Networked Individuals and the creation of elites

So – here we have more from the box of dangerous ideas* in the form of a write up of Networked by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman. Once again this is really just my notes and ideas which have caught my eye rather than a proper review so please look away if this is not your thing!

In common with Net Smart by Howard Rheingold the book explores what the network society might mean for the individual and both books are informing my planning for the next steps of the Networked Councillor research as they examine the skills and considerations needed to operate effectively in a digital and networked world.

Rainie and Wellman orient their work around the ‘networked individual’. The whole book is a discussion of this concept but they suggest “They (networked individuals) have become increasingly networked as individuals, rather than embedded in groups. In the world of networked individuals, it is the person who is the focus: not the family, not the work unit, not the neighborhood, and not the social group.” (location 339)

They refer to networked individualism an “operating system” spanning communication, connection and the exchange of information. In using the phrase they are deliberately making the connection between two contexts of ‘networked’ – computing and social. One of their key messages for me is the need to stop and examine the way in which society is changing rather than falling apart are changing:

As sociologist Bernie Hogan puts it: With the turn to social networks, “we’re not bowling alone, but texting our friends, seeing who’s available, sending the electronic invitation, and waiting for people to show up, scheduling another time because someone can’t make it and maybe, if we’re lucky, actually getting to bowl.” (location 1343)

However this is balanced by the fact that highly networked can also have limited persistence: “Groups in the networked age are often too weak, small, specialized, and uncoordinated to hang together over the course of an extended problem-solving period. They often lack access to a shifting diversified set of resources. One-to-one relationships and partial networks are the ones that usually are most effective and efficient.”(location 6871).

There are a huge number of interesting observations in the book but I think if I have a criticism its that they have not drawn a strong enough distinction between emergent and established behaviours. Personally I completely agree with most of those observations and have seen them in my own work – however I am also very aware of the still non-networked individuals and the fragility of this networked operating system as they term it. Here is a good example:

A virtuous circle between supply-side creation and demand-side participation has emerged. As networks have grown, the value of being connected to the network not only has grown, but also has grown exponentially, constantly producing fuel for further expansion. The growth of the internet, in particular, shows how a powerful set of self-reinforcing conditions cascade. As more people get email addresses, the value of email to personal communication grows. As more and more commercial, civic, educational, governmental, nonprofit, and individual websites are created, the value of going online to seek information and perform transactions mushrooms. (Location 1901)

What about the people who are not connected at this point? They do cover this in two very different scenarios towards the end of the book but overall I find Rheingold more open with respect to the potential futures that could unfold. They also don’t deny that the data is as yet incomplete:

We caution that our discussion is more tentative than in the preceding Networked Relationships and Networked Family chapters. That is because management gurus’ assertions and advocacy about how networked organizations can—and should—operate currently outweigh evidence and analysis about how they actually do operate. We further caution that the turn to a networked operating system in workplaces is uneven. Neither all workers nor all organizations in North America have become connected. (location 4643)

Rainie and Wellman represent the kind of pro-social communitarian values that were seen in origins of the web (see Rheingold’s Virtual Communities: Homesteading on the Virtual Frontier) but what they do not address adequately, in my view, is the effect of a influx of more commercially or even anti-social actors into this operating system. One of the reasons I am so anxious to see the public sector start to take an active role in shaping the emergent networked ecosystem is not because I believe that government will improve the odds of a pro-social networked society in the future (tough to call that one – it could push it the other way!) but because I know that government is filled with people who share those social values and it is their individual contributions which will truly help to shape our future. That is not to say those people aren’t present in every organization (well most at least) – they are just easier to find in government in my experience and so this is a good place to start to scale this.

Anyway – back to the book.

The authors discuss the embedded nature of the tools networked individuals are using and the “triple revolution” of social network, internet and mobile. They suggest that the result is that “the lines between information, communication, and action have blurred” (location 496).  Despite the centrality of the technology in their thinking this is not to say that these networks are purely technologically mediated:

While networks are often invisible, they nevertheless are important sources of our sociability, information, and social capital. For example, people are often put on corporate boards as individuals, but their connections to others are one of their key assets. And when we take a step back, we can see that these boards are interlocked so that different corporations in the same industry are indirectly connected through “old boy networks” (with a few token old girls). One study highlighted a small set of 16 men who interconnect many major European corporations, forming a total of 216 links between firms. They carry information back and forth, help coordinate, and provide access to financial capital.”(location 982)

They include a useful analysis of Castells’ description of online culture (location 2049)which he suggest comprises; Techno-elites, Hackers, Virtual communitarians, Entrepreneurs.  The authors suggest an additional group “The participators”:

