Sociology on the World Wide Web

by William Sims Bainbridge

Social Science Computer Review 13:4, Winter 1995.


The future universal distributed digital library is already foreshadowed by the availability over the World Wide Web of two massive social data sets, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics and the Public Use Microdata Samples of historical censuses. Scholarly publication on the net is illustrated by the Electronic Journal of Sociology and the Journal of World-Systems Research. Both of these developments have the potential to enhance scientific progress and equality of access to the cutting edge of science. Sociologists are only beginning to become critical of the potential social harm of the universal net, however, and to take advantage of research opportunities to study net society. For an example of the potential vitality of social life on the net, this essay ends by sketching the activity of new religious movements on the World Wide Web. Keywords: sociology, computing, telecommunications. World Wide Web, research, religious movements.

Sociology on the World Wide Web

In 1994 and 1995, the World Wide Web system based upon Internet has become a significant medium of communication for sociologists, and extrapolation of present trends suggests it may swiftly become the essential fabric of sociology's existence. The central components of the future universal sociological web will be the digital libraries that archive and disseminate social data and the electronic journals and less formal communication structures that distribute scientific results and ideas. It may or may not be good for sociology to be reticulated - that is, formed into a net - and events are moving so swiftly that this may be the last moment to raise serious questions about the potential dangers of this transformation. In particular, it is not clear whether status differentials would decrease, virtual sociological communities would evolve, or social criticism would be adequate to the challenge. These reservations aside, the development of the net offers sociologists vast new opportunities for research.

Data Archiving and Dissemination

With support from the National Science Foundation, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a series of six demonstration digital libraries are being created at six major research universities (Bainbridge, 1995; Lipkin, 1995). Two of the six are directly connected to the social sciences. Carnegie-Mellon University is developing automatic indexing systems for audio-visual material that would facilitate research with mass-media or interview data, and CMU is also exploring the best means for charging customers for the use of a digital library. The University of California at Santa Barbara is building on NSF-supported work in geographical information systems to create the virtual, universal atlas of the future, combining physical and social information at many different map scales. Systems under development at the other four digital libraries do not relate initially to the social sciences, but they are developing generalized technologies that will transform all scientific fields. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is pioneering net-based journals; the universities of Michigan and California at Berkeley are developing methods for managing earth science and environmental data, and Stanford University is working on methods for combining all of these into one integrated system.

The first progress reports of the six digital libraries indicate that all are moving forward rapidly. Even before any of them have gone online, however, we can already find hints of the information universe of the future on today's World Wide Web. The web has been called "the universe of network-accessible information, an embodiment of human knowledge" (Hayes, 1994, p. 416), and already substantial fractions of that knowledge can be accessed with ease, using NCSA Mosaic, Netscape Navigator, or some other web browser.

Among the most important data sets for sociologists is the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which has been tracking a set of families and their children since 1968. The PSID is administered by the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan, which has recently launched a World Wide Web service. All of the primary data files, from 1968 through 1991, are ready to download. The largest is just under 3MB in compressed format, and the combined file is 9MB compressed and 22MB when decompressed. There are also several supplementary data sets, extensive documentation for each file, issues of the PSID newsletter, and a bibliography of all related publications and working papers, categorized under 39 headings. The PSID is among the largest sociological data sets, and because all of it will fill only a fraction of an ordinary CD-ROM or PC hard disk one wonders whether there is any need to develop digital libraries, because apparently a very effective one already exists.

In fact, a larger sociological data resource is already available via the web from the Social History Research Lab of the University Minnesota: the Public Use Microdata Samples of the American censuses (PUMS). The earliest dates from 1850 and was created under an NSF grant to Russell R. Menard and Steven Ruggles. A mere 5MB, with another half MB for the codebook, this is a 1% sample of the manuscript schedules of the first U.S. census that collected data primarily about individuals rather than family units. The 1% PUMS from 1990, in contrast, fills more than 68MB. All of the PUMS files catalogued on the web service total about 425MB. Most files are transmitted in a standard UNIX compressed format, but the smaller files may also be transmitted uncompressed for users without ready access to UNIX. A recent article in Wired magazine calls Ruggles "the King of Quant" - that is, the leader of quantitative historical demography - and says, "Ruggles's mission, like that of all revolutionaries, is to change the way we see society and ourselves" (Rettig, 1995, p. 86). His vision with respect to the old census data is to create IPUMS, "the largest [data set] ever released for the public study of a human population," an Integrated PUMS that brings all the different census years together with a single data structure and codebook and maximum comparability of variables across years.

