Networked and Bounded Individuals Navigating a Networked Society On and Offline in East York

Barry Wellman, Celia Huang, Anabel Quan-Haase, Molly-Gloria Harper, Keith Hampton


It has now become commonplace that folks in the Global North live in “networked societies”. Manuel Castells coined the phrase in 1996 and Barry Wellman applied it to “networked individuals” in 2001. The concept developed somewhat independently of the proliferation of the internet and the now always-available mobile connectivity—but it has become inextricably connected with the debate about how being online has affected social networks and community. Have meaningful social ties withered, stayed the same but with augmented connectivity, or been transformed into multiple, partial networks through which people must actively maneuver. Although the concept of being networked goes back as far as Robert K. Merton’s 1957 “cosmopolitans and locals” and Wellman’s 1990 “community question”—and perhaps even to Durkheim’s ( “organic solidarity”, there has been little effort to assess the extent to which people actually are networked individuals or are socially bounded in old-school traditional communities, and little investigation of how the networked or the bounded actually operate in a networked world. In this paper, we address the nature of networked and bounded interactions by using evidence from our continuing investigation of the residents of the East York area of Toronto, Canada. What supportive resources do people get from their networks, who do they get them from, and how do they get them online and in-person? We find that younger adults are quite likely to be networked individuals but middle-aged and older adults are as apt to be socially bounded as networked. This may be linked to the greater use of digital media by younger adults, as they maneuver across separate sets of people and groups, often with diverse backgrounds and interests. Nevertheless, these distinctions are indicative rather than strong boundaries. Networked individuals tended to interact more with only some of their multiple networks, while socially bounded individuals did not always operate within the same small groups.

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