Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Barry Wellman (2000) 'Changing Connectivity: A Future History of Y2.03K'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 4, <>

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Received: 24/2/2000      Accepted: 24/2/2000      Published: 29/2/2000

Looking Forward[1]

After dreaming of science-fiction since I was a kid in the 1950s, I actually get to do it. I jumped for joy when Sociological Research Online asked me to think about what Y2.1K will be like. Of course, only Olaf Stapledon (Last and the First Men, 1930) and Hari Seldon's Foundation (Asimov 1950) know what the future will really be like, but Olaf is dead and Hari hasn't been born yet. I can only do informed guesses as to some of the socially-relevant trends in computer networking that should profoundly affect connectivity and community in the next thirty years. I am going to assume that the world will not experience a nuclear, biological or environmental Apocalypse: If that comes, predicting the future is easy-but sad: We will be a society of tightly-bounded communities, scrabbling to survive, suspicious of strangers, and closely controlling our mates (Lessing 1969).

Ignoring apocalyptic possibilities, I am going to do what many science-fiction writers do: project some current trends onto the future and ask "What if...?" (Klodawsky 1999). I can't even fake seeing as far ahead as Y2.1K, but I have some hunches what our interpersonal lives will be like in Y2.03K (2030), the outer limit of my expected analytic life a generation from now. (It's more fun to place an intellectual bet if you are there for the outcome.) I am going to work from currently observable phenomena that are now floating around academic, corporate and (more rarely) government labs, or the dreams of small start-up companies or venture capitalists. I assume that these innovations, like most others, will take a decade or three to work their way through the developed world and some of the places beyond (Odlyzko 1997).

If things in Y2.03K turn out exactly as I predict, I shall be astonished. If things turn out much differently, I shall be surprised. I am humbled by the thought that "only about 20% of the documented predictions by experts about technological developments have been accurate" (Odlyzko 1997 based on Schnaars 1989). "People tend to overestimate what can be done in one year and underestimate what can be done in five or ten years" (Licklider 1965: 17). Yet pundits never give refunds, and bold predictions sell better than complex, contingent ones in this sound-bite age.

When computer networks link people and institutions, they are computer-supported social networks. At present, the technological development of computer networks and the societal transformation into social networks are in a positive feed-back loop. Just as the flexibility of less-bounded, spatially dispersed social networks creates demand for the world wide web and collaborative communication, the breathless development of computer networks is fostering the societal move from little boxes to social networks. I focus in this essay on how computer networks created possibilities for how people connect with each other in networked communities. hugely greater bandwidth, wireless portability of communication devices, globalized ease of communicating information, things becoming more complex but easier to use, interlinkage of software, software agents working for us, and the personalization of technology. To examine these developments is not technological determinism (e.g., Ogburn 1950), for it is clear that technological changes do not cause social changes and that people and institutions often take over and re-orient technological developments. Rather, it is an examination of "technological affordances": the possibilities technological changes afford for social relations and social structure.[2]

When major technological changes such as the development of the Internet occur, they often seem exciting-witness the huge attention given to Internet corporations-even though they have little direct impact on society. Yet it is when technological changes get pervasive, familiar and boring that their impact on society is usually most felt. This is an old story. For example, few scholars think about the century-old telephone now (but see Fischer 1992; Pike 1998), yet it is in the recent past that it has most thoroughly affected the ways in which communities and organizations operate. It is also a new story: precursors to the just-for-the-1990s Internet began in the 1960s.

My principal concern is with changes in the ways in which people connect with each other in communities. I first concentrate on major technological trends for computer scientists and Internet entrepreneurs take for granted what is still problematic among sociologists: that communities are based on interpersonal social relationships rather than on spatial proximity.[3] I then look at the implications of these trends for community, defining "community" as networks of interpersonal ties that provide sociability, support, information, a sense of belonging, norms, and a social identity. This definition does not limit analysis to local neighbourhoods and villages for it is clear that many community networks are spatially dispersed. This has been true for all epoch and should be especially pertinent for the twenty-first century when computer-supported social networks. For better and worse, I expect these changes to facilitate a continuing transformation away from interaction in solidary communities and workgroups and towards interaction in far-flung, sparsely-knit and specialized social networks. I call this "networked individualism."

The Connectivity of Things to Come


Bandwidth is an important key to connectivity: It is the amount of bits that can be pushed through a (computer network) connection in a given period of time. When I first used a precursor to the Internet in 1976, we connected to the central server at 110 bits per second (bps). While most North American homes still use dial-up telephone equipment, their 30,000+ bps modems connect at least 272 times faster to the Internet. Many homes using DSL telephone lines or cable modems connect at approximately 1,000,000 bps, corporations often have 10 to 100 million bps, and some will soon have gigabit lines with more than 1 billion bps. With a 10Mb connection, many houses will soon be connected 300+ times faster than current 30Kb dial-up speed, and 90,000 times faster than my original 110bps. Speeds are drastically increasing, consumer costs are plummeting, with the price of high-bandwidth connectivity no more than a routine increment of a telephone bill. As the cost of increasing bandwidth is so much cheaper than the cost of building highways, the growth of bandwidth affords an increase in the proportion of communication that is computer-mediated and a decrease in the proportion that is face-to-face.[4] Transportation and communication are developing separate dynamics, although the computer-generated delivery of goods keeps them intertwined.

