Memory, Social Networks, and Language: Probing the Meme Hypothesis II

Social Networks Theory: Networked Lives and Meme Fields

Barry Wellman


Click on the arrow to start the video. Video by Enam Huque

The developed world is in the midst of a profound change from functioning in bounded groups to functioning in more permeable and specialized social networks. MyFace (sic) is only the most media-covered aspect of this turn. It is affecting every level of society, from the move from organizational autarky to out-sourcing and joint ventures to the shift away from finding communities in villages and neighbourhoods to finding it in social networks. This turn to networked individualism is the fruit of the convergence of three revolutions. The first, the networked revolution, began well before the Internet when people stopped finding all of their community within their neighbourhoods. Their relationships are now far-flung, specialized and organized into multiple thinly-connected clusters and dyads. People must shop at interpersonal boutiques for social capital and support and not at general stores. Connectivity has become personal. No longer are ties door-to-door (between households), but person-to-person (between individuals). Indeed, even households are less solidary, relying less on family get togethers than on one-to-one contact between spouses and parent-child.

The second revolution, the Internet revolution, has capitalized on this networking and provided social affordances for its intensification. No longer do families visit; instead individuals logon. It is personal connectivity that is important. The evidence from our "Connected Lives" study shows that computer-assisted communication, email, know no boundaries of distance -- people talk as frequently with those 3,000 km away as with those 3 km away. (However, as people have bodies and face-to-face communication remains important, most ties are fairly local.) Nor is time a factor, as the social affordances of email and voice mail allow messages to be stored and retrieved.

The third, mobile revolution, is just beginning. Where the wired Internet rooted people in place to their desktops -- and desks -- smartphones and laptops mean that people are always connected for communication and information. They are always on and always available. Indeed Madonna has said that she sleeps with her BlackBerry under her pillow. This can be a negative affordance, with too much availablity and connectivity. But it also means that your community and your information resources are always available.

Taken together, the triple revolution suggests a fundamental shift from group-centered to individual-centered connectivity. This is not social isolation, as some pundits have thought: they lack the cognitive ability to think in terms of networks. It is a high level of connectivity: person to person.

This state of affairs raises a host of questions that will be discussed in the symposium. For instance: If memes need networks to spread, do they co-evolve with networks? How do they comparatively fare in bounded and distributed network environments (memes on foot versus memes online)? How does a high level of connectivity impact on the natural selection of memes? Can paths of memes be mapped? Can rate of memetic changes be measured? Can memes differentially impair, slow down, or increase connectivity? What is the impact of high level connectivity on cultural evolution? How does social memory fare with respect to individual- centered connectivity? Can memes be conceptualized independently from social networks?

Barry Wellman is S.D. Clark Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. His areas of research are community sociology, the Internet, human-computer interaction and social structure, as manifested in social networks in communities and organizations. His overarching interest is in the paradigm shift from group-centered relations to networked individualism. He has written more than 300 articles, chapters, reports and books. Many have been co-authored, with students comprising about half of his nearly 100 co-authors.Among the concepts Wellman has published are: "the network city" (with Paul Craven), "the community question", "computer networks as social networks", "connected lives" (with Bernie Hogan) the "immanent Internet" (also with Bernie Hogan), "media-multiplexity" (with Caroline Haythornthwaite), "networked individualism" and "networked society", "personal community" and "personal network" and three with Anabel Quan-Haase: "hyperconnectivity", "local virtuality" and "virtual locality".