The technological side of networking has advanced in such a way that interacting, working, learning and, perhaps, even thinking have changed irrevocably and will likely continue to do so with new innovations. Despite the fact that we are supposed to be more connected than ever, isolation also seems to have a role. No matter how vast and thorough the network, a network cannot create connections; they can only facilitate ones that already exist and ones that are forged willingly.
In the field of multi-disciplinary scholarship that has sprung up around technological networks, specialists employ sophisticated methods to research networks of electronic devices and the human users of them. Although primary focus of network research is the story of how connections function, behind that story is one about the not-so-networked.
This is not to add another voice to the aging argument that goes something like “it’s so ironic that the web is supposed to connect people, but it really prevents people from interacting because everyone has their face in their smartphones all the time.” These people are, supposedly, eschewing live company in favor of the networks they have joined so they are not examples of the network isolation I see peering through the cracks of a connected life.
In his book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, Howard Rheingold explains electronic and human networks and how garner success within them. The following is one example in which isolation stood out more to me than the social network aspect: Rheingold points to the reality that internet attention is not evenly distributed and that most networking is done on only a few major sites. “A few blogs get a jillion inbound links and hits, and a jillion blogs get a few inbound links and hits” (195). Or, in actuality, to expand this example beyond blogs, there are pages on the internet that are never seen at all. To me, that equates to millions of people screaming in empty halls with no one to hear. Content possibilities on the internet are infinite, but only a few people among the hoards will ever be successful in establishing any importance in a network clogged with everyone else.
Another kind of network isolation is apparent in the article The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet by Wired editors Chris Anderson and Michael Wolf. They detail the history of the web from its first iteration where the “worldwide” part was emphasized to the more recent evolution to app-based participation in networks. The authors do stress that connectivity among individuals is still at the heart of app use, but I see in it a shift toward being alone more than continuation of network participation. While there are mobile apps for the most popular social networks used for public and private discourse, most of them are more solo ventures. When I’m playing the game I’m shamefully addicted to, I do it in isolation without even a passing notion that millions of people may be playing it at the same time. When I listen to any of the hundreds of songs I’ve cultivated on Spotify, it feels private even though the app has the capability for more social functions. And so on with any number of other apps. I personally don’t care whether you can share a score or a song from the menu of an app because I don’t share. I have forsaken social networks in favor of being isolated along with everyone else.