Networked: The New Social Operating System by Barry Wellman and Lee Rainie. MIT; Toronto, Ontario, 2012.
You’d have to be under the spell that sent Rip Van Winkle into his enchanted slumber to miss the communications revolution of the last 20 years. Most of us can rhyme off the succession of new technological tools that have made their mostly welcomed intrusions into what used to be known as private space. The question we find much harder to answer is whether or how these electronic extensions have truly reorganized our relationships.
In Networked, Barry Wellman and Lee Rainie document the results of multiple parallel surveys and studies in the United States and Canada. They do this broadly and precisely illustrating conclusions with anecdotes and splicing observations with implicit advisories to pilot the unwary through countervailing currents and uncharted shoals. The book is actually rather long perhaps over diligently documenting the changes described. It is, nevertheless, a report and therefore as thorough as its mandate requires.
For example, Wellman and Rainie note that the communications revolution is really three revolutions: the social network, the internet and the mobile. The changes in all three areas are clear enough and we know that all three interface and articulate with each other as we use them extensively, integrating the new interconnectivity they deliver into our lives every day. However, why these three components and only these three? Other hybrids, transformation and outright replacements come to mind. New media, micro components in many spheres or for that matter the way in which multiple other trends have been halted and reversed are equally noteworthy.
The reason for this particular innovation subdivision, may lie in the astounding way our neural networks grow as we explore our worlds plus the powerful satisfaction that imitation of others provides us. Think for a minute how toddlers learn to play with literal and figurative building blocks for hours without end or of how they copy the speech and action down to every tone and nuance they can squeeze from watching others.
Yet that is just a hunch. This book does not venture a theoretical thrust to that or another effect. Maybe it shouldn’t. What it does do is document the developing tribal customs of digital natives with respect to their ritual gadgets. Feeling a little like a missionary or an anthropologist, I found it odd to discover that at first encounter the smart phone generation exchange telephone numbers with the implicit understanding that only text messages will be traded until a certain level of intimacy is reached. Conversations, it seems, are overly familiar intrusions when begun by new acquaintances. Feel free to leave a voice mail though. Your party will screen your call and text you back should you be deemed to be too forward.
The most important wisdom Networked imparts, builds as you read. First, the new media and the newly networked world are obviously here to stay so the impact of the changes wrought makes it mandatory to know both how they work and their protocols. Second, it’s vital to be able to build and distinguish loose, medium and strong ties with each individual comprising your own network. Third, you must not forget that today’s networks are erratically dynamic, often collide embarrassingly or interfere awkwardly with one another, ruthlessly invade everyone’s privacy, capriciously deflate brands and destroy reputations. The information our networks carry is volatile and corrupt much of the time spreading recklessly onwards and outwards without regard for consequence. Despite the obvious and unforeseeable risks that link us all to vastly varying degrees, the quality of our lives depends on the capacities of our networks as well as how we maintain them. Think twice before you text that message.