Expert Spotlight

Expert Spotlight: Professor Barry Wellman, FRSC

Barry Wellman, is S.D. Clark Professor, Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. He is a member of the Expert Panel on Memory Institutions and the Digital Revolution. For several decades, now, his research in the areas of networks, communities, and social media has helped shape the science of communication. Read about his concept of “networked individualism” in his prize-winning book, Networked: The New Social Operating System, co-authored with Lee Rainie (MIT Press, 2012). Below, Prof. Wellman talks about the sociology behind internet communication.

Q: How did you first become interested in virtual communities?

A: It’s a two-part story. First, when I was a young academic in the late 1960s at the University of Toronto, I discovered that very few close relationships — either friends or kin — actually lived in the same neighbourhood. This was totally opposite to the orthodoxy that communities were in neighbourhoods. Meanwhile, my two key mentors at Harvard grad sociology were instilling in me the understanding that it was best to view society in terms of social networks. So, I adopted their thinking, and my first “East York study” in Toronto analyzed and discussed communities as social networks. Along the way, I coined the phrases the network cityego-centered networksnetwork of networks, and personal communities. I also wrote two influential papers, “The Community Question” and “Different Strokes from Different Folks.”

Second, in the late 1980s — 20 years later — computer scientists Ronald Baecker, Bill Buxton, and Marilyn Mantei Tremaine contacted me about a project to build software to help far-flung people work together online. (This was before the internet was established.) I recall Marilyn saying, “You’ve been studying people connecting at a distance. Come play with us.” This appealed to me, as I was interested in science fiction — one of my best friends was the late Judith Merril. At that time, software for people working together assumed they’d be in tightly knit groups – it was even called “groupware.” We developed pioneering software called Cavecat and Telepresence. They, too, were groupware. But my background in studying communities led me to take the position that professionals could be involved in networked work – working more or less simultaneously with different groups in different projects. This made the software harder to use; you had to know who to connect with and when, when not to interrupt, and how to keep one project’s files separate — and often secret — from the other projects you were involved with. Nowadays, the internet has given us many tools for doing such things, but when we started, we were inventing from scratch.

Q: What’s the most fascinating aspect of the science of communication?

A: A large part of communication science is based on social networks. In our NetLab, we study the intersection of social networks, communication networks, and computer networks. Not only do I get to work with communication scientists — I won a major award from the International Communication Association — but we learn a wide variety of things from each other, such as the diffusion of information, the interplay between online and offline communication, and how the structure of social networks affects communication.

Q: Is there some way we can improve or increase virtual collaboration either through popular, everyday activities, or more systematic and formal applications – or even by way of a change in attitude?

A: I’d start with a change in attitude. I’m dismayed by the tendency of pundits and the media to put down online collaboration and friendship. Some see it as a distinct and inferior second-class relationship; sociologist Nathan Jurgenson calls this mindset “digital dualism.” But the evidence suggests otherwise. Work by myself, Jeffrey Boase, Wenhong Chen, Keith Hampton, Tracy Kennedy, and Helen Hua Wang clearly demonstrates that almost all online relationships are also in-person relationships. Online interaction maintains and augments these relationships between physical in-person visits. This is true for work, friendship, and family.

The tools for working together are getting better. Everyone we study uses Skype or the equivalent, even if they do nothing else on the computer. It would also be great if people could have multiple video images without paying a premium price, and have more control over their online work, privacy, and document/network security.

Q: What perspective would you hope young researchers in your field keep in mind going forward?

A: Remember Molière’s Bourgeois Gentleman who was “speaking in prose without knowing it”? Similarly, we have all been using networks throughout our lives without knowing it. Sometimes we need a new perspective to see things anew, just as it took fractal discoverer Benoit Mandelbrot to point out that “clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles and bark is not smooth.” Networks have always been with us, although they are more prevalent now and we are certainly paying more attention to them. So what does the discovery of social networks give us, besides a new label for an old habit? For one thing, network awareness provides new insights into the structure and functioning of our societies, and how we should operate in them. For another thing, we get away from the group-think that leads people to cry “Things are falling apart!” when in fact they are just changing into a more diversified, more complex, and more interesting place.

Network analysis is not just a set of techniques, a feature of Facebook, or a way to study interpersonal relations. It is a perspective on how to think of the social universe and, more broadly, how to think of scientific phenomena. We need to understand how networked individuals can fashion their own complex identities, depending on their passions and relationships. As work becomes less bureaucratic, we need to see how people work simultaneously in multiple teams, many of which are far-flung. We’re watching how workers — from “bit workers” at their computers to increasingly computerized “atom workers” such as shop assistants, labourers, or taxi drivers — are connected and controlled by ICTs. Similarly, we need to see how networked families use mobile devices to communicate and control each other. While people use the internet and mobile devices to communicate personally and privately, they are becoming more subject to surveillance by governments and other institutions, as well as to coveillance by their peers — what my students call “creeping” or “Facebook stalking.” We are only at the start of understanding how the triple revolution is affecting social movements. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone was wrong: our communal institutions have not dissolved, but have become more amorphous networks — harder to get a grasp on, but more flexible and resilient.