14th Nov2012

Book Review- Networked: The New Social Operating System

by cassygriff

Rainie, Lee and Barry Wellman. Networked: The New Social Operating System. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012.

It is often too easy to glance around the daily trappings of our lives and begin to feel simultaneously over and underwhelmed by the presence of various forms of technology and the supposed absence of other people’s bodies. Among scholars of digital and virtual spaces, it has been somewhat trendy and perhaps even comforting to assert what amounts to a doomsday analysis of the future of human relationships in the so-called digital age. However, as Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman explain from the very beginning of Networked: The New Social Operating System, “this is not a book about the wonders of the internet and smartphones. Despite all the attention paid to new gadgets, technology does not determine human behavior; humans determine how technology is used” (ix). Immediately, therefore, the main question of this text becomes clear: How are people using technology to create social networks that are not necessarily bounded by time and space? Furthermore, how do social networks provide members/users with other (and occasionally better) opportunities for contact, communication, and relationship-building than traditional, spatially and temporally restricted groups?

Wellman and Rainie open the book with an poignant vignette that proves infinitely minable as they unfold their argument for the existence of a “triple revolution” of social networks, the internet, and mobile technologies. Detailing one couple’s tragic series of medical incidents and the ways in which social networks facilitated by the internet and mobile technologies helped them survive and recover, the authors make clear that our modern social networks are not your father’s bowling club. Rather, these networks are loosely bound connections between various individuals that provide information, support, and even goods despite the fact that the individuals do not claim membership in a group nor are they all aware and reliant upon one another in precisely similar ways. Rainie and Wellman term this new sociality “Networked Individualism,” a designation that signals the focus on the individual or the ego and their relationships to multiple other individuals.

True to their early assertions, the authors’ focus remains on the social network aspects of this triple revolution, as they devote significantly less time to examining the historical roles of the internet and mobile media in the facilitation of networks. However in this case, less actually is more, as a great number of scholars have already done the work detailing the gestation, birth, and early years of these technological revolutions. Wellman and Rainie’s discussion of the internet and mobile revolution is succinct and never strays from the point, that these revolutions are but tools for facilitation a new sociality based on networks rather than groups. It is not that the technology forces us to change our model human interaction, but rather that these technologies provide the opportunity to do so. The authors thus successfully and diplomatically brush past Turkle’s assertion that technological innovation is destroying interpersonal relationships and instead argue rather convincingly that technology does what we ask it to do, and we have asked it to change the mode, scope, and intensity of our social interactions.

While I do not wish to downplay the relevance of the internet and mobile media aspects of the triple revolution, I argue that the usefulness of Networked lies primarily in its ability to translate the basic tenets of social network analysis (SNA) to wider interdisciplinary audience. Furthermore, the text also demonstrates the applicability of social network analysis to the changing configurations of relationships as technology continues to develop. This is especially true in the latter half of the book, in which the authors re-focus on networks and the various types of interactions either changed or made possible by technologically-mediated networks. Networked individualism remains at the fore throughout the five chapters comprising Part II, as relationships, family life, work, creation, and information sharing are each put under the microscope in order to better explain that the navigation of these aspects of life are differently and potentially better understood if we recognize the primacy of networks of individuals and their relationships. In each of these chapters, the authors actively demonstrate the ways in which social network analysis can and should be integrated into discussion of mobile media and the internet. SNA’s presence in these spaces effectively reintegrates human experience into analysis, thus ensuring that the apocalyptic predictions can be pushed aside to deal with the ways people actually use technology.

In very general terms, Networked presents possibilities rather than predictions, and does so in a manner that is surprisingly accessible for a text of its depth and breadth. However, scholars whose focus necessitates analysis of race, class, sexuality, and (less so) gender will be disappointed in the lack of engagement with categories of identity and difference beyond North American, heteronormative family structures and relationships. This lack of specificity is particularly glaring in the paucity of discussion around structural inequalities, an aspect that would surely impact access to technologies and the social networks that can be created via these technologies. Still, the lack of some specifics does not necessarily preclude this book from providing a useful set of theoretical and methodological tools that may be easily translatable to those doing ethnographic work and content analysis focusing on specific networked communities.

Also, an aside to Alyssa, Justin, and Avery: Based on what I know about your projects, this would probably be an incredibly useful introduction to social network analysis and how it looks when it’s deployed in digital spaces.

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