Research and Advances
Computing Applications

Designing the Internet For a Networked Society

Having moved out of confining local communities and work groups, people worldwide now involve themselves in far-flung, Internet-enhanced social relationships with friends, family, workmates, and neighbors.
  1. Introduction
  2. The Internet in Everyday Life
  3. The Local Internet
  4. The Rise of Networked Individualism
  5. References
  6. Author
  7. Footnotes
  8. Figures
  9. Tables
  10. Sidebar: Survey2000 and Other Data Sources

The developed world is in the midst of a paradigm shift in the ways people, organizations, and institutions are connected to one another. Our social systems—at work and home and elsewhere—have moved from being bound up in hierarchically arranged, relatively homogeneous, densely knit, bounded groups to being social networks. Unless the hostilities following the attacks on New York and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., last September 11 ultimately yeild substantial domestic and global reorganization of the social order, this turn toward a networked society should continue. However, there is still a significant possibility that the global response to the attacks will lead to less mobility of people and goods and a general drawing back into the perceived safety of bounded groups.

In a networked society, boundaries are more permeable, interactions are with diverse others, links switch among multiple networks, and hierarchies are flatter and organizational structures more complex [10, 12]. People in networked societies live and work in multiple sets of overlapping relationships, cycling among different networks (see Figure 1). Many of the people and the related social networks they deal with are sparsely knit, or physically dispersed and do not know one other.

The shift from groups to social networks has many manifestations, ranging from interpersonal to international. Employees (especially professionals, technical workers, and managers) report to multiple peers and superiors. Work relations spill over nominal work group boundaries, often connecting employees to outside organizations. Management by network has people reporting to shifting sets of supervisors and peers, even to nominal subordinates. Organizations form complex networks of alliance and exchange, often in the form of transient virtual or networked organizations. Trading and political blocs have lost their monolithic character in the world system.

Computer networks and social networks resonate with one another. Because the developed world had begun transforming itself into a networked society in the 1960s, the Internet could take root in the 1990s. In return, the Internet’s flexible openness to intermittent communication with all comers encouraged the ongoing transformation of work and community into social networks.

How did this shift in turn facilitate the proliferation of the Internet? Think of traditional societies in which people’s lives are encapsulated in villages and small work groups in which all members are connected directly and in which boundaries to the outside are highly restrictive. In such a society, almost everyone knows everyone else and is able to communicate readily by walking door-to-door or glancing at anyone who happens to pass by. There is little isolation, much social control, and sporadic contact with the outside world. Almost all communication and information-seeking is face-to-face, enlivened only by occasional forays into—or away from—the more diverse and complicated outside world. Social network analysts describe such a society as containing densely knit and tightly bounded “clusters.” I call it a little box society after Malvena Reynolds’ 1963 popular song “Little Boxes.” Introverted little-box societies have little need for the Internet, as in Figure 1.

As email use increases, in-person, telephone, and postal contact with others neither decreases nor increases.

Historically, groupware has generally tried to provide computer-mediated support for replicating this door-to-door, little-box society among physically dispersed people. Modeled on villages or small work groups, groupware assumes a limited set of people communicating frequently, routinely barging in on one another, having a broad range of relationships, sharing information, and being aware of one another’s behavior and resources. Such groupware is not widely used, with the exception of instant messaging, best suited for focused, interdependent teams in crises, and Lotus Notes, best suited for communication within complex organizations.

Although nostalgic pastoralist dreams persist in our attitudes about social relationships, the developed world has functioned for decades more in social networks than in little boxes. Consider the nature of community in the pre-Internet 1960s and 1970s. For example, our 1979 survey research found that only 22% of Torontonians’ 17 most active ties were with family, friends, workmates, and neighbors living within a mile [9, 12]. People had visited at home only one or two of their four active neighbors within the past 12 months. About as many (21%) of these friends and family members lived more than 100 miles away, physically reachable only by airplane, train, telephone, or long car rides. The median distance apart was 10 miles (appproximately 15km), barely walking distance [12]. Similar studies throughout the developed world over the past 30 years support these findings [9].

Post-World War II developments in transportation and communication (long-distance telephone, as well as the Internet), along with social changes wrought by the industrial revolution and the development of nation-states, have made once-parochial neighborhoods permeable containers. People live at home, usually operating with marital partners as joint household units. Local places remain important, partly because we are rooted to our wired-in computers. Nevertheless, the neighborhood is only one part of our lives. Households reach out from their domestic bases to maintain far-flung ties with friends and family. Few people are immersed in a vibrant neighborhood life. Relationships are glocalized, or both global and local, as in Figure 1.

Back to Top

The Internet in Everyday Life

In Bowling Alone [6], Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam documented the decline of social capital in the U.S. since the 1960s. Compared to 40 years ago, fewer people get together today in voluntary organizations or participate in family dinners and picnics. Moreover, there is uneven access to social capital in different neighborhoods, cities, and states. The turn toward a networked society suggests that beneath Putnam’s radar social networks may be replacing group participation.

