The Network society?

On the one hand, advocates proclaim a revolution in social relations, empowering individuals and improving lives through greater connectivity. On the other, critics argue that, along with concerns over privacy, freedom and the spread of consumerist and narrow individualist values, social networking could perhaps be having the opposite effect in terms of connectivity. With people spending ever more time interacting online and only creating superficial connections with others, are 'real world' relationships being devalued, leading to increased social isolation? And what of the effects in the political sphere - is social networking a powerful new tool for change or another way of reinforcing political hegemony? Is the focus on networks themselves a distraction from the real power relations that underlie our society?

The effects of online social networks and their significance for society is a complex picture, with a rapidly growing amount of academic literature on the subject. More general theories and analysis of the internet and social media are also becoming more widespread, with 2012 seeing a number of conferences focusing on critical approaches to new social media, such as UnlikeUs and the 4th ICTs and Society-Conference in Uppsala.

This article is not a comprehensive review of all this emerging analysis but covers some of the main issues and suggests resources to find more information. As well as a general overview of some of the ways social networking is affecting society, it discusses in particular the implications of the corporate dominance of social networking platforms.

I begin with a look at social and communication networks and how they function. I then examine how social networking is affecting how people communicate and interact, describing various views about the implications for society. This leads on to a discussion of the political significance of online social networks, how they are affecting political movements and how they relate to theories of power in society. Finally, I discuss how the corporate capture of social networking affects the flow of information across the web.

So how do these networks operate, and how is being 'more connected' beneficial to the individual and society?

The network effect

There are various definitions of 'network' but what they all share is their emphasis on the interconnected nature of networks. Social networks are the theoretical constructs used to study the relationships between individuals or groups, where a social structure is built up from the various interactions between these 'actors'. Although the ideas behind this approach can be traced back at least to Ancient Greece, it wasn't until the late 1800s that research on social groups began to lay the foundations of the concept as an academic field. Later, in the 1930s, social network approaches appeared in psychology, anthropology and mathematics, with each field being drawn independently to the idea. As the concept of social networks emerged, communication networks also evolved, becoming increasingly complicated and widespread. Telecommunications, the technologies used for the transfer of information over significant distances, initially began in the form of drum beats and smoke signals, later developing to semaphore systems and, by the 1830s, in emerging electrical telecommunications. By the 1970s, when the combined theories of social networks were becoming popular, modern telecommunications networks utilising radio, telephones, television and satellites had spread across the world. As computer networks, and later the internet, came on the scene, digital communications began to dominate. Today, the vast majority of telecommunications take place through digital networks, and the internet has spawned new communication phenomena such as online social networking, now used by hundreds of millions of people.

So how do these networks operate, and how do they benefit the individual? The phrase 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts' is a good way of describing how networking works. Generally speaking, the more people that use a network, the more useful it becomes to each user. This is known as the 'network effect' and has been a recognised phenomenon for some time. In 1908, Theodore Vail, boss of Bell Telephone, realised the potential of the network effect and helped the company secure a monopoly on the US telephone service. In 1976, Bob Metcalfe proposed a law to quantify this effect: that the value of a network increases quadratically with the size of the network, meaning that the network's value is proportional to the square of the number of connected users.

A diagram showing how the number of connections in a network rapidly increases with the number using it

There is a huge variety of ways in which these networks can be beneficial. However, the benefits for an individual being a member of a network are not as straightforward as they seem. Analysis has shown that the cost of exclusion from a network can increase faster than the benefits of inclusion.[2] So while Metcalfe's law usually holds – at least in theory – it has also been shown that the loss of value associated with exclusion from the network also increases as the network grows, and at a faster rate than the increased value of being part of the network. In other words, people can be persuaded to connect to networks, not only by the benefits of joining, but by the cost of not doing so. This may go some way to explain why so many people now have mobile phones or Facebook profiles: rather than being convinced of the benefits of signing up, people perhaps feel that by not doing so they are being 'left behind'.

