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The limits of networked individualism

November 5, 2008

Local leadership and digital technologies in a Kuala Lumpur suburb

Dr John Postill
Paper to the media and communication research seminar
Sheffield Halllam University, UK
Furnival Building, Room 9005, City Campus
10 December 2008, 4-5 pm


This paper is a critique of Barry Wellman’s influential theory of networked individualism, which posits that new ‘personalised’ technologies (email, mobile phones, blogs, MySpace, facebook, etc) are part of an ongoing global shift from societies built on place-based solidarities to ‘networked’ societies organised around individuals’ personal networks. For Wellman, mediated communication is changing from being primarily place-to-place to being person-to-person. Whilst concurring with Wellman about the need to investigate the egocentric nature of many new social technologies, I take issue with this model’s impoverished social morphology which reduces the rich diversity of social formations found around the globe (families, peer groups, clans, cults, cohorts, age-sets, clubs, committees, firms, fields of practice, markets, states, etc.) to an appealingly simple group vs. network binary. Drawing from anthropological research among internet activists in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) I track the networking practices of three grassroots leaders across different fields of practice (party politics, local government, residential activism, political blogging, etc). I argue that these findings suggest that personal networking is an egocentric ‘dispersed practice’ (Schatzki 1996), yet one that is entangled with the practices of the social domains it traverses – in this case, social fields with a strongly collectivist ethos that keep the spread of networked individualism firmly in check.


Schatzki, T. 1996. Social Practices: A Wittgensteinian Approach to Human Activity and the Social. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2008 3:35 pm

    John, It’s not impoverished. It’s a sketch of an ideal type for developed countries, prepared for its heuristic value to see where the variation is. In fact, most of my own research shows a complex mixture of solidary kinship (or friendship) groups, with dispersed networks. Glad it started you thinking about these issues, even as a straw person.

  2. November 5, 2008 3:36 pm

    Where can we read your paper?

  3. November 5, 2008 10:13 pm

    Thanks for those comments, Barry. I’m in the middle of a teaching spree but will get back to you on friday! (I hope to have the paper online in two weeks time, will announce it here)

  4. November 7, 2008 4:05 pm

    I’m back! On reading my abstract again, it does sound a bit personal in its references to Wellman (three times) . I’ll have to fix that as my concern is not with individual scholars but rather with the concept and theory of networked individualism. In this paper I explore the uses of this concept through the case study of internet activism in Malaysia. At the same time, I take issue with claims such as

    “The developed world has been experiencing for over a century a shift away from communities based on small-group-like villages and neighborhoods and towards flexible partial communities based on networked households and individuals” (Wellman et al 2003), see

    I’ve been working of questions of media and social morphology/organisation for 15 years, and on this second Malaysian project since 2002. I’m finding that network thinking is very useful in some contexts, especially the notion of personal network, but that it’s very easy to slip into ‘network society’ mode and extrapolate from highly specific contexts (eg personal technology usage) to make claims about global trends, esp the claim that the developed North – or the whole globe, in some accounts – is becoming a Network Society. See also Don Slater keynote on this:

  5. Matthew Schneider-Mayerson permalink
    April 5, 2011 3:40 pm

    Where can we read this paper?

  6. December 18, 2011 6:47 pm

    Hi Petter

    many thanks for your note, this came out in my book Localizing the Internet (2011) as chapter 5, Personal Media. see



  7. Red permalink
    March 26, 2012 5:53 am

    Hi John,

    I’m doing a research paper on how communication technologies such as Facebook have changed our understanding of individuality and privacy. Someone directed me to your page here and if you could give me a few pointers that would be awesome.



  1. Local leadership and personal media: a practice-theoretical approach « media/anthropology
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