Book Review – Networked

With Networked: The New Social Operating SystemLee Rainie and Barry Wellman offer a very readable introduction to networks and their social consequences. This is a book that aims to reach a larger audience beyond academic walls. So, even though it extensively relies on research (quite a lot from Pew, unsurprisingly), it is not a tedious read at all as the data alternate with narratives and stories that facilitate comprehension. At the same time, the book is not full of jargon. It also seems that this book aims to convey the message that the sky is not falling because we are spending more time on Facebook and other social networking platforms. No, we have not stop interacting face-to-face with each other (or should I write f2f, as the cool kids do). No, we are not bowling alone. No, we are turning into sociopathic recluse.

What the book explores is all the different ways in which social networking (and related technologies) have woven their way into our lives and reorganized and re-shaped some aspect of them, but not in the socially-disintegrating ways that the usual prophets of doom have been warning us against. As a result, the book conveys a relatively optimistic perspective on networks without being totally on the cyber-utopian side. There is not much in the book about the “dark side” of networks. That is Evgeny Morozov‘s turf. I actually think both books should be read in parallel: where Rainie and Wellman are more micro and optimistic, Morozov is more macro and critical. In all, there is not much in the book that will surprise those of us who read regularly on networks (or are already familiar with Wellman’s work) but we are not really the target audience. This is a book that is perfectly readable for undergraduate students and the general public and I think it is a nice piece of public sociology that demonstrates what sociology can do and tell on current topics. At the same time, it is rigorously researched (tons of end notes and sources), which is important because one of the points that Rainie and Wellman make is that a great deal of the doomsday scenarios on social networking are based on not much in terms of data. Very often, it is just columnists fears.

As much as the book does not rely on academic and technical jargon, it does revolve around a few concepts: networked individualism, the triple revolution, the social operating system. So, the book is

“the story of the new social operating system we call “networked individualism” in contrast to the longstanding operating system formed around large hierarchical bureaucracies and small, densely knit groups such as households, communities, and workgroups. We call networked individualism an “operating system” because it describes the ways in which people connect, communicate, and exchange information. We also use the phrase because it underlines the fact that societies— like computer systems— have networked structures that provide opportunities and constraints, rules and procedures. The phrase echoes the reality of today’s technology: Most people play and work using computers and mobile devices that run on operating systems. Like most computer operating systems and all mobile systems, the social network operating system is personal— the individual is at the autonomous center just as she is reaching out from her computer; multiuser— people are interacting with numerous diverse others; multitasking— people are doing several things; and multithreaded— they are doing them more or less simultaneously.” (Loc 341)

[All emphases mine. I read this in kindle edition and all the endnotes were turned into notes at the end of each chapter, which messed up the page numbers and therefore, kindle only identifies locations.]

So, the general shift is this:

“In generations past, people usually had small, tight social networks— in rural areas or urban villages— where a few important family members, close friends, neighbors, leaders and community groups (churches and the like) constituted the safety net and support system for individuals.

This new world of networked individualism is oriented around looser, more fragmented networks that provide succor. Such networks had already formed before the coming of the internet. Still, the revolutionary social change from small groups to broader personal networks has been powerfully advanced by the widespread use of the internet and mobile phones.


Our research supports the notion that small, densely knit groups like families, villages, and small organizations have receded in recent generations. A different social order has emerged around social networks that are more diverse and less overlapping than those previous groups. The networked operating system gives people new ways to solve problems and meet social needs. It offers more freedom to individuals than people experienced in the past because now they have more room to maneuver and more capacity to act on their own.

At the same time, the networked individualism operating system requires that people develop new strategies and skills for handling problems.


A major difference between the past and now is that the social ties people enjoy today are more abundant and more easily nourished by contact through new technologies. We will show throughout this book how the internet and other forms of information and communication technologies— what scholars call “ICTs”— actually aid community.” (Loc 401)

But the central concept, the one concept to unite them all is that of the Triple Revolution (social networking, Internet, mobile technologies):

“First, the Social Network Revolution has provided the opportunities— and stresses— for people to reach beyond the world of tight groups. It has afforded more diversity in relationships and social worlds— as well as bridges to reach these worlds and maneuverability to move among them. At the same, it has introduced the stress of not having a single home base and of reconciling the conflicting demands of multiple social worlds.

Second, the Internet Revolution has given people communications power and information-gathering capacities that dwarf those of the past. It has also allowed people to become their own publishers and broadcasters and created new methods for social networking. This has changed the point of contact from the household (and work group) to the individual. Each person also creates her own internet experiences, tailored to her needs.

Third, the Mobile Revolution has allowed ICTs to become body appendages allowing people to access friends and information at will, wherever they go. In return, ICTs are always accessible. There is the possibility of a continuous presence and pervasive awareness of others in the network. People’s physical separation by time and space are less important.