The database project that has received the most sociology support over the years is the General Social Survey. Since 1972, this roughly annual survey of 1,500 Americans has amassed a great variety of data on attitudes and the changing structures of the family, employment, and participation in community activities. At present, the only part of the GSS that is available on the web is the index of variables, but this is a very useful tool. The National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago (NORC), which runs the GSS, has done an excellent job identifying which variables from the survey are used in each of the publications based on it. The computerized index allows a student or researcher to find which publications use any combination of variables, thus creating an instant literature review for any new GSS-based research project he or she is contemplating.

The National Science Foundation has just made fresh grants to Tom W. Smith at NORC and to Richard Rockwell at the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research to develop prototype Internet services based on the GSS. As the award abstract states, "These services will provide facilities for hypertext viewing and searching of complete survey documentation, customized and documented extracts from data sets, statistical analysis, and File Transfer Protocol delivery of full or extracted data sets. The General Social Survey is an ideal source of survey material to develop the system, because it is a highly diverse large data set of complex structure, extensively documented in terms of publications based on each item, and has already been the basis of more than three thousand scientific publications and dissertations. The system developed on the General Social Survey will then become the .standard not only for providing survey data over Internet, but also for research design and data collection in new surveys." Although the NSF Sociology Program manages the grant, money was also contributed by three programs in the NSF Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, and by a program in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources. Thus, a total of five varied programs were impressed by the great potential of this approach.

In the past, I have expressed some doubts whether the net is the right way to deliver large social-science data sets, including the GSS, which currently reaches users via traditional computer tape and microcomputer disks (Bainbridge, 1994). This GSS system will be just as valuable in CD-ROM form, however. A comparable data set, the National Election Study (supported by the Political Science program of NSF), is already available both over the net and on CD-ROM. Far more important, I think, is finding the right way to structure the data.

My image is a generalized system that begins with a draft of a questionnaire that is simultaneously the codebook. As the researchers write items, they also write explanations of the items linked via hypertext to the item itself. These explanations would give the history of the item if it had been used in earlier surveys (ideally with hypertext links to those earlier studies), a statement of what theoretical concept the item was supposed to measure, and links to other items in the survey that should be combined with the given item in constructing scales and assessing validity. This same system would be used to administer the survey, whether by phone, through face-to-face interview, or via computer system. As soon as the survey has been administered, the data would be ready for analysis. When working papers and publications are written, their variable usage, abstracts, and full text are added to the system. Of course, the researchers on the NORC/ICPSR/GSS project have their own individual visions of the future of data archiving (e.g., Rockwell, Harding, & Loots, 1995), but any variant of these ideas is nothing less than a revolution in survey research.

The concept of distributed archiving, facilitated by the World Wide Web, is a related revolution. Here is a modest image of the possible near-term future. ICPSR would help the various research universities organize their own computerized data archives and maintains the master catalogue. Michigan is the primary site for the PSID, Minnesota for the IPUMS, and Chicago for the GSS. For safety and convenience, each data set is maintained at several sites. (The cost of the data storage medium is trivial, compared to the cost of other elements of the system.) By custom, the university that originates a data set puts it on the net first, with some partner universities automatically copying and preserving it. Some archives also exist that specialize in particular kinds of data; for example, the Murray Center at Harvard collects biographical and life-course data. If the system described in the previous paragraph works properly, some data sets will be archived within a few days of completion, for anybody to use immediately. Data sets created under more focused research grants to individual investigators will be embargoed for a set period of time (usually 1 year after expiration of the grant) before release to the public, to permit the investigators to complete a few publications. The next revolution will come after a substantial fraction of the world's population is on the net, when the most expensive phase of surveys - asking questions of the respondents - can take advantage of the same low cost that will be achieved in archiving and disseminating their answers.

