This time last year I was writing a book review about a book that I think all folks working in educational and instructional technology should read (in addition to any other number of fields). The book? Networked: The New Social Operating System, by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman. I must confess, I had already picked up the book to read during my late summer vacation. As I read part of the book in August, and knew I wanted to assign it to my doctoral seminar (and I did make it a last-minute addition), I was asked to do the review. I readily agreed to the review since I was already reading and enjoying the book. I read the remainder of the book while traveling in Thailand during early September, which made the book even more interesting to me: away from my family, my home, my local friends and colleagues for the week but still online no matter where I was, I found myself relying on my online network more for interaction than I normally do.
A year later, I find myself referring this book to others again and again. I had the opportunity to hear both authors speak about networked individualism recently at a conference (IR14), and the experience reminded me once again of why Networked is such a relevant and important book.
With the permission of the publisher, I’m sharing my review here. The full reference for the review is:
Dennen, V. P. (2013). The making of the networked self. [Review of the book Networked: The new social operating system by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman]. Educational Technology, 53(1), 59-60.
The Making of the Networked Self
Checked two personal and three professional email accounts, replying to and forwarding various messages. Tweeted a reminder to some students. Followed URLs from a few other tweets and bookmarked two of them in Diigo – one for personal use and one shared with a class. Wished happy birthdays to four people on Facebook. While on Facebook, shared a photo of my daughter with family and friends and looked at someone else’s wedding photos. Updated a profile with additional contact information. Phoned my husband once and texted him twice.
These are the activities I engaged in between 8 am and noon on a recent morning, during brief breaks from writing. When I take a break, a top priority is checking in and interacting with my network, which consists of family, friends, colleagues, students, and a few people I have never met, at least not in the flesh. Each of these people serves a different purpose in my life. Some know each other, and others do not. Some live around the corner, others live halfway around the world. Regardless, I connect with them all, and most of them are likely no more than a few degrees from being connected with each other. I am a networked individual. We all are.
Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman tackle the phenomenon of the networked individual in their new book, Networked: The New Social Operating System. Specifically, they situate networked individualism within larger social and cultural trends, exploring the nexus of three revolutions: social networks, Internet, and mobile. The authors are well qualified to assess these trends given Rainie’s experiences as the Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Wellman’s work as a sociologist who focuses on social networks. It is their thesis that these revolutions have come together to push networked individualism into prominence. Networked individualism both reflects and affects the choices that we make every day about what we do, when we do it, and with whom we do it. It encourages us to simultaneously express ourselves, sharing what is unique about us, and align ourselves with others, finding points of commonality. We are not simply members of a group or community, but rather we are people whose identities are defined from a combination of our individual traits and our affiliations.
It would be easy to point to communications technology as the driving force behind networked individualism. However, Rainie and Wellman suggest that the tail is not wagging the dog in this instance. Rather, they argue that a variety of factors have led to a lifestyle in which Americans and Canadians have come to embrace both the technology and the dispersed yet interconnected collection of people they know or might come to know through their everyday activities. In their argument against technological determinism, Rainie and Wellman explore trends that predate mass consumption of Internet and mobile technologies, such as car ownership and women in the workforce, showing how over the last several decades North Americans have increasingly expanded the geographic bounds of their relationships, spent less time with neighbors, and outsourced household tasks. They tackle the concept of networked individualism in five realms – relationships, families, work, creators, and information – and by the end paint a comprehensive picture of contemporary North American life and how it got to be this way.
As someone who has studied both communities and networks and who has experienced the occasional struggle to distinguish the two, I found the concept of networked individualism timely and refreshing. The term community is grossly overused and misinterpreted in today’s culture, applied to people who may have no more in common than an account on the same social networking site or a receipt for the same product. One reason for this word choice is clear: “community” sounds warmer and welcoming than “network.” However, Rainie and Wellman give us what feels like a satisfactory compromise between the terms in networked individualism, highlighting both the manner in which everything and everyone is rapidly becoming interconnected and the ways that some individuals are thriving in this system. As networked individuals, our worlds are not full of cold, uncaring bits and bytes. Rather, for those of us who learn how to navigate and cultivate these networks, the reward is often the presence of a caring, just-in-time safety net with the manpower and expertise that we need or, failing that, the ability to locate and activate manpower and expertise swiftly.
Maintaining a network, which requires managing relationships, information, reputations, trust, social capital, and boundaries, is a regular task for networked individuals. Rainie and Wellman suggest that this work, along with the time it consumes and the benefits people may reap from it, is in itself neither a good nor a bad thing. It simply reflects the reality of the times in which we live. Successful networked individuals are able to find the sweet spot between networked life and the offline world. They learn how to maintain their network and engage in online reciprocity without allowing it to overwhelm other parts of their lives. Online and offline worlds are largely integrated for these people.
In contrast, people who chose not to participate in maintaining their networks may miss opportunities for interaction, support, and advancement. Hopefully they do so as a matter of personal choice rather than from an inability to participate effectively in networked life. The Johnson-Lenzes, whose story is shared in the first chapter, learned first hand as they experienced medical and related financial struggles that a network of both nearby and far-flung people with a variety of relationships and expertise can provide the support needed in an emergency and its aftermath. However, the time at which the emergency strikes is too late to build this network.
Rainie and Wellman note in their final chapter that the future is not predictable, but networked life continues to evolve. People will increasingly find themselves faced with issues related to privacy, information management, the ubiquitous presence of technology, and the growing integration of physical and digital spaces. There are various paths down which these issues might lead society, and the authors suggest a few of them, not all of which are appealing. I finished reading this book with the thought that it is incumbent on educators who are already savvy in this realm to help shape the direction of networked individualism going forward. As the authors state, “The foreseeable future holds the prospect that individuals will be able to act more independently with greater power to shape their lives, if they choose to do so and if the circumstances will enable them to do so” (p. 302). Educators can help people better understand the choices they may have and more easily find circumstances that will foster their success in a networked world.
Networked provides an engaging and accessible overview of the ways in which social networks, the Internet, and mobile technologies have converged to affect everyday lives. By synthesizing current research with stories and anecdotes from the lives of real people, the authors have opened up this field to new and inexperienced readers. At the same time, they make substantive arguments and insights that will appeal to those practitioners and scholars who have played an instrumental role in framing and studying the contemporary shift toward networked individualism.