Using secondary research, Castells (2001) points out that the Internet has largely been appropriated by social practice. In other words, its primary function is as a tool; not necessarily as an autonomous space, in contrast to some of the early literature from Rheingold and Perry Barlow.
Castells concludes that overall, the Internet seems to have a positive effect on sociability and increases exposure to more types of information, which may have secondary effects on sociability. Castells also questions the overall conceptual approach to the Internet’s effect on sociability. He believes that the question needs to be situated within the context of patterns of sociability in society, to insert its effects into the overall evolution of patterns of social interaction.
Castells points to the work of some urban sociologists, including Barry Wellman, who showed that networks substitute for places as supports of sociability both in suburbs and in cities for many years. Castells believes that the definition of community used in much of the discourse on virtual communities is overly reliant on a spatial factor.
He refers to Wellman’s definition, that “Communities are networks of interpersonal ties that provide sociability, support, information, a sense of belonging, and social identity.” According to Castells (and Giddens, Putnam, Wellman, Beck, etc.) there is an emerging system of social relationships focused on the individual, which Castells refers to as networked individualism.
Network individualism, he adds, results from the individualization of the relationship between capital and labor, between workers and the work process; induced by the disintegration of the nuclear family; and sustained by new patterns of urbanization.
The Internet works to facilitate weak ties and under certain conditions can create new weak ties in one’s social network. Online communities are ephemeral, more like “networks of sociability,” according to Castells. The Internet can also help maintain strong ties at a distance. Overall, the Internet provides a good tool for the diffusion of networked individualism as the dominant form of sociability.