Gatekeepers and echo-chambers

The rise of digital networks has had a transformative effect on the diffusion of messages across the world, a phenomenon that has been further enhanced with the advent of online social networking. Whereas previously mass media companies and government institutions had a near monopoly over global message distribution, digital networks offered a way of bypassing the gatekeepers and communicating directly across the globe. That is not to say that traditional mass media institutions have entirely lost their grip. In some regard, digital social media has acted as a further arena for the media giants to operate in, and they still retain considerable power over communication. In fact, most socialised media is still processed through the mass media, which maintain control of the most popular information sites, due to the importance given to recognised brands when sourcing information. However, it is undeniable that, in terms of how information flows, the game has changed, and once near-omnipotent institutions no longer maintain their stranglehold.

Social networking has also increased people's ability to connect to one another, but there are questions around the value of these new forms of connection, particularly the types of relationships they create. One concern is the dilution of social connections – the idea that people might be spreading themselves too thinly across a larger number of contacts. In studies on primates, maximum social group sizes have been found to vary between species. Based on these studies, anthropologist Robin Dunbar estimated in 1992 the cognitive limit to the number of people that humans can maintain stable social relations with, known as Dunbar's number.[3] Although there is some disagreement about the precise figure, and significant variation between individuals, this is generally accepted to be around 150, with the maximum number of faces that can be easily recognised at about 1,500.

As well as the total number of contacts, there is also the question of who you connect to. In terms of connecting individuals to other like-minded people, it has certainly become easier to find others with a niche interest or shared political viewpoint, especially across geographical boundaries. However, this can sometimes result in echo-chamber-like communities, where self-selection means that opinions are shared with and reinforced by others who already agree with you, rather than being challenged or examined by a more diverse audience.

In 1973 Mark Granovetter introduced his 'strength of weak ties' idea, which maintains that the weaker connections within a network are more structurally important than the core ones.[4] So, for example, if one's network only consisted of very close friends, then there is little expansion or development of the network, and so-called homophily dominates. This can create silos of opinion and, in the worst cases, fosters close-mindedness and prejudice. Heterophily, on the other hand, is where networks are based on differences and weaker ties are exploited to allow the organic formation of new types of connections and relationships. This demonstrates how the way in which networks are constructed and used affects how they ultimately influence connectivity.

Digitised or atomised?

Despite the utopian promises of Facebook and Twitter, the world of digital communication has its darker sides, with a host of problems being potentially facilitated, including fraud, the growing digital divide, rumours and false information, trolling, information addiction, spread of cultural bias, cyberbullying, stalking, grooming, spying and securitisation. There has also been a marked increase in pressure to compete over social status, as people are encouraged to project ever more idealised versions of themselves through their electronic personas.

For example, cyber-bullying is now a widespread phenomenon, driven largely by the increase in use of mobile phones and social networking, particularly among the most at-risk group: teenagers. The National Crime Prevention Council reports that cyberbullying is a problem that affects almost half of all teenagers in the US.[5] Despite this worrying trend, the overall impact of online communication on adolescents' wellbeing is more complicated, with some studies suggesting that the net effect is positive due to the enhancement of existing friendships through new forms of communication.[6] Some have also argued that the increased exposure to online bullying can make adolescents better at developing coping mechanisms or not letting bullies affect them.

A further undesirable consequence of online communications and the increased availability of personal data is the access cyberstalkers have to their targets and information about them.[7] And it is not just individual stalkers who are a cause for concern – corporations and states now have an unprecedented access to data on members of the public (see the Security and Social Networking and the Modern Surveillance Technologies articles in this issue for more information).

Another serious concern is the promotion of narcissistic individualism and the development of new forms of competition over social status. This seemingly paradoxical trend of increasing individualism in an ever more connected digital world must be viewed against a background of an increasingly atomised society. Psychologist Oliver James uses the term 'affluenza' (from a combination of affluence and influenza) to describe the impacts of the virus-like spread of commodification to almost every aspect of our lives.[8] Instead of making people happier and improving their lives, the goal of constantly increasing material wealth leaves people with feelings of worthlessness and dissatisfaction with life. The constant pressure to 'keep up with the Joneses', he says, leaves people tired, stressed and jaded as the hunger for more wealth is never sated. This pressure is itself seen as a result of economic and political systems that are locked into ever-increasing accumulation of wealth and economic growth.