Electronic Collaboration and Publishing

Like net archiving, electronic publishing of research reports and other sociological literature has begun. The Australian National University social sciences web server offers a register of leading social science electronic journals, including the peer-reviewed, copyright Electronic Journal of Sociology, issued from the University of Alberta in Canada. The University of Colorado in collaboration with Christopher Chase-Dunn at Johns Hopkins University offers the Journal of World-Systems Research, which has become the central organ of the "world systems" school of thought. Among the material available is a book by Chase-Dunn, and a major aspect of future electronic communications will be the publication of serious academic volumes that will not have sufficient commercial potential to interest the cost-conscious academic book publishers. There is no telling how wide the range of electronic publications in sociology will become. West Chester University in Pennsylvania put on the web what appear to be the full texts of 26 term papers from a class on small-group behavior, some complete with low grades but all minus their authors' names.

Will the availability of data and prompt publication of results over the web increase sociological productivity? The elitist model of science holds that only a small number of scientists at any given time are capable of contributing significantly to progress (Cole & Cole, 1972; Cole, 1992). In its extreme form, this model predicts that science could get along perfectly well despite a substantial reduction in the number of scientists, and thus a vast increase in the number of participants in any scientific field, as might be caused by the web, is superfluous. Several studies do indicate that the most important work in several fields of science is accomplished by a small fraction of the scientists, but this could be simply because others are excluded from the intimate, informal communication that exists among the leaders (Crane, 1972). If leading scientists placed their rough drafts and preprints on the web, then everybody might have the advantage of being in touch with the cutting edge of the discipline, and thus able to contribute to it. This leaves open two empirical questions that only experience and research can answer. First, will leading scientists make their latest findings and theories available in a timely manner over the net? Second, if they do, will this enable a larger number of scientists to participate in cutting-edge research? One research study indicated that scientific collaborations can be maintained over the Internet, but they may need to be created in person (Carley & Wendt, 1991). For those who want to review the literature on this topic, the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication has placed Ian A. Rudy's large "Bibliography of Organizational Computer-Mediated Communication" on the web.

An important variable, undoubtedly, is how the Internet scientific communications are managed. Already, many of the public bulletin boards and newsgroups have become clogged with the useless chatter of people who have nothing to contribute to serious scientific debate, following a version of Gresham's law in which bad information drives out good information. The natural reaction of many scientists is to retreat into private discussion groups and restricted e-mailing lists (Chao, 1995).

The hypothesis that the net will increase information freedom and cultural diversity, rather than reduce them, however, is supported by the marginal or even radical quality of much of the sociology currently available. For example, the Progressive Sociologists Network (PSN), which started as a listserv in 1992, seeks to bring "together sociologists from all over the world concerned with progressive issues and values such as working class struggles, civil rights struggles, women's rights, racial and ethnic minorities' rights, community development, justice, ecological and environmental issues." Several participants are active in the Marxist Section of the American Sociological Association, but others approach these concerns from different perspectives. They say the PSN is "a source of information about professional and political matters (e.g., calls for papers, conference announcements, requests for support in a variety of political struggles within and outside academe), a forum for lively theoretical and political debates and, above all, a 'virtual cafe' where an international community of like-minded friends meets to comment on current affairs, and establish the basis for collegiality and friendship."

Connected to the PSN is the Marx and Engels Archive, complete with pictures of these bearded gentlemen and texts of a substantial fraction of their publications, from Marx's early love poems through The Communist Manifesto and Capital. The archive's self-description notes, "The demise of Progress Publishers in Moscow means M&E texts will probably become harder to find, and most certainly more expensive - driving the volumes out of the range of students and working people." The archive exists on a server of the University of Colorado, thus not requiring investment in hardware or a net connection to create, and the work of hand keying the text from printed pages is being carried out by volunteers.