Together, these three revolutions have made possible the new social operating system we call “networked individualism.” The hallmark of networked individualism is that people function more as connected individuals and less as embedded group members. For example, household members now act at times more like individuals in networks and less like members of a family. Their homes are no longer their castles but bases for networking with the outside world, with each family member keeping a separate personal computer, address book, calendar, and mobile phone.

Yet people are not rugged individualists— even when they think they are. 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. This means that networked individuals can have a variety of social ties to count on, but are less likely to have one sure-fire “home” community. Looser and more diverse social networks require more choreography and exertion to manage. Often, individuals rely on many specialized relationships to meet their needs.” (Loc. 460)

This is the central thesis of the book and all the subsequent chapters explore the consequences of the Triple Revolution in our social institutions, intimate lives, and interactions. In many ways, this is highly reminiscent of Bauman’s liquidity thesis. Individuals are less members of fixed and (more or less) rigid groups and more likely to belong to a variety of loosely connected networks that are always in flux. What social networking technologies have added to the mix is an incredibly greater capacity to actually network beyond borders and geographical distances which is why social networking does not generate isolation. The different nodes in these networks are both relationships and resources that can be activated for a variety of purposes. And as we already know, there is strength in weak ties. At the same time, networks do not kill strong ties. If anything, they may intensify them since we can be in contact more extensively and intensively.

We also know that social networks involve participation. To be on Facebook or Twitter involves some degree of putting “stuff” out there, be it pictures, videos, blog posts, or just status updates. These social networking platforms turned a lot of us into content creators and sharers. In addition, the number and types of devices through which we can do all these things have expanded as well. All this can generate a sense of empowerment not just because we can become content creators but also because we get to define our identities across networks as we participate in different communities (virtual or not). Throughout institutions, networks have changed hierarchies and the ways in which individuals interact. Interestingly, common boundaries (between home and work, public and private, for instance) have become a lot blurrier.

The book also has some development on the history of the Triple Revolution, tracing its origins and trends that are social and technological. This also means that the story being told is that of Western (and mainly American) trends. After all, all the goods and capacities open by social networking are available to only those who can afford them and who live in societies that are rich enough to provide the infrastructure necessary for ICTs. The digital divide is a bit too underplayed in this book for my taste. But that second chapter is a really great primer on networks that stands on its own and where the main concepts of network analysis are clearly explained. At the same time, if the Internet did not invent networking, it certainly contributed massively to its expansion. The book also contains a quick history of the Internet in combination with the impact of the spreading of personal computers as well as the different subcultures that emerged along with the Internet (techno-elites, hackers, virtual communautarians and participators). The final layer of the Triple Revolution is mobility. Portable computers (ultrabooks), tablets and smartphones, along with reliable wifi everywhere ensure that we are continuously and reliable connected, which means that we have to devise strategies to manage the volume and types of social interactions and these technologies give us the tools to do just that but this changes the ways we do a lot of things:

“Before the mobile-ization of the world, time and space were critical factors for in-person contact. People needed to specify when and where they would meet. Coordinating a rendezvous, a party or a business meeting was a formal negotiation yielding firm coordinates. Early in the twentieth century, sociologist Georg Simmel pointed out that a similar, large-scale change occurred with the nineteenth century’s Industrial Revolution. With the coming of big machines, cities, bureaucracies, stores, and railroad lines running on strict timetables, people had to be at precise places at precise times— or else the machines wouldn’t be operated, papers wouldn’t be pushed, customers wouldn’t be served, and trains wouldn’t be boarded. Public clocks— and private wristwatches— regulated the industrialized world. This was a profound change from preindustrial village life, where people went to their farms, shops, or pubs according to their needs— not their clocks.

To some extent, mobile phones allow us a slight return to this more casual negotiation of time. In the age of mobile connectivity, time is more fluid and people’s expectations have changed. In the felicitous phrase Ling uses, “hyper-coordination” is now possible and preferred, especially by younger mobile users.” (Loc. 2662)

In a way, one could argue that location is making a comeback as we more or less automatically update our locations at all times on social networking platforms. Technologies and platforms then give more flexibility in our opportunities for interaction and how we present ourselves in these interactions (Goffman would have a field day with this stuff), something that Rainie and Wellman call connected presence (interaction through technology without physical presence), absent presence (the annoying habit of checking one’s email / texts / Facebook timeline / Twitter feed while interacting with someone f2f), or present absence (incorporation of absent people to f2f interactions through technology). So, we are more or less always on at multiple levels but there is a bit of cultural lag as we try to figure out the proper norms to navigate these interactions. Is it rude to check your email while in f2f interaction with someone (a BIG one for teachers!)? How long and loud are you expected to gab on your cell phone in a public space? Etc. We are still working those out. And a lot of us as guided by a new anxiety: FOMO (fear of missing out). How many ultra-important tweets have I missed while writing up this blog post? Answer: none, I have my iPad on with a Twitter client open. I am typing this in Chrome with tabs open in Facebook, Google Reader, and others.

Having those basics in place, then, the book follows with a series of chapters on the ways the Triple Revolution has worked its way (as cause and effect) into our relationships and social institutions (such as family and work). That is where the main message of “the sky is not falling” comes through loud and clear. The authors also address why the digital dualism persists. Digital dualism refers to the preeminence of f2f interaction as “real” interaction and virtual ones as a defective, debased form of sociability because it does not involve all the bodily stuff that enrich interaction and all the other layers of subtle interactive clues that give rich texture to encounters. Digital dualism assumes the absence of all these dimensions of interaction and therefore declares it a poor substitute. The underlying assumption here is that individuals interact with different people f2f and online, which is simply not the case. It also ignores the fact that there are various ways of enriching virtual interactions (smileys come to mind) and that individuals integrate them in their communication toolkit and use them depending on the context of the interaction. But all of this does not lead to isolation but to what the authors call flexible autonomy:

“The personalized and mobile connectivity enhanced by the Triple Revolution and the weakening of group boundaries have helped relationships move from place-to-place networks to individualized person-to-person networks. Most have private internet connections and personal mobile phones, and their own cars. Lower numbers of children mean parents need to spend less time at home raising them. There are fewer children to keep parents housebound. The loosening of religious, occupational, and ethnic boundaries also encourages interpersonal free agentry.

Rather than ties between households or work groups, people connect as individuals to other individuals, in person-to-person networks. They maneuver through multiple sets of ties that shift in importance and contact by the day. Each person engages in multiple roles at home, with friends and relatives, and at work or school. Their networks are sparsely knit, with friends and relatives often loosely linked with each other. These loose linkages do not imply a complete untethering of social relations: There are only a few isolates “bowling alone.” Most people are connecting in shifting networks rather than in solidary groups. Such networks provide diversity, choice, and maneuverability at the probable cost of overall cohesion and long-term trust.

While place-to-place networks show how community has transcended local boundaries, person-to-person networks show how community has transcended group boundaries. It is the individual— and not the household, kinship group, or work group— that is the primary unit of connectivity. The shift puts people at the center of personal networks that can supply them with support, sociability, information, and a sense of belonging. People connect in person and via ICTs. Their networking activities shift as their needs shift. While network members relate to each other as persons, they often emphasize certain roles. They are bosses to their employees, husbands to their wives, friends to their friends, and so on— with somewhat different norms for each network.

Networked individualism means that people’s involvement in multiple networks often limits their involvement in and commitment to any one network. It is not as if they are going to the village square every day to see the same crowd. Because people can maneuver among milieus, their multiple involvements decrease the control that each milieu has over their behavior. Yet limited involvements work both ways. If a person is only partially involved in a milieu, then the participants in that milieu often are not as committed to maintaining that person’s well-being.” (Loc. 3234)

The idea of the networked self then, I think, is very close to Beck and Bauman’s notion of individualization that the condition of liquid modernity and risk society and flexible autonomy also refers back to the idea of the self as aself-constructed project where individuals have to assemble their own capital (including social) and resources in the absence of the institutional and structural support (i.e. generalized precarization). Individualization is a concept much less benign than flexible autonomy but the authors are not naive:

“Living in person-to-person networks has profound implications both for individuals and for the social milieus and overall societies that they are in. Networked individualism downloads the responsibility— and the burden— of maintaining personal networks on the individual. Networked individuals often have time binds, since they are constantly negotiating plans with disconnected sets of individuals within their expanding network. Active networking is more important than going along with the group. Acquiring resources depends substantially on personal skill, individual motivation, and maintaining the right connections.” (Loc 3257)

So, it is up to the networked individual to manage her networks and social capital. But these changes have also affected families (in addition to the changes brought about by changes in gender roles, the economy, etc.). The family itself now has porous boundaries and can be considered a network in itself. Family scholars will not be surprised by any of this. ICTs have accompanied and amplified these structural changes more than they have caused them but they are now thoroughly embedded in family dynamics both in terms of bonding and bridging links, within the family and outside of it. Here again, the sky is not falling and texting is not destroying families.

“Networked families have adapted to the Triple Revolution. They use ICTs to bridge barriers of time and space, weakening the boundaries between public and private life spaces. The mounting and interrelated changes in the composition of households— such as the life-cycle complexities of marriage and divorce and decisions to have children— mean that today’s households are varied, complex, and evolving. Networked families use ICTs to mediate these complexities and adapt ICTs to their varied needs.


Not only have families changed in size and composition, they have also changed in their lifestyles. ICTs have become thoroughly embedded in families’ everyday lives, helping them stay connected and in motion. The internet and mobile phones connect family members as they move around, help them find each other, and bring them together for joint work and play. The result is that ICTs— often in conjunction with personal automobiles— have paradoxically provided household members with the ability to go their separate ways while at the same time keeping them more connected. Families have less face time, but more connected time, using mobile phones and the internet.” (Loc 4461)

Similar changes have affected the organization of work and there has been a lot of ink spent already on the networked organization in the context of economic globalization, so, no need to belabor that point. But on a more micro level, we have seen the emergence of the networked worker, taken out of the office or the cubicle in a less hierarchical organization, capable to work everywhere at any time thanks to ICTs and for whom boundaries between home and work, between private and public time are blurry. 

And then there are the ways in which ICTs and social networking technologies revolutionize the way media and news content is produced and consumed:

“In the print-dominant era of news, news stories could have a handful of elements: headlines, narrative texts, photos, graphics, sidebar stories, and “pull quotes” that featured people cited in the article. In the digital age, the number of features of a news story could rise to over fifty items as websites could contain links to other stories and primary resources, spaces for readers to add their own comments, tags and pictures, links to archives of stories and timelines, full transcripts of interviews, audio material, video clips, background material from the reporter about the process of gathering the story, photo albums, details about the reporter such as a biography and an archive of her previous work. In other words, web treatment of news provides fuller context than print media because of the associations that can be built into a story such as links to background material, other stories, archives of past coverage, as well as newsmakers and organizations mentioned. Among other things, the digital, linked format invites browsing and “horizontal” reading through links, rather than linear “vertical” reading.

This display of digital material also invites challenge, amplification, and adjustment by users of the news site. Networked individuals can now respond to stories more easily and in more ways than they ever could in the “Letters to the Editor” sections of newspapers. With commenting features embedded within news stories, readers can immediately post their thoughts and opinions— not only for the editorial team to see but also for anyone else who happens to be reading that same article. With links to the writers’ email addresses or Twitter accounts, readers can communicate directly with journalists and may sometimes receive a response with greater speed than they would have in the days when readers would mail in their comments and await their publication— if they even made it to publication. Online follow-up chat sessions also give readers the opportunity to discuss matters directly with the journalists in real time.


Compared to the print environment, then, data in the digital environment are denser, broader, and deeper. The digitalization of news thus offers the potential for richer coverage and therefore deeper understanding. Moreover, decisions about the structure and hierarchy of content found online, on how to allocate attention, and on how to respond are now likely to rest in the hands of both the traditional editorial professionals and ordinary networked individuals. ” (Loc 6034)

This is an experience familiar to anyone who consumes their news online not through media outlets per se but through Newsreaders, Twitter and other filtering and curating technologies. Talking back to “experts” is also a new experience. To experience the news outside of traditional media is also new. One only has to think of the Arab Spring and similar social movements to realize that networking also creates news, as much as media organizations.

The authors also touch upon a topic that is important: that of surveillance. Even though that topic is not really developed, they do bring in a couple of additional concepts: where surveillance usually refers to governments and corporations monitoring what we do, produce and consume, co-veillance refers to mutual surveillance and monitoring of behavior online. We google people. We check out their Facebook profiles, etc. And there is sousveillance, that is, the riff-raff watching the elites, politicians and organization and reporting to online communities (often for the purpose of public shaming). But all this overall means we have all learned to live without much privacy and we need to factor that in to what we do online.

The book then ends with a set of recommendations on how to thrive in the networked context that is more and more shaping our lives, such as “segment your identity”, “learn to function in different contexts” or “be aware of invisible audiences”… maybe I should give that (fairly extensive) list to my students. But the authors also argue that in order to thrive and succeed, individuals need (and sometimes already have) new forms of literacy:

  • Graphic literacy
  • Navigation literacy
  • Context and connections literacy
  • Focus literacy
  • Multitasking literacy
  • Skepticism literacy
  • Ethical literacy
  • Networking literacy

Because the Triple Revolution is not quite over and the trends noted throughout the book are still unfolding. Legislations are still being drafted and avidly debated, especially things having to do with Net Neutrality and privacy. Informal norms of online etiquette are far from settled (especially, I might add, in the context of online rabid misogyny).

Again, as I mentioned above, this is a relatively optimistic book so there is limited critical examination of the dark side of all these things. This is something that will frustrate readers as the idea of networked individualism seems to erase issues of class, race and gender (among others) that are not addressed in the book. So, this is not by any means a complete examination of networking but it is a solid and engaging starting point.

2 thoughts on “Book Review – Networked

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