In his talk 'What is reification 2.0' at the UnlikeUS #2 conference, Dylan Wittkower describes how commodification and reification (the transformation of ourselves and others into objects) is taking place on the internet, and in particular on platforms such as Facebook.[9] Despite an increasing awareness of this process, there is also a great deal of denial when it comes to our own participation. Looking at the average person's Facebook profile, with the all-too-common 'perfect holiday' pictures and 'best angle' photos, does not really allay these concerns.

There have been various studies demonstrating links between increased use of social networking and loneliness and narcissism. A recent study, published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, found a direct link between an individual's number of friends on Facebook and their level of 'socially disruptive narcissism'. Researchers at Western Illinois University showed that people who scored highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory had more friends, tagged themselves more often, made more frequent updates on newsfeeds, changed their profile pictures more often and responded more aggressively to derogatory comments. An Australian study, “Who Uses Facebook?”, found similar results, with the authors noting that, “In fact, it could be argued that Facebook specifically gratifies the narcissistic individual’s need to engage in self-promoting and superficial behavior.”[10]

Of course, care should be taken in interpreting such evidence as a causal link - that Facebook is making people more narcissistic. It is possible that the platform is acting as a stage for narcissism to play out, rather than directly encouraging it. Indeed, many researchers, such as Dr Viv Vignoles, a senior lecturer in social psychology at Sussex University, maintain that studies in America only provide "clear evidence" of a correlation between increased use of social media and college students' becoming increasingly narcissistic. Carol Craig, a social scientist and chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being, has made similar observations about the UK. She argues that young people in Britain are becoming increasingly narcissistic and that Facebook provides a platform for the 'disorder'.[11]

Concerns around increased loneliness, often seen as being intimately connected to narcissism, have been around since digital technology started to become widespread. In the 1990s scholars began using the term 'internet paradox' to describe the tendency for greater isolation coinciding with the increased opportunity to connect online. This effect has also been the subject of recent research. John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, is an expert on loneliness. In one experiment, Cacioppo looked for a connection between loneliness and relative frequency of interactions via Facebook, chat rooms, online games, dating sites and face-to-face contact. Describing the results, he wrote: “The greater the proportion of face-to-face interactions, the less lonely you are. The greater the proportion of online interactions, the lonelier you are.” Cacioppo describes Facebook as merely a tool, arguing that, depending on how it is used, it can either increase face-to-face contact or act as a substitute for it.[12]

Other studies have also shown links between loneliness and the use of social networking. But as with narcissism, correlation does not mean causation, and it is difficult to say to what extent the internet makes people lonelier, rather than the internet attracting people who are already feeling lonely, for example. In addition, other researchers have argued that, in some cases, social networking can act as a positive way of reinforcing existing social connections.

A close-up section of a large scale social network

Revolution 2.0?

Perhaps the best documented example of the positive societal effects of social networking is the role of social media in the recent social movements and uprisings, particularly the momentous events of 2011 starting in North Africa and the Middle East. There is no doubt that changes in communication technology have played a noticeable part in these events, but how significant and unique the role of corporate platforms such as Facebook and Twitter was is still hotly debated (for more on this, see the Twitter Revolution? article).

A number of scholars and commentators have argued that networks are well suited to oppose authoritarian, top-down governments, and that the emergence of the networked society represents a significant development in how political change takes place. In particular, they propose that the changes in modern communication and information flows give the horizontal network an inherent advantage over hierarchical structures when it comes to political organising. Walter Powell, a pioneer of network theory, described this potential of networks as long ago as 1990. In his paper 'Neither Market nor Hierarchy: Network Forms of Organisation', he argued that networks were much better than rigid hierarchical structures at dealing with situations where information is fluid and situations change rapidly: “As information passes through a network, it is both freer and richer [than in a hierarchy]; new connections and new meanings are generated, debated and evaluated.”[13]

