Semiotic Profile

The Networked Individual: A Profile of Barry Wellman

By Bernie Hogan

How many communities are you a member of? Your local community? Your neighborhood? The academic community? A religious or ethnic community? “Community” eludes specification at every term. Yet if we look towards the structure of relationships between individuals rather than the fuzzy sets, we find community flourishing at every turn in the form of salient personal relationships. These relationships are the personal community. To really understand the individual in his or her world, we should turn to these specific relationships, rather than the post hoc forms we tend to wish to ascribe to them.

Such is the perspective of sociologist Barry Wellman, whose research has not not been directed at particular social groups, but rather specific patterns of relationships – social networks. His career has been dedicated to advancing social network analysis in the study of social processes, including the diffusion of ideas and tastes, the provision of support and the way individuals employ new technologies to maintain connections and spread ideas. With the rise of social network sites such as Facebook and MySpace, the diffusion of the Internet (itself a massive network), and the recent profusion of network insights in business, physics, biology, computer science and the social sciences, it seems the world is finally catching up to him.

Early history

Some might say that Wellman's training in social networks started at Harvard. He attended the university during an explosive period of thought in social networks. His supervisor, Charles Tilly, was rapidly overhauling theories of social movements by considering networks of political actors. He was studying with Harrison White, the progenitor of blockmodelling (an extremely popular technique for distilling networks into smaller structures of clusters), and Stanley Milgram, who is widely credited with discovering the 'six degrees of separation' between any given individual. His peers included many of the current network heavyweights, such as Claude Fischer, Ronald Brieger and Bonnie Erickson. But graduate students are hardly a tabula rasa, much to any professor's chagrin. Wellman himself would suggest his training in networks started on the streets of the Bronx, where ethnic enclaves were abuzz with who knew who and why certain relationships mattered. He learned that community, as a label (e.g., the Jewish community or the high school community), was only the first step to understanding one's social world. The real action happens when you look at who goes beyond the labels to participate in the everyday life of the community.

The community question

In 1969 Wellman left Harvard to work with his supervisor, Charles Tilly, at the University of Toronto. Wellman was only 24 when he started as faculty there, and was not yet finished his PhD. In these first few years Wellman was a researcher on a community study in East York, a borough of Toronto. He would return to East York again in 1978 and again in 2004, each time keeping a keen eye on the changing personal networks of East York's residents. The original study led to his first major work, "The Community Question", which re-evaluates the longstanding sociological issue of community in light of social networking concepts. He argued that community was not lost, but rather transformed into more personal and less local forms. The second study helped to elucidate who provides social support to the individual and why (from a network analytic framework). This is best seen in his paper with Scott Wortley, "Different Strokes from Different Folks". The third study has informed our understanding of how individuals use a combination of media to sustain both local and long-distance ties. This is found in numerous papers from 2005-2008, but most particularly in "Connected Lives: The Project" (with members of NetLab, 2006).

Social networks as a paradigm

One of Wellman's lasting contributions to Social Network Analysis [SNA] is his theoretical work suggesting that SNA is a paradigm rather than a mere methodology. This is based on the idea that SNA is a generative endeavor that does not simply imply new tools for old needs, but new tools and new means for looking at the social world. Key to this idea is the emphasis on the specific patterned relationships between individuals, rather than an emphasis on inner forces, such as personality, or categorical differences such as race and gender. No doubt, inner forces and categorical memberships play a role in explaining behavior, but this is always subsumed under a logic of who people interact with and how. It is for this reason that the practice of gender, or the expression of personality operates differently in different contexts. This is part of what Abbott considers as the need to 'transcend the linear reality' of independent cases each with their own independent forces. Networks, by contrast, are very salient ways in which individuals negotiate both opportunities and constraints thereby demonstrating they are not independent cases, but structured actors. It is very difficult, for example, to be at the forefront of culture if one does not have access to culture's leading figures. Similarly, it is difficult to rise through the political ranks without a specific set of useful relationships that will promote the individual. Ideas do not propagate in a vacuum. They require specific routes of transmission between specific people.

