Barry Wellman has suggested that Western, developed societies are increasingly moving from the "little boxes" of bounded, localized communities to the fluid, shifting interconnections of "networked individualism." He has also suggested that this shift should influence the development of software which better reflects and facilitates people's changing uses of computers and communications networks. (Wellman 2002) In this paper I examine an emerging online genre which provides one example of such software, providing a communication forum for the networked individual.
My analysis is based upon research on LiveJournal, a system which allows people to keep daily diaries or journals which other participants can read and within which other participants can include responses in the form of comments. I spent over a year participating on LiveJournal, during which I kept my own online journal and read and commented on others' journals. The paper is also based upon face-to-face or telephone interviews with 30 LiveJournal participants.
LiveJournal is a type of weblogging ("blogging") system. Most media coverage and scholarly research on blogging has emphasized it's emergence as a form of amateur journalism. However, most journals on LiveJournal take a more personal form, resembling (and sometimes referred to as) personal diaries. While some do use LiveJournal to link to and comment on stories of the day, most report on the mundane activities, conflicts, and triumphs of their day-to-day lives.
Unlike some weblogging systems (although several are beginning to offer similar features), LiveJournal allows participants to make individual posts (several per day, if desired) to each of which multiple people can make "comments" or responses. LiveJournal participants can also designate groups of "friends" (as the software names them) who have greater or lesser access to more or less private posts. For instance, as a LiveJournal participant, I can designate a post "public," making it readable to anyone who happens across the site, or I can designate a post "friends-only," which allows only a group I have specifically designated to read the post. I can also create separate groups within my "friends list" and direct specific posts to specific groups (excluding specific other participants). I can also create "private" posts, which only I can access. Participants can also view each other's friends lists and can easily compare their own contacts and connections with those of others.
These features put each LiveJournal participant at the center of a network of other participants whose access to their writings they control. But rather than the strictly person-to-person communication envisioned by Wellman as the ideal typical communication form of networked individualism (see e.g., chart on p. 10, Wellman 2002), the members of an individual's network can see and respond to each other's responses to a post, forming temporary and shifting "groups" centered on each individual poster. Through their participation in conversations on other people's journals, participants can also learn of "neighboring" networks and can expand their own.
I argue in this paper that Wellman's concept of "networked individualism" provides a useful analytical tool for looking at some emerging forms of online communication. However, using LiveJournal as an exemplar of his ideal type, I also take a critical look at what networked individualism means to individuals and relationships, and consider the limitations and affordances of this particular forum, particularly as they relate to questions of community online.
Wellman, Barry. 2002. "Little Boxes, Glocalization, and Networked Individualism" Pp. 10-25 in Digital Cities II: Computational and Sociological Approaches, edited by Makoto Tanabe, Peter van den Besselaar and Toru Ishida. Berlin: Springer.
About the Author(s)
Lori Kendall is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Purchase College, SUNY. The topics she has written on include: gender and other aspects of online identity, online community, and online research methodology. Her book "Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub," an ethnography of an online group, was published in 2002 by University of California Press.
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