Networked Individualism

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John Postill, on the research approach of networked individualism:

"‘networked individualism’ = approach led by the Toronto network analyst Barry Wellman. Wellman has denounced the smuggling of obsolete notions of community from an earlier period of North American community studies into Internet localisation studies. Where the old communities had ‘streets and alleys’, Internet researchers are now imagining communities bound ‘by bits and bytes’ (Hampton and Wellman 2003). For Wellman this is an analytical cul-de-sac, for the crucible of North American sociality has long ceased to be the local neighbourhood (Wellman and Leighton 1979). This does not mean, Wellman insists, that communities have disappeared. Rather they have survived in the form of geographically dispersed personal communities, i.e. personal networks (Pahl 2005). The Internet merely reinforces a global trend towards networked individualism that was already well under way (Wellman et al 2003, Castells 2001)." (


From the article, Bourgeois Anarchism and Authoritarian Democracies

Felix Stalder [1]:

"we are entering a world of “networked individualism” where individual self–identity — both in terms of the image one has of oneself and the image others have of one — can no longer be separated from one’s position within a relational network. The notion of the networked individual is still quite underdeveloped.


For Barry Wellman, who coined the term, the idea reflects simply the changing communication patterns of people, who no longer rely on a small number of localized communities (workplace, home, civic association, etc) for social support, but on a much larger number of networks, increasingly geographically dispersed. Thus, people are highly individualized in terms of the combination of networks they maintain, yet their individuality evolves within and through these networks [13]. Wellman’s notion remains firmly grounded within a quantitative social network analysis.


If we speak about the transformation of subjectivity, this needs to be complemented with more psychological notion as Kristóf Nyíri argues.

To stress this shift, he uses the slightly different term of the “network individual” which he sees as

“the person reintegrated, after centuries of relative isolation induced by the printing press, into the collective thinking of society — the individual whose mind is manifestly mediated, once again, by the minds of those forming his/her smaller or larger community. This mediation is indeed manifest: its patterns can be directly read off the displays of our electronic communications devices.” [14]


Nyíri relates this to theories of the essentially social nature of cognition, particularly the work of Robin Dunbar. Dunbar argues that the social nature of the brain extends all the way to its physiology. The disproportionate size of the human neo–cortex (as compared with other animals) stands in a direct relationship with the cognitive demands to life in groups with complex social relations. Thus, even on the most basic physiological level, individuals cannot be clearly separated from groups [15].


This complements notions of the essentially social process of all forms of cultural expression first expressed by Gabriel Tarde more than 100 years ago [16]. He observed that society is based on different forms of imitation, all of which make it somewhat difficult to clearly ascribe an idea to an specific individual. Even the seemingly most original innovation not only builds on, or imitates, the wider culture in which it is situated, but also gains social relevance only when it is adopted, or imitated, by many others [17]. It is perhaps no coincidence that Tarde, after almost 100 years of near obscurity, is currently being rediscovered in his own discipline.


All of this points to a subtle, but very fundamental shift in the psychological make–up of individuals, obviously not caused by the latest round of technologies, yet most likely accelerated by it. The notions of “networked individualism”, “network individual”, “social cognition” and “imitation” already indicate that individualization does not need to lead to atomization or some other notion of people being isolated behind their computer screens. There is not “terminal condition” [18]. Rather they point towards forms of identity situated between the fully autonomous individual, rooted in his or her privacy, and the faceless member of a collective, whose personality is subsumed under the identity of the group. Marshall McLuhan called this (re)emerging form of identity “tribal” but the term with its colonialist undertones is more misleading than illuminating, even if it pointed into the right direction [19]. We can do better now." (

From Networked Individualism to Empowered Communities

Michael Gurstein:

'Castells and Wellman and his colleagues have argued that the Digital or Information Society (or in their term the “networked society”) results in social relationships characterized by what they call “networked individualism”

- …It is the move from densely-knit and tightly-bounded groups to sparsely-knit and loosely-bounded networks. Each person is a switchboard, between ties and networks. People remain connected, but as individuals, rather than being rooted in the home bases of work unit and household. Each person operates a separate personal community network, and switches rapidly among multiple sub-networks.

For them, the organic and multi-dimensional relationships of communities are being transformed into narrow digitally-enabled, highly individualized, networked relationships; perhaps most widely recognizable as Facebook “friend”-ings accompanied by Facebook “like”-ings as a possible substitute for shared community values and norms. Regrettably their analysis nowhere points out how these changes reduce the capacity for individuals to protect themselves from the on-going encroachments of an impersonal neo-liberal marketplace and particularly how it undermines the possibility of solidarity which in the past has proven to be the most effective basis for effective resistance.

According to Wellman and his colleagues there is a parallel transformation in the political sphere with

- civic involvement … increasingly … taking the form of e-citizenship, networked rather than group-based, hidden indoors rather than visibly outdoors.


- This move to networked societies has profound implications for how people mobilize and how people and governments relate to each other … But such e-citizenship also facilitates, and to some extent reinforces, mass society, with the individual in direct relationship with the state without the intermediary of local and even central groups. … the turn away from solidary, local, hierarchical groups and towards fragmented, partial, heavily-communicating social networks.

Certainly politics in the Information Society seems to have taken the shape prescribed for it by the marketplace—fragmented, concerned with short-term individualized interest maximization, personality-obsessed media saturation and so on. These changes in turn have been propelled by the forces of technology and the breakdown of established employment structures, education patterns, industry-based physical communities, even family and friendship ties under the avalanche of neo-liberal induced corporate and governmental restructuring, outsourcing, downsizing and so on.

Elsewhere I have critiqued this position as one that is profoundly pessimistic and depoliticizing and that it ignored the possibilities for community-based ICT-enabled resistance arising within the Information Society. I pointed out that while applications such as Facebook manifested these types of alienated and alienating individualized relationships (where individuals interacted with each other as fragmented and depersonalized “profiles” linked through these social media); I also suggested that such social frameworks could and would be countered through community informatics – digitally enabled communities networked both internally (as community networks) and externally (as networked communities)." (

For more see: How the OccupyWallStreet Movement is Evolving from Networked Individualism to Empowered Communities


From Felix Stalder:

13. Barry Wellman, 2001. “Physical place and cyberplace: The rise of personalized networking,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, volume 25, number 2, pp. 227–252; see also Manuel Castells, 2001. Internet galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, business, and society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

14. Kristóf Nyíri, 2005. “The networked mind,” Talk given at the workshop “The mediated mind — Rethinking representation” (27–28 May), London Knowledge Lab, Institute of Education, University of London, at

15. Robin Dunbar, 2003. “The social brain: Mind, language, and society in evolutionary perspective,” Annual Review of Anthropology, volume 32, pp. 163–181.

16. Gabriel de Tarde, 1962. The laws of imitation. Translated from the second French edition by Elsie Clews Parsons. Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith.

17. For an introduction these aspects of Tarde’s thinking, see Maurizio Lazzarato, 2004. “European cultural tradition and the new forms of production and circulation of knowledge,” Multitudes: une revue trimestrielle, politique, artistique et culturelle (16 January), at

18. Jean Baudrillard, 1988. The ecstasy of communication. Translated by Bernard and Caroline Schutze. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Autonomedia.

19. Marshall McLuhan, 1964. Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: McGraw–Hill.

More Information

  1. Another approach to internet localization studies is Community Informatics
  2. Wellman, B., A. Quan-Hasse, J. Boase, W. Chen, K. Hampton, I.I. de Diaz, et al. (2003) ‘The Social Affordances of the Internet for Networked Individualism’, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 8 (3), URL (consulted Dec. 2007):