Part of this Marx-Engels archive is duplicated on a server of Northern Illinois University, connected to the Critical Criminology Homepage sponsored by the NIU sociology department and the critical division of the American Society of Criminology. Radical criminology articles by department members are also ready to be downloaded. "Rethinking Abolitionism," by Jim Thomas and Sharon Boehlefeld, explores the unconventional view that prisons should be abolished. "Joe McCarthy in a Leisure Suit," by Jim Thomas and Gordon Meyer, reports on the unnecessary criminalization of the computer underground. "Recent state and federal legislation and law enforcement crackdowns, especially in Operation Sun Devil, a national purge not only of 'hackers,' but also of those who may possess information about them, has brought the battle for information control and constitutional rights into the hi-tech world of computer users."

NIU sociology professor Richard Quinney offers "The Existential Question, What Is Real." During the i96os, in Greenwich Village, Quinney was caught up in the radical intellectual currents of the most radical postwar decade. "One result was a book I called The Social Reality of Crime (1970). Shortly after its publication, Taylor, Walton, and Young, in their influential book The New Criminology, wrote about my efforts: 'Many of Quinney's statements about a theoretical orientation to the social reality of crime seem to be the product more of the author's own existential Angst than they are the result of clear-headed theoretical analysis' I remain to this day pleased with their observation. For one thing, I am happy to be counted among the existentialists. Albert Camus, I think of you daily. ('Mother died today, or maybe it was yesterday.') And secondly, 'clear-headed theoretical analysis,' abstract and removed from everyday life, is not something to which I aspire." Clearly, this is not the style of the American Sociological Review.

The Critical Criminology Homepage also offers access to a number of valuable resources in such areas as death penalty information resources, prison information and statistics, guns and crime control, federal legislation and documents, using the Freedom of Information Act, and prisoner litigation and court decisions. Also provided are links to the web sites of the United States Department of Justice, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Villanova Center for Information Law and Policy, which in turn provides links to almost every other conceivable federal government agency. Thus, even though these radical approaches are somewhat at odds with current American popular culture, the structure of the web integrates them with the most establishment institutions.

Sociology and Community

Sociology has always been fascinated with an image of ideal community, and yet sociologists themselves have seldom been very good citizens of their discipline's Gemeinschaft. Sociology departments that avoid dividing into factions generally do so by cultivating indifference and social isolation among the faculty. It is striking that very few local sociological associations exist. In a way, the rather active sociological association in Washington, DC, is the exception that proves the rule (and not merely in the sense of the original Latin word probare, meaning to test rather than to demonstrate). Only in the District of Columbia are there many sociologists employed as such outside academia who long for intellectual exchanges among peers and thus are willing to sustain an organization.

One could blame sociologists' irascible temperaments or their lack of social graces, but the real factor may be their low density. That is, in any particular city there are very few sociologists actively doing research in any given subdiscipline. With the rare exceptions of a handful of survey shops, sociological laboratories do not exist that might concentrate a critical mass of individuals working on related topics. To cover the standard undergraduate teaching curriculum, departments are forced to spread themselves thinly over the vast intellectual territory of sociology, thus inadvertently preventing a critical mass of potential research collaborators from forming. As Durkheim (1933) knew at the beginning of the century, and Claude Fischer (1975) reminded us two decades ago, the development of specialized subcultures is greatly facilitated by a high population density of potential participants. Conceivably, electronic communication could overcome the effect of distance and thus effectively increase the density of sociologists above the point necessary to create vigorous research subcultures.

The anthropologist Arturo Escobar (1994) asserts that a new culture is emerging on the net. Some writers believe that cohesive "virtual communities" already exist - electronic small towns, which I like to call cyburgs - in which net links substitute effectively for face-to-face relationships binding a set of geographically disperse people into a collectivity. This is a dubious proposition. To be sure, some otherwise socially isolated individuals may feel that their electronic links are among their most important relationships, but this may merely reflect the poverty of their social lives. Other people treat the characters in television soap operas as if they were almost-real neighbors, dwelling with these fictitious characters in what Norman Cameron (1959) called a pseudo-community. That Cameron introduced this term to the readers of the American Journal of Sociology in an article about clinically psychotic paranoids may or may not say anything about the people who belong to virtual net communities.

In a book that chiefly extols the communitarian virtues of cyberspace virtual communities, Howard Rheingold (1993) recognizes three ways that improper development of the web could do harm: (1) commercialization could turn all public information into advertisements for commodities, (2) the new technologies could be used for surveillance and control of individuals, and (3) the net could become a web of illusion in which people have lost the capacity to discern the real from the virtual.

