Networked individualism can open more doors for more people, but it’s neither a utopia nor a panacea. (More)

Networked, Part III: Practice, Privilege, Privacy, and Politics (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature has considered Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman’s book Networked: The New Social Operating System. Thursday we looked at the three revolutions that pushed North Americans out of groups and into networks. Yesterday we explored the social operating system that the authors call networked individualism. Today we conclude with the possibilities and pitfalls of social networking.

Lee Rainie is the Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. He earned a master’s degree in political science from Long Island University, and was formerly the managing editor of U.S. News & World Report. Barry Wellman is a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and the Director of Virtually Social Research Network within the Centre for Urban and Community Studies. He earned a Ph.D in sociology from Harvard University.

Linda Grows Networked

At 42, Linda was emotionally and financially wrecked. She had been a stay-at-home mom for years, and had only recently taken a job as a sign language interpreter at an elementary school. Then her husband of 23 years left, and she had to rebuild her life while caring for her young son and teenage daughters. She would rebuild, but not alone.

Her first network was a church class for newly-divorced and -separated people, where she formed a core of caring friends. She also discovered the internet, which she used to research and plan a vacation with her son. After she felt recovered from her divorce, she stayed with the church class to help others. There she met John, and soon they were exchanging emails. She sought relationship advice from her daughters, as well as from members of a singles group at her church. In time, she and John married.

Linda also went back to college to finish a bachelor’s degree. She found a fulltime translating job, but she wasn’t satisfied. She had stayed in touch with a favorite professor online, and also began talking with teachers at a local high school. With their help, she decided to pursue a career in teaching. She enrolled in a master’s program at a state university. Her course work was entirely online, and she learned to integrate website lectures, textbook readings, and chats with others who were in or had completed the program. When she graduated two years later, she enrolled in a Ph.D program at an out-of-state university, again with online coursework. She now works for her local public school board, integrating educational technology into the classroom.

At home, she had moved from dialup to broadband and from cellphone to Blackberry. Her expanding network of contacts helped her find a financial advisor, and internet research skills helped her and John invest their portfolio wisely. She also started an online support group for myasthenia gravis, and continued to help with the group even after her diagnosis changed. The group set up a recipe club, a joke club, and other social and support services. She now does her banking online, sends gifts and e-cards to her children and grandchildren, and researched laser eye surgery to know what questions to ask her doctor and what to expect during recovery.

Practice: Network Literacy

Linda counts eight close friends and family, eleven close buddies, and scores of casual contacts. Rainie and Wellman cite a study showing the average networked North American has over 600 contacts including coworkers, family, local and distant friends, and others who share specific interests.

Building and maintaining such networks requires both old-fashioned personal skills and new techno-savvy. Networked individuals must invest in the Golden Rule, sharing with and caring for others. They must also learn internet and cellphone skills, including email, instant messaging, texting, and web searching. They must learn to balance staying on-task and in-touch, nimbly surveying email, IMs, texts, Twitter, news feeds, and other information while still focusing on other projects. They must learn how to find new networks, ask contacts in existing networks to introduce them to other new contacts in specific places or with specific expertise, and both find and become bridges between networks. They must learn to interact transitively, communicating often with contacts who can help with current tasks, yet still touching base with others who may need or offer help at some future point.

Unlike the past of tightly-knit communities with wise elders and established roles and bonds, networked individuals must assume more responsibility for who they know, when and how they reach out, and what they share with whom. They must monitor and manage their reputations, remembering that online information can rarely be fully deleted. A remark, photo, or video that was acceptable in its initial context may be embarrassing or worse when viewed by other people or at another time. Segmented identity – reserving parts of yourself for trusted friends or specific groups – requires both personal and technical choices and tradeoffs. Public and private boundaries have blurred but not entirely dissolved, and networked individuals must balance convenience and privacy, work and leisure, focused attention and broader awareness.

