Friday, August 17, 2012

Not to worry...Networks are good!

In his recent keynote address to the Academy of Management, Barry Wellman was very excited about his latest book, with Lee Rainie, called Networked: The new social operating system.  Rainie is Director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project and former Editor of US News and World Report.  Barry Wellman is the S. D. Clark Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto, where he directs their NetLab.  Wellman's distinguished career has long been focused on social networks--no, not the Facebook kind.  In fact, Rainie and Wellman argue that Facebook is not really based on social networks at all, but a reflection of a phenomenon they call 'networked individualism,' which is becoming the new social 'operating system.' Another famous sociologist, Manual Castells, has suggested a similar thesis in his two editions of The Rise of the Network Society.  The concept of networked individualism is, nonetheless, a new and important development in the way we think about social systems in a world of pervasive connectivity.

So, how do networks relate to connectivity?  Indeed, Wellman and colleague Anabel Quan-Haase were some of the first scholars to use the term 'hyperconnectivity.'  But when they--and Rainie and Wellman still do--use the term hyperconnectivity, what they are referring to is merely 'a lot' of connectivity, not 'too much,' as my colleagues and I use the term.  They refer to hyperconnected individuals as those who are almost constantly connected, usually using multiple media. We focus on the problems associated with performance and/or loss of personal well-being when that connectivity is considered by the individual to be excessive.

More fundamentally, networks are a 'given' (social structure), whereas connectivity is 'contingent' (within social systems).  For example, we are part of a family network regardless of whether or not we can reach family members by cell phone.  Connectivity comes and goes.

Networks, of course, do change.  In particular, they are extensible by their very nature.  And networks are a useful way to describe social relationships.  By contrast, connectivity is the interactive dynamic that both constrains and enables those social relationships.  If networks are social maps, connectivity is the traffic report.

Rainie and Wellman and I do agree, as I suggested in the iCrazy post in July, that the hand wringing over levels of connectivity can be over-stated and that we must be careful to clarify our sources when we make conjectures about the information and communication overloads some are feeling.  Hyper-connectivity (too much connectivity) is real, but it is difficult to say how many of us feel it, how much of the time, and to what effect.  More research is needed.

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