Hyperrhiz 10: Book/media reviews

Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman, Networked: The New Social Operating System

K. A. Wisniewski

University of Maryland Baltimore County


Rainie, Lee and Barry Wellman, Networked: The New Social Operating System. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. 358 pgs. Figures, tables, notes, index. Cloth, $29.95.

Networks. Networking. Networked. As scholars attempt to explain the effects of the Internet and related Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) on culture, work, and social relationships, the "network" becomes increasing complicated, an anemic term void of any meaning. In Networked: The New Social Operating System, Rainie and Wellman attempt to reinvigorate the word, converting it from abstract noun to qualifying adjective. Rather than studying these structures as the new basic unit of modern society as Manuel Castells does in his popular trilogy on the subject, Rainie and Wellman study individuals who are not merely linked by these systems but rather who are actively participating in them. They note how social media like Facebook and Twitter and the latest mobile devices allow individuals to inform a variety of communities of not only their own momentary thoughts and actions but also of events and activities happening locally, or globally, that they find worthy to share. The impressive amount of data analyzed for this study explains a societal shift away from groups and towards networked individuals. Studies on how emerging technologies create a more fragmented and isolated digital divide are abundant, but Networked offers a more promising outlook: a new social system of empowered individuals actually strengthening community bonds.

From the outset of their study, Rainie and Wellman contend, "People are not hooked on gadgets — they are hooked on each other" (6). This serves as the basis of their term "networked individualism," a new social "operating system" that deepens, expands, and diversifies the ways in which individuals are connected to one another. Once characterized by rigid and homogenous group-centered communities, today's new sphere of networked individuals is multiuser, multitasking, and multithreaded. A space where the new neighborhood is new media, individuals are empowered participants, capable of holding multiple identities and maintaining diversified ties with multiple, and shifting, communities, both local and distant.

To explain this new system and how networked individuals function within it, Rainie and Wellman describe the technological, social, and economic conditions created by social networks, the Internet, and mobile telephones, dubbed the "triple revolution." Citing Facebook as simply the latest tool for social networking, they trace the phenomenon (or at least the study of it) to the 1960s when they observe the rapid growth and development in widespread connectivity (via automobile and airplane travel and the automation and affordability of the telephone system), the weakening of group boundaries (as family units transform from groups to networks and as more structured and formal organizations become more open and informal), and an increase in personal autonomy (due to national shifts from blue-collar to white-collar jobs and shifting social views on ethnicity, gender, and religion). This kind of list is peppered throughout the work. While Rainie and Wellman are more concerned with questions on what's happening and what this means, investigating the conditions that allowed this to happen are downplayed, yet crucial to demonstrate the contention of a society shifting towards a network of individuals.

Similarly, the explanation of the Internet's widespread adoption, expressed in eight points and condensed to just three pages, and the following section's page-long bulleted list of Internet activities attracting new users during the 1990s are interesting but also reveal a much richer, much more complex, story that needs to be told and further examined. Unfortunately, the narrative's pace quickens through a brief section on the state of digital divides, despite noting a 2011 Pew's Internet survey finding that twenty-two percent of American adults do not use the Internet and that seventeen percent of adults and twenty-five percent of teens do not have mobile phones. Instead of using this as an opportunity to confront popular pessimism around this subject, Rainie and Wellman look the other way with a laundry list of percentages that highlight the small catalog of activities in which most Internet users are engaged and the less-than-helpful truism, "As more and more things become networked and so many everyday activities are tied together via the internet, people are finding it harder to be a non-internet user" (76). After they note how one's "digital skills" relate to income and education and networks are sources of social capital, focus shifts to the mainstream, that seventy-eight percent in the U.S. and Canada who do use the Internet, and the creation of an Internet culture. Expanding on Castells' categorization of four distinct Internet cultures, Rainie and Wellman define the participators, the "multi-ideological offspring of Castells' virtual communitarians" who actively create, share, post, rank, rate, and critique old, new, and "mashed-up" (or remixed) material online (79). Readers will immediately note similarities to Henry Jenkins', among others, work on participatory culture.

Titled "The Mobile Revolution," the opening section's last chapter demonstrates the real contributions of Networked. The chapter recounts the development of mobile phones into affordable, easily portable, multi-functional devices, from talking to texts to continuous Internet access. These cited improvements, and really most of the findings throughout the book, will seem obvious to the average reader, but Rainie and Wellman have the data to support them. And there are vast amounts of data. Rainie and Wellman aptly churn through decades of research that range from the anecdotal and personal stories of both researchers and everyday citizens, mountains of compiled surveys, and qualitative and quantitative sociological studies. The organization and presentation of these data sets (and what they reveal) becomes an impressive feat. Still, the exhaustive amounts of information presented here might become exhausting for the reader. Some very interesting ideas are buried in the text, and others don't get the space or development they deserve. One interesting survey finds that African Americans and Latinos are less likely than whites to be wired Internet users but more likely to access the Internet through their cell phones. Analysis of this kind of data might reveal progress towards closing the digital divide; more importantly, though, it recognizes that the study of our networked society and its transformation can no longer be simplified to a term such as "digital divide."

Part II of Networked explores how the triple revolution is playing out in North America. Rainie and Wellman organize chapters by topic, examining changes in community relations; the family unit; work and home spaces; and the creation, accessibility, and exchange of information. The section serves as a response to Robert Putnam's classic study Bowling Alone. Whereas Putnam observes an American public disengaged in political involvement because of the erosion of civic organizations, Rainie and Wellman contend that ICTs actually strengthen them, and in new and dynamic ways. They realize the benefits that partial memberships in multiple networks have on individuals' lives and note that the Internet allows individuals to maintain contact with "weaker ties" that would have been previously lost. These ties are crucial in a host of dimensions ranging from obtaining information and coping with health issues to seeking jobs and working with bureaucracy.

One of the more profound bits of evidence is the positive correlation between time individuals spend communicating over the Internet and the time they share during in-person meetings and phone contact. On the other hand, other conclusions seem banal: a household with children owns more technology and uses it as scheduling and organizational tools to maneuver through busy daily routines and as a way to enhance face-to-face interactions, as family members share online activities and common interests. Searching the web on one's phone is commonplace; the blurring of divisions between work and home and the public and private spheres are clearly visible. Rainie and Wellman also emphasize "[t]he intermixing of information and communication also deepens the interplay of information flows: the feedback process between institutional information and interpersonal information" (231). Individuals create their own strategies to cope with and manage the complexity and abundance of information. They use their networks to assess options and make more-informed choices. While Rainie and Wellman investigate how the networked environment is less bound by hierarchies and allows for more freedom to engage in creative and critical expressions, the democratization powers of the triple revolution, however, remain understated.

The book concludes with advice on how the networked individual may thrive in an ever-changing world and what we might expect in the upcoming decade based on the aforementioned trends. Building discussion around the anecdotes and experiences of one individual (the story of Linda Evans), Rainie and Wellman explain the transformation of one's sense of space, place, and presence. They classify one's encounters as either "absent presence" or "present absence" (using social psychologist Kenneth Gergen's terms) and offer strategies on segmenting one's identity, managing time and multitasking, and developing awareness of invisible audiences. To most effectively maneuver through this new operating system, networked individuals are adapting new literacies (272-274). Multimodal formats require users to be much more graphically and navigationally literate and aware of context and connections. While multitasking is a prerequisite in the networked age, participators also adapt a focus literacy that allows them to minimize distractions and complete work (even as they multi-task). Lastly, the explosion of information available to an individual requires them to be skeptical but asks for them to simultaneously be ethical (and to build trust with the individuals in their networks). For Rainie and Wellman, the future is a world of convergence — of the physical with the digital and between Social, Internet, and Mobile Networks — and one in which networked individuals will reshape and re-negotiate the structures of law, social norms, commercialism, and even the Internet itself.

Descriptions of this new "networked individualism" acknowledge the parallels between society and computer systems and how both systems offer new opportunities and benefit problem-solving, while they also insert restrictions and create new challenges, but, arguably, Rainie and Wellman focus too much on the possible capabilities and not enough on the individual constraints. Extensive as their research is, limiting the study to North America (and largely from the surveys and reports conducted by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project (Rainie) and the NetLab at the University of Toronto (Wellman)) only tells part of a much larger story. Investigating the topic from a global schema might tell a different account. Even with these limitations, the reader suffers from information overload; many interesting narratives are reduced to simplified sketches, outlines, and short, numbered sections, from each revolution's development to the concluding remarks on new literacies and the future of convergence. Despite an underdeveloped theory and the sometimes disappointingly obvious results, Rainie and Wellman offer a notable set of data points and fresh model upon which future scholars of digital culture and the public sphere may build.


DOI Permalink

https://doi.org/10.20415/hyp/010.r03