How does the Internet fit into this changing social environment? There have been fears that as people become increasingly immersed in their monitors, the Internet would weaken face-to-face community and domesticity. As Texas commentator Jim Hightower warned in 1995, “While all this razzle-dazzle connects us electronically, it disconnects us from each other, having us ‘interfacing’ more with computers and TV screens than looking in the face of our fellow human beings.” Yet there have also been hopes the Internet would facilitate new forms of voluntary communities based on shared interests and would even form the relational basis for increased face-to-face contact [11]. The Internet’s distance-free connectivity might enable people to transcend the limited social capital available locally. John Perry Barlow, also commenting in 1995, wrote in the Utne Reader, “With the increasing pervasiveness of communication between networked computers, we are in the middle of the most transforming technological event since the capture of fire. I used to think that it was just the biggest thing since Gutenberg, but now I think you have to go back farther.”

Rather than being an isolated technical system, the Internet is quickly being incorporated into everyday life while increasing North Americans’ stock of social capital.

For years, the debate about how the Internet affects social capital was based mostly on assertion and anecdote. However, several sets of survey data have emerged recently to show that the Internet fits nicely into networked societies [4]. The Internet’s architecture makes no assumptions about whether a community or work unit is closed or cohesive, or even that the world consists of groups. These characteristics allow the Internet to support large numbers of transitory relationships and enable people to maneuver among multiple community and work networks. They also have costs. Where doors had been unlocked in traditional villages, contemporary urban centers are characterized by locked gates and guarded office buildings. Where traditional groupware often supports the visibility of all to all and access of all to all files, Internet inhabitants develop elaborate routines to guard their accessibility, prioritize contact, form evanescent grouplets, and compartmentalize who has access to what.

Rather than forming a unique entity, the Internet has been incorporated into everyday life at work and in the community. For every interpersonal tie operating only online, many more combine email contact with in-person and telephone contact. These connections suggest there has been unwarranted fear that the Internet destroys community but also that they overstate hopes it would bring supportive, voluntary communities of choice to all. Moreover, the continuing (though shrinking) digital divide means the Internet provides less social capital to those of low socioeconomic status, as well as to non-English-speaking people worldwide.

For example, the essentially flat lines in Figure 2 for face-to-face, telephone, and postal contact show that as email use increases, in-person, telephone, and postal contact with others neither decreases nor increases [7] (see the sidebar “Survey2000 and Other Data Sources”). The majority of reported contacts in 1998 between friends and relatives was still by telephone or in person. Even among relatively heavy email users (using it daily), email represented only about 50% of the contacts with friends and family members. Face-to-face contact continued to be frequent with those living nearby and telephone contact with those living both nearby and far away. Indeed, the data showed the telephone is still the most frequently used mode of contact with nearby friends, albeit closely followed by email. Thus, email increases the total volume of interpersonal contact by adding its connectivity to continuing levels of face-to-face and telephone contact.

Back to Top

The Local Internet

Many of us are in “place-to-place” community and work situations in which we link to homes and workplaces elsewhere, with little awareness of the intervening sociophysical terrain. They do not represent a “placeless” society; until nomadic wireless systems develop, people will be wired into homes and offices as they connect both locally and globally.

Not only are people wired into local spaces, the Internet itself facilitates local, as well as global, connectivity. For example, in spring 1999, the eight students in my graduate School of Information Management and Systems course at the University of California, Berkeley, tracked the origins of all email they received over a 24-hour period: 57% came from within the city of Berkeley, and another 15% came from elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay area. Even foreign email was largely “local,” as most were messages to two Norwegian exchange students from friends back home in Bergen.

Survey2000 also showed the importance of local email. About 58% of the survey participants’ daily email contact with friends was with those living within 30 miles (50km), as was about 42% of their email contact with family members, as in Figure 2. Indeed, the volume of daily email contact is greatest with nearby friends (118 days per year), followed by distant friends (85 days per year), distant family (72 days per year), and less numerous nearby family (52 days per year). Within 30 miles, the Internet is important but trails face-to-face and telephone contact for interactions with friends and relatives. Beyond 30 miles, email joins the telephone as the principal means of keeping in contact.

Our survey and ethnographic study of “Netville,” conducted from 1997–1999, showed how email can increase the amount of social interaction within a local community [2]. A high-speed 16Mb ATM network connected the residents of this new Toronto suburb to each other (via email and videophone) and to the Internet. Although we were not able to do before/after-wired studies, we did have a natural wired/nonwired comparison, as administrative problems prevented many homes from being wired. The table here shows that the wired residents on the high-speed network were aware of more neighbors, ranged more widely in their neighborhoods, and visited more neighbors in person. The study found email especially useful for forging the weaker ties of acquaintanceship that help knit a community together. Messages ranged from planning barbeques, to offers for babysitting, to alerts about suspicious vans cruising the streets during a spate of neighborhood burglaries. Wired residents also used private and list email to organize local political struggles against the real estate developer over alleged deficiencies in the homes and against the Internet service provider when it terminated the high-speed ATM service and turned to slower DSL service.