Of course, it is not just scholars who have come to recognise the power of networks in political communication. From the White House to the Kremlin, traditional hierarchies are adopting new tools such as Twitter and dabbling in the application of controversial information theories, such as memetics, where memes (ideas, beliefs or patterns of behaviour) can reproduce, spread and evolve in a similar manner to genes in traditional evolutionary theory. However, others have argued that a network theory of power ignores more fundamental power relations. For example, a number of contemporary Marxist critical theorists criticise network approaches, such as those proposed by Castells in 'A Network Theory of Power',[14] because such approaches, they argue, do not take the class structure of society into account. They claim this can cause analysis of social networking to fall into the trap of examining 'surface-level networks’ over and above deeper structural aspects of society. In a paper summarising the critical social media conference in Uppsala, Sweden, earlier this year, Fuchs writes:

“No matter which competing answers we have for the newly emerged questions, it is important that we are asking the questions that Marx would ask today. These are questions like: Is it rent or surplus value that shapes social media? Is digital labour

productive or unproductive labour? Does it involve exploitation and/or alienation and/or objectification and/or reification? What is the relationship between production and consumption and between commodification and ideology in the realm of digital media today? Is play labour exploited even if it is fun? What is the dominant class and what is the dominated class today and how does this relate to knowledge work? Do we live in a capitalist society and/or an information society? What is the role of media and technology in rebellions and revolutions? What are adequate strategies for transforming society, the media, and the Internet? Do projects like open access journals, FLOSS, file sharing, Wikipedia, WikiLeaks, Anonymous, watchdog organisations, etc constitute alternatives to capitalism or not and how can their alternative potentials be strengthened?”[15]

Whether or not one adopts a Marxist approach, these are useful questions when looking into the political nature of social networking. They can enable a deeper examination of the different powers at play behind the front end of the corporate social networking platforms. This may in turn help us understand power structures beyond digital socialising, shedding light on how they operate in non-digital spaces.

So what of the corporate giants, such as Facebook and Twitter? How is their dominance influencing social networking?

Corporate monopolies

Corporations have been reasonably quick to recognise the potential economic value of online social networking. For example, GeoCities, one of the first social networking sites created in 1994, was bought up by Yahoo for $3.57 billion in 1999, during the peak of the dotcom bubble. This was the first of many such corporate buy-ups, and various other sites have followed the pattern of rapidly rising in popularity, then being swallowed up by media giants. Of course, this has not always been a profitable exercise. Projection of future value in such a new and volatile market has sometimes gone seriously wrong. Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp, for example, bought Myspace in 2005 for $580 million, only to watch its value fall off a cliff as users migrated to other sites such as Facebook. In June 2011, Myspace was sold to Specific Media and Justin Timberlake for approximately $35 million. The migration of users to another new platform has been a continuing trend, with many smaller sites all but disappearing or being absorbed as people move to Facebook and a handful of other platforms such as Linkedin and Twitter.

Facebook itself resisted several buyout attempts. With 70 per cent of the world’s internet users now signed up, it is by far the biggest networking website in the world. Despite a highly controversial launch on the stock market, when it was initially valued at an inflated $104 billion, its market capitalisation of $64 billion in June 2012 still makes it one of the largest companies in the world.

Network power and corporate power

One concept to consider when discussing the implications of corporate control over online social networks is the so-called 'network-making power'. Introduced by Manuel Castells in 'A Network Theory of Power', it describes the ability of programmers to create networks that reflect their own interests and values and ensure that connection and cooperation takes place with other networks that share similar goals, whilst fending off competition from networks with conflicting interests. In the case of corporate-controlled social networking platforms, this can mean the prioritisation of the kinds of interactions that reflect corporate interests and control over links to other online networks. The cross-linked integration of Facebook with utilities such as YouTube and Spotify, for instance, represents an example of this control over connections between networks, in this case prioritising links to certain commercial web-based services.

Facebook has already begun experimenting with ways of charging for prioritised posting,[16] introducing the possibility of financial segregation. But the requirement to derive profit can also influence the structure and nature of the network in other ways. For example, if Facebook did not hold all of its users' data, it would be much harder for it to make money from targeted advertising and would make it impossible to sell the data to third parties. The commercial pressures that encourage such data hoarding have serious implications for privacy and political freedom, particularly as Facebook shares information with state institutions seeking to control their populations.

