On an ordinary day, we are woken up by our mobile phone; we get up and check our emails, answer them, call somebody, chat with a total stranger on ICQ, and have a video chat with some friends overseas. Our social relations seem more and more dominated by communication technologies and have assumed a wider dimension as our contacts spread in networks around the globe. Companies, nations and individuals come together, making “[t]he 21st century ... the age of networks” (v. Dijk 2006).
In this essay I would like to discuss the key features of network sociality and the debates around the concept of network society, focussing on the influence of internet use on social interaction particularly in form of virtual communities.
The debate about the recent social transformations from mass media society to network society is dominated by the views of Manuel Castells and Jan van Dijk (Castells 2000a, 2000b; v. Dijk 2006). Van Dijk (2006) defines network societies as “contemporary developed and modern societies marked by a high level of information exchange and use of information and communication technologies” (p.19).
The network as such (off-line) is not a current invention. Throughout human history, individuals, tribes and cities have formed networks. Their respective aim has always been cooperation and support which were vital for the participants’ survival, or the wish to increase one’s wealth (v. Dijk 2006), e.g. by trade. These traditional networks had their limits in size and space though, as it became harder to coordinate increasing numbers of individuals across growing distances. Only with the invention of modern communication technologies networks can fulfil their potential (Castells 2000a): "networks are dynamic, self-evolving structures, which, powered by information technology and communicating with the same digital language, can grow, and include all social expressions, ... Networks increase their value exponentially as they add nodes" (Castells 2000b, p.697).
To Castells (2000b, p.695), the basic unit of network society is a network (of finance, nations, economy etc.), while van Dijk considers individuals or groups and organizations with joint aims to be the basic units of network society. In both cases, the transformation of society is due to and accelerated by “a new technological paradigm, centred around micro-electronics-based, information/communication technologies and genetic engineering” (Castells 2000b, p.9 – original italics). The invention of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) leads to the restructuring of interpersonal relationships and thus network sociality.
The term “network sociality” was coined by Andreas Wittel (2001) who noticed a tendency in society to form networks instead of communities. He puts network sociality in contrast to the social concept of ‘community’: unlike in communities, network relations are based on the exchange of information. Shared experiences and history as common denominators lose value. Social encounters can be brief, but intense.
In his essay “Toward a Network Sociality”, Wittel (2001) outlines five main features of network sociality: firstly, individualization, secondly, the rise of short-lived and strong relationships, thirdly, the focus on information instead of narratives, fourthly, the merging of work and play, and lastly the growing importance of technology.
The first two features of network sociality, individualization and ephemeral relationships, are linked. Individualization is connected to the definition of the individual as the basic unit of network society (v.Dijk 2006). Although Castells does not share van Dijk’s opinion on this, he agrees with him that traditional groups, for instance families and communities have become fragmented.
This fragmentation leads to the “Crisis of the Patriarchal Family” (Castells 2004, p.196) on the one hand, and the “Erosion of Enduring Relationships” (Wittel 2001, p.63) on the other hand.
The decline of the traditional male dominated family appears in form of several developments in society: only few families can be used as examples for the traditional model of the nuclear family as defined by Parsons (1955) with a provider-father, stay-at-home-mother and children, all playing their (gender-)specific parts. Tensions between family and working life, due to the increasing number of women in the workforce, split families apart (Castells 1997). Divorce and alternative partnerships have turned into constant features of society.
As the concept of “linear time” (a flow of past, present and future) is replaced by “serial time” (succession of short episodes) (Wittel 2001, p.63), we experience changes in all areas of our life: our private life is marked by a succession of partners in short-term relationships; our work lives are increasingly dominated by projects, which are completed on contract basis in a certain time frame. Many people decide to adapt their career path or work patterns according to this principle of mobility: they become freelancers, work part-time or from home (telework) (Wittel 2001, Castells 1999).
As we can see, mobility becomes increasingly important in work environments, leading to an assimilation of work and play. Wittel (2001) describes this trend: Business relationships become playful; meetings might be conducted in the more casual atmosphere of pubs, cafes or clubs instead of formal boardrooms. These alternative locations can provide inspiration for new ideas and are also the ideal place to socialise. Creativity, experimentation and innovation become key skills and move into the focus of companies as the basis of improving performance. Furthermore, multitasking practices, like listening to music while working, are thought to stimulate the worker to perform better.