New modes of integration: Individuality and sociality in digital networks
First Monday

New modes of integration: Individuality and sociality in digital networks by Marian Adolf and Dennis Deicke

The rapid and fundamental changes of societal communication that occur against the backdrop of current media development (digitization) call for an extension of communication research by revisiting the social theoretical foundations of social cohesion and integration. Arguing that social change and media change are intimately tied up, we discuss important changes in the means and modalities of communication in the digital era as indicative of — and bound to — changes in contemporary modern societies. Based on a discussion of the concepts individualization and network, the paper devises a theoretical perspective that places current media convergence firmly at the center of social change. At the heart of this approach lies the concept of networked individuality as an increasingly important mode of creating personal identity and shaping social relations today.


1. Introduction
2. The media’s role for society: Revisiting a classic question
3. “Functions” of media
4. Social consequences of media
5. The waning role of mass media
6. A new mode of social integration: Communicative ties in the network era
7. The form of networked individuality: The case of Facebook
8. Summary: Individuality, sociality and communication
9. Postscript: Some critical questions



1. Introduction

“Society not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication.” [1]

The role of media for society is not only a contentious matter in everyday debate; it has become the subject matter of a whole number of academic fields. Two developments have recently brought this classic question back on the agenda: the general proliferation of media channels and content as well as the fundamental change within media technology that might be summarized as “digitization”. New objects of inquiry have emerged and spawned new subfields of research, other academic disciplines have discovered the media for their research. With the media system in constant transition and the expansion of the media beyond the traditional borders of public communication, the field of communication research is expanding. These developments have broadened our perspective on societal communication and its media, making possible — even necessary — a shift in perspective [2].

Faced with the enormous increase in — and differentiation of — media and communication technologies and related practices, as well as with the deterioration of earlier theoretical categories, a current approach to mediated communication increasingly transgresses traditional demarcations. Potential answers to the question of the role of converging media for current modern societies can only proceed from the insight that the processes under observation encompass both the technological foundation (media), the dimension of their social uses (social practices), as well as the embeddedness of such technologies and practices in larger symbolic and discursive frameworks (culture). Historical developments bring about new technological innovations which then impact on society in a number of ways but never independent from their concrete uses. At the current juncture a discussion of the “new media” might help us to shed new light on the interrelation of media infrastructure and social organization.

In this paper we argue that these media changes are accompanied by a different form of social cohesion which is based on new patterns of mediatized communication that is individualized and networked at the same time. In the following we therefore discuss the role of media for society (2), its traditionally ascribed functions (3) and how they have changed with regard to new communication media. We revisit classical debates in communication research and social theory (4) and identify pivotal concepts that have come under pressure from the waning role of the mass media (5). We then outline the idea of networked individuality (6) which we posit as a concept that captures an emerging mode of creating communicative cohesion. We explicate our concept by using Facebook as a contemporary example (7). After summarizing our argument (8), we turn to specific practical and critical questions (9) that emerge from our considerations.



2. The media’s role for society: Revisiting a classic question

Reconstructing the development of mass communication research from its beginnings, its main paradigms might be discerned employing a classic differentiation: Whereas the early stages of mass communication research tried to answer the question “What does media do to people?”, the focus later shifted to the recipients’ motives for media consumption. The central question had thus changed to: “What do people do with media?” [3] Faced with the immense momentum of social and cultural change today — on a local as well as global scale — and regarding the multiple, contradicting yet self-reinforcing developments in today’s world, the significance of media is still increasing. In the light of the changes that (post-)industrial nations and their particular version(s) of modernity are undergoing, the role of mediated communication begs yet another re-wording of the classic question. We need to ask “What does media do to society — as a whole?” With media use at an all-time high, as new communication devices pervading our lives, and with regard to the increase in media outlets, cross-platform content and global flows of data, media have long become a central force of modernity itself. This also requires social research to genuinely adopt the media as a phenomenon within a theory of society [4].

The increased importance of media for theorizing modern society is joined by further necessity for theoretical work, since the rise of global ICTs renders earlier, generic differentiations of broadcast media and media of interpersonal exchange invalid. Today, we are dealing with a hybridization of technologies that further expands the already universal nature of media as a means of communication (Chadwick, 2013). For what category fits a classic news program watched at a later date on a Web interface? And how should we classify a personal blog that might potentially reach a global audience today? Is a smart phone, which combines a host of media features, an interpersonal means of communication or a broadcast receiver? Technological classification by functionality no longer results in distinct types that may be employed as quasi “natural” research categories. Thus, we must discuss what this new hybridization means — not only for technological classification or traditional categories of media research, but for the social environment as a whole. If — in the face of the ubiquity of media — modern society be termed a media society, how can we bring to bear the importance of media research on sociological inquiry? And, vice versa, broaden the perspective of media and communication research to include questions of social change and social integration more comprehensively?