Commercialization means more than just advertisements intruding on the flow of information. It also means payment for data and for use of computing services that will stress the already overburdened budgets of universities and individual researchers, conceivably maintaining and even increasing the present distinction between major research universities and undergraduate teaching institutions. As cool tools like Mosaic with easy user interfaces make the net accessible to all, the advantage in getting and using socioeconomic data effectively may still remain with the people who have the most advanced expertise or have the money to hire it. Thus commercialization raises the issue of whether the net will reduce or increase the degree of stratification among data users, and the null hypothesis would have to be no change at all.

On the other side of the net equation stand the data suppliers, software producers, and information carriers. Given the worldwide nature of the net, the threat of monopolization may be offset by the larger number of potential competitors, but if monopolies did emerge their negative impact could be vast. Indeed, this morning's news that IBM wants to take over Lotus may be more important than the bloody fighting in Bosnia. Ultimately, the tiny pinpricks of pain that worldwide monopolies would inflict on each of 5 billion people, in minuscule acts of cultural tyranny each day, could add up to far more loss of life than the thousands killed outright in the breakup of Yugoslavia.

To my mind, sociology's current low ebb of vitality is proven by the almost complete lack of serious, high-level debate over the potential dangers of advanced information-processing technology. In science fiction literature and in such sci-fi as Blade Runner and Max Headroom, the so-called Cyberpunk movement has long painted a very dismal picture of what will happen if massive multinational corporations use the net to build their power to the point that they greatly overshadow national governments and crush substantial fractions of the population in the names of efficiency and profit (Gibson, 1984, 1986, 1988; Sterling, 1988). Real-life cyberebels are pretty pathetic characters, proud of publishing rudimentary password-stealer and virus programs in 2600 magazine (Man, 1992; Infiltrator, 1992) and apt to foul up royally whenever they really confront the System (Hafner &. Markoff, 1991). Perhaps sociology will fulfill its critical duties in this area only after young people raised in the computer era take over the positions of influence within our discipline from their antiquated elders.

Rheingold's second concern, that the web could be used for surveillance and control of individuals, is a very real problem. In a few highly publicized instances, government agencies have employed computers to trace telephone calls, and the current technology already allows them to find and record cellular-phone and pay-phone conversations in realtime, if they know the charge account numbers their targets are likely to use (McGee, 1995). In general, government agencies and corporations do not consider e-mail messages to and from their employees to have privacy protection, although they seldom invest the modest effort required to monitor their employees' communications. It is a simple matter, however, to pass all e-mail through a program that flags key words and phrases for administrators' attention. The recent brouhaha over the "clipper chip" revealed a federal government that believed it had every right to crack private citizens' encrypted messages to each other.

The current web craze for personal home pages hints that informal but powerful forces may strip academics of a good deal of the privacy they currently enjoy, without anybody intending this to happen. One of the most spectacular current home pages belongs to the sociologist Sherry Turkle at MIT. Its brief biography tells the netsurfer that "her most recent research is on the psychology of computer-mediated communication, including role playing on MUDs (multi-user domains). This work will be reported in Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Simon and Schuster, forthcoming)." Turkle's full curriculum vitae is available online, including what she says is only a partial listing of invited lectures and conference papers, letting us discern that in 1992 she traveled from Lexington (Massachusetts), to Barcelona (Spain), to Ithaca (New York), to Tokyo (Japan), to Cambridge (Massachusetts), to San Francisco (California). Then come the syllabi of her spring 1995 courses, Identity and the Internet, and Psychology and Technology.

The spectacular part comes last: "Foucault and the Power Rangers. What is the relation between discourse in the land of Power Rangers and the land of Foucault? Foucault once said that power is the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization. The Power Rangers (in the tradition of Procrustes) show how this discourse is forced in the late twentieth century. Your mileage may vary." Then the youthful Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers leap across the net to your screen, in blazing color, picture after picture of their karate kicks, even Lord Zed in all his malignant magnificence. Unfortunately the system could not covey Turkle's morph sequence in which the French social philosopher Michel Foucault is transformed into Billy, the Blue Power Ranger.

