Networked individualism: What in the world is that?

Social relationships are changing and technology is at the center of the story.

Our work at the Pew Internet Project and the University of Toronto’s NetLab (especially research for the Connected Lives Project) does not support the fear that the digital technologies are killing society. Our evidence is that these technologies are not isolated — or isolating — systems. They are being incorporated into people’s social lives much like their predecessors were.

People are not hooked on gadgets—they are hooked on each other.

But things are different now. In incorporating the internet and mobile phones into their lives, people have changed the ways they interact with each other. They have become increasingly networked as individuals, rather than embedded in groups. In the world of networked individuals, it is the person who is the focus: more than the family, the work unit, the neighborhood, and the social group.

That’s what our book is about.

It describes the rise of “networked individualism,” which stands in contrast to the longstanding social arrangements 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. Like most computer operating systems and all mobile systems, the social network operating system is:

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, 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 on-demand 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.

The networked individualism operating system creates new efficiencies and affordances in the ways people solve problems and meet their social needs. Whereas in the past, it was not easy for people to get real-time information to help navigate a place, now it could hardly be easier with instantly available maps, augmented reality mobile apps that give people helpful information about their surroundings, and crowdsourced input about the environs.

Another big change in the world of networked individuals is that it offers more freedom than people experienced in the past to deal with various segments of their network when particular needs arise. For example, when people have financial problems or questions they often consult a different group of friends from the ones they would seek out if they had a health problem. Unlike the days of village life when everyone knew everyone else’s affairs, people in the high-tech age are more liberated now to act on their own or with various segments of their network.

At the same time, the networked individualism operating system requires that people gain new social skills to operate within it. They need to develop new strategies for handling challenges as they arise. They must devote more time and energy to practicing the art of networking than their ancestors did in order to get their needs met. They can no longer passively let the village take care of them and protect them. They must actively network to leverage the human resources they need, and they must actively manage the boundaries of their self-presentation in these networks.

In the weeks and months to come, we will share some of the insights that guided the book and some of the stories that ground those insights in real human experience.

More importantly, we’ll do several things to advance our arguments beyond the book. First, we’ll try to explore and comment on news events and stories that help explain how networked individualism works. Second, we’ll highlight new research that addresses the subject, including any findings that challenge our argument. There is astonishingly good social network analysis being done these days.

And third, we’ll try to curate stories from readers of the book and this blog about how people act as networked individuals — and how they are challenged by the realities of living in a world where the act of networking often involves disclosure of personal information and thoughts.

We invite you to tell us stories about the bright side and the dark side of your experiences as networked individuals: