Barry Wellman: Network Revolutions

The Network Revolutions Are (Mostly) Good News


Barry Wellman


On sidewalks, streets, and malls pedestrians and drivers almost collide with me while looking at their mobile phones. “Why are they so self-absorbed and unaware?” I ask, ignoring research showing that such folks are indeed connected—just not with me at that moment. Indeed, they are probably talking with friends or reading their texts. My eyes and ears reinforce this, as when I listen to the woman in Starbucks skyping with her girl-friend in Paris.

Remember Juliet’s cry in the balcony scene? “Romeo, O Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” Would they have lived if they had mobile phones? Mobile phone users might read Juliet’s cry as their perennial “Where are you?” although in Shakespeare’s time, she would be understood as wondering why Romeo—a Montague—was moving behind his group boundaries to woo her—a Capulet. Yet, both meanings suggest that the predominance of networked connectivity – in-person and via digital media (on our desktops and bodies)—have changed the ways in which we connect with each other.

The turn from groups to social networks, accompanied by a host of social and technological changes. This is mixed news to some, as it is a loss of securely bounded home and community bases but the gain of more flexible, individualized connectivity.
The massive incorporation of digital media—the internet and mobile devices—into people’s lives, supplementing –not replacing—their in-person and phone connectivity (almost no one sends paper post except for holidays and birthdays).

The result is “networked individualism”: individuals using multiple means of communication to be partially connected to a variety of networks (Rainie & Wellman 2012). This is mostly good news, affording a more flexible, less bounded life for many in developed and developing societies.

Continuing Worries that the Sky is Falling

As far back as I can trace, oy veyers have been worrying that social life has been falling apart, although they finger different prime causes including industrialization, capitalism, socialism, urbanization, colonialism, and bureaucratization. Recently, some have blamed technology, especially the diffusion of trains, cars, telephones, radios, televisions—and now digital media. For example, Robert Putnam lamented in 2000 that Americans were “bowling alone,” reasoning that television watching was diminishing involvement in formally organized groups of parents, veterans, social clubs, and the like. The most recent critic has been Sherry Turkle, who used observations of her daughter to charge that people immersed in the internet and mobile devices were Alone Together (2011) without authentic connections. She looked back to a pastoralist utopia of people chatting away in meaningful conversation in salons and pubs, forgetting that most had stayed home to watch television. The evidence does not support her.

These are just the latest in a continuing social critique, in the tradition of English music hall players nostalgically proclaiming that “things ain’t wot they used to be”. Many in each generation look back to the preceding Greatest Generation (as broadcaster Tom Brokaw put it in 1999 about the 1960s). Indeed, as far back as Thomas Jefferson‘s 1784 Notes on the State of Virginia, observers warned (without systematic evidence) that social life was falling apart. Sociologists Ferdinand Tönnies (1887), Louis Wirth (1938), Robert Nisbet (1953), Maurice Stein (1960) each sounded similar alarms, substituting anecdotal accounts for systematic evidence. We daresay that we might be able to trace cries of contemporary disconnection as far back as the Biblical prophet Jeremiah. Yet if each succeeding generation has been worse than the preceding, we’d be in a Hobbesian war of all against all by now instead of merely worrying about preoccupied texters stumbling into us.

The evidence shows that while things are not what they used to be, they have not fallen apart—just as the printing press did not lead to information overload in the 16th century nor did cars, planes, phones, and TVs kill sociability in the late 20th century. Meanwhile, a majority of the world’s households use digital media to connect with each other. Can more than 3 billion internet accounts and 7 billion mobile accounts be wrong? Although employers force some people to go online, most use is voluntary. In the United States alone, 68% of adults have smartphones; 45% have tablets (many have both). Fully 87% of American adults are on the internet; in the emerging generation, almost all (96%) U.S. teens are on the internet. (These percentages were supplied on Christmas week, 2015 by my collaborator Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project.) And digital devices do not molder idly in desktops, purses, or pockets: Nearly two-thirds (63%) say they go online at least several times a day.

The Social Network Revolution

The world’s involvement with digital media has been both an outgrowth and reinforcement of the turn from groups to networks. Arguably, the social network revolution has been less noticed than the digital media revolutions (internet+mobile) because it is a change in how people and organizations connect rather than the trillion-dollar manifestation of material media objects such as PCs, servers, and mobile devices. Yet, the social network revolution began before the advent of personal computers, the internet, and personal phones. It is a move towards flexibly connected “networked individualism” that goes past the tendency to see societies as built on palpable bounded groups or falling apart into hordes of alienated disconnected individuals—the underlying group vs. zombie tension in The Walking Dead.

Yet, research has not sustained traditional community theory that assumed a tightly bounded, densely knit network of broadly supportive ties nor has it found endemic zomboid isolation. By looking only at neighborhoods and kinship groups, researchers overly focused on questions of social stability and solidarity and missed diversified and wider-ranging connectivity. No wonder that pundits thought that things were falling apart as cities, bureaucracies, and industrialization grew and local interactions declined.

Documenting communities as networks rather than as neighborhoods has provided a fresh perspective on allegations that community has declined. The shift to a network perspective has provided systematic evidence from multiple continents that communities did not decline—they just moved out of neighborhoods with people partially involved in multiple networks. At least as far back as the 1960s, researchers discovered that people in many societies are involved in multiple, partial networks of family, community, and work.

Thus the change in social relations is not that they withered but transformed. It is a change in the structure and breadth of social relationships, rather than in their quantity or quality. Relationships are no longer as embedded in densely-knit groups. There is specialization, with different folks in different networks providing emotional support, information, money, and the sheer pleasure of hanging out together. If you think of a personal network as a little society, it was what Emile Durkheim called “organic solidarity” via a complementary division of labor rather than the “mechanical solidarity” of small towns and tribes. This is quite a change from the pastoral ideal of the good social life: nuclear families nestled in a rural or urban village with husband/breadwinner and wife/homemaker households. Yet, the weakening of bounded groups has introduced the stress of not having palpable home bases and of the need to reconcile the conflicting demands of multiple social networks.

The Social Network Revolution Did Not Just Happen

Why have we become so networked? It is not magic, and it started well before the internet. A host of social and technological developments starting in the 1950s have resonated with the footlooseness of people around the world and their move to more personal autonomy. It isn’t that these changes caused the social network revolution, but they created the social and technological circumstances that facilitated the turn away from groups and toward social networks.

Since the 1960s, cheaper airplane flights—no matter how uncomfortable—and widespread individual use of more reliable cars being driven on better roads have made it relatively cheap and easy for North Americans to maintain long-distance ties. The mean number of vehicles in an American household increased 58% from 1.2 in 1969 to 1.9 in 2009, while the annual number of passenger flights on airlines in the U.S. increased 13 times from 0.2 per capita in 1960 to 2.6 in 2014. As far back as 1967, I was surprised to look at the first East York (Toronto) data and discover that only 13% of socially-close kin and friends lived in the same neighborhood.

Direct dial local exchanges and regional area codes automated phone connectivity, making possible lower costs when the AT&T monopoly died in 1984. This was soon followed by mobile phones as a third skin. While per call costs plummeted, the number of calls soared, and it became as easy to use mobile phones to call across the U.S. by the 1990s as it had been to call locally in the 1950s. By 2004, there were more mobile phone subscribers than there were residential landlines—a shift to individual communication devices and away from household phones that could be heard and used by all family members.

To be sure, distance still mattered (as it has continued to in the digital age): In 1979, the frequency of in-person contact was highest within five miles, and declined substantially when network members were more than 50 miles apart (about an hour’s drive). In-person contact mutually reinforced phone contact: setting up get togethers and keeping in touch between meetings. Telephoning did not fully decouple communication from travel. Those who phoned each other the most saw each other the most.

As with travel and communication, homes opened up to become less of a castle and more of a base for sallying forth. Fewer marriages, smaller families, and more women doing paid work have seen networked families supplant traditional homemaker households. For example, the percentage of American households comprising married couples with children declined by 55% between 1960 and 2010—from 44% to 20%. At the same time, women started getting more of their own funds as the percent of women working increased. Loosened family and group bounds have seen the increasing percentage of non-marital cohabitations, the increasing percentage of interracial marriages, and the decreasing percentage of active participation in institutionalized religious and leisure bodies—the latter Robert Putnam’s bête noire.

Taken together, these changes have both fostered and indicated the greater social flexibility of developed (and many less-developed) societies. They have afforded more personalization, and weakened boundaries of neighborhood, region, race, religion, and ethnicity. They allow people to range more widely in their travel and communication as they move toward flexible, mobile, somewhat fragmented social systems. While each of these changes might be termed a revolution in their own right, we focus here on the key changes in digital contact and information: the internet and mobile revolutions.

The Digital Revolutions

Although oy vey fears have been widely publicized in the mass media, abundant, consistent and systematic evidence shows a positive association between use and contact with friends. The internet revolution has created communication capacities that have dwarfed those of the past. Networked computers easily afford connectivity that leap large distances at a single keystroke. These are personal computers: the individual—and not the household, community or work group—has become the point of contact. The proliferation of the internet has facilitated the move to even more networked modes of connectivity.

The even more personal mobile phone revolution means that much of the world has powerful body appendages that allows them to access network members and information at will, wherever they go. There is the possibility of pervasive awareness of others, and for better or worse, mobile phone users are always accessible—and surveillable. The majority of the North American population are actively participating in these digital revolutions, including senior citizens and the poor. Here is what the evidence shows, gathered in surveys, interviews, and observations by many analysts including the Pew Internet and American Life Project and the NetLab Network based in Toronto.

For most North Americans, the time they spend with friends since they started using the Internet has, at a minimum, remained the same: some report an increase; only a few report a decrease. This is because the digital revolutions have not led to the withering of community, but to a transformation of it, and often, an expansion of it as people can more actively maintain contact with far-flung friends and relatives. The evidence shows that the more people use digital media, the more social contact they have with their friends—in-person as well as online. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter give them new things to talk about.

While oy veyers fear that text is more superficial than speech and it is less satisfying to hug a mobile phone, they err in thinking that there are two separate world of in-person and online. Instead, people use what means they have handy to keep in contact. Rather than replacing in-person connectivity, the internet adds to it by developing and maintaining ties between meetings, both local and long-distance. To be sure, mobile phones have often supplanted traditional landline home phones. But people still use the internet to keep up with each other online before meeting in-person, they use mobile voice conversation to make final arrangements, and they use digital media to continue the conversation afterwards until the next time they meet.

Not only do digital media maintain relationships, the internet especially can provide opportunities for forming and developing new friendships which usually continue in-person and by telephone. They link to friends of friends on Facebook or Twitter, or they find kindred souls on Twitter, Instagram, and other social media sites.

Indeed, Pew survey a decade ago in 2004 found that internet users had more – and more diverse –socially-close ties than non-users: a median of 37 in their networks as compared with 30 for non-users. Moreover, the survey showed that the number of Americans relying on the internet for major life decisions had increased by one-third between 2002 and 2004. It is hard to do a similar study now, with almost all Americans using digital media. However, our NetLab did a longitudinal study to tease out how the increasing use of the internet is affecting friendships. Using large-scale evidence from the Center for the Digital Future, our analysis showed that those making heavy use of the internet had a greater number of strong friendships. Moreover, a rising internet tide lifted all boats: over-time analysis showed increased numbers of friendships from 2002 to 2007.

But people do not live their lives online. Despite the near-instantaneous global reach of the internet, physical proximity remains important. Distance is dead only if digital contact is looked at in isolation. Our East York study found that while email contact is insensitive to distance (Skype, Facebook, etc. had not become widely known in 2005 when we did the study), most active ties communicate by multiple means. However, the frequency of overall contact was less sensitive to distance in 2005 than our earlier study in 1979, reflecting the zero-distance cost of internet contact, lower costs for short and long distance telephony, and lower travel costs. We find fuzzy specialization, with almost everyone using multiple media, but in different proportions, depending on their distance apart and the nature of their relationship. People use whatever means is necessary and deemed appropriate to communicate. Understandably neighbors rely on in-person contact, but almost all close friends and relatives have appreciable face-to-face and phone contact. The exceptions live across the ocean. Although some people prefer using digital media to keep in touch with friends and relatives because of its ease and quickness of use, not everyone wants a nuanced, hugging in-person relationship in every interaction. Torontonian Sharanpreet Kelley provides a reality check to the oy vey-ers:

As I parted ways from my friends in high school offline, we maintained our relationship online. When I started university, my network swelled with new people. Facebook functioned unofficially alongside the university system, providing me with information on social events as well as on how my peers were doing. This open discussion played a key role in meeting people outside of my immediate network. I have depended on Facebook since high school, and it is difficult not to notice how dependent I am for social rituals, updates, and entertainment. Most of my friends and I do not see each other on a daily basis, so Facebook serves as a medium to continue light conversations and maintain our social ties.

Sharanpreet moved from Toronto to England to attend law school, and depended heavily on digital media to stay in contact with the folks back home.

In short, this is largely good news, despite the need to dodge texters who are so immersed in their on-screen social that they have less awareness of their physical surroundings. The gains are real: large networks, more widespread networks, more frequent contact, and the intertwining of the internet, mobile, and in-person means of communication. Although beyond the scope of this essay, the network and digital revolutions also extend to the world of work (with less-understood consequences). Hierarchical bureaucracies are transforming to multiply-committed networked teams and transitory small-group networks are complementing large organizations.

Rather than bemoaning, yet again, the imaginary depth of community, we should be celebrating the flourishing of social connectivity in North America. A generation from now, as friends connect with each other through Oculus-like head-mounted displays that hide physical surroundings, they may look back to our times when people were connected by so many means.


Castells, Manuel. 2000. The Rise of the Network Society. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell.
Center for the Digital Future. Annenberg School, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. [accessed December 20, 2015]
Hampton, Keith. 2016. “Persistent and Pervasive Community: New Communication Technologies and the Future of Community.” American Behavioral Scientist, 60 (1): 101-24
NetLab Network. 2015. Toronto.
Pew Internet and American Life Project. Washington. [accessed December 20, 2015]
Rainie, Lee and Barry Wellman. 2012. Networked. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Wang, Hua and Barry Wellman. 2010. “Social Connectivity in America: Changes in Adult Friendship Network Size from 2002 to 2007.” American Behavioral Scientist 53 (8): 1148-1169.

Acknowledgements: Mary Chayko, Lee Rainie, and Beverly Wellman gave useful advice and information. Special thanks for the long-term collaborative support of the participants in the NetLab Network, the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the Center for the Digital Future, and the University of Arizona.


Wellman_Barry - portraitSociologist Barry Wellman co-directs the NetLab Network based in Toronto. He founded the International Network for Social Network Analysis, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. With Lee Rainie, he co-authored Networked: The New Social Operating System.


Banner Image: The Lackawanna Valley, by George Inness, c. 1855, oil on canvas, 86 cm × 128 cm (33 7⁄8 in × 50 1⁄4 in), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Add to favorite