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.