At present, a faculty member's vita or syllabus is not private, exactly, but it seldom gets beyond a very limited circle of readers. Students, for example, seldom are able to compare the publication records of their professors. Perhaps they should be able to this, but at present they cannot. Soon, every faculty member may be forced or egged into having a web home page, broadcasting all kinds of information that previously has been in the gray area between public and private. It is a short step, and easily defensible, to add student ratings of each course, complete with their often unflattering verbal comments. Some faculty members will intentionally promote themselves, advertising their courses through home pages as spectacular as Turkle's Power Rangers. I do not say this is all bad, and I am not raising issues about illegal dissemination of truly private information. But much information about college faculty personnel is semiprivate - available when strenuously sought but not broadcast to all the world - and tremendous harm as well as some good may be done by publicizing this semiprivate information over the web.

The extent to which the net becomes a web of illusion is a research question, and it is already such a highly developed medium of communication that it is an eminently suitable world for sociological research. A very brief outline of only one of the myriad possibilities will suggest the vast potential: ethnographic research in the sociology of religion, focusing on new religious movements.

Researching New Religions on the Net

Connect with a computer at a community college in upstate New York, and the photograph of a smiling man with a huge mustache and a garland of flowers appears on the screen, over the motto, "I have come not to teach but to awaken." This is the World Wide Web home page for Meher Baba, Avatar of the Age. Below his portrait is a menu of seven blue italicized choices: (1) Who is Meher Baba? (2) Images of the Avatar; (3) Books, videos, and music; (4) Centers and places of pilgrimage; (5) News and events; (6) Newsletters and journals; (7) Meher Baba groups.

Click your mouse on the first of these and you get a new picture of Meher Baba and another quotation, "I have come to sow the seed of love in your hearts so that in spite of all superficial diversity which your life in illusion must experience and endure, the feeling of Oneness through love is brought about amongst all nations, creeds, sects and castes of the world." One level deeper in the hypertext tree and you learn that the Avatar was born Merwan Sheriar Irani in Poona, India, in 1894, of Persian parents who gave him a mixed Zoroastrian and Christian education. In 1913, he met a Perfect Master named Hazrat Babajan, a Mohammedan woman who gave him God-Realization, and from 1921 he attracted his own followers. With such a diverse religious training, it is not surprising that his movement seeks to embrace all previous major religious traditions while simultaneously transcending them.

In 1925 Meher Baba made a vow of silence, never again speaking until his death in 1969. Between 1931 and 1958, he visited America six times, teaching that humanity has always been deaf to the precepts of God, so now enlightenment must come without any words, not through saying the truth but by being it. Leaping across the hypertext links reveals pictures of the Avatar, some in color, a brief movie clip, a catalog of publications, and information about meetings held in Britain, the United States, and India. A hot link takes you instantly to another computer in Norway that offers you kilobytes of Meher Baba literature you can download directly off the web.

So far, the data reported are purely observational, comparable to an ethnographic report based on observing a public religious ritual. But the net makes it easy to obtain interview or survey data as well. I e-mailed a short questionnaire to Joseph W. Stewart, the person in charge of Meher Baba's web service, and received replies from him and from his net partner. Mark Hodges, in Georgia. Stewart is a member of the faculty of an electrical engineering department who is also involved in creating his college's net-based information system. Hodges is an M.A. student in a communications degree program that emphasizes Internet applications. Both separately had been "Baba followers," and when they became aware of each others' existence they began communicating via Internet and pooled their expertise to create the web service. All of the necessary hardware and software was free, which is another way of saying it was subsidized by the educational institutions, software providers, and the government agencies that were then still responsible for maintaining Internet. Thus two individuals who happened to be followers of a very small and weak religious movement were able to give the movement world visibility over the net, merely because they had the necessary expertise and held statuses at educational institutions that gave them the necessary material resources.