Why is cheap, high-capacity bandwidth so important? In part for its speed. In ancient 110bps days, I used to have time to get up and shave my face while waiting for a page of text to appear. Messages only became readable at first glance when speeds went up more than twenty-fold to 2400 bps. The move to higher speeds, such as 30Kb made it possible to have rapid fire, back-and-forth email communication, filled with feedback. But these are easy-to-transmit, short text-only messages. The difference between 30Kb and 1Mb is the difference between waiting impatiently for the graphics-laden web to happen and having it happen (almost) instantly. It is the ability to move collateral files ("attachments") between your personal computer and the web.

Greater bandwidth has vastly expanded capacity for complex communication. With more bandwidth, you can do more things. The move upwards from 110bps to 2400bps made textual email viable, the move to 30,000+bps made accessing simple web pages viable, the move to megabits has made surfing between complex web documents viable, and the move to gigabits will provide entirely new possibilities such as high definition video communication and multiple media of communication, from enhanced video to the ability to have a live" chat with a Lands End catalogue sales representative while you surf their clothing website. The accelerated, already-begun shift away from a few television broadcast channels to a great many narrowcasting channels will minimize the circulation of widely shared understandings and values while it supports the robustness of dispersed specialized communities of shared interests, learning, and practices (Wellman 1997; Wenger 1998).

With high bandwidth, people can send files down the line quickly-be they corporate documents for teleworkers or movies and songs for web-surfing couch potatoes. They can use video to be in contact, rather than just typing in text or talking on the telephone. They can work together in real time, simultaneously working on the same drawing or document (for an early version of this, see Mantei, et al. 1991). One newly-announced application (PC Magazine, March 7 2000, p. 94) connects a digital picture frame to a web-site (, so that grandparents can see new pictures of their grandchildren daily. And if you go to, you will have your choice of watching continuous fly-on-the-wall videos of people who are using web-cams to expose their entire lives for public viewing. Although few of us are such exhibitionists, such an application is a useful way for parents at work to watch children or keep an eye on elderly parents in another part of the world. With so many inputs, the problem may be choosing where to pay attention. James Witte suggests that intelligent pattern recognition techniques will alert parents to anomalous incidents where young children are in trouble (personal email, February 22 2000).

Wireless Portability

At present, cellphones talk and portable computers write, calculate and draw. As I write in February 2000 the first fledgling steps in merging the two are occurring. These typically take the form of cellphones or "personal digital assistants" (such as the widely-selling Palm Pilot) with small screens, low transmission speed and weak computer chips, that use awkward keyboards or styluses as input devices.

Although wires will carry the most bandwidth in the foreseeable future, we will soon see within widespread liberation from wired tethers as transmitted high-bandwidth (via celltowers or satellites) merges with the communications capability of cellphones, and the multifunctional capacity of computers. Tricks such as gestural inputs, folding keyboards, folding screens, magnifying screens, and eyeglass monitors will increase portability to form networked extensions of the self.

My Toronto colleague, Steve Mann, walks around campus all day wearing a computer, connecting wirelessly to the Internet by transmitting to his office base station (Mann 1998). His webcam is mounted on his head to show the world what he sees; dark eyeglasses are his monitor, and an antenna sticks up from his hat ( More prosaic systems bring expert help to isolated repairpersons (; Kraut, Miller and Siegel 1996;

By 2030, wireless computing will be much more portable, power will last longer between recharges, and wearable computing will be designed into apparel. As nanotechnology develops into embedded computer-human symbiosis, It is possible that early cyborgs will use implanted chips for rudimentary communication, augmented memory and on-person computing (Warwick 2000). With subvocal speech and hearing, there would be nearly-invisible communication, a simulacrum of telepathy. With eye-tracking screens or implanted sensors responding to muscle twitches, mice disappear. William Gibson's prescient science-fiction novel, Neuromancer (Gibson 1984), which invented the term "cyberspace" and made netsurfing and virtual palpable, already seems technologically obsolescent with its net surfers "jacking in" to the Internet by physically plugging cables into implanted receptacles (see also; Charles Ostman's website).

The proliferation of portability will be the embracing and the negation of ubiquitous globalization: Computer-supported communication will be everywhere, but because it is independent of place, it will be no-where. The importance of place as a communication site will diminish even more, and the person-not the place, household or workgroup-will become even more of an autonomous node in communication. (This is discussed below and in more detail in a companion article, Wellman 2000).

