Networked individualism is reshaping social interaction as we renegotiate the balance between the one and the many
OUR social relationships are changing and technology is at the centre of this unfolding story.
Take stock of your own world. You probably have a few family members and friends who mean the world to you. Then there are the many acquaintances, contacts, "followers" and "consequential strangers" who you only interact with occasionally but who serve useful purposes when you have questions, need to make decisions or require a helping hand.
Your ties to all of them, especially those in the outer reaches of your network, are increasingly mediated through digital technology - from email to Facebook to Skype calls.
This new social operating system has been emerging for several generations but has accelerated in growth thanks to the recent triple revolution: the widespread adoption of broadband, ubiquitous mobile connectivity and the move from bounded groups - largely closed circles of interlinked contacts - tomultiple social networks.
We have dubbed the result networked individualism because loose-knit networks are overtaking more densely knit groups and traditional hierarchies as the dominant structure of social interaction.
In the world of networked individuals, the individual is the focus, not the family, the work unit, the neighbourhood or the social group. Each person creates their own network tailored to their needs, maintaining it through their email address and address book, screen name, social and technological filters, and cellphone number.
Networks are thriving. People have more strong ties as well as weak ones. The number of people on the periphery of each network is growing. In this Web 2.0 world, community-building can take new forms. Hobbyists, the civic minded, caregivers, spiritual pathfinders and many others have the option of plugging into existing communities or building their own - which they often do.
This revolution doesn't mean physical isolation, as some fear. People still value neighbours, because they remain important for everyday socialising and emergencies. Yet neighbours are only about 10 per cent of our significant ties. While people see co-workers and neighbours often, the most important contacts tend to be with people who live elsewhere in the city, region, nation - and abroad.
The new media are able to facilitate such contact, and, in effect, have become the neighbourhood. And it is heavily populated. Data from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project suggests that more than two-thirds of American adults and three-quarters of teenagers have become online content creators through social media and rankings, ratings, commenting and remixing applications. In this world, people can easily locate and connect with others who share their tastes, lifestyles, politics, spiritual practices, ailments or professional aspirations.
With such a fundamental social shift linked to still-developing technology, how it unfolds needs to be considered. We think there are two possible scenarios.
In the first, virtual assistants operating in a semantic web - one in which machines can better assess the ocean of information - seamlessly mesh a user's life logistics and interests, allowing people to be more productive and more effective at integrating their needs. The merger of data and the physical environment, especially in augmented reality apps, enriches people's experiences as they can summon information about the things they are observing - a landscape, buildings in an unfamiliar city or even faces of those they encounter.
In this benign world, the challenges of information overload are reduced as these smart agents perform filtering and relevance tests. This lets people interact with their social networks and growing information stores in productive and socially beneficial ways.
In the second scenario, a walled online world of tight corporate permissions and Big Brotherish surveillance by business and the state limits networked life. Personal agents turn out to be double agents, feeding back information on users that can be sold. People are limited in what they can do with their media and networks by those determined to prevent pirating of content.
Moreover, tech firms and their advertising allies scan users' behaviour for commercial exploitation. People's social network practices are quarantined inside filter bubbles that assume they want homogenised content and contact with like-minded individuals, rather than a diversified, broad outreach.
Which will unfold? The future will likely include parts of each. The architecture of the internet - dominated by the hacker ethic - will facilitate open networks and all the social connection that goes with them. Legal struggles over content ownership and the cost of access may lead to restrictions that could limit the capacity for users to do what they want.
Evolving social norms will push both ways. Some will encourage openness as people want to connect; others will encourage limits as the hassled and hard-pressed withdraw occasionally.
In short, the world will fragment, with some parts moving towards the brighter side of networked individualism and other parts moving towards gated communities and more tightly controlled information flows.
The triple revolution has given rise to far-reaching consequences, though it is not yet clear what the outermost points of impact will be. What is evident is that networked individualism is tightly tied to technological changes on the horizon and that the time is ripe to contemplate the shape of things to come.
Lee Rainie directs the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project based in Washington DC.
Barry Wellman is a professor of sociology and director of NetLab at the University of Toronto, Canada. Their new book, Networked, is out now (MIT Press)