Privilege: Digital Divides and Social Capital

Networked individualism is not a utopia of equality. Rainie and Wellman cite data that show older, poorer, and rural Americans still lag in both network access and network skills. While persons of color are less likely to have and use computers, they are more likely to use cellphones for more networking tasks. Young Americans are learning network literacy almost as they learn to read and write, while older Americans may feel intimidated or have gaps in their skills. The joke of asking our children or grandchildren to program our VCRs has transformed into asking them how to use our cellphones.

As Rainie and Wellman note, social capital operates much like financial capital: those who already have much can gain more, and more quickly, than those who have little. Consider how quickly celebrities gain Twitter and Facebook followers, or Newt Gingrich paying 99 cents to each new follower to build “over a million grass roots supporters.”

Yet social capital is not limited to celebrity status. Linda already had a large and supportive church community when she began going online. Having been helped by many of them, she was able to offer help to others. As her social capital grew, she had more skills and contacts to offer, making her a more attractive contact. Those with less social capital – and more needs – may find it harder to begin and expand supportive networks.

Privacy: Three -veillances

What networked individualism offers in convenience, we pay for in privacy. It’s easier to keep up with many friends on Facebook or Twitter, but harder to reserve some information for certain people. David Kirkpatrick quotes Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as saying:

You have one identity…. The days of having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly…. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity…. The level of transparency the world has now won’t support having two identities for a person.

Yet as Eli Pariser notes, Facebook filters updates from your ‘friends,’ passing through messages from people Facebook’s algorithm thinks you want to know about, while blocking others. That algorithm – not you – decides who sees what you share, and whose sharing you see.

Online networks makes top-down surveillance easier and potentially more comprehensive than ever. The information you share through online networking tools is stored “in the cloud,” on network servers accessible by data-mining businesses and governments. While some personal is supposed to be more secure, the scope of that privacy is a legal issue that spans state and national borders. Your state or the U.S. may say a network can’t share some data, but another state or country may have different laws.

Networked individualism also opens doors for peer-to-peer coveillance. That can mean exposing bad behavior that might otherwise have gone unreported, like the video of students bullying a Toronto school bus monitor. But Rainie and Wellman cite data showing that many young adults now search online for information about new friends, dates, coworkers, neighbors, and other contacts. That may help you know if the doctor you’re about to see has a good reputation for treating your illness, or whether a new neighbor has a criminal record. It might also let you find an online indiscretion to use against someone with whom you’re competing for a job or promotion.

This new social operating system also allows bottom-up sousveillance, by individuals and networked groups, of businesses and government officials. “Citizen journalism” may be positive and expose real crimes or abuses of power. But it can also be selective and distort innocent behavior into carefully-cultivated scandals.

Politics: Networked Power and Pitfalls

Finally, networked individualism offers more people more ways to engage in the political process. While the stories of “Twitter Revolutions” during the Arab Spring were overhyped – most of the preparation was done offline, often in secret, and much of it by established political groups – social networking tools did help protesters coordinate day to day activities and ensure their protests reached the wider world. But some other governments learned from the Arab Spring, and cut off access to many such networks within their borders.

Here in the U.S., the “netroots” became a significant organizing locus during the 2004 and 2008 campaigns. Yet the Tea Party’s in-the-streets activism showed more political impact, in part because that offline work was pushed and coordinated with online efforts (and a whole lot of money). Occupy Wall Street was suggested and the initial scheduling worked out online, yet the Occupy protesters were encamped in Zuccotti Park for two weeks before most mainstream media outlets seemed to notice. Police abuses during the crackdown on Occupy were more often recorded and spread first by “citizen journalist” sousveillance, then picked up by mainstream media outlets.

Political networked individualism offers opportunities, but also challenges. We travel through our personal networks, our focus shifting depending on our immediate situations. That may better meet our individual needs, yet make it harder to build and maintain the solidarity and cohesion required for effective political activism. Parties, unions, and other political activist groups may seem archaic, but their structure enables long-term, coordinated effort in ways networked individualism does not (yet).

As progressive Democratic activists, we must embrace the potential of networked individualism and the tools it offers. Yet we must also try to ensure that more people can take advantage of its benefits, and become more aware of its risks and limitations. Our children will have much to teach us about this new society … but we’ll still have some things to teach them as well.


Happy Saturday!