Some of the new religious movements on the net began with rather more extensive financial resources. A World Wide Web search for the phrase "Hare Krishna" turns up electronic copies of the magazine Back to Godhead, complete with a pastel-colored masthead with the portrait of the guru, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, gesturing a blessing. One data file lists the addresses of all the centers around the world, including 39 in the United States, plus 6 farm communities and 5 restaurants. Other nations with 5 or more centers are Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Croatia, Russia, Ukraine, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Peru, and India. Another data link takes us to a gallery of color paintings of scenes from the life of Krishna. And still another provides information about a campaign to promote vegetarian food, along with descriptions of such delicacies as puris, samosas, pakoras, and subjis, washed down with a glass of lassi. In addition, we can download a biography of the swami, several sacred texts, theological commentaries, and an application form to become life members of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.

A substantial worldwide organization like ISKCON can consolidate its global image and communications via the web, and thus the cost of getting on Internet even without academic subsidy may be worthwhile. For many weak movements, like Meher Baba's, getting on the net, during this early period when to do so is an exciting pioneering success, may mean the difference between life or death. Net-surfing allowed me to discover web sites for two tiny religious movements I thought might have gone out of existence when their founders died a number of years ago. The first was Eckankar, founded in 1965 by Paul Twitchell, who claimed that Vairagi ECK Masters trained him "to become the living ECK Master." Now Harold Klemp runs a tiny Eckankar operation in Gainesville, Florida, offering books, audiotapes, and videotapes, plus lecture courses to those fortunate enough to live near his center. Scholars of new religious movements doubt that the Vairagi ECK Masters actually existed and suspect that Twitchell boot-strapped his small movement into existence out of his own imagination. But now Klemp can legitimately claim to have been initiated by Twitchell, who certainly was a real person, and can assert his leadership of the struggling ECK movement by representing it to the world over the net.

Another example is Unarius, founded by Ernest L. Norman in 1954 with his third wife, Ruth, which employs past-life therapy to cure spiritual problems left over from previous incarnations. The Normans claimed to have contacted a number of consciousnesses existing on higher frequency planes of being, notably the departed spirit of the brilliant electrical scientist Nikola Tesla, who died in 1943 (O'Neill, 1944; Cheney, 1981), and they have been able to affiliate the Earth with the Intergalactic Confederation. The beliefs of Unarius place a high premium on advanced technology, thus making location on the World Wide Web a valuable source of credibility. A large number of small religious movements come into being each year (Melton, 1993). Most of them die very quickly, and the majority of the others linger for years as a single small group that is incapable of growth. Thus, getting on the web may allow a tiny movement to break out of this cage, especially now when the web is young and not many other groups are already there.

Currently there are some hundreds of tiny religious movements in the witchcraft, pagan and satanic traditions, but their form of organization so completely stresses tiny local groups that there is little prospect that any of them can easily evolve into major new religious denominations. Realizing that the net may allow them to develop a new large-scale social form that is an alternative to denominational status, these groups have flocked to the World Wide Web. On a San Francisco computer server belonging to the famous Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, a remnant of the California counterculture of the 1960s, we find the Wiccan (witchcraft or neo-pagan) Covenant of the Goddess. It is not a denomination, because its covens (local congregations) are autonomous and develop somewhat varied beliefs and practices, and it functions more as a communication medium than a source of authority. The web branch point for satanic groups, logically enough called Hell, offers considerable information about the Church of Satan and related groups. Hypertext links lead to: Grotto ODM, the Grotto of the Wolf, Illuminati of Satan, the Infernal Garrison, the Luciferian Light Group, Order of the Evil Eye, Ordo Alogolis Interstellaris, Ordo Sinistra Vivendi, the Temple of Set, and the Worldwide Church of satanic Liberation. In bombastic language marred by typographical errors, we can glean the outlines of satanic theology and contemplate the aims of its Five-Point Program, which urges: elitist stratification and an end to the myth of human equality, taxation of all churches, no toleration of religious excuses for behavior, development of artificial human companions, and the "opportunity for anyone to live within a total environment of his or her choice. The last two sound very much like the "web of illusion" about which Rheingold warned.