“Functions” of media

Media have been ascribed a great variety of distinct functions [5] for modern society from the more common information to critical notions such as narcotization. Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton (1948) famously discussed the social effects of mass media. Merton, who described “some social functions of the mass media” [6] identified “enforcement of social norms, status conferral function, narcotizing function” as the three main effects. A decade later, Charles Wright [7] summarized the four main purposes of the modern media system as: “(1) surveillance of the environment, (2) correlation of the parts of society in responding to the environment, and (3) transmission of the social heritage from one generation to the next” as well as (4) “entertainment”. With the expansion of communication research and media studies the list would grow longer: information, surveillance/responsiveness, integration/socialization, economic circulation (advertising), entertainment/recreation are among the most commonly noted.

As modern society grew more complex along the lines of functional differentiation — the core driver of modernization according to some of the more influential social theorists (e.g., Durkheim, Simmel, Parsons, Luhmann) — social functions were elevated to a general notion of social cohesion. Media were increasingly understood as the one societal institution that provided a communicative center for a highly differentiated social formation. While the old modes and institutions of social integration (tradition, kinship, church, parties, etc.) gradually lost their binding force and biographical patterns changed, the role of establishing a common cultural backdrop increasingly lay with media. Also, theories that emphasize the notion of the public sphere as the principal discursive locus for the formation of the political sphere afforded media a central role. The larger and more diverse modern societies became, formerly proximate (and concrete) spaces of information, interaction and debate had to be substituted by spatially decentered functionality of media. The public sphere of modern, democratic society is necessarily a mediated public sphere — only media can bridge the spatial, temporal, topical and ideological diversity and the moral plurality of modernity (Thompson, 1995).

All these approaches posit mediated communication as central for the coherence of the modern state. Summarizing the arguments, public communication becomes pivotal both for the functioning of the various societal spheres (politics, commerce, culture, etc.) as well as for the constitution of society in general. The particular mechanism by which the media achieve their purpose may differ. Some traditions conceive of the media primarily as tools that aid or even propel human activities: the printing press drives the alphabetization of early modern society, newspapers spread information far and wide, and the telegraph becomes the instrument of communicating across the vast expansion of the territorial state. Others emphasize the role of the expanding media (technologies) as constitutive for the mutual construction of a shared cultural horizon, for the emergence of conventions and commonplaces that people rely on to conjoin their individual life-worlds. Put differently, the shared knowledge that makes us part of a community or social structure that is no longer ascertainable individually is communicatively created — and this communication is made possible by the expanding uses of technological media [8].



4. Social consequences of media

The growing societal importance of media apparent in social theoretical accounts does not imply that this development is necessarily depicted as favorable. A case in point is Putnam’s (2000) account of media, who maintains that television acts as a catalyst for social disintegration. He famously argues that broadcast media erode social capital and ultimately weaken social cohesion. Time that had previously been spent on local social activities is now used for the consumption of media(-entertainment) instead of participating in community building and civic engagement. Since — for Putnam — these latter activities make up society, their decline amounts to a decline of society in general [9].

Contrary to this argument some theorists maintain that television, as a broadcasting mass medium, had (and continues to have) certain qualities that are positively connected to social cohesion and integration. Due to its near total penetration in modern societies, television — representing a particularly powerful medium of the broadcast era — creates a space of mediated communication and shared experience, despite its typically individualized reception. It produces a social consciousness which countervails tendencies of alienation and isolation: “Beginning in the 1920s, print was joined by film, radio, and television as competing mass media, spanning the cities and nation-states with a common culture and similar sets of interpretations of the day’s events” [10]. The importance of broadcasting media for (social) communication is also summarized by Manuel Castells [11] who states that “[t]he real power of television [...] is that it sets the stage for all processes that intend to be communicated to society at large, from politics to business, including sport and art. Television frames the language of societal communication.” The dissemination of a common system of symbols, of general relevancies and specific topics is a source of social integration.

The divergent conclusions regarding the ramifications of television emerge not from disagreements as to its central importance. Rather we find that such assessments differ with regard to their underlying conceptualizations of sociality (and social capital). Surely, television might — as Putnam feared — cause individualization in the sense of increased physical separation and a decline of personal interaction, but does indeed create a common locus of experience, a collective — if mediated world — that people can refer to. From the perspective of the functioning of social relations within modern society the question is not, whether one condones this mode of socialization and permanent enculturation; it is how the complex world of a modern society might otherwise be connected if not by (mass) mediated communication. For a (sociological) inquiry into the communicative structures of a modern society, Luhmann’s famous quote thus marks the point of departure: “Whatever we know about our society, or indeed about the world in which we live, we know through the mass media” [12]. Today, media are the storage of quotidian, general knowledge and thereby ensure that certain foundations of human interaction do not have to be constantly reproduced. They can be referred to through the use of media [13]. The topical information that is provided daily through the large media outlets is only the most visible of these phenomena. Moreover, it is the whole variety of media content that is relevant for the communicative and cultural frame of social interaction: news, entertainment and advertising. Television and the media system as a whole provide innumerous opportunities to learn, even from content that seems to defy the typical classification of useful knowledge. Shared cultural resources need neither be rational nor conform to a certain normative standard to unfold their integrative role. In retrospect, the circumscribed media menu of nation states usually consisting of no more than one or two, often public service television channels had a “channeling” effect, so that a large group of people received similar, if not the same content.

From a theory-of-society perspective such a common communicational horizon is significant because it enables follow-up communication. Or, using a different theoretical nomenclature: The media are the main sources of a common culture. Contrary to the arguments put forward by Putnam and others, the modern media system communicatively integrates individuals beyond the constraints of co-presence and synchronous time. “Television takes center stage [...], so that we discuss it the next day.” [14] Klaus Schönbach uses the term “allusion potential” to describe the ability to presume shared information one can refer to in a communication process [15]. For systems theorists in the tradition of Luhmann communication is the social operation making up society and “as long as social incidences follow upon social incidences, society is held together” [16].



5. The waning role of mass media

The high significance attached to media as agents for creating collectivity can be observed more distinctly once this regime starts to decline. It is feared that, due to the increasing differentiation of programs and the enormous growth of content “old media” may lose their unifying properties. The increasing quantity and diversity of available channels has led to a fundamentally different media landscape compared to the classic model of nationwide networks and their relatively homogeneous programs [17]. In 2014 the average U.S.-American household may receive 189 channels (Nielsen Company, 2014). Since the advent of commercial (cable-)networks and the deregulation of national media systems, the increasing opportunities for the audience to individually select content undermine the role of television as a public space [18].

As we enter the Internet era the same fears emerge again, but now it is new media channels that the Internet provides and the multiplication of topics and actors leading to a segmentation of the populace (Sunstein, 2001). That is why we need to extend the questions raised by Katz to present-day media change: If the expansion of television channels already posed a threat to the integrative potential of media, what about the massive increase in content diversity observable on and through the Internet? Katz himself predicted that: “[t]here is nothing in sight to replace television, not even media events or the Internet” [19]. And even Jürgen Habermas, whose model of a deliberative public debate has allegedly become more likely with the advent of the Internet, concludes that the Internet causes fragmentation, subsequently threatening the important cumulative functions fulfilled by publics that rely on traditional media [20]. The new media realities seem to further individualize modern society.



6. A new mode of social integration: Communicative ties in the network era

Assessments of the Internet’s impact on societal communication often depend on theorist’s (implicit) evaluations of “individualizing” effects of net-based communication. More often than not, the argument is that the Internet is strongly connected to processes of fragmentation, segmentation and the loss of social capital. Alas, this proposition fails to account for other properties of net-based, digital communication: the integrative features of networks. We suggest that Internet proliferation is indeed connected to increased individualization. Still, this currently observable process has two sides to it. On the one hand, net-based media perpetuate increasingly individualized forms of media reception (Hasebrink and Domeyer, 2010). On the other hand, the network architecture of the Internet also creates new possibilities for reintegration: by giving users opportunities to constantly refer to content circulating through the net and increasingly by referring to information about an individual. This process creates allusion potential, allowing for follow-up communication and therefore the maintenance of social relations through communication.

The result of this current change-process, the point where the societal process of continuing individualization converges with the increasingly important network mode of mediated communication, might be termed networked individuality [21]. The concept acknowledges the simultaneity of a growing individualization in the Western world with regard to highly individualized media(ted) communication as well as the emergence of communicative networks that re-integrate the individual media user. Still, these distinct processes might not be merely coincidental; rather we argue that they are mutually constitutive. While the almost limitless capacity of the Internet allows for disparate media use and idiosyncratic media repertoires, it is accompanied by the concurrent emergence of communicative practices based on immensely popular Internet applications that provide connectivity and allusion potential. Hence, while the architecture of societal communication is indeed being restructured, the media still manage to create social cohesion, albeit in a different way. In order to conceptualize the interdependence of the media system and individualization as networked individuality we need to briefly re-visit the classic social theoretical concepts of individualization and network.


