In reading Wellman and Rainie’s piece on networked individualism, I kept shifting back and forth about whether or not all of these trends about changing support structures are creating a worrisome one in which we are all becoming more selfish. Networked individualism is inherently self-centered in the literal sense of the phrase, but does that mean people are more focused on themselves than ever?
Obviously friendship trumps selfishness and people like to do things for other people when they’re in need. Peter and Trudy’s story is case in point, but I sometimes worry that with the disintegration of small groups and the family support structure, that despite the fact that we’re “hooked on each other” that we focus more on maintaining a “brand” and portraying an image of ourselves than paying attention to others’ needs unless we’re asked to directly. It’s so easy to lose yourself in your profile and begin to feel that your online image is your real self and that when someone asks for help online and decide you don’t want to “share” their link or something else like that because it risks losing your online social capital. But in person, I feel like people are much more willing to help out because they have to own their action of choosing not to help, because everyone can SEE you not helping.
I think I may have asked the wrong question. Looking back, I think that networked individualism is not selfish in and of itself, but it makes selfishness easier, while simultaneously increasing our capacities to both help and be helped. It’s a complicated thought and I’m still working it out, but that’s where I’m at right now.