Different Views on About.com

Mathieu Deflem
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Letter (with comment) published in Footnotes, the ASA Newsletter, 29(4):10 (2001).
Also available online with a comment as a PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2001 “Different Views on About.com.” (Letter). Footnotes, ASA Newsletter, April 2001, 29(4):10.

In reaction to an announcement in the Caught in the Web section of the February 2001 issue of Footnotes, I wish to inform you that the online business About.com, which boasts a sociology section, is a commercial website that is primarily interested in much less than scholarly pursuits. The company has just merged with Primedia, itself a dubious e-venture. In February 2001, the Wall Street Journal reported that Primedia was pouring more and more money into all kinds of businesses in the hope of getting out of its dire financial situation. But Primedia s share actually plummeted 25% the day its merger with About, Inc. was announced.

About.com is also public, listed on Nasdaq (as BOUT), where its shares have gone neatly down, from more than $90 a share last year to about $22 a share in February 2001. I am absolutely sure that the editors at Footnotes did not intend to participate in this, but About.com's posting in Footnotes was nothing more nor less than a dot-com advertising ploy of yet one more troubled e-business.

The activities of About.com in sociology are dubious. The site links to other (often distinctly scholarly) websites while displaying advertisements. If you want to see webpages on Durkheim, Giddens, or crime, linked from academic servers but at the same time also displaying banners advertising Hotwire.com or Beliefnet and much more, then About.com is for you! Logging into the About.com site will also open pop-up windows with contests to win lucrative prizes!

I hope that as sociologists we can work to keep our discipline and profession on and off the internet free from the commercialism that dominates the world of e-commerce. We can and should develop our own sociologically appropriate webpages, in our departments, as individual teachers and researchers, in the ASA sections, and through other non-commercial means. If we remain autonomous in controlling sociology s presence on the internet, we can contribute in upholding the dignity of our profession and the standards of our discipline to advance sociological interests and the interests of sociology even in the cyber age.

Mathieu Deflem, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Purdue University 

Update, November, 2001: The About.com website has shut down its Sociology and Anthropology networks.

See related writings on public sociology.