Globalized Connectivity

Convergent Standards, Global Coverage: Personal computers operate anywhere there is electricity. At present, cellphones are more constrained because different technical standards preclude North American cellphones from operating elsewhere in the world. Indeed, there are two incompatible standards within North America. This will change soon, following recent standardization agreements among cellphone manufacturers. The other necessary event will be a global network, as large parts of the developed world are not now accessible, and both telephone and Internet access is low in much of the less developed "fourth world" (Castells 1998). Yet cellular systems are cheaper than wired systems to build in areas with low teledensity, affording quick catch-up. Where it is to expensive to build celltowers, satellite systems are being deployed to reach otherwise inaccessible areas.[5] This will mean the potential availability of "small world" interpersonal connectivity (Kochen 1989) even with physically isolated Papua tribespeople.

I know a dual career woman in Silicon Valley who uses a wireless modem to check her email on 8 AM weekday mornings while she watches her young daughter play in the schoolyard. As she sips her cappuccino, she is a multitasking harbinger of convergence: the integration of a cellphone's ubiquitous, portable connectivity with the multifunctional power of a personal computer. As satellite links develop and technical standards for wireless communications evolve globally, the same cellphone-computer will be able to access the Internet as easily in Bora Bora and as in Silicon Valley. Wim Wenders' Until the Ends of the Earth movie (Wenders 1991) showed global videophone communication, but the protagonists had to keep finding wired telephone booths. It is more likely that trendy Wired magazine will be retro-garde by 2030 unless it changes its name to Wireless.

Computerized networks will afford pervasive, high-audio-video quality "telepresence" (Buxton 1992) by 2030, but they will not afford physical presence. Communication will improve much faster than transportation: it is easier to expand capacity to transport bits than people. The standard language will be English and ESL. "English", because the Internet and satellite television has encouraged a large, heterogeneous number of people to learn and use it. "ESL" because machine-aided translations will help people to function in other languages, but there will be fewer English-speakers using such devices to deal with other languages than there will be non-English speakers using English as a second language (Conrath 2000). Computer-aided language programs still will not achieve full translation transparency, but their use of semantic clues and databases will enhance their now-stumbling efforts.

Personalized, role-based communication will be coupled with place-to-place transportation. Remember, that the original Star Trek is set in the 23rd century, not the 21st. Although early experiments on transmitting and replicating atoms through solids have just been reported by IBM, matter transmission (aka "teleportation") have "proved difficult to control and [have] had unintended side effects". Weinstein (1999) reports on the "copy, send, and burn" approach of transporting people through reassembly on the other side and almost-simultaneous destruction of the original unit (much like a "move" command works in operating system). Unfortunately, unreliable data compression techniques available in the coming century mean that Captain Kirk might be beamed up, but not all of him would reappear. We know from the original Star Trek that this problem will be solved by Y2.3K, although it is only in "The Next Generation" that the Trekkers deal with the overpopulation and confused identities that multicasting would cause.

Audio and Video: Five years ago, people rarely attached pictures or documents to email messages. Email and the web were separate things. Now, I get documents daily attached to email messages, and doting grandparents get baby pictures. Almost all web site include places to email the site owner or others; almost all email systems allow receivers of messages to follow the message sender's suggestion to click on a pertinent web address.

We shall soon take for granted Internet-based telephoning, what is technically called "Voice over IP". Indeed major communication companies-what until recently were separate telephone and cable companies-are now battling for strategic positions in this market, so convinced are they that it will happen within this decade. The first advantage will be low long-distance cost, applying the benefits of Internet pricing to telephoning. But this will be soon-if not immediately-be joined by applying the control and power of personal computing to telephoning. One will be able to call multiple people simultaneously, arrange to leave a message in someone's voicemail box without their phone ringing, use computing power to check the authenticity of the caller's electronic signature, analyze the caller's sincerity and stress level, look at background information about the caller, and easily integrate the phone, email and the (quickly obsolescing) fax.

U.S. comedian Bob Hope reportedly once made the Orwellian observation that in the Soviet Union "you don't watch TV, it watches you". Two-way video is not so bad when and where all parties want it: Controllable interfaces are essential for privacy controls. Although video connectivity has been poised to take-off for many years, it never has. Even in high-tech businesses where it has been ubiquitously deployed, it is used only for special occasions in special rooms and not routinely accessed desktop-to-desktop. It seems that organizational members who are routinely in contact do not need to see each other that much. The situation should be different with community members who value the fullest bandwidth of communication possible. As communication develops greater speed and capacity (really the same thing), Internet video may become widely used for real-time chats as well as for leaving videomail messages. And physically-separated intimates can, should, and will do what exhibitionists already do: transmitting to each other continuous web-cam images of their daily life.

Only a lack of imagination means stopping with video. Strong and Gaver (1996) have demonstrated a system in which one person can remotely "touch" another and cause perfume to be wafted in the other's room. It is but a simple step to two-way systems, and for swingers, N-way systems. Nor must interactions always evolve towards replicating face-to-face experience (just as a book is not an oral storyteller). Science-fiction novelist Neal Stephenson (1992) and computer scientist Bruce Damer (1996) both predict that cartoon-like avatars will represent our multifarious personas in interactions: I am skeptical that this will become a widespread use because the explosive growth of bandwidth has made "real" video more feasible. It is easier to make a wry face than it is to instruct a cartoon avatar to do that. However, avatars should find a niche in simulating complex social interactions among sizeable numbers of people, be they war games, corporate intrigue, or interactive storytelling.

