Consumption and the Internet Essay

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The study of consumption within the social sciences has been recently extended to include consumption of and on the Internet. Mass adoption of the Internet in the early to mid-1990s throughout western countries and beyond raises new questions about consumer culture, as the Internet facilitates the shift from mass to specialized, flexible, and dispersed forms of consumption. Taking ”the Internet as a ”black box, a technology diffusing through the marketplace and into workplaces, homes, schools, and communities, some research asks how the Internet itself is being consumed: can the spread of the Internet be understood like the diffusion of any other consumer good and is there a widening or lessening ”digital divide akin to other social inequalities? Other research inquires into the many and diverse goods and services made available through the Internet: does e-commerce from business to consumers work in similar ways to high street shopping? Or, more broadly, what are the emerging cultural and social practices by which online content/services are consumed by users?

As ”Internet studies (itself a contested label) attracts the attention of multiple disciplines, consumption studies must negotiate its contribution in this research agenda, including negotiating the ”optimistic /”pessimistic opposition that shaped the early phase of ”Internet studies. Some ask whether the Internet affords new and emancipatory possibilities that can liberate people from well-established and hierarchical practices of material and symbolic consumption ”offline. Research reveals some democratizing effects as a function of the Internet s heterarchical, even anarchic network structure, including positive implications for construction of identities in a domain where anonymity, expressiveness, experimentation, and tolerance shape the field of consumption. As consumers become “prosumers” — a hybrid of producers and consumers — what is the creative or democratic potential of online consumption practices?

More pessimistically, researchers show that the Internet affords new forms of commercial exploitation and social control, again extending and developing practices of production, distribution, and consumption offline to the online domain. This includes risks associated with the commercial or state invasion of privacy, the exploitation of personal data, opportunities to monitor, target or exploit consumers, and the reproduction of social inequality and exclusion online as offline.

The field has moved on from the assumption of a separate domain called ”cyberspace or a clear virtual/real distinction, leaving behind simple assertions of technological determinism (asking about the impacts or effects of the Internet on consumption) in favor of either a social determinism (stressing the importance of the offline context in shaping online consumption practices) or a ”soft technological determinism (seeking to understand in a more subtle and careful manner just whether and how consumption online differs from consumption offline, supplementing and diversifying the possibilities and practices of consumption in general).

Consumption online is integrated into daily life. While the material and symbolic conditions of consumption on the Internet may differ, they are not of a different order from offline consumption. Online, the (re)emergence of familiar cultural norms and social conventions is apparent, though for a minority of engaged consumers, radical or alternative forms of consumption, communication, community building and new digital literacies are also evident. Online too, the signs are growing that the emancipatory potential of the Internet is subject to increasing attempts to privatize, commercialize, control, and profit from the activities of consumers online, some defended under a ”neoliberal   freeing of the market, on- as offline, others contested as incursions into public freedoms, privacy, and rights.


  1. Lievrouw, L. & Livingstone, S. (eds.) (2006). Handbook ofNew Media: Social Shaping and Social Consequences, updated student edn. Sage, London.
  2. Miller, D. & Slater, D. (2000) The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. Berg, London.
  3. Wellman, B. & Haythornthwaite, C. (eds.) (2002) The Internet in Everyday Life. Blackwell, Malden, MA.

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