As Wellman notes, this idea is easily shown in whole networks, such as the relationship between all members of a corporate board, or among all publishing chemists in a specific field. In such cases, a network approach "permits simultaneous views of the social system as a whole and the parts that make up the system. Analysts are therefore able to trace lateral and vertical flows of information, identify sources and targets, and detect structural constraints operating on flows of resources" (1988, 26).

However, one can also think about networks of relationships in domains that are not easily bounded. Where do we place the boundary on our personal network? What if it includes people from halfway around the world? Must we consider the relationships of everyone in order to assess the workings of this social system? Wellman has addressed these issues as a pioneer of egocentric methods for social network analysis.

Egocentric networks are a means for sampling networks from a population. Any network of relations around an individual is an egocentric network. Thus, one can have an egocentric network of telephone calls, of gift-giving or of mutual support. However, one egocentric network stands above them all for Wellman - the personal network. This is the set of relationships that individuals consider close with each other. This closeness represents a bond between people, and is a strong predictor of social support and emotional comfort. For this reason, Wellman has referred to the personal network as a personal community.

One of the challenges in assessing the personal community is to discern who exactly is in that community, and who is not. Wellman was an early proponent of using the concept of 'socioemotional closeness' to define membership. His classic technique is to elicit names of individuals who are close to the individual and query which of these individuals are also close to each other. There are a number of variants on this process, but the logic is generally very similar.

Personal networks do not allow researchers to comprehensively track flows of information, but they do give insights as to how individuals react to their concrete social circumstances, and how individuals organize their world so that they fit into this global flow of resources and ideas.

Networked individualism

By focusing on personal communities, this liberated Wellman from a focus on communities bounded in space. This would be a wise academic decision, since many technologies emerged during his career to enable relating-at-a-distance with increasing fidelity and complexity. We no longer simply talk in person to local individuals and call or write a letter to those far away, but mix technologies, each with their own 'social affordances', into everyday processes.

For Wellman, these technological shifts instantiate a broader shift from 'group-oriented' relationships to 'networked individualistic' ones. As he suggests, “[w]ork, community and domesticity have moved from hierarchically arranged, densely knit, bounded groups (“little boxes”) to social networks. (Formally, a group is a special type of social network, but it is cognitively easier to compare the “group” metaphor with the “network” metaphor.) In networked societies, boundaries are more permeable, interactions are with diverse others, linkages switch between multiple networks, and hierarchies are both flatter and more complexly structured” (2001).

In group-oriented relationships, social behaviors are defined by the boundaries of specific groups. For example, a given neighborhood might have a culture of lawn bowling, Saturday barbecues and street hockey. It would be common (normative) to wave to one's neighbors when leaving for work in the morning and knock on their door when returning home in the evening. This is not because of a profusion of specific connections to each and every neighbor, but conformity to group-oriented norms. By contrast, contemporary relationships are more fine-tuned in time, space and context. In place of assumed norms are specific person-to-person relationships, with particulars (e.g., shift work, different telephone numbers of every household member, interest-based relationships) replacing universals (e.g., Sunday morning at church, everyone in the phonebook, proximity-based relationships). And what's more, these particular behaviors are not simply matters of taste. They can be seen in the changing structure of personal relationships (which become more loosely knit and far flung), as well as the design of technologies to support these relationships (which become increasingly customized and person-centric). These ideas are applied in numerous papers with his collaborators. However, they are presently most explicitly in his solo papers from the early 2000s, "Physical Place and Cyberplace" (2001) and "Little Boxes, Glocalization and Networked Individualism" (2002).

Where does this network end? Wellman has not set any limits on this relational thinking. With Tracy Kennedy he recently asserted that it is preferable to consider the family as a networked unit (2007). By doing so, one can trace the communications between family members across multiple and partially overlapping media, rather than consider a consistent and normative framework for intra-family communication. I even recall being privy to an email thread he started with many of the aforementioned scholars about whether or not one's identity can be considered as a network of traits, each funneled and activated based on the context. Knowing that the brain is a giant network of neurons, clustered but not cleaved, it may not take neuroscience long to validate his intuition.

Technology and our Connected Lives

Wellman professes to have always been a computer aficionado, and he has a personal computer-timeline to prove it <>. It details the use of punch cards, mainframes, mice, mics and ultimately the web. Wellman's early interest appears as hobby and a means to an end (analyzing data). However, as networked computing became more prominent in the early 1990s, Wellman's interest in computers increasingly became an end in itself. It is here that he began to use his social network ideas to seriously engage the Internet. This led to a string of publications determined to cut through the ensuing tech-boom hype. Most notably, he was an early proponent of the idea that community found on the web is still real community. This is not merely because it operates like an offline community (although that is certainly part). It is because it usually is an offline personal community that happens to use the Internet. This is best characterized in his 1997 paper with Milena Gulia, "Net Surfers Don't Ride Alone". Here Wellman and Gulia take down three core misconceptions that have propagated among pundits and technology scholars at the time: their focus on the immediate present as somehow distinct from historical processes ("presentism"), their focus on the net as a separate sphere of activity ("parochialism") and their focus on the net is replete with agents of good and evil ("Manichianism").

If we consider the Internet as a conduit to other individuals, then it competes with (or compliments) other media and in person interaction. But who gets access by what media? This prompted a number of studies with researchers about many-media networks. With Caroline Haythornthwaite, Wellman proposed a theory of media use based on interpersonal closeness, referred to as "media multiplexity". This was drawn from Haythornthwaite's dissertation work with a class of distance learners. These individuals had access to message boards, chat rooms, email, instant messenger and a host of other technologies. It was shown that in this case, individuals who were socioemotionally closer tended to use more media with each other. Multiplexity itself was already circulating in network circles. For example, Wellman's contemporary Claude Fisher demonstrated the relationship between role multiplexity and closeness in his earlier studies of personal networks in Northern California (i.e. people tended to be closer to those they knew in multiple roles or social contexts). By demonstrating that media operate in a similar way to link people, Haythornthwaite and Wellman help to highlight the changing role of media in the everyday lives of individuals. In is not simply a pasttime out there, but a series of channels for social access.

Wellman continued to explore many-media relationships with numerous graduate students at the University of Toronto. One noteworthy study with Keith Hampton demonstrated the potential of the Internet for bringing a local community together. In "Neighbouring in Netville", they studied a semi-wired housing development in a Toronto suburb. Through a serendipitous natural experiment, two-thirds of the neighbourhood were given access to very high speed internet, while the other third of the residents were left with very low speed dial-up access (or none at all). The wired citizens did not simply spend more time surfing, they spent more time reaching out to each other offline, organized community events online and generally knew more of their neighbours. In subsequent analyses by Hampton, it was shown that this effect was partially a coincidence of history and specific suburban conditions. However, it helped to emphasize how the Internet is not simply a medium "out there", but one that can be understood in relation to local culture.

Wellman also examined the use of multiple media in business contexts. His work with student Anabel Quan-Haase demonstrated the existence of "local virtualities". By contrast, most people consider the Internet as a space for bringing together long-distance ties, making it a facilitator for virtual communities (or virtual localities). Yet, it also alters the perceptions of those who are physically co-located, such as workers at an office. In their study of high-tech workers at financial services company, Quan-Haase and Wellman discovered that the Internet offered possibilities for communication and collaboration that simply would not be possible offline. Individuals could share snippets of code, communicate without interrupting co-workers and have virtual meetings effectively and unobtrusively. Moreover, individuals working on different tasks preferred networks over a certain medium, and only some individuals crossed from one medium (instant messaging) to another (e.g., email, face-to-face, telephone).

More recently, Wellman worked separately with Jeffrey Boase on email and Wenhong Chen on transnational entrepreneurs. In both cases, they demonstrated the importance of the Internet in sustaining a diverse set of relationships. By this time (2004-6) the Internet was not simply a supplementary tool for social networks, but a key way in which individuals could sustain the sorts of large and diverse networks needed in entrepreneurial business and useful in everyday life.

Many of the specific insights from these aforementioned studies are drawn from Wellman's graduate students, as much as Wellman himself. Yet, each of these studies bear a distinct mark of Wellman's ideology and scholarly worldview. There are several aspects of Wellman's perspective that unify these studies on technology. The first is obviously the importance of considering social networks as specific structures. But there are a number of other key guiding themes.

1. The Internet is neither the source of a new utopia or dystopia. The Internet's effects on everyday life and work are strong and significant, but they have not created a revolution. They do not tear people away from their communities or their social ties. Rather they reorient individuals to some aspects of their network and away from others. Wellman explicitly addresses the Utopian and Dystopian perspectives in a series of papers with Bernie Hogan, "The Internet in Everyday Life" and "The Immanent Internet".

2. The importance of social affordances. The Internet is not a single technology, but a substrate for digital information. On top of this substrate are specific media with their own unique features for social interaction. A blog's one-to-many feature is a social affordance enabling individuals to broadcast life updates, thoughts and new innovations to a unique and often personally known audience. Email's asynchronicity enables individuals, for better or worse, to work and interact outside of commonly established temporal spaces. Consequently, people take work home with them, simply because they check email at any time of the day from both the home and the office. Social affordances are apparent in most of his work from the last decade, but covered in depth in "The Social Affordances of the Internet for Networked Individualism" with Quan-Haase, Boase, Chen, Isabel Isla de Diaz and Kakuko Miyata.

3. The person as portal. Even if one does not accept the theory that we are witnessing a global shift towards networked individualism, one can still appreciate the idea that the online experience is oriented towards individuals, rather than households, groups or teams. Email is often per-person, as are buddy lists on instant messenger programs, links of friends on social software sites, news on Internet portals, and telephone numbers on mobile phones. When Wellman began his career, the egocentric network was a concept that needed defending. Why should one focus on the network around the individual rather than the network within the community? Thirty years later, modern software designers take the egocentric network as a foundational design principle and one that reinforces the salience and importance of egocentered networks offline as well as the egocentric network through a specific medium.

To network is to live; To live is to network

Wellman has always been a believer in the practical application of ideas. Early in his career he founded the International Network for Social Network Analysts, which is still the leading professional association in the rapidly expanding field. He also founded "Connections", the association's journal, and recently co-founded "City and Community", the official journal of the Community and Urban Sociology section of the American Sociological Association. He was the chair of the Sociological Research Association, a veritable who's who of living sociologists, and serves on the editorial board of numerous journals. He was recently named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada

With over 300 publications under his belt (with over 80 collaborators), one might wonder how he has time for administrative issues like chairs, editorial boards and students. I suspect Wellman would respond with a structural argument. Namely, that being in the midst of so many active scholars is an energizing way to focus one's current work and assess how this work best fits in the scholarly community. Or knowing Wellman, he would say it more frankly: It takes a social network to build a paradigm (including the paradigm of social networks). And for Wellman, this means not only a strong international network, but a local one as well. From this idea, he created NetLab in the late 1990s as his informal working association of graduate students, undergraduate researchers and like minded academics based at the University of Toronto.

Connecting Wellman to semiotics

Finally, it is worth considering Wellman's connection to semiotics. That is, what do social network analysts have to offer to this field? In a broad sense, there is a clear connection between the fields through cognitive maps and semantic graphs. Concepts, like people, can be associated as networks and analyzed as such. However, this idea is as old as the work of Levi-Strauss, if not older. The radical approach offered by Wellman is in emphasizing the person-to-person character of relationships, over broad group or community-oriented positions. New media facilitate these person-to-person relationships, and consequently, the sorts of symbols and sign systems that are most effectively transmitted one-to-one or one-to-many rather than many-to-many. This is the world of emoticons, viral media campaigns, collaborative filtering and personally tailored information rather than class customs, national symbols, edited volumes and broadcast media. Now, the Internet is not only a network for diffusing ideas, but also a constantly shifting milieu of signs and symbols. Memes, for example, are not simply understood online. They are an established part of online parlance and a key aspect of this culture.

Wellman has already demonstrated that the computer network is a social network. And he has laid the groundwork, both intellectually and institutionally, for taking this one step further: the computer network is a semiotic network.