Individualization, as a social theoretical concept, denotes a historical process that results in increased individual freedom; decisions and actions are increasingly a matter of personal choice and obligation [22]. For many life becomes a malleable project that (involuntarily) entails the responsibility of orchestrating one’s individual biography [23] (Beck, 1993, p. 152 ff.). Through these decisions an individual demarcates himself and defines his contingent position in society. Anthony Giddens sums up these facets of modernity in a simple question: “Who are you, and what do you want?” [24]

But individualization does not merely refer to the disintegration of prior forms of social bonds and structures, as is sometimes assumed. Rather it is composed of a two-fold pattern of in & out (Kron and Horácek, 2009) that according to Ulrich Beck [25] comprises three important aspects. First, individuals are disembedded due to their removal from traditionally prescribed social forms. Second, they are confronted with the loss of traditional security; and finally, they are re-embedded through a new type of social commitment. Beck’s perspective is anchored in his notion of reflexive modernization which posits a first modernity — industrial society — as leading to the current stage of a second modernity that is understood as endogenously produced by the historical social consequences of its predecessor. First modernity instated a disbandment process causing many modern individuals to be increasingly detached from traditional milieus and lifestyles such as the strong bonds within families and other powerful social institutions that represented the main socializing entities of first modernity. Thus the creation of new societal patterns developing new ways of integration is implied in Beck’s conceptualization: it contains the individual’s disembedding as well as its re-embedding [26].

We find interesting parallels in the development of contemporary patterns of social communication. Online communication creates an enormous array of possible choices through its immense variety of sources and content. Consequently, a contemporary individual is permanently required to choose which contents will be consumed, appropriated and reproduced [27]. This typical account of online communication corresponds with the notion of reflexive modernity in general: An individual increasingly constitutes himself through his own choices rather than by following predetermined biographical paths.


The process of re-embedment occurs in the shape of a network structure, a form of social organization whose growing importance is evident in many recent theoretical works. It is here where the sociological argument of changing patterns of the organization of social relations meets with observable changes in the communicative foundations of modern society. The emerging mode of social integration may accordingly be termed networked individuality, emphasizing the importance of novel patterns of communication for the shaping of social relations on a structural plane. “Network sociality is a technological sociality insofar as it is deeply embedded in communication technology, transport technology and technologies to manage relationships.” [28] Media change and social change are inseparably intermingled. Obviously, the advent of the network society (Castells, 2004) pertains to social change as a whole and takes into consideration a comprehensive range of societal developments; yet, the congruence between the fundamentally changing modes of communication and changing patterns of social organization is not merely coincidental.

From this perspective, Internet technology may be subsumed as the result of “first modernity” (Beck, et al., 1994), removing individuals from their traditional social structure, or — in our case — from the elaborate broadcast media model represented by centrally organized, limited channel television and other media of public concern. By doing so, it reflexively causes the ongoing replacement of this pattern. The increased freedom of choice inherent in contemporary media consumption and production permits highly individualized media usage, simultaneously reducing the probability of commonly shared information that may serve as referring potential. But this development is only one side (the process of “out”) of the development towards networked individuality.

The other side, corresponding to Beck’s new types of social commitment, is where the idea of the network comes into play (the process of “in”). New technical means facilitate the development of communicative networks as a new form of integration of contemporary “second” modernity. Complaints that current conditions lead to a fragmentation of traditional publics as (especially young) people increasingly move within the virtual spheres of online communication are substantiated (even if Internet-based networks currently mostly complement “real-life” sociability; see boyd and Ellison, 2008). What has been hidden from view so far is the process that connects these two (usually pessimistic) observations: they represent the detachment from a prior mode of communicative socialization at the same time as they co-create a new mode. Rather than subscribing to the fatalist mourning of the demise of “the public” or decrying the “nonsensical” practice of spending too much time for “merely virtual” online socializing, these two processes are tied up, and represent only the more visible part of a larger process of shifting modes of (social) communication [29].

The idea of an evolutionary relation between the individual and collectivity is already elaborated in Durkheim’s (1992) “The division of labor in society”, in which he discusses social cohesion by deploying two different concepts of solidarity. The traditional form of cohesion is based on similarities termed “mechanical solidarity” characterized by a collective consciousness that fully incorporates the individual [30]. The subsequent type of society — based on a division of labor — involves a solidarity that is rooted in difference: “organic solidarity”. The latter kind, typical for modernity, is based not on resemblance (or even kinship) but rooted in complex society’s ever increasing interdependency. The growing division of labor, the specialization of professions brings with it a reciprocal reliance of the various members and institutions of a society — much like, in the eyes of Durkheim, the various organs within a functioning body. The emerging necessity of (reliable) exchange results in a new kind of, an organic solidarity that capitalizes on differences rather than on similarities. This transition is understood in terms of “progress”: the new solidarity provides society with more flexibility and increases individual freedom [31].