Nor does local involvement come at the expense of long-distance connectivity. Wired residents are better able than their nonwired counterparts to maintain their social capital, having more contact with and support from friends and family members living more than 50km away. The ability to accumulate social capital is not strongly related to distance; those who become wired maintain the same level of after-move social contact with ties stretching beyond 500km as they do with ties stretching 50 to 500km away. However, distance matters for the in-person delivery of support; more support is provided by ties 50 to 500km away than by those more than 500km away [3].

Back to Top

The Rise of Networked Individualism

In sum, Internet communication has benefited from and facilitated the social transformation of work and community, from groups in little boxes to glocalized, ramified, or branching, social networks. Rather than being an isolated technical system, the Internet is quickly being incorporated into everyday life while increasing North Americans’ stock of social capital.

As social systems change, the Internet also changes in a feedback process. The relationship is less one of hard technological determinism than of soft “social affordances” creating opportunities and constraints, to use a felicitous term coined by Erin Bradner, a researcher at the University of California, Irvine. Therefore, the Internet’s design can usefully account for important social phenomena, including users’ characteristics like gender and skills, social relationships (strong/weak ties and specialized/broad ties), structural positions (power in organizations), social network structure (densely knit and loosely bounded), and social network composition, or the spatial and temporal dispersion of friends, family, and coworkers in communities of shared interests. Rather than trying to shape interactions into misspecified group templates, the Internet’s designers can respond by creating technology that reflects and enhances how the world functions in social networks [8].

“In the past, you adapted to the network. In the future, the network adapts to you.”
—Thomas Gray, mitel computer scientist

What next? Mitel computer scientist Thomas Gray recently forecast, “In the past, you adapted to the network. In the future, the network adapts to you.” Within a decade, social networks, as well as computer networks, should become more individually adaptive as the Internet experiences increased broadband use, global ubiquity, portability, 24/7 availability, and personalized services.

The Internet should afford a change of emphasis in social systems from place-to-place connectivity based on the household and the workplace to person-to-person connectivity based on individuals making and remaking connections in their social and computer networks [9]. This Internet-enhanced transformation will evoke needs for new forms of managing personalized social networks. For example, ContactMap, developed since 1999 at AT&T Labs Research, helps people be aware of and manage their complex, evanescent social networks. Another application, IKNOW, developed since 1997 by Noshir Contractor and associates at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, addresses a problem of network societies—how to allow any Internet user to discover and use the resources of indirect ties, including “friends of friends” [1].

Computer scientists look forward as they design, while ethnographers and survey researchers look back at what people have experienced. Simultaneously looking backward and forward, like Janus, offers the opportunity to integrate perspectives in which the future and the past mutually inform each other. Designing for a networked society benefits from the interplay between computer science and the social sciences.

Back to Top

Back to Top

Back to Top

Back to Top


F1 Figure 1. Three models of community and work social networks.

F2 Figure 2. Contact with relatives and friends, days per year.

Back to Top


UT1 Table. Wired and nonwired neighboring in Netville.

Back to Top

    1. Contractor, N. and Bishop, A. Reconfiguring community networks: The case of PrairieKNOW. In Digital Cities: Technologies, Experiences, and Future Perspectives, T. Ishida, Ed. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 2000, 151–164.

    2. Hampton, K. Living the Wired Life in the Wired Suburb: Netville, Glocalization, and Civic Society. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Sociology, University of Toronto, Aug. 2001.

    3. Hampton, K. and Wellman, B. Long-distance community in the network society: Contact and support beyond Netville. Amer. Behav. Sci. 45, 3 (Nov. 2001), 477–497.

    4. Haythornthwaite, C. and Wellman, B., Eds. The Internet in everyday life. Special issue of Amer. Behav. Sci. 45, 3 (Nov. 2001), 357–566.

    5. Kew, M. and Wellman, B. Crossing the digital divide: Evidence from the U.S. and Canada. Current Sociol. 50 (2002), forthcoming.

    6. Putnam, R. Bowling Alone. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000.

    7. Wellman, B., Quan Haase, A., Witte, J., and Hampton K. Does the Internet increase, decrease, or supplement social capital? Amer. Behav. Sci. 45, 3 (Nov. 2001), 437–56.

    8. Wellman, B. Little boxes, glocalization, and networked individualism. In Digital Cities 2, T. Ishida, Ed., Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 2001, 3–15.

    9. Wellman, B. Physical place and cyber-place: Changing portals and the rise of networked individualism. Int. J. Urban Region. Res. 25, 2 (June 2001), 227–252.

    10. Wellman, B., Ed. Networks in the Global Village. Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1999.

    11. Wellman, B. and Gulia, M. Net surfers don't ride alone. In Networks in the Global Village, B. Wellman, Ed. Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1999, 331–366.

    12. Wellman, B., Carrington, P., and Hall, A. Networks as personal communities. InSocial Structures: A Network Approach, B. Wellman and S. Berkowitz, Eds. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K., 1988, 130–184.

    Research underlying this article has been supported by the Bell University Laboratories, Communications and Information Technology Ontario, IBM Institute of Knowledge Management, Mitel Networks, the Office of Learning Technologies (Human Resources and Development Canada), and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More