With a little help from my friends

What do I do when my love is away?
Does it worry you to be alone?
How do I feel by the end of the day?
Are you sad because you’re on your own?

  • The Beatles

These lines from the popular song by The Beatles succinctly capture the zeitgeist of our digital mutiverse. In recent discussions about the networked society that we live in, a controversial issue has been whether social networks afford opportunities and enable mobility or do they exacerbate existing inequalities. One the one hand, Rainie and Wellman (2012: pp. 3-20) argue that ‘networked individualism’ allows individuals to create their own complex identity while navigating multiple networks that offer varying forms of support. On the other hand, Van Dijk (2013, pp. 105-124) argues that networked societies lead to more inequality. In this blog post, we will examine both arguments.

Rainie and Wellman (2012: pp. 3-20) explain that ‘Networked individualism’ is the new social operating system. In this system, the individual is at the heart of their personal network. Each individual is connected to other individuals through multiple information and communication technologies. According to Rainie and Wellman (2012: pp. 3-20), this system is more empowering because it offers the individual more freedom, increases their capacity to act while giving them more room to maneuver. Individuals accomplish this by being part of loose diverse networks that do not necessarily overlap. While they may continue to have close emotional bonds with a small group, they turn to wider networks for social and economic needs. The authors classify these networks into havens, bandages, and safety nets (ibid: 2012). Havens provide a sense of belonging. Bandages help individuals cope with stress and safety nets lessen the effects of crises. They argue that easy access to the internet, proliferation of social networking sites and the ubiquity of mobile phones have enabled individuals to manage relationships effectively (ibid: 2012). Relationships, that in the past would have ended with distance, continue to be maintained. Advancements in information and communication technologies (ICTs) have allowed individuals to create media and project their voices to different audiences (ibid: 2012). This allows them to create new networks around themselves.

While there are many advantages to being a networked individual, there are many drawbacks as well. Having to use multiple media to stay connected to networks, the individual is loaded with extra work as relationships become to sustain. Not only do individuals have to actively network, they also have to learn new skills for handling problems. They have to spend more time, energy and effort in nurturing these networks. Some individuals are better able to network than others. The authors acknowledge that uncertainties and insecurities are entwined with the opportunities created by this operating system.

Van Dijk (2013, pp. 105-124) presents a much bleaker picture in the ability of networks to create and exacerbate inequalities. He contends that the new network society is inaccessible to those on the wrong side of the digital divide. This digital divide, characterized by a lack of access to and usage of ICTs, is related to “demographics of income, age, sex and ethnicity” (ibid: 2013).  He explains that the structural properties of social and media networks lead to five types of inequality, which he classifies as “technological, immaterial, material, social and educational.” (ibid: 2013)

Using structuration theory, the author examines the structures of network society (Van Dijk: 2013). He argues that the network society and information society lead to a social structure in which a small group of people are able to form dense networks of overlapping relationships (ibid: 2013). Their central position within the network allows them, not only better access to capital & resources but also allows them to harness and control the flow of information, which is an essential good, in the information society (ibid: 2013). This gives a few, greater power over many, with fewer links in the network or those outside the network (ibid: 2013).

Inequalities in network societies don’t just stem from the properties of the structures, they are also caused by human factors (ibid: 2013). Apart from mobility, the possession of digital skills decides equality in a network society. Survival in the harsh, individualistic, network-society requires sophisticated social skills to be utilized along with proficient digital skills (ibid: 2013). Again, those with a demographic advantage are better equipped with such skills leading to inequalities being exacerbated. The author concludes that the network society creates new inequalities on top of the old ones.

Rainie and Wellman (2012: pp. 3-20) use examples of privileged individuals from the first world to argue their case for the empowering effects of networked individualism. Van Dijk (2013, pp. 105-124) presents a bird’s eye view of the networked society to highlight its shortcomings. In both perspectives, the individual is the basic unit of society. This individual has to constantly fight to maintain their position in the network or face exclusion. Exclusion from the network can have negative outcomes.

Networked societies can be empowering but they come with some inherent inequalities. Government policies must be directed at reducing these inequalities (Van Dijk: 2013) so that every individual may have a reasonable chance to enjoy a comfortable life. But I would rather get by with a little help from my friends

Listen to the song here


Rainie, L, & Wellman, B 2012, Networked : The New Social Operating System, Cambridge: MIT Press. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. Accessed 27 October 2020.

Van Dijk J.A.G.M. (2013) Inequalities in the Network Society. In: Orton-Johnson K., Prior N. (eds) Digital Sociology. Palgrave Macmillan, London. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137297792_8 . Accessed 27 October 2020

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