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:

17 thoughts on “Networked individualism: What in the world is that?

  1. The “multithreaded multitasking” sounds like the area of research we have been working for the past few years that we call “PolySocial Reality (PoSR).” You can read about PoSR here in “A Cultural Perspective on Mixed, Dual and Blended Reality”: and here, “PolySocial Reality: Prospects for extending User Capabilities Beyond Mixed, Dual and Blended Reality”:

  2. Toch on said:

    This looks like a great book! I think Social Networks have made some families more connected, especially those that are spread out around the world. For those that did not grow up or live in the US their entire lives, it is the way we stay connected with family and friends and hold on to a part of our heritage. You end up less disconnected.

    With privacy, while doing a random search on my husband I found a genealogy site that listed his and his family’s (father, brothers, and aunts/uncles) full names, birthdates, and birth places–information that could get you very far! No one knows (or fesses up!) to how this happened but the site was pretty quick and good about taking it down; I am not sure why they would put it up anyway and now wonder how such organizations function when it comes to privacy.

    Other privacy issues, the inability to control your information limits me from interacting. For example, Twitter will not delete an account unless you have access to that email, even if that email clearly no longer clearly exists. So, not being able to delete an account that is linked to a past employer and my name is frustrating. Also, some sites that don’t let you remove your own comments encourage me to refrain from commenting.

    • Lee Rainie on said:

      I’d be interested in hearing if there were personal consequences resulting from this breach. Did it hurt your reputation in any notable way? Your credit prospects? Job prospects? Capacity to get insurance? Did you take steps to monitor your credit or insurance more vigilantly?

      We talk at some length in the book about our data showing that an imperative of being “networked as individuals” is that there is more encouragement/pressure on people to share and disclose things and monitor their reputations. It sounds like you might have been forced to pay more attention to the “database version” of you and it would be interesting to hear more about that. If you don’t want to post here, write me at


  3. When my youngest hit middle school in 2004, the advent of the Internet and mobile phone created a change in the dynamics of relationships at home, among peers and in the parenting community. To me it felt like a home invasion and as with any crisis I also knew there was also an opportunity.

    So I stopped working outside the home full time helping businesses and government apply technology to improve relations and productivity, and rather focused on how cyber technology could strengthen individual resiliency and the ability to relate to one another at home and in our community.

    At the time I shifted focus to the home front, it was difficult to clearly articulate my concern, but this question still haunts me today:

    “If children believe they can Google anything and everything they need to know, who needs parents, educators, coaches or anyone to impart wisdom?”

    Grooming children to be cyber-secure citizens is the heart of my journalism mission.

    The concept of “networked individualism” is intriguing and I am thinking to review this book as a potential feature for an upcoming quarterly edition of my newsletter for parenting with confidence in the network: Banana Moments: Family Business Quarterly.

    Thanks for ALL you do.


    • Lee Rainie on said:

      Hi Joanna:

      Love the back story on Banana Moments.

      I’d be interested to know more about your subscriber based: who they are; what kinds of articles they like the most; what issues they struggle with.

      Thanks very much for your post.

  4. I have found that social networking has allowed me to investigate niche interests and sub-cultures that would have otherwise been isolated by mainstream culture. Most of these would have otherwise been deemed boring or counter-culture compared to what we “should be doing” with our free time.

    But with the economies of scale, it means an interest in music, sports or home entertainment need not be limited to what is heavily promoted by larger companies that demand a great deal of your time and money to be included. It means as a consumer I not only have more choices but I fundamentally have a choice.

    Through my network of niche interests I can empower myself to discover and share, where previously that role would have been controlled by a gate keeper (e.g. editor, DJ, magazine). And as we bypass the mainstream culture to demand what we want, those larger companies who listen to us will flourish. Or we will continue to ignore those aspects of culture that don’t meet our needs and build our own communities.

    • Lee Rainie on said:

      Hi Greg:

      I might get lost pretty quickly, but I’d like to know more about these niches. Sounds like music is a big part of it. And it would be fun to hear about your “discovery process” — how you find others who share your interests; if/how your relationships with those others have changed and grown.

      One of the concerns some critics voice about the impact of the internet is that people get into niches and become “more hardened” in their views when they hang out with people who have the same beliefs. A counter-theory is that groups like this actually expand the diversity of sources of people’s interests and information. Which of those notions would better describe your own experiences?

      Thanks for your insights!

  5. Lee Rainie on said:

    William: I’m going to check in a couple of places to answer your great question. Stay tuned.

  6. Hi Lee :-

    You mentioned the concern that people might get into niches and become “more hardened” in their views as potential interlocutors increase in number, and constraints on homophily diminish.

    This is a notion that had occurred to me also. I would be interested to know if there is any statistical evidence for this effect? (I have no strong sense one way or the other).

    If there is no significant evidence, might the relative weakness of social interactions that are mediated by technology (in comparison with direct, interpersonal interactions) serve to dilute the effect? If the mediation mechanisms become richer (Skype, Google hangouts vs mailing-lists, blogs, chat), might the strength of the effect increase?

    Does the nature of the interaction qualitatively affect the opinion-forming process? I.e. is the effect qualitatively different when comparing a set of interactions on a professional theme vs a set of interactions on a personal/social theme?

  7. philip on said:

    Lee and Barry, I remember in the early 1990s sitting at the feet of David Limerick & Bert Cunningham (Griffith University Brisbane Australia) who were authors of the book Managing The New Organisation. Bert was a supervisor for a Master’s Dissertation of mine.

    They used the words collaborative individualism to describe the post-corporate nature of the networked individual.

    • Lee Rainie on said:

      Yes, “collaborative individualism” is apt term, too. However, “networked individualism” applies to a broader range of human behaviors, I think, not just workplace activities. Those individual, social activities don’t necessarily involve collaboration. They do involve interactions with people in social networks.

  8. Love the analysis. I find it fascinating that, given the amount of time I spend on the internet and social networks in particular, if I were to list the 100 most meaningful moments of my last five years, at most 2 or 3 (I can’t even think of those, tbh) happened on the internet. Heck, if you count the Super Bowl and SNL, more happened on TV, and I watch less than 5 shows a month! For a few of the gatherings that would make up those 100 – and many, but not all, would be gatherings of some sort – social networks helped arrange it a little bit. I posted about most of them, after the fact, and it’s always fun hearing from various friends that way. But, even though I have 500+ FB friends from the many different areas of my life, the bulk of the meaningful events happened with my family, my 3 or 4 closest friends, or in the context of my work. It is perhaps not surprising, given that, that although for lesser needs I do pick and choose who I go to, if I am really in need there are maybe 3 people, and 1 group, that I would reach out to. Perhaps I’m just not that popular, but I wonder how others would rate their top 100 moments, and their counsel in times of serious need.

    My take on “on-demand succor” is that our current web technologies, including social media, satisfy the need for human community about as well as soda satisfies thirst. I think “networked individualism” is a great phrase and I can’t wait to read the book!

    • Lee Rainie on said:

      Thanks very much, Bob. I’d bet your experiences and reactions are the most common on the spectrum of tech users. People report that technology helps in many ways, but it isn’t the be all/end all for the most fundamental or transcendent human moments.

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