In order to broaden communication theory’s scope in dealing with current shifts in the communicative infrastructure, we propose that the expansion and re-structuring of the media system amount to similar changes: While the former centralist implementation of broadcast media could be seen as a source of mechanical solidarity by facilitating a collective consciousness, the Internet of today is a network of nodes that gain their identity through their difference to each other. The question is thus, whether such a modal change of societal communication — making these differences visible and referable — will lead to a shift comparable to the creation of organic solidarity? It might be argued that new media, and the changing modalities they give rise to, represent something similar to Durkheim’s formal reasoning. New ways of communicative engagement represent the same quality of change described by organic solidarity since they do not erase differences between individualized life-worlds and media use. Rather, new forms of communicative interaction incorporate such distinctions and inject them into mediatized networks which convert them into referable selections. This is also where the new mode of communicative integration and social cohesion is distinguishable from the traditional one based on centralized broadcast media. Just like Durkheim’s organic solidarity allowed for more societal flexibility, the communicative mode of networked individuality creates a new kind of social cohesion that endures fragmentation, accommodating increasing fluidity. The old paradigm provided communicative references for everyone, while in the new one everyone (and everyone’s selections) may become a point of communicative reference. In a pluralistic society a tenable notion of cohesion can only be based upon society’s ability to provide shared codes and potential references as allusion potential on a societal scale rather than on, for example, widely shared, unequivocal moral sentiments or homogeneous experiences. The manner in which this potential for communicative cohesion is realized undergoes a transition that is both shaped by changes in the media system as well as by other societal dynamics. New media that are not the sole source for building communicative expectations in contemporary society; they rather complement existing mass media [32].

As Internet communication is moving towards an integrated network structure itself — embodied by the enormous success of social network sites (henceforth SNS; see boyd and Ellison, 2008) — in which the (physical) individual is (re-)instated as a genuine node (i.e., addressable in its individuality, represented by a profile) — the analogies to such a social theoretical underpinning become more visible. Sociality is increasingly comprised in “informational social bonds, bonds based less in hierarchical relations and more in the complex, reciprocal intricacies of the transverse networks of information exchange” [33]. We will illustrate our reasoning by turning to a prominent example.



7. The form of networked individuality: The case of Facebook

Networked individuality is certainly not only the result of the Internet’s proliferation. Manuel Castells pointed out that social organization within networks precedes the Internet and its widespread use. Networks are an increasingly important source of sociability in complex societies complementing and at times replacing previous patterns. The Internet is the techno-material structure accompanying these developments, making these new social patterns feasible [34]. The changing foundations of societal organization and the new modes of mediated communication seem to converge. Wellman supports this diagnosis: “The proliferation of personal networks happened well before the development of cyberspace [...]. Yet, the rapid emergence of computer-mediated communications means that relations in cyberplaces are joining with relations on the ground.” [35] The social organization in networks is related to increased complexity that results in difficulties of societal coordination. Modern ICTs make these new uncertainties manageable, they build “computer-supported social networks” which create sociality as a product of integration and disintegration [36].

We suggest that new media technologies and their uses change communicative patterns which in turn modify prior forms of sociability towards new modalities of social integration: a permanent process of addressing and referencing information is set in motion. Every link, every hashtag, every meme that is shared — representing media-borne information — embodies this notion. Someone selects a certain piece of information out of contingent possibilities and shares it with others, so that they can rely on the expectation that their interlocutor is aware of similar information repositories: allusion potential is created. This process is not new: it is a quotidian one, a standard process that we execute every day in interpersonal communication. Its heightened relevance lies with the institutionalization of this kind of interaction on a large, potentially global scale, as for example on SNS — and it is predicated on the individual referring and relaying such information. Facebook may serve as the chief example for an Internet application supporting a society increasingly characterized by networked individuality: here, the recipient, the consumer, the audience member is reinstated as an individual and simultaneously positioned within a network structure [37].

SNS can be understood as a service “that allows individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” [38]. The construction of a public or semi-public profile on Facebook amounts to the specified institutionalization of the individual [39]. The basic unit making up the network is the individual, represented by its self-orchestrated profile. The variety of information now available to define one’s individuality is itself a product and a manifestation of modern society and its detachment processes. These self-defining processes on Facebook also allow for, even facilitate, self-presentation. This is significant, since — as Georg Simmel already noted — the individuals, having been “detached from the rusted chains of guilds, the classes and the church” now face the need to “distinguish themselves from each other; being a free individual is no longer the central issue, but to be unique and distinctive” [40]. Like no medium before in modern society, Facebook enables the individual to display this uniqueness. Ceaseless “status updates” let us follow others through their day. Information perceivable via the “liking” of groups, artists, products etc. is an act of personal identification. Visual proof of this distinctiveness is added through photographs, uploaded to show where you have been, what you have done and who you have met. Facebook’s introduction of personalized “timelines” instead of static profiles is just the latest feature to emphasize the inimitability of the individual’s biography. This way the individual defines its position vis-à-vis “the other(s)” (i.e., society), and attempts to answer Gidden’s [41] question for everyone to see: “This is who I am, and this is what I want!”

The pinnacle of this mechanism is the status update on Facebook: a channel allowing an individual to constantly update the network with his own current thoughts, experiences and choices, and at the same time the continuous possibility for others to receive information. Complying with the above definition of a SNS, Facebook displays who is connected to a person’s network. The relations the individual itself has created through his own choices are visible, revealing who is a relevant member of one’s personal network — which in turn defines one’s own individuality, too. It is here, where the nature of our individualist modernity is coming into its own, as it were: the network is nothing without the individual; and the individual relies on the network to create its identity in difference to the others. SNS, as boyd and Ellison [42] correctly note, embody a qualitative change of the organization of net-based communication, as they “are primarily organized around people, not interests”. While “[e]arly public online communities such as Usenet and public discussion forums were structured by topics or according to topical hierarchies, [...] social network sites are structured as personal (or ‘ego-centric’) networks, with the individual at the center of their own community.” [43]

Facebook (and other SNS) gives every user the possibility to provide their network with links to information. Apart from providing your peers with personal experiences (ranging from the mundane to the extraordinary) these references are mostly links to other content available on the net. This way, the individuals unfold a space of shared information they each can then refer to. This is by no means a unique feature of Facebook — but is its sheer size and popularity as well as unique usability that make Facebook the prototype network device. SNS become the great connector — networks within the Internet that serve as hubs, in which the individual (user) becomes a node. Every content “shared” via Facebook represents a selection out of the complexity of the Web but also entails a personal recommendation, a signal information that sets it apart from all the other possible choices. The easy form of reaction (“Like”, “Comment”, “Share”, “Follow”) enables fast and simple, visible follow-up communication that can again function as referring potential in online and off-line communication. Facebook thrives on the insight that people rely on others’ selections and capitalizes on it.

As such, SNS can be seen as manifestations of those interpersonal networks and communicative flows that mass communication research had discovered as an integral part of societal communication a long time ago (Katz and Lazarsfeld, 2006). According to Elihu Katz, the discovery of “limited effects” (Katz, 1987) let research in this tradition branch out in two directions: selection and diffusion. On the one hand, finding only limited effects of mass communication that seemed mediated through interpersonal networks led to the discovery of the multiple flows of communication (two-step flow model; multistep flow model and ultimately the analysis of complex networks). On the other hand, the discovery of limited effects made researchers inquire into the motives of media usage on the part of the recipient, paving the way for “uses and gratification research” (Katz and Foulkes, 1962) which is ultimately about understanding selection processes. The hybrid commu-nication of net-based platforms brings both these insights back together, once it is possible to observe references to be selected and disseminated via networks of “receivers-as-senders”.



8. Summary: Individuality, sociality and communication

Let us summarize our argument: In contrast to the traditional broadcasting system, SNS provide the user with a new source of information she or he can actively refer to. Not only is the audience active in the (mass) communication process, it is increasingly the activities’ originator/disseminator. Public and private communication merges, bringing about new hybrid forms that defy older classificatory systems. SNS convert personal individuality into a network publicity and transforms it into referring potential. This is necessary in a highly individualized society where every individual permanently needs to provide others with its own identity and uniqueness. Only by presenting one’s contingent biography can others calculate their expectations concerning the individual’s behavior [44]. Facebook allows modern individuals to do just that: it constantly emits personal biographies, showcases the individuality of others thus accomplishing a basic feature of network sociality that we deem so vital for communicative integration and social cohesion. Increasingly “de-contextualized” individuals construct social relations in the medium of “networked sociality” and replace shared biographies with information exchange [45]. Personal information that has been private in the past now enters the digital publics and thus become a part of what is talked about and referenced to [46].

It seems possible that networked individuality can serve as a modern source of societal reflexivity and therefore for social cohesion through communicative integration. Sociation is accomplished by the comprehensive inclusion of individualized individuals, who are no longer merely “the audience”. To be sure, this perspective is as contingent as the future of societal communication itself, just like the current situation of the rapid extension of network sites is preliminary. But SNS provide exactly the stuff that social integration of modern society is made of — communication — and lots of it. In this sense, and in this sense only, we may expect Facebook and other SNS to take over the task formerly exercised by the “mass” media of their time, most recently television. For now, our analytical approach presented in this paper is predominantly concerned with the question of whether highly individualized citizens of highly complex societies still generate the ability to share a common set of references to ensure follow-up communication. Based on our theoretical discussion, and in the light of the sheer immensity of net-based communication on social network sites, our answer ought to be: yes.



9. Postscript: Some critical questions

While this paper is mainly concerned with outlining a conceptual approach to (i) the interdependence of sociality and communication in general, and (ii) the form that these processes take in contemporary society, we want to conclude our venture by pointing out a couple of important and more concrete implications of our conception.

