In Conversation with Prof Barry Wellman, Lim Chong Yah Professor: Only Connect

This Semester 2 of FY 2014/15, CNM hosts Lim Chong Yah Professor Barry Wellman, FRSC (Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada).  During his one and a half months with us, Professor Wellman will teach NM5771, Networked Society as well as give two talks – one on Wednesday 4 February, 3pm, CNM; the second one on Friday, 13 February 2015, 5pm – 6pm, LT 12, FASS.

Well-known for his scholarship on social networks precipitated by the Internet and social media technologies, Professor Wellman is the co-director of NetLab Network at the Faculty of Information of 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, all of which are driven by an overarching interest in the paradigm shift from group-centered relations to networked individualism. In 2012, he co-authored with Lee Rainie, the prize-winning Networked: The New Social Operating System (MIT Press). To date, he has written or co-authored more than 300 articles, chapters, reports and books. Among the concepts Prof Wellman has published are: “network of networks” and “the network city” (both with Paul Craven), “the community question”, “computer networks as social networks”, “connected lives” and the “immanent Internet” (both 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”.

Prof Wellman shares with CNM his thoughts about research and why the self-sufficient individual is a specious entity.

I entered into researching about social networks because I was inspired by my professors when I went to grad school at Harvard. Harrison White was the best network analyst there was and taught us about looking at people beyond categories. He urged us to look for connections instead. Other mentors included Charles Tilly.  Tilly was an urban historian who had taught that the relational ties people had, went beyond the group and the neighbourhood, into networks. I realized how true this was when I joined a “Save our Neighbourhood” meeting, held to stop the Spadina Expressway from cutting through downtown Toronto.  At first sight, the group appeared just like groups from other cities fighting to preserve neighbourhoods against cars. But as I looked harder, I realized that many of those activists in that room did not even live in downtown Toronto. They were not a little neighbourhood group at all. They were a network of community activists who had come from all over Toronto.

My approach to research is a dance between theory and evidence collection. I usually start with basic questions; refine these through interviews before getting out more precise questions through quantitative research like in-person surveys.

A utopian networked society would be people having multiple, partial and dynamic connections that change formations according to the needs of the individuals and their groups; so that the whole networks move forwards as people support one another in large, diverse, dense and ever-morphing patterns of interactions.

I am worried about surveillance by governments and large companies, and people not being connected to one another in person. That said, in practice, everyone is connected in flexible and multiple ways, and not captured by any one group. Instead, they just build computer assistance into their networked selves.

The best relationships combine face-to-face and online and grow the important social capital fostered in these interpersonal ways.

The best way(s) to keep a relationship is mutual exchange and not make too many demands on the other person. This axiom is borne out in American anthropologist Elliot Liebow’s study of the street corner culture of poor black men in Washington DC in the 1960s. Liebow found that sustainable relationships among the urban poor were those that featured a give-and-take reciprocity.

A personal pursuit I have not tried but would be keen to do is to be point guard for basketball, NBA.  

A person I would never want to part with is my wife, Beverly.

My favourite social media platform is Twitter.

Being self-sufficient is a myth. In Chapter 2 of Networked Society, we observed that even a ‘rugged individualist’ like golf superstar Tiger Woods admitted that he was “connected and constructed by his membership in multiple social networks” (p. 39). A neuropsychologist has even argued that the brain craves social interaction. In other words, we are wired to interact and move in networks. Even amongst those who think they are free agents; they should realize that their decisions are situated in the environment that shapes them.

A visitor to Toronto got to realize that it is even more multicultural than Singapore. Fifty per cent of people in Toronto are born outside Canada. First-time visitors should also know that Toronto is below freezing point five months of the year.

Singapore is a new adventure for Bev and I. Everything is the same and yet different. We appreciate how the opportunity to do the same things in different ways.

We have come here to learn!

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About Gulizar Haciyakupoglu

A PhD Candidate at Communications & New Media Programme, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences
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