By Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman
In this book, the authors explore how networks among people have transformed how we connect with each other, both personally and electronically.
Chapter 1 summarizes the book's main argument pretty well. People "have become increasingly networked as individuals, rather than being 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" (p.6). They term networked individualism "an 'operating system' because it describes the ways in which people connect, communicate, and share information" (p.7). Its characteristics are
- multithreaded (p.7).
It requires new strategies and skills for solving problems (p.9). And it involves a "triple revolution":
- We can reach beyond tight groups (p.11)
- We have new communication power and information-gathering capabilities (pp.11-12)
- Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are a "bodily appendage," always accessible (p.12).
Here, the authors italicize their main points; I'll just bullet them:
- "Many meet their social, emotional, and economic needs by tapping into sparsely knit networks of diverse associates rather than relying on tight connections to a relatively small number of core associates." (p.12)
- "Networked individuals have partial membership in multiple networks and rely less on permanent memberships in settled groups" (p.12)
- "A key reason why these kinds of networks function effectively is that social networks are large and diversified thanks to the way people use technology" (p.13)
- "The new media is the new neighborhood" (p.13)
- "Networked individuals have new powers to create media and project their voices to more extended audiences that become part of their social worlds" (p.13)
- "The lines between information, communication, and action have blurred. Networked individuals use the internet, mobile phones, and social networks to get information at their fingertips and act on it, empowering their claims to expertise (whether valid or not)" (p.14)
- "Moving among relationships and milieus, networked individuals can fashion their own complex identities depending on their passions, beliefs, lifestyles, professional associations, work interests, hobbies, or any number of other professional characteristics" (p.15)
- "At work, less formal, fluctuating, and specialized peer-to-peer relationships are more easily sustained now compared with the past, and the benefits of boss/subordinate hierarchical relationships are less obvious" (p.15)
- "The organization of work is more spatially distributed" (p.16)
- "Home and work hae become more intertwined than at any time since hordes of farmers went out into their fields" (p.16)
- "While ICTs have shattered the work-home dividing line, they have also breached the line between the private and public spheres of life" (p.17)
- "New expectations and realities about the transparency, availability, and privacy of people and institutions are emerging" (p.17)
- "In the less hierarchical and less bounded networked environment—where expertise is more in dispute than in the past and where relationships are more tenuous—there is more uncertainty about whom and what information sources to trust (p.18).
With that summary in mind, the authors dive into the rest of the book.
In Chapter 2, "The Social Network Revolution," the authors discuss social networks (in the sociological sense, that of relationships among individuals) (p.21). They identify several major trends:
- Widespread connectivity (pp.22-27), including more ground and air travel, more telecommunications and computing, and more commercial and social interconnectedness due to trade.
- Weaker group boundaries (pp.27-30), due to changes in family composition, roles, and responsibilities; the rise of ad hoc, informal networks over structured and bounded voluntary organizations; and the fragmenting of media markets.
- Increased personal autonomy (pp.31-34), due to increased work flexibility; falling barriers related to ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual orientation; and the rise of IRAs and the decline of defined benefit pensions.
Although people still think they're in groups, the authors say, they're really in networks (p.35). In networked sociality, boundaries are more permeable, interactions occur with diverse others, hierarchies are flatter and more recursive (p.37). The authors provide a table comparing group-centered society with networked individualism (p.38).
In Chapter 3 and 4, "The Internet Revolution" and "The Mobile Revolution," the authors turn to the rise in Internet and mobile connectivity, discussing how these changes connected us in different ways. In particular, mobile devices make us hyperconnected (p.95) and hypercoordinated (p.99), and norms have not caught up to practice (p.105). For instance, "mobile hyperconnectivity in fuzzily bounded public-private space" can lead to problems such as private conversations overheard in public spaces as well as questions of who should and shouldn't be in the loop.
In the next section, the authors address how networked individualism works. In Chapter 5, "Networked Relationships," they describe communities as fluid personal networks, noting a post-WWII shift from door-to-door to place-to-place communities (p.122). With the triple revolution, we're undergoing another shift, from place-to-place to person-to-person (p.123). "Their networks are sparsely knit, with friends and relatives often loosely linked with each other" (p.124). And the authors suggest thinking in terms of "a networked self: a single self that gets reconfigured in different situations as people reach out, connect, and emphasize different aspects of themselves" (p.126). In their personal networks, communities become sparsely knit—most members aren't directly connected—and specialized—different network members help each other with different types of support (p.135).
In Chapters 6 and 7, "Networked Families" and "Networked Work," the authors note similar changes in the family. Lifelong marriage has gone the way of lifelong employment. Work involves multiple teams and multiple purposes (pp.171-172). Work trends include
- globalization of work, consumerism, travel (p.172)
- a shift from atom work to bit work (p.172)
- the internet and mobile revolutions (p.173)
- the ability to work at a distance (p.173)
- the resulting trend toward mobile work using primarily laptops and smartphones (p.173)
These trends especially affect workers whose organizations are "permeable"; workers directly connect with each other, and their work structure is "more flexible, laterally coordinated, team based, and boundary spanning" (p.177). Information is the key asset, and its flow is critical for success (p.178). Networked organizations have familiar characteristics:
People often work in multiple projects with different teams. This allows firms to assemble ad hoc teams with diversified talents and perspectives. As workers shift among teams, they can develop cumulatively larger networks of expertise that are "glocal," with both local interactions and global connectivity. Instead of submitting to the traditional hierarchical ode of authority, workers have more discretion about the work they jointly accomplish. Networked organizations have advantages for boundary spanning, as employees work and network between work groups and organizations—and at times, between continents. (p.181)In these organizations, the structure tends to be flatter, with fewer reporting relationships, and more informal (p.182).
Networked work also involves more work from home (p.186).
Let's leave it there. The authors have plenty more to say: about networked creators (Ch.8), networked information (Ch.9), how to thrive as a networked individual (Ch.10), and the future of networked individualism (Ch.11). But I'm most interested in the analysis above, which is so worthwhile that I regret sitting on this review for so long. If you're interested in networked individualism, certainly take a look at this book.