The limits of networked individualism
Local leadership and digital technologies in a Kuala Lumpur suburb
Dr John Postill
Paper to the media and communication research seminar
Sheffield Halllam University, UK
Furnival Building, Room 9005, City Campus
10 December 2008, 4-5 pm
This paper is a critique of Barry Wellman’s influential theory of networked individualism, which posits that new ‘personalised’ technologies (email, mobile phones, blogs, MySpace, facebook, etc) are part of an ongoing global shift from societies built on place-based solidarities to ‘networked’ societies organised around individuals’ personal networks. For Wellman, mediated communication is changing from being primarily place-to-place to being person-to-person. Whilst concurring with Wellman about the need to investigate the egocentric nature of many new social technologies, I take issue with this model’s impoverished social morphology which reduces the rich diversity of social formations found around the globe (families, peer groups, clans, cults, cohorts, age-sets, clubs, committees, firms, fields of practice, markets, states, etc.) to an appealingly simple group vs. network binary. Drawing from anthropological research among internet activists in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) I track the networking practices of three grassroots leaders across different fields of practice (party politics, local government, residential activism, political blogging, etc). I argue that these findings suggest that personal networking is an egocentric ‘dispersed practice’ (Schatzki 1996), yet one that is entangled with the practices of the social domains it traverses – in this case, social fields with a strongly collectivist ethos that keep the spread of networked individualism firmly in check.
Schatzki, T. 1996. Social Practices: A Wittgensteinian Approach to Human Activity and the Social. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.