Ubiquitous Transparency of Use

At present, we know when we are in the presence of computers. Although we have lost the blinking lights, whirling tape drives and humming keypunches the 1960s, our monitors shine brightly and our boxes, keyboards and mice visibly await us. To be sure, there are unobtrusive computers: I've recently changed the engine management chip of my car to get better acceleration at the expense of mileage. But these are computers hidden within a single-purpose machine.

Strategic planners have debated for a decade about whether its better to "bring people to bits or bits to people" (Personal communication from Intel executive David Williams, Hillsboro, OR, February 1997). I suspect that both will happen. Bringing people to bits is what happens now as people sit before their computers as if at a shrine. Much of their memory, calculating and computing work is centralized at one computer or, if in a large corporation, on a networked server. Bringing bits to people is when computing power gets more distributed, as equipment, from furnaces to refrigerators become computerized and interconnected. They will become smarter as processing power and memory become smaller, cheaper, and less exotic to develop.

The big change will come as homes (and automobiles) become networked, within themselves and to the Internet. For example, refrigerators can easily scan bar codes and become aware of what packaged goods are being consumed. They can prepare shopping lists and even inform stores to make credit card deliveries. Trucks already tell their companies where on the highway they are; some workplaces already route phone calls to the office that people wearing "smart badges" are temporarily in; people will soon be able to find their friends. Home renovation stores will have widely-distributed database interfaces that will let people query the availability, specifications and reviews of any product, while small videoscreens will enable people in out of the way places to discuss matters with experts. Just as web pages do now, virtual books and journal articles will unobtrusively provide up-to-the-minute information as fast as heads disappeared from Kremlin photos in quickly-revised editions of The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Scholars will have to include the time of their perusal in their reference list. My reading of your paper may not be the same as the next person.

Such matters will often happen transparently so that users are much less aware of the computing that is going on around them, just as I do not see my new chip managing my automobile's engine-I only know it accelerates better now. The cost of this is a huge increase in the potential for surveillance-by governments, by profit-seeking corporations, and perhaps by ordinary busy-bodies. The social control of mutually-observable villagers may reappear but this time as top-down, asymmetric scrutiny.


Agents: Another form of interconnection should happen: the ability of computer programs to work intelligently with each other. A decade ago we used word processors separately from spreadsheets, databases, graphical presentation programs, and what little of the Internet existed then. Now they all link together in office suites or through common standards. Yet these links are crude, limited and generally require us to tell them how to operate-and with the program not learning from recurrent experience. There should be much more intuitive interoperability within the next generation. As a scholar, I want to have instantly available information about the research, background, and networks of anyone communicating with me. At present, I can only do this as a series of separate operations.

Personal agents will range over interoperable web programs to work for us. (Of course, other will also be using their agents to learn-or spy-on us.) I should be able to tell my agent to find me the book or friend of my dreams, searching databases, personal webpages and photo images. I shall be able to tell my agent what newsgroups or open chat groups to watch for which sorts of information, and how to collect and organize it. Zagat's restaurant guides are developing systems that searches for restaurants in terms of quality, style and location relative to where a person is calling from. The system will be able to dial a chosen restaurant to ask for a table, although it will not have the ability to handle haughty maitre d's and reservationists (Schiesel 2000). As it evolves, it should be able to link with a restaurant's own database to discover what tables are available at what time, what today's specials are, and what allergens may appear in them.

Such an enterprise uses collaborative filtering, where people contribute to evaluations, be they of restaurants, movies (e.g., or politicians. People can also use their web agents to find other people with a desired set of characteristics. For example, Yenta is an experimental matchmaker system, designed to find people with similar interests and introduce them to each other online (Foner 1997). "If you combine virtual community, collaborative filtering, and web_to_cellphone, you get a scenario in which you always know who in your physical vicinity at the moment shares certain affinities and willingness to be contacted" (Howard Rheingold, personal email, January 11 2000; see also Rheingold 1993, 2000).

Personal vs Central Control: The longest and most pervasive computer war has not been between Microsoft and anyone else, but between the desire of many people to control their computers and the desire of corporate computer centres to control what machines and software employees use and to limit what uses to which people could put this hardware and software (Kling and Iacano 1984). This war is undeclared and often unrecognized, but it is being fought everyday at levels from workgroups to jousts between giant corporations such as Sun and Microsoft. If you look in the right way, there are daily reports from the front in daily newspapers and computing and business magazines.

Until the advent of personal computers there was no fight because almost all computing was done at a central centre which employees could only access by way of centrally-controlled punched-card readers and later, "dumb" terminals without computing power. The advent of personal computers swung the pendulum far in the other direction for early PCs were not easily networked. Every PC user was a monarch of his/her hard disk.