  1. A first problem regards the longevity of SNS: will they prevail, how will they be further developed and will they become inclusive (and thus big) enough to provide the functionality we ascribe to them? Taekke remains cautious stating that the problem of these networks is that the individual is the central node deciding who participates and who does not: “They [networks] are invisible to those participating, and even the participants do not receive all the messages or simply notification that others are receiving messages or services.” [47] This is ultimately a question of organizational complexity and — with regard to the means of communication — a question of the dispositive form of the medium. We are not claiming that in the future Internet-based networks will be the only viable structure to organize societal flows of communication. On the contrary: other means of information and communication will co-exist, some will merge, and new ones certainly appear (Schulz, 2004). Still, as it seems unlikely for modern society to revert to older forms of integration as individualization and globalization increase, only a decentralized mode of communication is likely to unify individualized individuals within some kind of common social frame.
  2. A second uncertainty concerns the question of the material and technological structure that stabilizes such networks. This pertains, first, to the question of potential “super-gatekeepers” that have privileged means of designing and managing network architectures, such as developers, government agencies or powerful economic actors (see e.g., Gerhards and Schäfer, 2010). On the level of the networked individual within its relations this also raises, second, the question of the kind of information selected for referencing. The network alone is not able to provide the criteria of relevance from within itself, nor can the individualized individual educe supra-individual criteria regarding the content (quality) of its communications. In short: What flows through the networks is still bounded by the production of other social systems (education, law, politics, family, etc.). Since filtering is increasingly done by algorithms of “intelligent” machines (Google, etc., see boyd, 2011), are we then merely replacing one set of gatekeepers with another, even more inscrutable set of gatekeepers? Eli Pariser (2011) calls this phenomenon “the filter bubble”, because the individual unwittingly moves within a bubble whose boundaries are determined by the algorithms of Facebook, Amazon, Twitter & Co. filtering what kind of information and communication we encounter in our daily online life.
  3. The above problem is closely related to another and often neglected circumstance related to new media and their uncertain economic development. Much of the content provided through individual referencing stems from traditional (professional) media outlets, such as newspaper, magazines, radio and television networks. Articles, videos, streams and blogs are linked to — content that depends on the economic cycles and professional ethos of the “old media”. While much of what has emerged out of the new possibilities of decentralized cultural production has enriched us, and user created content (and labor) plays an influential role in network society, we cannot make do without these professional services and expertise. There is the danger of a drying out of these resources if the willingness of payment declines. We might currently live through a transitional period where the merits of the declining media economy provide the feasibility of the current situation.
  4. With the advent of Facebook and others as the central networking platforms within the emerging manifestation of networked individuality the classic question of “who owns the media” is revived. If online networks become central societal integration devices, the fact that they are privately owned and ultimately managed as commercial enterprises means that society relies on a commercial, proprietary infrastructure for some of its central reproductive processes. Social cohesion, to some extent, is then privately owned (York, 2011). This raises some important questions: Is the function of SNS as it is described in this paper as important as the free press for a democracy or society? If this was the case, must we take into consideration the need of publicly owned SNS which ensure neutrality and quality?
  5. Accordingly, another unresolved issue occurs: Modern democratic societies offered special (usually constitutional) protection for those members and institutions of society that made it their task to observe and critique it. Journalists and their work are protected under these classic rights, but Facebook is not. As old categorizations crumble in the face of classificatory uncertainty, we need to establish new ground rules for the freedom of speech, the freedom of (mediated) assembly, the freedom to have access to high-quality information and to create and innovate in an increasingly corporate culture of patents and copyrights and rampant commercial and government surveillance (as the examples of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden drastically demonstrate). End of article


About the authors

Marian Adolf is Professor at the Chair for Media Culture, Department of Communication and Cultural Management, Zeppelin University.
E-mail: marian [dot] adolf [at] zu [dot] de

Dennis Deicke is a graduate student in Department of Communication and Cultural Management at Zeppelin University.
E-mail: d [dot] deicke [at] zeppelin-university [dot] net



An earlier version of this paper has been published as a discussion paper (Adolf and Deicke, 2011).



1. Dewey, 1916, p. 5, emphasis in original.

2. See, for example, the efforts subsumed under the heading of “mediatization theory” that is concerned with the close interdependence of media and social change (Adolf, 2011; Livingstone, 2009; Lundby, 2009, 2014).

3. Katz and Foulkes, 1962, p. 378.

4.> There are, of course, examples of such a treatment of mediated communication within sociological theory, most notably the works of Niklas Luhmann (2000) and Jürgen Habermas (1981) who afford communication and media a central position within their theories.

5. Functionalist accounts — especially in communication research — are problematic, as media might best be understood as producers of cultural goods, with the concept of culture genuinely challenging the notion of plain functionality. Behind seemingly neutral descriptions of “society” or “the media” lay theory-specific notions of what constitutes the “nature” of such phenomena. Remaining wary of such implicit reifications, we henceforth adopt an approach that uses the notion of function to describe the historical consequences of mediated communication and its manifestations on the macro-level (see also Katz, 2001, p. 273).

6. Simonson, 2010, p. 149.

7. Wright, 1959, p. 16.

8. Alfred Schütz (1971) speaks of doxa to denote this kind of quotidian knowledge. See also the more recent discussions of Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft with regard to current communicative developments in Knoblauch (2008).