They are creating what William Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute calls a Fifth Estate in civic life. Recall that the French thought that society was divided into three estates: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners. A nineteenth-century conceit arose that newspapers and reporters had a distinct civic role and set of sensibilities, constituting a Fourth Estate. Dutton expands on those historic classifications by arguing that the internet is enabling people to network in new ways with other users and with a vast range of information, services, and technical resources. This is creating a new class of civic actors—a Fifth Estate—with distinct sensibilities and interests in pursuing accountability in government, other institutions, and other people. Dutton notes that the internet reconfigures these networked individuals’ access to information, people, and other resources, which allows them to “move across, undermine and go beyond the boundaries of existing institutions” to seek and enforce new levels of institutional and personal transparency. (location 2095)

Its important to note that they see these individuals as operating in the same way online and offline – this is their answer to Turkle  and others and I have a lot of sympathy with this view as I see this as a social change which is happening online as well as offline:

What about our “self”: that elusive concept of subjective identity that helps us to integrate our involvement in multiple social networks?23 Are we the same person in different milieus, both online and offline? Sherry Turkle has argued that our “second selves” online are different from our selves offline. Yet the research we present throughout this book shows that people’s online and offline interactions are almost always integrated. However, Turkle rightly calls attention to the need for more research into how different aspects of the self get emphasized in different situations. (location 3237)

They discuss both the ‘time-less’ passing of contacts and data in terms of Castells ‘space of flow’s and also the context collapse of public/private life with respect to offline as well as online behaviours (“People now engage in intimate mobile phone conversations as they stand on sidewalks. Work supervisors now have more ability to interrupt family gatherings. The private is more likely to become public. Several Pew Internet respondents discussed situations where they had confronted individuals who were inflicting their private lives on others in public places.” (Location 2742) )

Networked individuals need to develop nuanced understandings of what to make public, which publics to make information available to, and how to intermix technologies of privacy with those of public narrowcasting. People used to do that more or less routinely in real life, as they encountered the sights, sounds, smells, and the people of different social milieus. (location 7003)

They visualize the constant redefinition of self as “a single self that gets reconfigured in different situations as people reach out, connect, and emphasize different aspects of themselves. Our working visual image of this is an amoeba, with both a core nucleus and constantly changing pseudopods.” (location 3242)

They see this as another change which is being renegotiated along with the importance of location – as well as the accelerating effect of the technology which brings real time commentary on content and the suggestion of FOMO – fear of missing out.

This introduction of idea that we are renegotiating our social boundaries raises a question for me – are we really renegotiating something if we continue to use tools we do not understand? Is our basic lack of digital literacy negating our right to participate in future building?

Again back to the book!

Networked individualism is a considered phrase – while these individuals are highly networked they also stand alone. Being well networked may also mean that they have limited their commitments to any one network (location 3209) and this is interesting in terms of asking whether or not they are in fact describing outliers who will be a vital but discrete element of a network society rather than the majority. Are they describing the new elite perhaps?

I like a good list and this list as to the advantaged of networked creation and embracing networked individualism (location 5667) is a useful one:

  • A form of self-expression
  • An opportunity to learn
  • A space for collaboration
  • A place to connect with community
  • A sense of empowerment

And my favourite if only for the slightly biblical phrasing:

The prelude to greater glory: Networked creations are a prelude to greater glory as some networked individuals see their creations, and sometimes even themselves, become popular and even relatively famous. Kutiman’s “The Mother of All Funk Chords” mashup received critical acclaim and even led to an album of more of his original creations. Maddie’s YouTube videos enhanced her portfolio to help her gain admission to the New York University media program. And once-unknown singer Justin Bieber has reached international stardom. Although networked creations usually do not provide material rewards in themselves, they can lead to bigger things, turning amateurs into professionals. (location 5721)

They also offer the alternative aspect to networked creation:

Of course there is a dark side to affording everyone the opportunity to be a networked creator. In Elizabeth Eisenstein’s accounting, the 15th-century invention of the printing press gave new life to charlatans, quacks, alchemists, disseminators of ridiculous folk “wisdom,” propagandists, and other assorted evildoers. The printing press probably created more junk information in history, and Eisenstein argues that it took generations of Enlightenment insight and research to cleanse the information ecosystem of the problems.59 Digital technology has been roundly challenged for having the same impact. But many creators somehow find ways to make it work for them in the network operating system. Often, they do this by using the same digital applications to provide their own counternarrative to those who are spinning information incorrectly. Just as not every violinist makes it to Carnegie Hall, not every networked creator becomes a star—or is even heard by more than their friends and relatives. (location 5735)

I was struck by a really elegant description of ‘Foci” which straddles the person/place divide in network descriptions and will be really useful for some of the community engagement work I am planning:

Sociologist Scott Feld has come up with the useful concept of “foci” to identify some bases of community, these can be shared places and institutions, both online and offline. One focus might be people with similar characteristics who come into contact, such as an ethnic minority at work or people who go to the same church. A focus is not community: It is the basis for community by providing a shared context that creates the possibility for interconnections among people. (location 1266)

They also pick up on civic space ideas with respect to national governments:

One critical uncertainty about the extent of convergence between data worlds and real worlds will be the role that countries play. In a countertrend to convergence, they can put barriers on the free communication and information sharing of the global village. In principle, like the telephone network the internet connects everywhere. Indeed, governments and organizations have to go to some trouble to build private networks to keep their communications off the internet. Only a few countries—such as North Korea and Myanmar—block or severely restrict the internet, although others channel most communication through government internet service providers with surveillance capabilities. (location 7413)

Similarly useful was the description of Simmel’s work on time in the industrial society:

Before the mobile-ization of the world, time and space were critical factors for in-person contact. People needed to specify when and where they would meet. Coordinating a rendezvous, a party or a business meeting was a formal negotiation yielding firm coordinates. Early in the twentieth century, sociologist Georg Simmel pointed out that a similar, large-scale change occurred with the nineteenth century’s Industrial Revolution. With the coming of big machines, cities, bureaucracies, stores, and railroad lines running on strict timetables, people had to be at precise places at precise times—or else the machines wouldn’t be operated, papers wouldn’t be pushed, customers wouldn’t be served, and trains wouldn’t be boarded. Public clocks—and private wristwatches—regulated the industrialized world. This was a profound change from preindustrial village life, where people went to their farms, shops, or pubs according to their needs—not their clocks.35 To some extent, mobile phones allow us a slight return to this more casual negotiation of time. In the age of mobile connectivity, time is more fluid and people’s expectations have changed. In the felicitous phrase Ling uses, “hyper-coordination” is now possible and preferred, especially by younger mobile users.(location 2637)

And finally in the random ideas section – the intriguing concept of coveillance and “sousveillance:

  • Ordinary citizens now frequently engage in practices of “coveillance,” which people use so they can observe each other.40 Search engines and social networking sites are the primary sources people use to find out more about both known and unknown individuals.(location 6234)

  • In direct opposition to panopticon surveillance where organizations observe people from on high, “sousveillance” is the observation from below of more powerful organizations and people.(location 6294)

Networked individual – sounds good – How can I become one?

The authors include a list of the techniques and strategies that they see as being important to the success of the networked individual – I’m going to digest these a little more and perhaps blog separately on these – they intersect with the Rheingold Net Smart ideas and so I want to discuss in this context – However I will highlight their suggest of the need for ethical literacy for the networked individual:

Successful networked individuals build trust and value for their partners by being accurate and thoughtful with the information they create and pass along. When everyone can be a publisher and broadcaster, there are advantages that accrue to those who are found to be reliable and transparent about the information they share. In contrast, social penalties are conferred on those who cheat, misrepresent information, cut corners, exploit relationships, and are mysterious about the sources of their information.” Location 7065)

Ethics as pragmatic necessity in a more transparent and networked world??

Towards the end of the book they discuss what they refer to as “the New Logic of Personal Transparency and Connectedness” this links to the ethical literacy (or moral imperative as they term it in the later section) of reciprocity:

People cannot build networks without describing who they are, what talents or skills they possess, what they know, and what their needs are. There are also some pressures toward deliberate, considered disclosure in social media when people cannot fall back on close, long-term friends who perpetually stand ready to help them. (location 7433)

This speaks to a radical transparency of self and openness that is the logical progression of context collapse of the removal of barriers of time and place. It refers to a redesign of society along networked principles but there is something of the elite in this description of self – it seems to assume and articulate and educated individual. While this is a vital aspiration my concern is that it suggests a limit or restriction on the way in which we value people and their different skills – this is a highly enlightened view of our networked future. To some extent it seems to lack the emotion of Castells’ view of networks and also relies on the individuals ability to consciously edit and create themselves. The question I am left with is whether or not these are reasonable or even achievable aspirations for people in the future? Are the innovators and early adopters taking this somewhere where people will not be able to follow – and creating new elites – or can we redress this balance through better representations and consideration of the silent voices?


* Books and papers which were published after I finished my literature review and might do something disruptive to either my thinking or my viva!

One comment
  1. Lee Rainie

    July 2, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    Hi Catherine: What a thoughtful and thorough rundown of our work. We at Pew Internet ( are wrestling now with doing more detailed exploration of social divisions tied to tech access and literacy. We’ve had plenty to report on access divides (, but you are right that there is more to examine.

    You might especially enjoy this report that covered experts’ concerns about the new winners and losers in the networked age:

    Just wanted to thank you for spending so much time with the book and critiquing it.


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