Even before the Internet flourished, managers feared that people would bend computers to their own uses and would use computer mediated communication channels to conspire against their superiors. For example, At IBM, an e-mail "Gripenet" became the locale of so many organized complaints against corporate practices that management quickly shut it down (Emmett 1981). Even when organizations encouraged informal e-mail, managers often viewed it with distrust (Perin 1991). For example, one corporation's managers monitored messages between professional women who were discussing career options because they feared it would lead to demands for unionization and affirmative action (Zuboff 1988).[6]

The current situation, "networked computing," means that information (and control) flow up and down between central servers and somewhat autonomous personal computers (Hegering, Abeck and Neumair 1998). The situation is not at rest, but poised in dynamic tension between centralization and individualism. Despite organizational control almost all people use their computers for social, community-maintaining reasons, even in organizations (Haythornthwaite and Wellman 1998). Individual users are always trying to control their personal machines; managers are frequently trying to standardize. For example, recent centralizing skirmishes in this battle have been to forbid surfing pornographic sites, to forbid using email to socialize, to have locked computer cases which could not be easily modified, and to have "thin" computers with no floppy or CD disk input so that personally-wanted software could not be added. It is legal in America for management to read email, supervise web access, and inspect computer files. Yet, at the same time, newspapers report that John Deutch, the former Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, routinely worked with classified files on his insecure home computer (Ruppe 1999).

Personalized Networking and Knowledge Management: The Internet has changed the nature of the continuing tension between centralization and personalization. Its original widespread use, email, has been very much a personal thing, with individuals managing their own address books and usually sending messages one-to-one. By contrast, the web has been both personalizing and centralizing. Although choice of site viewed is usually a personal decision, the response of the site has been impersonal. Notwithstanding the small exceptions of cookie-fed information, websites treat all comers just about equally (for information, see

The next thirty years will see the explosive growth of more personalized communication that will use computing power to prioritize and enhance interactions. For example, people will be able to tell their communications devices whom they wish to get messages from, about what, and when. At present, when someone calls a wired phone, the phone rings at the place, regardless of which person is being called. Personalized communication, for better and worse, will shift the dynamics of connectivity from places-typically households or worksites-to individuals. There already are reports of people miffed because their spouses read their email. An email address and alias is regarded as a part of one's own personal identity, not to be shared lightly and clung to in divorce settlements (Cohen 2000). Moreover, reading and responding to computer messages means that people must peer intently into a screen as if praying to a shrine and finger a keyboard as if it were prayer beads. This kinesthetic focus on the computer, combined with the bulkiness of the screen, draws computer users away from simultaneously having face-to-face contact with proximate others. By contrast, telephones allow much more body movement and glances at others. I doubt that many spouses tell their mates to leave the room whenever the telephone rings, just as I doubt whether spouses refrain from opening each other's snail-mail.

When the phone rings today, it rings regardless if it is a wanted call from a lover or workmate or an unwanted call from a nudnick or telemarketer. Call display and voicemail are only weak, after-the-fact filtering mechanisms. Within a decade, people should have the ability to prioritize calls or filter them away. This should work not only by person, but for equivalence classes, so that immediate family always have priority over acquaintances. At the same time, voicemail should be equally tailorable so that when they call, my wife can get a different message than my department chair does. In other words, not only will such a communication arrangement be personalized, it will adapt to the social roles that we are in.

Personalized communication should also help people to have better access to their own knowledge, and the knowledge of community members. They will routinely link with databases in ways seen now only in salespeople's contact managers and techno-adventure shows such as Nikita. When you are in contact with someone, you should be able to access information about her, both publicly-available and from your own private stock of information. What do they look like? What are their children's names? Where do they live? When did they call you last, and about what? The balancing of access to information with norms of privacy will be a continuing concern.

Computer-supported communication systems might also provide relational information as well as personal, to the extent to which privacy norms and laws allow. They can scan the Internet to facilitate "friends of friends" information-reporting about who you know that I might want to meet, what formal and tacit knowledge these people have, and which mutual friends we have in common And who are their friends whom I might want to know (Kanfer 1997; Contractor, Zink and Chan 1998). Thus social network search engines could reveal clusters of ties and what access to knowledge people might get through friends of friends. The shape of own's network is a resource in its own right, as well as a way to gather resources. Those who want to conserve and protect existing resources will try to form densely-knit, tightly-bounded networks. Those who want to acquire new resources and forego some security will try to form sparsely-knit, loosely-bounded networks that have access to multiple social milieus.

Suppose my friends want to know where I'll be on my holiday next week. If you are on my list of people eligible to know, you would get detailed information. Otherwise, you would get a bland message. Just as scholars have begun to mount their papers (including this one) on the web for others, a great deal of information will become available, from interpersonal as well as institutional sources. We will go from having a good deal of information available from a limited number of trusted sources to have a wider range of knowledge available from multiple, problematically reliable, sources. Knowledge management tools can help find the codified and tacit knowledge that community members have. Third-party trusting tools can help assess reliability just as the e-Bay trading network now posts a history of each party's past transactions and others' assessments of the traders' reliability.

