The Wealth of Networks:
How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom
by Yochai Benkler, Yale University Press

Copyright 2006, Yochai Benkler.

Chapter 10
Social Ties: Networking Together

This online version has been created under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike license - see www.benkler.org - and has been reformatted and designated as recommended reading - with an accompanying Moodle course - for the NGO Committee on Education of CONGO - the Conference Of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations - in conjunction with the Committee's commitment to the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World and related international Decades, agreements, conventions and treaties.

Epigraph

"Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing."

"Such are the differences among human beings in their sources of pleasure, their susceptibilities of pain, and the operation on them of different physical and moral agencies, that unless there is a corresponding diversity in their modes of life, they neither obtain their fair share of happiness, nor grow up to the mental, moral, and aesthetic stature of which their nature is capable."

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)

Chapter 10
Social Ties: Networking Together

Increased practical individual autonomy has been central to my claims throughout this book.

We are seeing two effects: first, and most robustly, we see a thickening of preexisting relations with friends, family, and neighbors, particularly with those who were not easily reachable in the pre-Internet-mediated environment.

From "Virtual Communities" to Fear of Disintegration

Angst about the fragmentation of organic deep social ties, the gemeinschaft community, the family, is hardly a creature of the Internet.

In the case of the Internet, the optimists preceded the pessimists.

The Virtual Community was grounded on Rheingold's own experience in the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link).

It was not long before a very different set of claims emerged about the Internet.

Another strand of criticism focused less on the thinness, not to say vacuity, of online relations, and more on sheer time.

A second, more sensationalist release of a study followed two years later.

A More Positive Picture Emerges Over Time

The concerns represented by these early studies of the effects of Internet use on community and family seem to fall into two basic bins.

There are, roughly speaking, two types of responses to these concerns.

Users Increase Their Connections with Preexisting Relations

The most basic response to the concerns over the decline of community and its implications for both the psychological and the social capital strands is the empirical one.

We now have quite a bit of social science research on the side of a number of factual propositions./14

Connections with family and friends seemed to be thickened by the new channels of communication, rather than supplanted by them.

These studies are surveys and local case studies.

Networked Individuals

The interpretive argument about the normative value of the increase in weak ties is colored by the empirical finding that the time spent on the Internet in these limited relationships does not come at the expense of the number of communications with preexisting, real-world relationships.

The emergence of networked individuals is not, however, a mere overlay, "floating" on top of thickened preexisting social relations without touching them except to add more relations.

The phenomenon is not limited to youths, but is applicable more generally to the capacity of users to rely on their networked connections to escape or moderate some of the more constraining effects of their stable social connections.

At the other end of the spectrum of social ties, we see new platforms emerging to generate the kinds of bridging relations that were so central to the identification of "weak ties" in social capital literature.

The Internet as a Platform for Human Connection

Communication is constitutive of social relations.

As a technical and organizational matter, the Internet allows for a radically more diverse suite of communications models than any of the twentieth-century systems permitted.

Because of its technical flexibility and the "business model" of Internet service providers as primarily carriers, the Internet lends itself to being used for a wide range of social relations.

There is an appropriate wariness in contemporary academic commentary about falling into the trap of "the mythos of the electrical sublime" by adopting a form of Internet utopianism./22

The Emergence of Social Software

The design of the Internet itself is agnostic as among the social structures and relations it enables.

A simple example will help to illustrate.

This emergence of social software-like blogs with opportunities to comment, Wikis, as well as social-norm-mediated Listservs or uses of the "cc" line in e-mail - underscores the nondeterministic nature of the claim about the relationship between the Internet and social relations.

The peer-production processes that are described in primarily economic terms in chapter 3 - like free software development, Wikipedia, or the Open Directory Project - represent one cluster of important instances of this new form of social relations.

The Internet and Human Community

This chapter began with a basic question.

Empirically, it seems that the Internet is allowing us to eat our cake and have it too, apparently keeping our (social) figure by cutting down on the social equivalent of deep-fried dough-television.

The conceptual answer has been that the image of "community" that seeks a facsimile of a distant pastoral village is simply the wrong image of how we interact as social beings.

Notes

1. Sherry Turkle, "Virtuality and Its Discontents, Searching for Community in Cyberspace," The American Prospect 7, no. 24 (1996); Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).

2. Robert Kraut et al., "Internet Paradox, A Social Technology that Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well Being," American Psychologist 53 (1998): 1017-1031.

3. A fairly typical statement of this view, quoted in a study commissioned by the Kellogg Foundation, was:

4. Norman H. Nie and Lutz Ebring, "Internet and Society, A Preliminary Report," Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society, February 17, 2000, 15 (Press Release), http://www.pkp.ubc.ca/bctf/Stanford_Report.pdf.

5. Ibid., 42-43, tables CH-WFAM, CH-WFRN.

6. See John Markoff and A. Newer, "Lonelier Crowd Emerges in Internet Study," New York Times, February 16, 2000, section A, page 1, column 1.

7. Nie and Ebring, "Internet and Society," 19.

8. Amitai Etzioni, "Debating the Societal Effects of the Internet: Connecting with the World," Public Perspective 11 (May/June 2000): 42, also available at http://www.gwu.edu/~ccps/etzioni/A273.html.

9. Manuel Castells, The Rise of Networked Society 2d ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 2000).

10. Barry Wellman et al., "The Social Affordances of the Internet for Networked Individualism," Journal of Computer Mediated Communication 8, no. 3 (April 2003).

11. Robert Kraut et al., "Internet Paradox Revisited," Journal of Social Issues 58, no. 1 (2002): 49.

12. Keith Hampton and Barry Wellman, "Neighboring in Netville: How the Internet Supports Community and Social Capital in a Wired Suburb," City & Community 2, no. 4 (December 2003): 277.

13. Gustavo S. Mesch and Yael Levanon, "Community Networking and Locally-Based Social Ties in Two Suburban Localities," City & Community 2, no. 4 (December 2003): 335.

14. Useful surveys include:

15. Barry Wellman, "Computer Networks as Social Networks," Science 293, issue 5537 (September 2001): 2031.

16. Jeffery I. Cole et al., "The UCLA Internet Report: Surveying the Digital Future, Year Three" (UCLA Center for Communication Policy, January 2003), 33, 55, 62, http://www.ccp.ucla.edu/pdf/UCLA-Internet-Report-Year-Three.pdf.

17. Pew Internet and Daily Life Project (August 11, 2004), report available at http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/131/report_display.asp.

18. See Barry Wellman, "The Social Affordances of the Internet for Networked Individualism," Journal of Computer Mediated Communication 8, no. 3 (April 2003); Gustavo S. Mesch and Yael Levanon, "Community Networking and Locally-Based Social Ties in Two Suburban Localities, City & Community 2, no. 4 (December 2003): 335.

19. Barry Wellman, "The Social Affordances of the Internet."

20. A review of Ito's own work and that of other scholars of Japanese techno-youth culture is Mizuko Ito, "Mobile Phones, Japanese Youth, and the Re-Placement of Social Contact," forthcoming in Mobile Communications: Re-negotiation of the Social Sphere, ed., Rich Ling and P. Pedersen (New York: Springer, 2005).

21. Dana M. Boyd, "Friendster and Publicly Articulated Social Networking," Conference on Human Factors and Computing Systems (CHI 2004) (Vienna: ACM, April 24-29, 2004).

22. James W. Carrey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989).

23. Clay Shirky, "A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy," published first in Networks, Economics and Culture mailing list July 1, 2003.