Contemporary Individualization is Relational

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Contemporary Individualization is Relational. By Christophe Aguiton and Dominique Cardon.


“Sociological explanations of the rise of digital self-production must be found in the dynamic of individualization in contemporary societies: the increase of cultural capital, the desire for uniqueness and visibility, the experimentation with new forms of identity-building and the search for reputation and notoriety (ALLARD & VANDENBERGHE, 2003). The blurring of the frontier between user and producer is directly linked to individual transformation characterized by the desire for expression and the search for autonomy. Publishing personal thoughts, pictures, comments on public events, cultural taste etc., appears to be a new form of identity-building in individualist societies.

However, many commentators have shown that this process of personalization is highly relational. People build their identity through the continuous search for recognition in the eyes of others. That is the reason why contemporary forms of the process of individualisation in our society cannot be understood as solitary and egoistic self-isolation, but as a way of building the composite role of one's own personality in relation to others, corresponding to different social roles (SINGLY, 2003). This relational experimentation of identity-role is based on the exchange of individual productions expressing various aspects of the individual's qualities, competencies or activities.

Self-organization appears as the major form of collective organization in Web 2.0 relational structures. This form of cooperation doesn't correspond to a planned model of collective processes and has no real centre of organization. Even if we could study the large variety of organizational forms (from Wikipedia to free software communities), one of the main characteristics of all theses services is the fact that the rules and norms are produced by users themselves. When users have to obey constraints proposed by services providers, they often suggest or criticize formal rules and try to influence providers in order to adopt better rules for the community. For example, BOYD (2004) has described the mobilization of Friendster users against the provider when the company tried to stop the rise of "Fraudster" used by participants to extend the number of their relationships by creating fictional identities - such as Georges Bush or Mel Gibson (BOYD, 2004). In most mediated communities of Web 2.0 services, such as the monitoring of papers in Wikipedia, collective rules are self-organized on the basis of user contributions. The rise of tagging practices can be seen as the best illustration of this tendency. Instead of a well-defined, vertical and centralized classification, users develop personal tags as a new way of organizing information, which is a compromise between personal filing and collective production of taxonomy (MARLOW et al., 2006). This new form of weak cooperation based on individual contributions has been described by BENKLER (2005) as a new context of innovation in the digital economy; this cooperation is possible in a specific context where it is possible to attract a very large number of participants, allowing them to make very small contributions with a granularity effect. ”

Source: The strength of Weak Cooperation. Christophe Aguiton and Dominique Cardon. Communication & Strategies, No. 65, 1st Quarter 2007.