Key works

With over 300 published papers, it is futile to list more than a small taste of this work. However, Wellman maintains a very comprehensive and regularly updated webpage (unsurprisingly). Interested readers can find more information at <>

Edited volumes:

B. Wellman and S. D. Berkowitz, editors, Social Structures: A Network Approach, pages 19–61. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1988.

B. Wellman, editor, Networks in the Global Village, pages 331–367. Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1999.

B. Wellman and C. Haythornthwaite, editors. The Internet in Everyday Life. Blackwell, Oxford, 2002.

Selected Papers:

B. Wellman. The community question: The intimate networks of east yorkers. American Journal of Sociology, 84(5):1201–1233, 1979.

B. Wellman. Structural analysis: From method and metaphor to theory and substance. In B. Wellman and S. D. Berkowitz, editors, Social Structures: A Network Approach, pages 19–61. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1988.

B. Wellman and S. Wortley. Different strokes from different folks: Community ties and social support. American Journal of Sociology, 96(3):558–588, 1990.

B. Wellman. An egocentric network tale: comment on Bien et al. (1991). Social Networks, 15(4):423–436, 1993.

B. Wellman, J. Salaff, D. Dimatrova, L. Garton, M. Gulia, and C. Haythornthwaite. Computer networks as social networks: Collaborative work, telework, and virtual community. Annual Review of Sociology, 22:213–238, 1996.

C. Haythornthwaite and B. Wellman. Work, friendship and media use in a networked organization. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 49(12):1101–1114, 1998.

B. Wellman and M. Gulia. Net surfers don’t ride alone: Virtual community as community. In P. Kollack and M. Smith, editors, Communities in Cyberspace, pages 167-194. Routledge, London, 1999.

B. Wellman. Physical place and cyber place: The rise of personalized networking. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 25(2):227–252, 2001.

B. Wellman. Little boxes, glocalization, and networked individualism. In M. Tanabe, P. van den Bessclaar, and T. Ishida, editors, Digital Cities, pages 10-25. Springer-Verlag, Heidelberg, 2002.

K. Hampton and B. Wellman. Neighboring in Netville: How the Internet supports community and social capital in a wired suburb. City & Community, 2(4):277–311, 2003.

B. Wellman, A. Quan-Hasse, J. Boase, W. Chen, K. Hampton, I. Isla da Diaz, and K. Miyata. The social affordances of the Internet for networked individualism. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 8(3), 2003.

B. Wellman and B. Hogan. The immanent Internet. In R. McKay, Johnston, editor, Netting Citizens, pages 54–80. St. Andrew’s Press, Edinburgh, 2004.

B. Wellman and B. Hogan. Internet in everyday life. In W. S. Bainbridge, editor, Berkshire Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, pages 389–397. Berkshire Publishing Group, Amherst, MA, 2004.

J. Boase, J. Horrigan, B. Wellman, and L. Rainie. Pew Report: The Strength of Internet Ties. Pew Internet and American Life Project, Washington, DC, 2006.

B. Wellman, B. Hogan, K. Berg, J. Boase, J. A. Carrasco, R. Cote, J. Kayahara, T. L. M. Kennedy, and P. Tran. Connected Lives: The project. In P. Purcell, editor, Networked Neighbourhoods, pages 161–216. Springer, London, 2006.

A. Quan-Hasse and B. Wellman. Hyperconnected net work: Computer mediated community in a high-tech organization. In C. Hecksher and P. Adler, editors, The Firm as a Collaborative Community, pages 281–333. Oxford University Press, New York, 2006.

T. L. M. Kennedy and B. Wellman. The networked household. Information, Communication & Society, 10(5):645–670, October 2007.

B. Hogan, J. Carrasco, and B. Wellman. Visualizing personal networks: Working with participant aided sociograms. Field Methods, 19(2):116–144, 2007.

Selected Accolades:

Lifetime achievement award. Community and Urban Section of the American Sociological Association.

Lifetime achievement award. Communication and Information Technology Section of the American Sociological Association.

Lifetime achievement award. International Communication Association.

Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Current S. D. Clark Chair of Sociology at the University of Toronto.

Former Chair of the Sociological Research Association.