Networked Individualism: Personal Agency Meets the Electronic Leash

I just started reading a book called “Networked: The New Social Operating System” by Lee Rainie  and Barry Wellman .  Many of you interested in social media have probably come across this book. The authors are leading authorities on the forefront of research that tracks how the internet and information technologies are being integrated into our lives.  They do large, survey-based studies and are clearly doing some of the best work of this type. They have significant resources behind them, including the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, of which Rainie is the director. So, they are able to do this work extremely well and on a large scale.

Rainie is a journalist with a background in political science, and Wellman is a professor of sociology. So, for me as a psychologist with a clinical and neuroscience background, their methods and perspectives are quite different from mine.  This makes reading about their research, and the conclusions they draw from it, very interesting but I often have lingering questions about what their data mean.

One of the major ideas this book puts forward is that of networked individualism. Barry Wellman’s website was very helpful in teasing this concept apart.  According to the notion of networked individualism, there has been a three-fold information technology revolution that has influenced how we function as individuals in society. First, was the personal internet, second the growth of mobile access, and third the predominance of computer-mediated social networks. Networked individualism is the outcome. It refers to our growing tendency to operate as individuals in a network rather than as group members. This means that social activities are organized around the individual rather than the family or neighborhood.  Each person has enhanced agency because they operate their own social network. Thus, individuals rather than groups are at the hub of social life.

Network vs. Group. What does it mean to function in a network like this, rather than in a group? It means, according to Rainie and Wellman, the following: we are more fragmented, maneuvering easily among networks; person-to-person contact becomes more important than meeting in groups or in a specific location; and we make decisions independently rather than via the group, but draw on our networks to seek relevant information. In essence, we are individuals surfing a vast and complex social web, and we have multiple “neighborhoods” comprised of the people we can text, tweet, email, and tag. These neighborhoods change according to our needs.

Families. Families, according to them, are also functioning more as a network than a group. We see each other less often than several decades ago, but actually are in closer communication due to mobile communication technologies (i.e., we’re emailing , texting, and calling each other a lot). Some have referred to the constant awareness that we can have of others as an electronic leash (Wellman, on his website, compares this to the ball and chain of the past).

So, reading this, I can’t help but picture busy family members texting and emailing all day, not getting home until late, missing the family dinner, and removing themselves to their respective rooms to get on their devices. I’m being silly here, and I don’t actually think this happens a lot (although I know from observation that some people’s family lives are much like this).

At the same time, the notion of the electronic leash is one that seems to be to be a double-edged sword. On one hand, we’re more connected. I like this in many ways. For example, being able to text my husband any little thought that enters my head  is awesome (particularly when it’s of the “don’t forget to….” variety). He’s less excited about that aspect of the technology I imagine. On the other hand, my expanded social network takes a lot of time to keep up with, and I feel, often, that I have less time for my family and close friends unless I’m very strict and let a lot of messages/texts/tweets just go. I also find sometimes that I get in a mode of texting or emailing things to my close family and friends rather than talking. That’s fine for the sake of efficiency much of the time, but I can’t help but feel that I’m losing out on something more satisfying and on what I think of as the alchemy of face-to-face conversations – the unpredictable creativity and clarity that can happen when you just have an old-fashioned conversation.

Costs and Benefits. There is no doubt in my mind that we benefit from the ease of communication and the speed of information access. Also, personally, I love the ability to do more, communicate more, find out more, more, more!!! But the irony is that these tools can easily create just as many demands on our time as they relieve.

Rainie and Wellman seem, from the tenure of their writing, to be really excited about these changes. They seem to be saying (and I should be careful here, because I haven’t read the entire book yet) that these changes are already happening – we’re becoming more disconnected in terms of our membership in groups, communities, and even the family. However, social media technologies are helping us maintain connection in the face of this change, and may even foster more face-to-face time and social support. In a nutshell, we no longer live in villages, so why are we bemoaning the fact that we don’t know our neighbors anymore? Instead, through social media, we are empowered to have extremely large, rich, and diverse social networks that we can draw on to find the social support that we need.

Moreover, according to them, we are shifting to internet-based communities rather than in-person groups. Networked individuals tend to move around fluidly from one network to another rather than having a core community they are anchored in. People with whom you’re networked can change, turn over, and you probably have distinct networks for distinct purposes, rather than a deep connection with a few friends and relatives.  That is, you figure out where you can get what you need among your multiple social networks, and go to them. As a result, there is more uncertainty and less loyalty, but also more freedom and maneuverability. You can choose to have everyone know what you’re doing, or maintain privacy and selectively inform people what you’re doing. This kind of social control is less commonplace in traditional social networks, where you are more “under surveillance.”

Questions. Some of this sounds good to me, some not so good. But there are some questions I’m hoping to soon read that the book is asking. For example, is this shift towards networked individualism really inevitable? What exactly are the costs (it seems to me at this point that Rainie and Wellman focus more on the potential benefits versus costs)? Are social media just helping us to stay connected or are they actually a powerful force in moving us towards more networked individualism? For whom are these changes good, and for whom are they bad (i.e., are there network mavens and network Elmer Fudds)? What is the difference between size of network and the quality of the network? What about the burden placed on us to keep up with large, disparate social networks, which for many people may be largely comprised of acquaintances? Is there less time and energy left over for “quality” interactions and true intimacy? I hope to report back soon to say that Rainie and Wellman consider these challenging questions.

13 thoughts on “Networked Individualism: Personal Agency Meets the Electronic Leash

  1. Excellent commentary. Gives a person much to think about, and on several levels, fascinating, exciting and worrisome all at the same time, Good Post. I enjoyed it.

  2. very good post and well written, thank you, i enjoyed reading this and i think its very important to see where a vast amount of us are heading and the role social media and its ‘obligations’ shape that path, though i do feel lucky being born with a rebellious nature i do not find it hard to kick back ‘against the machine’, but i can see how it would rule others lives without them even realizing it sometimes , in the end of it all though i do feel the internet a good thing, just as something we use rather than some thing that we feel we have to use , and i do feel it is not only inevitable but it is still in its infancy, the world of tomorrow will be no more recognizable to us, than the world of today is to our grandparents, and that’s life, as humans we are nature bound to seek new knowledge and further that knowledge, and our rate of learning exceeds our rate of ability to keep up with the actual changes it brings , and as with any change it is both good for some and bad for others, i like to think i welcome change but i know that i grumble when something new is introduced, its in our nature we are fickle beings 🙂 i like the aspect as you say that ‘ through social media, we are empowered to have extremely large, rich, and diverse social networks that we can draw on to find the social support that we need.’ that is brillliant to me and i choose this over real interaction with ‘friends’ i see in my day to day life , now i know a whole essay could be written on that alone, and indeed, it is why i mention the internet and not the mobile phone side of things, i don’t even know where my phone is, i never use it , and if it rings i never answer, again subject for an essay i think 🙂 but i like that in the net i have a world wide access to find like minded people that doesn’t exist in the small town i actually live in, for people like me it gives the possibility of having a decent conversation, 🙂 as to your last question anything in life only becomes a burden if we choose to let it become a burden, we dont ‘have’ to do anything, like my kids shouting about they ‘have’ to talk to so and so i always reply no you don’t ‘have ‘ to you choose to, the world wont end if you choose not to, mind they always answer ‘the world as we know it will end ‘, 🙂 my fault for teaching my kids to question everything 🙂 so i think if everyone remembers to go out in the sun once in a while then on the whole its a good thing 🙂 have a great day 🙂 xx by the way this is the longest comment i have ever done and it took me some time to actually press the post comment button as i worried about how it would be perceived, another depth of conversation in that point i think 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting! It feels to me, too, that in this particular area things are really changing quickly. It feels a little exhausting trying to keep up with it all! Also, it’s fascinating seeing how the “rules of engagement” for how we interact with others is changing. Phone calls are rarer now, so when we pick up the phone to make a call, does it mean something special? When does it become rude when you’re slow to respond to a text versus email versus FB message, etc,….? It will be very interesting to see how things develop in just the next 5 or 10 years….

  3. Professionally, I love the networked individualism, because my growth as a teacher has been directly tied to going in and out of various online organizations and groups. However, one networked group, the Bread Loaf Teacher Network, has its roots in a summer residential graduate program. The face time is crucial to developing the connections with people, which has led me to stick with this group for over five years. I’m finding that my professional networks have led to a more enriching teaching experience, and I try to recruit some school colleagues into the networked groups. I wonder what other people think about the richness of their networked experience, especially if they’ve never met other members face to face.
    I basically don’t use social networks to interact with my friends and family. I find it tedious and time-consuming to keep up with lots of people digitally, and I tend to keep a fairly small group of friends.
    Thanks for the great commentary!

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! This is a very interesting issue. I’ve recently become involved with a face-to-face professional networking group and there is so much about the success of the networking that relies upon the dynamic conversations we have, whether we enjoy each other’s company, and a million other things that are very difficult to do via computer-mediated communication. I think you’re right to point out that the two different types of networking are great complements to each other. Some people I’ve spoken to worry that face-to-face networking might become a thing of the past, but I just can’t picture that happening!

  4. Great article again today, Tracy. I see many benefits in this networked individualism, if it is neatly slotted into a part of our lives. I do not think it should take over our lives. In many ways, for me networked individualism is often a means to progressing our professional life, and maybe a certain social life, rather than reinforcing our private lives.

    I think it is really important to maintain deep connections in our lives, with our family, neighbours and close friends, because at the end of the day, when we are dealing with major problems and sorrows in our lives, it is these deep connections that will stand by us and allow us to get through those troubled times. As human beings we need such connections to make it through this life.

    In any case, you have once again made me think deeply about a new issue, and for this I have nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award.

    I am not sure if you have gone through this before, but these are the 3 steps to follow if you choose to accept it:
    1) Backlink to the blogger who gave you the award
    2) Tell us 7 things about yourself that we don’t know yet through your blog
    3) Nominate 15 blogs that inspire you

  5. Thoughtful commentary. I agree it is important to maintain connections in our lives. The social media has helped me re-connect with family members and former high school friends, yet most of my social media friends would probably not recognize me in a crowd. I think the social media is useful in terms of disseminating informatoin and ideas; however sometimes i feel overwhelmed with so much info. I can see many uses for networked indivdualism. It can be a means of progressing our professional lives or awareness. Thanks for the thoughtful blog.

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