The Rise of Networked Individualism

Changing Portals
How may these technological changes affect the ways in which we find community with each other? Computer-mediated communication is part of a fundamental shift in the ways in which people connect with one another.

Door-to-Door: First, a brief excursion in the past to provide perspective on the future. Since the Agricultural Revolution, community has traditionally been based in agricultural villages/towns, itinerant bands, and urban neighbourhoods. People walked to visit each other in spatially compact and densely_knit communities (Barthélemy and Contamine 1985; Thébert 1985; Ward 1999). These communities were bounded, so that most relationships happened within their gates rather than across them. They were not necessarily immobile, but even in big cities and trading towns, much intercourse stayed within neighbourhoods. Most people in a settlement knew each other, were limited by their footpower in whom they could contact, and when they visited someone, much of the neighbourhood knew who was going to see whom and what about. The contact was essentially between households, with the sanction-or at least the awareness-of the settlement.

Place-to-Place: Increasingly throughout this century, contemporary communities have rarely been confined to neighbourhoods (Wellman and Leighton 1979; Wellman 1999). People usually obtain support, sociability, information and a sense of belonging from those who do not live within the same neighbourhood and often, not within their own metropolitan area. Community ties have been maintained through phoning, writing, driving, railroading, transiting, and flying. Most North Americans have little interpersonal connection with their neighbourhood; they have less connection to the social control of a neighbourhood group.

This is still place_based connectivity, even though Manuel Castells (1996) calls it the "space of flows" and my group (Wellman and Leighton 1979; Wellman 1999) has called it "community liberated" (liberated from finding community only in neighbourhoods, that is). You go somewhere to meet someone. Or you call somewhere-to a home or office-to talk to someone. As in door-to-door times, the connectivity is usually household-to-household. Indeed, it may be more so, as the privatization and domestication of community means that people usually get-together at each other's homes rather than wandering down to the corner pub, café, or coffee-shop. There is a contextual vacuum as compared to door-to-door connectivity. The most obvious manifestations of this are freeway travel, telephones, and, more recently, e-mail. The places are connected, but there is no knowledge of the territory the connection has passed through until it arrives at the portal.

Often touted as a global connector, the Internet also reinforces stay-at-homes. "Glocalization" occurs, both because the Internet makes contacting many neighbours easy, and because fixed, wired Internet connections root users at their home and office desks. Keith Hampton and I are finding in our study of "Netville," a leading-edge wired suburb that those who are online are the most active neighbours: Netvillers know twenty-five neighbours; the unwired know only eight. Moreover, the ties of the wired suburbanites range farther through the neighbourhood instead of just clustering on the same block (Hampton and Wellman 1999). Hampton and I are finding that the Internet increases long-distance involvement as well as local involvement. When Netville residents got high-speed Internet connections, their social contact and supportive exchanges with friends and relatives living more than 50 kilometers away increased substantially. It is almost as easy to send a message to 10 friends as it is to contact a single friend. Although it is possible that increased Internet involvement will lead to reduced face-to-face friendships, preliminary findings to this effect (e.g., Kraut, et al. 1998) may largely a product of time stress and the newness of the phenomenon. However, the in-home immersiveness of the Internet may compete with relations within households.

Person-to-Person: The current move to cellphoning affords liberation from both place and group. It suits and reinforces mobile lifestyles and physically dispersed relationships. Where high speed place-to-place communication affords the dispersal and fragmentation of community, high speed person-to-person communication goes one step further, affording the dispersal and role-fragmentation of the nuclear family, usually the household.

These are fundamental shifts in connectivity: The connection is to the person and not to the place, thereby weakening attachment to the family or workgroup that inhabits that place.[7] The structure of relationships is moving from linking places to linking people-and indeed, to linking only the specialized roles that people play-not the whole persons. Where place-to-place contact preserved some contextual sense of the places where others are located, the shift to person-to-person contact minimizes this: You are contacting the other in ignorance of where s/he is operating. And because mobile people are frequently shifting from one social network to the other at home or in the office, you are contacting the other in ignorance as to what group s/he is currently involved in. Rather than being embedded in one network, person-to-person interactors are constantly switching between networks.

Communication has broken loose from the need to be carried somewhere by someone to being conducted by electrons-on wires and more recently through the "ether" at the speed of light. The 30 mph speed of mail carried on early trains has increased by more than 50,000 times, as long-distance telephone systems proliferated and became routinely affordable.

If computer networks transmit information at the speed of light, just as radio broadcasts and telephone networks have done for generations, what is the difference? First, Internet accounts are personal and not place-based, so they already are way stations on the trend to the person-to-person community. Second, digital information in computer networks conveys more information per second, so more can be sent. Third, computer networks combine the potentially wide reach of broadcast networks with the personalized communication of telephone networks. What you are reading is available online, for computer networks support public address systems to strangers as well as personal communications and within-network broadcasts..

As high bandwidth wireless computing becomes prevalent, communicating computers will break their tethers and become placeless. There already are leading-edge indicators of this trend. Internet cafés in malls or main streets allow travellers to keep connected, road warriors use global phone/Internet access networks to connect from hotels or businesses they are visiting, cellphones are just starting to have Internet capability, and a few people have higher-speed wireless modems on their laptop computers.