Although the World Wide Web spreads the novel beliefs of radically new religions like Unarius, it is not at all clear that this new communication medium actually garners a substantial number of recruits. Generally, new religions grow as members develop strong personal relationships with prospective recruits, involve them in face-to-face activities, and thus personally bring them to become members of an intimate social group. Such things as magazine advertisements, radio broadcasts, and now web home pages are called "disembodied appeals," and research on earlier varieties indicated that they are not an effective means of recruitment (Shupe, 1976; Stark & Bainbridge 1980, 1985, 1987; Rochford, 1982).

Certainly, being on the web confers prestige on a novel group, giving the impression that even very tiny religious movements have world-wide stature. Central organizations can use the web to seem intimately involved with small branch organizations located far away. For example, both Soka Gakkai and the Sri Chinmoy movement send out a daily poem or proverb for members to download and appreciate. And the extensive address lists maintained on the web by several movements allow an isolated individual to make contact with the nearest outpost of a movement that might interest him or her, after which direct social interaction with members may complete the recruitment.

The web is not only a medium of religious communication, it also is a battlefield. Several web services offer material that is highly critical of new religious movements, such as the "Cults" web service of the Observer's Life magazine in Britain. Throughout the first half of 1995, a tremendous fight raged between supporters and opponents of the Church of Scientology. Friends of this new religious movement offered supportive material, such as the text of the book What is Scientology? Opponents put out megabytes of what appear to be critical legal documents and secret inner Scientology literature not intended for the eyes of nonmembers. Naturally enough, the Church of Scientology took legal action to block the unauthorized distribution of copyright material. Opponents say that the church also sent system operator commands out over the net to disconnect servers or individuals that were spreading the offending material, although I do not have independent evidence that this is true.

Several apparent nonmember defenders of new religious movements have inserted their messages onto the web. Stephen Tice and James Trimm at the University of Texas at Arlington and James D. Tabor at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, have electronically published the words of David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians, along with their own biblical commentaries and chronologies of the events at Waco. For the first 45 days after the nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway, Timothy Lee Romero sent out from Japan his English-language criticisms of the behavior of police against the Aum Shinrikyo religious movement. In Jena, Germany, Winfried Muller has created Religio, the self-described electronic "Informationssystem liber 'Sekten', Religions- und Weltanschauungsgemeinschaften in Deutschland." It provides, as it says, information of potential public interest about religious sects or cults in Germany, striving for scholarly accuracy but also responding to the current German concern with controlling these groups. At present, part of the extensive written text is available in both German and English, with a hypertext link allowing the user to toggle back and forth between the two languages on each document. A nice computer innovation is the "Symbolsuche," a section of screen tiled into rectangles, each of which bears the logo (pictorial symbol) of a religious group. If the user has seen one of the symbols around and wonders which group it belongs to, he or she simply has to click on the particular logo to get full information about it.

Thus the net is beginning to play a significant role in the debates around new religious movements. It is hard to say which is the web of illusion, cyberspace or the new religions themselves. But to the extent that both influence human behavior, they are entirely real.


In the spring of 1994,1 first experienced netsurfing in the company of sociologist Aivars Tabuns, a visitor at NSF who was representing the Latvian Council of Science. He wanted to know whether the Scandinavian countries were paying sufficient attention to the newly independent Baltic states immediately across the narrow sea. Using a beta test version of Mosaic we logged into three university computers, checked their summer school catalogs, and verified to his delight that each one offered courses about his brave nation.

A year later, as I write this, Netscape disgorges megabytes of information from historical censuses, sociological publications galore, and the evidence of a religious net-war. By the time this article is published the World Wide Web will have changed still further, even though Social Science Computer Review is far swifter in getting its issues out than are many other paper journals. The amount of material available on the net is increasing all the time, and new social phenomena are coming into being on practically a daily basis. At the same time, privatization is already beginning to change some features of the net, and no one can predict the effect of a possible total loss of government subsidy. Sociology has been slow to follow the lead of Cyberpunk and investigate the possible dangers of cyberspace, and it may already be too late to halt the juggernaut. We can hope to ride it safely, rather than be crushed by its virtual wheels.


William Sims Bainbridge is associate editor for sociology of Social Science Computer Review. He is director of the Sociology Program of the National Science Foundation. He may be contacted by e-mail at

The views expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or the United States.


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