Other, more subtle effects can arise from the architecture of the network reflecting corporate values. Apparently innocuous functions such as the 'like' button, or the use of the word 'friend' instead of 'contact', can have far-reaching consequences when the number of people using such protocols is so huge.[17]

Another concern with corporate platforms such as Facebook is online fragmentation, where data is effectively walled off from the rest of the web. The founder of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, is particularly concerned about the increasing occurrence of "closed silo of content", noting that "the more this kind of architecture gains widespread use, the more the web becomes fragmented, and the less we enjoy a single, universal information space."[18] Such privately owned 'walled gardens' are also another example of how corporations maintain a powerful influence over how our communication networks are constructed and controlled. As profit-driven social networks encompass ever more aspects of life, so the potential for cultural hegemony to take root also grows. As new spaces are created, they are quickly occupied by advertising, sponsorship and less overt forms of corporate influence. This further normalises the 'affluenza'-like commodification of life and encourages the spread of neoliberalism.

These are just some of the ways in which the profit motive and the values held by those profiting from social networks can affect the way these networks are used and their ultimate impact on society. But when considering the corporate control of online social media, there is also a fundamental issue around ownership of content and freedom of communication. By profiting from user-generated content, corporations could be seen to be extracting value from the labour of their users. For some, this represents a new area, sometimes called the 'digital commons', into which capitalist exploitation can extend. Instead of having online communities where information flows freely and all members share the benefits of interaction, the continual pressure to extract profit from digital communications hinders the exchange of ideas, stifles creative potential and increases inequality. As mentioned above, there are ongoing debates around the digital commons, the power relations behind social networking, and so-called 'cognitive capitalism'. But these require deeper consideration than is possible here.

Yet, despite corporate control of social networking architectures, there are a great many users who do not conform to the underlying values of self-promotion and commodification. The wide array of online social networking tools now available are also used in critical, nuanced and sometimes subversive ways. In some cases, the networks themselves are used to directly counter the proliferation of neoliberalism and its values. Sometimes referred to as a form of 'counter power', this can express itself in a variety of ways, from file sharing to anti-capitalist and anti-corporate campaigns and protests organised using these platforms.

The future evolution of social networking and the relationship between our online and offline worlds is likely to be complex and dynamic, as it continues to be influenced by a host of factors pushing in various directions. However, if we continue to allow corporations to design and control the structures we use to form social networks, we risk corporate values of profit, competition and selfish individualism becoming an increasing insidious influence over our social interactions.

[2] Rahul Tongia and Ernest j. Wilson iii (2011) 'The Flip Side of Metcalfe’s Law: Multiple and Growing Costs of Network Exclusion', International Journal of Communication 5, pp.665–681.

[3] Dunbar, Robin I. M. (2010) How many friends does one person need?: Dunbar's number and other evolutionary quirks. London: Faber and Faber.

[4] Granovetter, M. S. (1973) 'The Strength of Weak Ties', The American Journal of Sociology 78 (6), pp. 1360–1380.

[6] Valkenburg, P. M. and Peter, J. (2007) 'Online communication and adolescent well-being: Testing the stimulation versus the displacement hypothesis', Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12(4).

[7] Jaishankar, K. and Sankary V. U. (2006) 'Cyber Stalking: A Global Menace in the Information Super Highway', available:
[10] Ryan, T. and Xenos, S. (2011) 'Who uses Facebook? An investigation into the relationship between the Big Five, shyness, narcissism, loneliness, and Facebook usage', Computers in Human Behavior 27:5, pp.1658-1664.

[12] Marche, S. (2012) 'Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?', The Atlantic,
[13] Walter W. Powell (1990) 'Neither market nor hierarchy: Network forms of organization', Research in Organizational Behavior vol.12, pp.295–336.

[14] Castells, M. (2011) 'A Network Theory of Power', International Journal of Communication 5, pp.773–787.

[17] See, for example, Harry Halpin's presentation on the 'hidden history' of the 'like' button at the UnlikeUs conference: