Book Review: “Networked: The New Social Operating System” – Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman

Holiday breaks are a good time to catch up on your reading and I had put this one aside for just that. I won’t be offering a full chapter-by-chapter review as I’m sure that has been done elsewhere. This is more of a personal reflection. Having spent considerable time researching in field of Social Network Analysis (SNA), Barry Wellman was well known to me. We have never met face-to-face but I had met up with a number of his Netlab colleagues at a couple of INSA Sunbelt conferences. My first recollection of Wellman’s work goes back to some of his early pre-Internet research on electronically facilitated communications and the social network.  Even then there was the fear that such communication technology could lead to de-socialization with less face-to-face contact and a subsequent loss of community.  Wellman argued then that rather than replacing face-to-face socialization, collaborative technologies would actually lead to people meeting up more than they did before and with a broader circle of connections. This counter-intuitive theme continues to run through the book, with Rainie’s Pew Internet research results and Wellman’s networking research providing plenty of factual supporting evidence.

Rainie and Wellman focus on anther apparent contradiction that they refer to as “Networked Individualism”. One of the claims made that did catch my attention is that the authors believe that the networked world has matured to the extent that groups and communities are no longer a prime focus. Individuals will belong to multiple groups and communities of practice; and will therefore share their attention amongst such groups as their individual need or context demands, at any given time.  The focus has therefore moved from the group to the individual. The onus is therefore now on the individual to learn how to navigate their networks for personal benefit, rather than relying on group or community leaders. When I look at my own use of Linkedin groups I would have to agree. Some groups I lurk in just to get a sense of what is important to that community. I can move in and out of such groups as the context demands. Others that I am closer to, I will more actively participate on a regular basis.

The other key theme from the book is what the authors call the triple revolution: Social Network, Internet and Mobile. While the authors go to some pains to say the book is not about technology, it is hard not to see these revolutions as technology driven. I’m not sure that is matters. Having spent most of my career at the leading/bleeding edge of technology, for me there was nothing particularly new or novel that I hadn’t read about before, though Rainie’s Pew Internet Research added some additional colour to the coverage. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy reading about how these technologies have evolved over the past 20 years or more. Like me, I suspect the authors entered the workforce before e-mail was invented in the 1970s. Reading about how that first email was sent, how hypertext and the first Internet browser was developed and our first mobile phones, which were the size and weight the equivalent of a house brick, made me reflect on just how fortunate one has been to have lived and worked through such an exciting era of technological change. The authors talk about how individuals are now equipped with smart phones which equips them to operate effectively as a networked individual. I can recall on my first day at work of being impressed with having my own telephone on my desk! Of course it could only ring in and out internally (does this sound like some Enterprise Social Networking implementations?).

One area I was particularly looking for was networking ‘at work’. We hear a lot about networking in the ‘friends and family’ space, but enterprise networking provides a whole new suite of challenges. A single chapter is devoted to ‘Networked Work’. Again the historical story telling made it an interesting read. Even if it was not perhaps new to me it will interest those wanting to understand how networking is changing the world of work. The Boeing examples of their networked approach to airplane design provide good and instructive reading. One point that did stand out however is that collaborative technologies have not reduced the need for business travel and face-to-face connections. In fact the opposite has happened; reinforcing the theme identified earlier in that the technology is not replacing the need to connect in person, but is actually facilitating more face-to-face connections. If anything this book is not short of supporting facts and figures.

 Finally the book is full of anecdotes from Wellman’s Gen Y students. In fact some of his students helped co-write some of the chapters. One of the insights I gained from some of the Gen Y voices was how they were using social networking technologies mostly to organize face-to-face meet-ups. These interactions were often short, sharp and multi-modal i.e. text, voice, IM etc.. These examples reinforce Wellman’s long-term theme that the collaborative technologies are not replacing face-to-face communications, but augmenting and expanding it.

I see some common threads here with research by MIT’s Sandy Pentland on high performance teams and Tom Allen’s research on communications and physical separation. Additionally it also provides some comfort for me in explaining some of our initial work in developing a ‘give/receive’ social analytic measure based on Pentland’s work. Pentland found that the most productive teams have balanced short and sharp interactions. As we were developing our metrics we noted that many of these supposedly highly productive conversations were around organising meet-ups. Our initial thoughts were that we shouldn’t really count these; but after having read this book, perhaps the most productive thing that we can do is to organise a meetup!