Reading: Little Boxes, Glocalization and Networked Individualism

I love that song from the 1960’s, Little Boxes, having belted it out at 2am with a bunch of friends and a lot of wine. It takes an easy kick at a particular class of society, suggesting that through family, neighborhood, schools, church, workplace that their kids turn into mini-me’s.

In “Little Boxes, Glocalization and Networked Individualism”, Barry Wellman describes the song’s theme as “people socially and cognitively encapsulated by homogeneous, broadly-embracing groups”. The song uses much simpler language and has a political, class-edge which Wellman’s paper avoids.

His paper introduces the study of changing influences of networks in the on-line generations. As access & communication styles shifted, he proposes that the normal groups appeared to breakdown. Neighborhoods no longer had the same familial patterns, and so, in the absence of those structures, the behavior modeling/pressures decreased. Who hasn’t heard someone bemoaning the lack of relationship in neighborhoods?

Wellman’s paper suggests those studies are ignoring what replaced those relationships. They bemoan the “over the fence” dialogue which translates to a cup of coffee in the kitchen. They miss noticing the facebook status that trips a quick message, and then a pop into facebook chat?

In “little boxes” one’s network is limited by distance. In internet, one’s network is not that limited by distance, but, rather by a network based on “complex networks of alliance and exchange”. The work buddy that you used to say, “heh, you got time for a coffee” is now the one you say “heh, ping me when you have a couple minutes”. Yes, he describes the destruction of the neighborhood concept; however, he presents a different form of community, where the person you frequently dialogue is the one in the electronic media.

“Glocalization is a neologism meaning the combination of intense local and extensive global interaction”. My take on this phrase is two meeting rooms of teammates (little boxes) which are using video conferencing to combine. Another example might be a child moving between two households belonging to his divorced parents. There are very strong little boxes which have network connectivity between each other.

These little boxes can come together in multiple manners, such as through shared function or interests: Social justice group exploring global water issues combining with youth considering an exposure trip and in-place El Salvadorians looking to share their wisdom. The little boxes do not need to meet; they are operating across a global network. Each brings wisdom and access to various technologies and other groups.

In Little Boxes, one’s ability to be successful was based in part on one’s ability to form a local resource network. One’s network is even more important under glocalization, as those little boxes are linked.

As one becomes more connected via internet tools, the shift goes from group to group, to person to person. This is identified as “networked individualism”. People can be contacted via cell phones, crackberries, and email regardless of location. One reaches out to those who have assisted in the past.

As we transition from Little Boxes to Glocalization to Networked Individualism, barriers to communicate shift. In face-to-face, age stereotypes result in blocks, yet, in networked, one’s technical skills are a barrier. As stated in the paper, “knowing how to network (on & offline) becomes a human capital resource, and having a supportive network becomes a social capital resource.” In fact, it has always been one; however, it is essential in the networked individualism.

In addition, there is a sense that the work/volunteer/family times blur, as individuals shift rapidly between the various social networks. The 40hr work week may be spread over 50 or 60 hrs, as individuals feed their various networks throughout their waking hours.

Interestingly, these networks form a sense of belonging, just as the football team, or street party did. One can form a guild in wow, join group in facebook, or join an on-line forum, and discover people of common interests.

What isn’t obvious to the reader is that this article was first written in 2001. At best, it is 7 years old. Facebook wasn’t around. Many of the tools that I use for examples above did not exist. This paper, although fascinating, did seem dated. It is clearly at a time prior to rich on-line relationships & skills/tools in building same were developed.

I find myself wishing I had a more recent paper to read of Mr. Wellman’s. There has been a massive expansion of social networking software, groupware and communication tools. I am sure he would have some amazing stuff to say.

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.

There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,

And there’s doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course
And drink their martinis dry,
And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school,

And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
Where they are put in boxes
And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business
And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

Malvina Reynolds songbook(s) in which the music to this song appears:
—- Little Boxes and Other Handmade Songs
—- The Malvina Reynolds Songbook
—- There’s Music in the Air: Songs for the Middle-You

“Little Boxes, Glocalization and Networked Individualism” written by Barry Wellman of the Centre for Urban & Community Studies in Toronto, CA.

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