As community increasingly becomes person-to-person (and not door-to-door or even place-to-place), people should continue to feel responsible for their relatively strong relationships but not for the many acquaintances and strangers with whom they rub shoulders but are not connected. Private contact with familiar friends and relatives is replacing public gregariousness so that people pass each other unsmiling on streets and highways. When they do communicate, they talk loudly on their cellphones in public space, oblivious to the discomfort of the unknown strangers around them. Such privatization may be responsible for the lack of informal help given to strangers who are in trouble in public spaces (Latané and Darley 1976). And it may lead to the paradox of people feeling lonely because of the lack of physically-present community members even as their stock of person-to-person ties online increases.

Role-to-Role: Role-to-role contact is already abundant and will flourish with the proliferation of computer mediated communication. Our group's research has found that most community ties are specialized, with different persons supplying a community member with emotional support, information, material aid, and a sense of belonging (Wellman 1999). This means that people must maintain differentiated portfolios of ties to obtain a variety of needed and wanted resources. As noted above, person-to-person connectivity moves responsibility for well-being from the group/network to the two-person dyad. If connectivity becomes increasingly specialized as role-to-role, who except household members will worry about the whole person? Specialization means that the emotional supporters will not have to worry about material aid, and perhaps will not even know about it. This will lead to lessened loads of caregiving-and lessened pleasures.

By 2030, communication should often be personalized and may well be role-based. What if each person were reading a different version of this paper, as I used information about you to tailor the message that I most want you to receive? Perhaps the emphases would be different; perhaps the content would change. I might leave out the jokes if high-status people logged on; I might use an appropriate personal example for close friends; if I knew you well enough, I might even use an appropriate personal example from your life. If I didn't know you, my software might use heuristic rules to construct an appropriate version tailored to online information about your demographic profile, Internet-surfing tastes, or the friends we have in common. This would be computer-supported communication that is not only person-to-person but personalized because computer-assisted communication would support the different kinds of role relationships in which people engage. Different kinds of computer applications and information would be provide for different roles, responsibilities and social contexts.

Computer supported role-to-role communication may enable spatially-dispersed communities to transcend discrete person-to-person interactions as well as door-to-door and place-to-place interactions. Role-to-role interactions depend on persons with specialized interests, strengths and needs finding each other and remaining in contact. The web, search engines, newsgroups and informal discussion lists allow people with shared interests to find each other and interact publically. Already, individually constructed "buddy lists" alert people to who else is online, how active they are on the system, and how available they may be for "instant messaging" or less timely email. They have "raised computer mediated communication to a whole new level of intimacy" (Erin Bradner, personal email, February 21, 2000). Similar to the connected people feel when they sip a beer/cappuccino at the corner pub/coffeeshop, as long as people can observe online activity ("lurk" in Internet-speak), they often "feel like they are in some shared communication space with others, even when no actual communication takes place" (Bradner, personal email, February 22, 2000; see also Nonnecke and Preece 1998). Thus an email discussion group is currently sustained Muslim women geographically isolated from compatriots in North America (Bastani 2000). Want to know which of your buddies are most active? Computer tools are now being developed to count their activity and their contribution to different threads (Smith

Web-based group tools are proliferating to develop communities of shared interest, learning, knowledge and practice. With these tools, people will be better able to form specialized, narrowly-defined and role-to-role tailored partial communities rather than one all-embracing group. They will be able to access knowledge about which distant acquaintances and strangers should be asked for advice and information. When one's strong ties are unable to provide information, one is likely to find it from weak ties. Many people will find the overload of communication to be more of a problem than isolation, and they will develop devices such as buffer-agents to cope just as secretaries and voicemail are used today.

Because people with strong ties are more likely to be socially similar and to know the same persons, they are more likely to possess the same information. By contrast, new information is more apt to come through weaker ties better connected to other, more diverse social circles. In addition to using agents to actively seek knowledge, it may come unsolicited through formal and informal specialized communities, as well as forwarded messages from friends, and friends of friends. In the process, indirect contact between previously-disconnected people become direct relationships.

As long as visual cues are de-emphasized, the Internet should foster relationships more on the basis of shared interests rather than on the basis of social class, race, gender, etc. As social class, etc. often underlie cultural capital and networking repertoire, the shift to community based on shared interests will always reflect these characteristics. However, the relative focus in these specialized communities on shared interests rather than on similar social characteristics may be empowering for otherwise lower-status and disenfranchised groups. Moreover, the Internet's wide-ranging ease of use will increasing foster bridges that connect such partial communities, instead of such communities being isolated in tightly-bounded little boxes. The result should be increased choice in affiliation while reducing the palpable sense of community membership that provide a sense of belonging at the cost of all-embracing social control.