9. Putnam, 2000, p. 216 ff.

10. Neuman, 1991, p. 7, emphasis added.

11. Castells, 2004, p. 364.

12. Luhmann, 2000, p. 1.

13. Fuchs, 2005, p. 64.

14. Katz, 1996, p. 25.

15. Schönbach, 2007, p. 347.

16. Baecker, 2007, p. 149; our translation.

17. Castells, 2004, pp. 9, 366 ff.

18. Katz, 1996, p. 23 ff.

19. Katz, 1996, p. 33.

20. Habermas, 2006, p. 4.

21. This term has been in use for some time. It is mostly associated with the work of Barry Wellman who uses it to describe the changes in social relations and bonds (Wellman, 2002, p. 12). While our usage of the concept is informed by Wellman’s work, it is not derivative of it.

22. See Scannell (2007, p. 262 ff.) for a related argument about changes in the communicative infrastructure based on larger trends of social change.

23. Beck, 1993, p. 152 ff.

24. Giddens, 1994, p. 74. That does not mean that individuals are free of any structural constraints or that the relation between individual choice and economic prowess has been severed. The individualization thesis acknowledges the pressures on the “individualized individual” and discusses the problems arising with a new form of social detachment once precluded by powerful social institutions. Processes of subjectification (see Deleuze and Guattari, 1988) must not be overlooked, but cannot be discussed in detail at this point. They were part of the old media regime and surely play a role in the new one as well.

25. Beck, 2004, p. 128.

26. Beck, 1993, p. 149 ff.; 2007, p. 13.

27. Köcher, 2008, p. 86; Wirth and Schweiger, 1999, p. 48.

28. Wittel, 2001, p. 69.

29. This “blind spot” of research is exacerbated by the asynchronicity of the change processes in question, since media usage differs greatly between milieus and age cohorts. While for some observers the status quo seems largely intact, others observe only change. See Hasebrink and Schmidt (2013) for an overview of the currently observable in the German media system.

30. Durkheim, 1992, p. 113.

31. Durkheim, 1992, p. 181 ff.

32. Schrape, 2011, p. 423. The way that old and new media come together to form new modes of communication and result in a “hybrid media system” has been described, for example, by Andrew Chadwick (with a special emphasis on political communication; Chadwick, 2013). Thus, contemporary media society may be seen as affected by “systemic hybridity” as old and new media compete and converge, react and adapt and gradually create a new communicative reality.

33. Wittel, 2001, p. 67.

34. Castells, 2005, p. 140 ff.

35. Wellman, 2001, p. 228.

36. Castells, 2000, p. 15; Wellman, 2001, p. 228; Wittel, 2001, pp. 51, 62, 71. Understanding ICTs and their applications as crucial factors of sociality also beckon some of the ideas of actor-network theory (ANT) and its attempt overcomes both technological determinism and a one-sided social constructivism. ANT inquires into the “associations” of humans and non-humans to jointly create “the social” (Latour, 1992, 2007; Law, 1992). Our notion of networked individuality is akin to this intricate connection of (social) communication and its (technological) structure: the hybrid network(s) of the Internet and its particular modes of communication constitute the environment of networked individuality: “The Internet is not a technological system or mass medium. It requires human activity and communication in order to self-organize. It forms a socio-technological system [...]. This mass medium is a carrier of objective social knowledge that is permanently reproduced and reactualized through networked human communication.” (Fuchs, 2005, p. 79) The technological affordances of the Internet illustrate, more than earlier media forms, how social and material aspects are interwoven in the process of communication. The intricate ways that technology and its societal organization and use affect each other become more tangible.

37. It is worthwhile mentioning that this process is formatted and standardized on social network sites like Facebook. Although there is freedom in providing self-defining information it is curtailed by predetermined categories of personal information (which is interesting from a “values in design” [VID] perspective). Still, the freedom to present yourself and your activities through text, audio and video, by referring to other online sources, etc. is quite comprehensive and unprecedented.

38. boyd and Ellison, 2008, p. 211.

39. Luhmann, 1993, p. 151.

40. Simmel, 1992, p. 811, our translation.

41. Gidden, 1994, p. 74.

42. boyd and Ellison, 2008, p. 219.

43. boyd and Ellison, 2008, p. 219, emphasis added.

44. Luhmann, 1993, p. 251 ff .

45. Wittel, 2001, p. 65 ff.

46. Münker, 2009, p. 116.

47. Tække, 2010, p. 8.



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Editorial history

Received 19 August 2014; revised 15 December 2014; accepted 19 December 2014.

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“New modes of integration: Individuality and sociality in digital networks” by Marian Adolf and Dennis Deicke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

New modes of integration: Individuality and sociality in digital networks
by Marian Adolf and Dennis Deicke.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 1 - 5 January 2015

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