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Networked individualism: What in the world is that? | Networked

In 2001,  I co-authored a Ford-foundation project called “Networking the Networks” that looked at how pro-immigrant advocacy groups used the internet.  That was about the time that Barry Wellman was publishing his work on “networked individualism”.  What brings these two projects together in my mind is the question of whether one is talking about computer networks or human networks.  In our work, there was a clear sense that how networked you were depended on what you were trying to do–advocacy required greater connectivity, and hence a greater dependence on computer networks than did service networks.  At that time,  the networking that took place was clearly not all that driven by the computer systems (and cell phones) that were being used–it was clear who was the user and what was being used.

Wellman’s work was a provocation in that he was arguing that technology was redefining how society was being constituted.  It was not that new forms of social media were changing the direction of society, but that they were accelerating existing trends towards moves that were disconnecting people from their neighborhoods, families and traditions.  His essays, which were written before cell phones became such a dominant mode of communication, read very well in terms of what the subsequent decade has produced.

His most recent writing, a co-authored book with Lee Ranie entitled Networked:  The New Social Operating System,  tends to blur the human and computer components.  The use of a computer metaphor to describe society seems problematic in that it suggests a determinism that leaves me a bit unsettled.  As they write on the site dedicated to the book

We call networked individualism an “operating system” because it describes the ways in which people connect, communicate, and exchange information. Like most computer operating systems and all mobile systems, the social network operating system is:personal — the individual is at the autonomous center just as she is reaching out from her computer;for multiple users — people are interacting with numerous diverse others;for multithreaded multitasking — people are doing several things and they are doing them more or less simultaneously.

via Networked individualism: What in the world is that? | Networked.

My intellectual preference is to keep the two discourses separate and to look to the points of tension between the two. However, I do wonder if I went back and did the same study of pro-immigrant groups today whether I would see as dramatic a difference in the way that advocacy groups and service providers used the internet–or whether the increasing ease of using tech in other parts of actors’ lives had contributed to making everyone increasingly “networked”.

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