I am a Networked Individual

I’m reading two books right now, swapping between them for an occasional change of pace:

Product DetailsPersonal Connections in the Digital Age (DMS - Digital Media and Society)

Networked: The New Social Operating System, by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman, and Personal Connections in the Digital Age, by Nancy Baym.

They’re great. I’m only a couple chapters into them, but so far they’re offering interesting analyses of how personal connections operate in a hyperdigitized world. Best of all — neither of them are condemning digital media, nor are they lauding digital media. Instead, they’re providing nuanced descriptions of what it means to be a “networked individual” (Rainie and Wellman’s term) in the 21st century.

What I think I love most about reading these books at the same time is how similar their arguments are, despite the fact that their authors come from different disciplinary backgrounds. Barry Wellman is a social network researcher whose work I am coming to know well as I learn more about social network analysis. Nancy Baym comes from communication studies and the humanities, and spends her first chapter analyzing popular media artifacts in order to argue that there are multiple ways of perceiving how technology impacts us (or how we impact it, or both, etc. etc.). But they’re both arguing that today’s digital media aren’t making us better or worse people, but networked individuals. Rainie and Wellman give a description of networked individualism. Among other things, networked individualism is characterized by a world in which:

  • 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
  • Networked individuals have new powers to create media and project their voices to more extended audiences that become part of their social worlds
  • 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)
  • Networked individuals can fashion their own complex identities depending on their passions, beliefs, lifestyles, professional associations, work interests, hobbies, or any number of other personal characteristics
  • The organization of work is more spatially distributed
  • Home and work have become more intertwined than at any time since hordes of farmers went out into their fields

…and so on. Many of these descriptions of the networked world in which we live resonate with what I have found in my work with teachers and with what I have found in my personal life.

For example, I recently got a smartphone. For someone so interested in the role of digital technologies in teachers’ lives, it was long overdue. The smartphone has done nothing to me (what Baym would call technological determinism), and has not caused me to take on the characteristics of the technology to which I am (or am not) tethered. But it has made more obvious to me the degree to which I am a networked individual — my home, work, friend, and family networks intertwine in multiple spaces online. As Wellman and Rainie describe, my lines between information, communication, and action are quite blurry when I see an article, tweet it, talk about it on facebook, or blog about it here. I have many “sparsely knit networks of diverse associates” that cross the country and the globe, from India to Korea, from Colorado to Georgia, from my larger networked ties in Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, which expand and contract with the movements of individuals from far in my past to very much present, to my familial network, which touches the Pacific and the Atlantic.

These books are giving me things to think about: both my own networked individualism and the networked worlds of my future research participants, not to mention that NCTE proposal on networks I’m piecing together with a friend right now. More on this later, I can assure you. For now, I’m taking my networked self to tutoring.

3 thoughts on “I am a Networked Individual

  1. Kevin Eagan

    I’m so happy I stumbled across your blog. Both of those books look fascinating. They’re going on my “to read” list right now.

    I had a similar experience when I got a smartphone for the first time last year. I didn’t feel like it changed me directly in the technological determinist sense, but it made me aware how large and disparate my network was.

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