Lisa’s CCK08 Wordpress Blog

September 9, 2008

Response: Wellman article

Filed under: Responses,Week 1 — Lisa M Lane @ 6:13 am
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Analysis of Little Boxes, Glocalization, and Network Individualism
Barry Wellman

I went on way too long about this article, because I found it to have profound amoral implications. I think I was supposed to take it as a factual description of how our society is moving from geographically-dependent to computer-mediated communities, which would help us understand that online classes and current modes of communication are based on networks rather than proximity. But it implied much more.

Although initially dismayed only by its vocabulary (his typology was offered provisionally as a heuristic), by the time I got to the end of this article, I was saddened by its dystopian vision and vaguely horrified by its amorality. Wellman describes a world in transition from “little boxes” (groups of people thrown together by virtual of geographic location) through “glocalization” (still defined by place but increasingly privatized and voluntary) to networked individualism (person-to-person networks).

The “little boxes” reminded me of Levittown, a prototypical suburb created during the 1940s. But Wellman claims that such communities are of deeper historical origin; they are “traditional”. The implication is that communal relationships have been somewhat consistent for thousands of years, which of course they have not. The only thing the “iteinerant bands, agrarian villages, trading towns, and urban neighborhoods” of his “preindustrial” society (I rarely have seen this word used so inclusively) have in common is indeed some sense of geographic location; otherwise their own shifting relationships and portrayal of community varies widely throughout history, and paradigm shifts occur that are even greater than those he portrays for contemporary and “emerging” eras. But such issues raise my hackles only because I am a historian, and since this is not a history class I can ignore his massive oversimplification of social history.

As part of this transition to networked individualism, Wellman notes that scholars in particular enjoy the autonomy created by the ability of distance communications such as email to permit them to focus by isolating scholarly communications. I have certainly found it convenient to be able to relate to people without the necessity for the personal, how-ya-doing, how’s-the-wife-and-kids communication patterns necessary in face-to-face interactions. I also agreed with his contention that when “strong ties” (those people we associate with daily in regular life) don’t provide enough information, we use “weaker ties”. Certainly this is true for many people seeking medical advice, who comb the web for clues to their own condition or that of a loved one.

The author also claims a flattening of social interaction in the sense that one is less aware of differences in class, social status, income, race, gender, etc. in an online environment. Perhaps the “lack of social and physical cues” make it difficult to determine such things. But while the “focus on shared interests” is primary, the way people write can tell a great deal about them. And although he is most interested in the way groups of people operate in this environment, I have found that most online interactions I’ve experienced over the last decade or so are networked in the sense that I am one-on-one with someone, and they are also one-on-one with a variety of other people. I have only once done anything that could be considered collaborating with a “group” in a non-synchronous way, and even though I teach groups we call classes, the pressure is toward a more tutorial relationship (as much as I try to prevent this and create “community”).

Now, for the dystopianism and amorality. I first noticed it in his casual mention that family get-togethers, even at mealtime, are on the decline. Several times throughout the article, divorce is implicated in creating more complex networks of relationships. The “densely-knit milieus” he describes in his idealistic past were based not only on geographic proximity, but on a consensus conception of moral community. Those who were “in” were core because they fit into a conforming set of ethics and modes of behavior, not just because they lived in the same neighborhood. All were voluntary in the sense that those who chose to ignore the dominant moral paradigm were in danger of losing livelihood and sometimes their life (witchcraft hunts, in all their various forms, come to mind). While the destruction of such a system may seem to be a good thing (I have fought such mindless conformity my whole life), the premise on which it is based is the preservation of the community as a place of common values.

As he blithely talks about its destruction, I could not help feeling that if he’s right we are entering a world of temporary connectivity, superficial relationships, decline of kinship ties, and the manifestation of an echo-chamber culture where people only associate with individuals with whom they already agree. I do not see a flattening based on ignorance of people’s class and race, but small associations of like-minded individuals bypassing those elements for the sake of a shared, but often insignficant interest, like bird-watching or rollerblading or stamp collection or bomb making. Is that worth giving up a family dinner?

Indeed, his “networked individualism” is an appropriate term, and his emphasis on the creation of autonomy is insightful. But the moral result of such a thing is ignored in the article, which focuses on whether or not “groupware” should really be “networkware” in the light of the paradigm shift he postulates. The lack of actual evidence and referencing in the article, only a list of ten references at the end, gives an even greater sense of this being a treatise rather than a study, a pronouncement of the way things are. The charts at the end blithely intersperse categories like “domesticity” (with its “Nanny cares for Jane” result) with technical apsects like Interruptabiltiy and Frequency of Contact. Does he not realize he’s writing a moral treatise?

The trends he notes are, I hope, not inevitable. As a historian, I sense they are in no way permanent, and I found his article to be a warning rather than an examination. The problem at the heart of it seems to be individualism itself. This search for autonomy described throughout is left rudderless if tied only to voluntary community. I realize that makes me sound like a Levittown social conservative, but actually my politics is much more toward the radical, communitarian goals of socialism. The result of unchecked individualism is a lack of social empathy, not with ones “friends” online but with the transient homeless person on the expressway off-ramp you see every day. It is the vote for oneself instead of for the good of the community, the willingness to let a toxic dump open over there so long as it is not over here, the triumph of small-minded NIMBYism.

The social networks he describes are thus not even social in the sense of considering the larger society. While he claims “[t]his is not social disintegration”, that’s exactly what it is: the supremacy of selfish goals over the good of the whole. He says that “[a]utonomy, opportunity and uncertainty are the rule” in his networked world, but human beings naturaly seek interdependence and love, ethical choices, and a sense of certainty. I simply don’t want to live in the world he describes.

No, my article analyses won’t usually go on so long. But this one hit too hard at things I found important.

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3 Comments

  1. […] connectivism and community. Now that I’ve done a great deal more reading on connectivism, and responded so negatively to some of its premises as portrayed by Barry Wellman, I have a much more pessimistic view, unless […]

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    Pingback by A World Run by Buffs? | Lisa's CCK08 Edublog — September 18, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

  2. Hi Lisa,
    I read your post and like it. I just wrote a long responce, but unfortunately I lost in your spam-check. I can’t find time to re-write now, maybe later. But thanks for your inspiration
    /Jorgen C

    Comment by Jorgen C — September 29, 2008 @ 2:16 am

  3. […] my reaction to the other Barry Wellman article we were assigned for Week 3, I confess I groaned when I saw that […]

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    Pingback by Individualism and the Loss of Moorings | Lisa's CCK08 Edublog — October 1, 2008 @ 12:23 pm


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