every so often, a story about a quirky wedding proposal goes viral.
- To reinforce belief in magic, the marvelous and the miraculous. Again, there’s lots of inspirational social media posts. In other communities, science serves this purpose.
- To see others' make mistakes. The reason Failblog exists.
- To see order imposed on the world. Keeping up with what’s going on in the world via social media can help us feel that the world is a rational, orderly place.
- To participate vicariously in history. Tweeting about breaking news events on Twitter may make us feel like we’re actually a part of them.
- To be purged of unpleasant emotions. It can feel good to vent about your life after a bad day, or blow away some enemies in your favorite first-person shooter.
- To obtain outlets for sexual drives in a guilt-free context. This is a work-safe site, so let’s just say there are plenty of ways to do that online.
- To explore taboo subjects with impunity and without risk. Same as above.
- To experience the ugly. People have a strange fascination with ugly images, even online.
- To see villains in action. Trolls and other nasty online characters can manage to attract followings.
Sociology and Beyond
This article can explain only some basic sociological concepts, but it does show how technologists can benefit from the study of sociology. There are plenty of resources, both online and off, for those interested in the field. If you're interested in digging deeper, check out the sociological analysis chapter in Arthur Asa Berger’s "Media Analysis Techniques". You might also want to check out "Introduction to Sociology", a free online sociology textbook.