Specialized communities often will afford permeable, shifting sets of participants, with more intense relationships continued by private communication. The resulting relaxation of constraints on the size and proximity of the specialized community can increase the diversity of people encountered. For example, Bell Canada is building a virtual campus to link university scholars (including me) with its researchers, developers and managers ( As envisioned, it will enable each participant to specify who will be able to see what documents available on the virtual campus just as scholars carefully circulate their pre-published work to select others and organizations can control who can see private information.

There are costs to this. The compartmentalization of Role-to-Role interpersonal life-within the household and workplace as well as within the community-may be that no one know anyone entirely anymore, breeding alienation and insecurity. Where the shift to Person-to-Person is individualizing, the shift to Role-to-Role may deconstruct a holistic individual identity, or else a person becomes only the sum of her role-parts. And concomitant with tools for finding others, there will be a need for tools that block being found, just as secretaries guard bosses, spam-filters help email recipients, and individuals go for backwoods holidays. To maintain anonymity and freedom of choice many will not want to be always-or often-connected. Agency is a need as well as an analytic category.

From Little Boxes to Networked Individualism

The developments in computer-supported connectivity that I have traced should accelerate a paradigm shift in the way in which people and institutions are connected. Ubiquitous, powerful, globally-reached, easily usable communication networks will support a shift from place-based to person-based and role-based communities. This will be a shift from living as groups in "little boxes" (Reynolds 1963) to living as individuals in networked societies.

Members of little-box societies deal only with fellow members of the few groups to which they belong: at home, in the neighbourhood, at work, or in voluntary organizations. They belong to a discrete work group in a single organization; they live in a household in a neighbourhood; they belong to a kinship group (one each for themselves and their spouse), and to discrete voluntary organizations: churches, bowling leagues, professional associations, school associations, and the like. All of these appear to be bodies with precise boundaries for inclusion (and therefore exclusions). In such societies, interaction is in its place, one group at a time.

By contrast, in network societies, boundaries are more permeable, interactions are with diverse-and often physically distant-others; linkages switch between multiple networks, and hierarchies are flatter and more recursive. Communities in 2030 will be networks and not neatly organized into little neighbourhood boxes. People will have even more friends outside their neighbourhood than within it: indeed, many people will have more ties outside their metropolitan areas than within it. Their communities will consist of far-flung kinship, workplace, interest group, and neighbourhood ties concatenating to form a network that provides aid, support, social control, and links to other milieus. The computer supported social network will furnish opportunity, manoeuverability and uncertainty. There will be increasing opportunity to find resources in a number of social circles, much greater manoeuverability to avoid the social control of a single community and pursue fortune and happiness elsewhere; more uncertainty because the limited scope, low density, and porous boundaries of a person's network makes it harder to identify with and find succor from a single solidary group. Will such societies feature (Adam)Smithian-Darwinian communities, with individuals actively searching and competing for useful and available specialized ties rather than coming home at the end of the day to rest passively in the comfort and control of a communal group?


1If only my good friend, science-fiction editor Judith Merril, were still alive to guide me (Merril 1976): my last sad act was to be her email executor and answer posthumous messages. But Judy's spirit still talks to me (Wellman 1998), and I've also benefitted from cyber- and meat-space conversations with Erin Bradner, Mark Chignell, Dimitrina Dimitrova, Danyel Fisher, Keith Hampton, Caroline Haythornthwaite, Marilyn Mantei Tremaine, Michael Milton, Andrew Odlyzko, Detelina Radoeva, Karen Ramsay, Howard Rheingold, Charles Tilly, Beverly Wellman, James Witte, correspondents at the American Sociological Association's Community and Urban section who commented on a preliminary mini-draft (, and my compatriots at the University of Toronto's Centre for Urban and Community Studies, Knowledge Media Design Institute, Personalization Technology Laboratory (BCUL), and Virtually Social Research Network. The research that underlies this paper has been supported by the Bell Canada University Laboratories, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the TeleLearning Centre of Excellence.

2"Affordances" is a term widely used in the study of human computer interaction (Norman 1999). Erin Bradner (2000) writing for computer scientists, has coined the term "social affordances" to emphasize the social as well as individual implications of the technological features of computer-supported communication networks and human-computer interfaces. See also Gaver (1996).

3I focus on the opportunities and transformations for communities that computerized communication networks affords. Although this will seem natural to most computer scientists, when many sociologists think about the future, they think about with interpersonal abuses or righting structural wrongs (see Risman, Tomaskovic-Devey and Dimes 2000). I do not want to be overly pollyanna-ish: the changes I am chronicling can easily evoke major social problems: lessened privacy, increased surveillance, machine-dependent vulnerability to computerized crime and breakdown (Forster 1909); the inadequacy of lives lived predominantly online. To address these issues requires more space and time than I have available here.

4"If you build it, they will come," is as likely in computer-supported communication as it is in building expressways and the Field of Dreams movie. Already "internet traffic reports" are being made available (Stellin 2000;

5Examples are Ricochet [], Bell Canada's ExpressVu [], and the just announced Microsoft-Gilat alliance [].

6These examples come from Garton and Wellman (1995).

7For a discussion of how this affects home-based teleworkers, see Salaff, Wellman and Dimitrova (1998).


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