Collective Individuation: A New Theoretical Foundation for Social Networks

Despite their increasing ubiquity, there is no fundamental philosophical theory of social networking, and we believe this has limited the technical development social networking to very limited use-cases. We propose to develop a theoretical discourse on the new generation of social networks and to develop software prototypes for an alternative. Our project centres on the question: what is collective individuation and what is its relation to collective intelligence?

Current social networking websites and network-science are based on individuals as the basic analytic unit, with social relationships as simple “ties” between individuals. In contrast, this project wants to approach even individual humans as fundamentally shaped by their collective social relationships, building from Simondon’s insight that individuation is always simultaneously psychological and collective. Our proposal should enable new kinds of social imagination and social structure through redesigning the concept of the ‘social’ in the time of Facebook.

Facebook and the problem of individuation

The Origin of Social Networks: Moreno and Saint Simon

One of the emerging research areas of web science and network analysis is the attempt to analyze social networks in terms of network theory as it directly descends from sociology. Under the traditional sociological use of graph theory, individuals are considered nodes and their social relationships mapped to edges. In its entirety, a network can be seen as the representation of certain social relations. Such a conceptualization seems to be a foundation of a new discipline mediating the computer science and sociology and cultural studies. Our questions start from: where did this entire conception come from? What legitimates its being? What is the consequence of such a conceptualization?

J. L. Moreno(1889-1974), a psychologist and founder of sociometry was one of the first sociologists to demonstrate the value of graph-theoretic approaches to social relationships. The most-often quoted example is Moreno’s work at the New York State Training School for Girls in Hudson, where run-away cases were more than 14 times than the norm! Moreno identified it as a consequence of the particular network of social relationships amongst the girls in the school via the creation of sociological surveys that helped him “map the network”, and then he used the self-same model to propose another allocation plan that successfully reduced the number of run-away. The belief in the representation of social relations by ‘charting’ prompts Moreno to write that ‘as the pattern of the social universe is not visible to us, it is made visible through charting. Therefore the sociometric chart is the more useful the more accurately and realistically it portrays the relations discovered.’ [1] But one should be careful that by doing this, the charting is no longer a mere representation of social relationships, but also these maps of social relationships should be used to realize what Moreno called social planning, meaning to reorganize “organic” social relationships with the help of planned and technologically-embodied social networks. At this point that we can identify a question which is not yet been tackled significantly by research, which Moreno already proposed in 1941: the superimposition of technical social networks upon pre-existing social networks ‘produces a situation that takes society unaware and removes it more and more from human control’ [2] This lost of control is the central problem of the technical social networks currently, and in order to address this phenomenon, we propose to question some of the presuppositions that have been hidden in the historical development of social network analysis.

Despite their explicit mapping of social relationships, social networking analysis is actually an extreme expression of social atomism. This proposition has to be understood sociologically and philosophically: The presupposition of the social networks is that individuals constitute the network, and hence individuals – which in traditional sociology (if we count Actor Network Theory as an alternative), tend to be humans –  are the basic unchanging units of the social networks. If there is any collectivity, it is to be considered primarily to be created by the sum of the individuals and their social relationships as embodied as connected individuals in the network’s graph.  This view is at odds with what has been widely understood in anthropology: namely that there is a meaning of a society, community, or some other collectivity that is beyond merely the sum of individuals and their relationships.  Historically, it can be noted that the development of collectives as originally exist in the form of families, clans, tribes, and so on and so forth even pre-dates the notion of the autonomous individual [3].

The reemergence of sociometry should attribute to the proliferation of technical networks, and here we must recognize that today is not longer human relations are mapped in sociometry but virtually anything which can be digitalized, or more precisely anything can be represented as data. The arrival of network society supported by technological infrastructure further reinforce the concept of sociometry, and also the spirit of industrialization which one can trace back to Saint Simon. The French sociologist Pierre Musso shows that Saint-Simon was the first philosopher who fully conceptualized the idea of networks via his understanding of physiology, which he then used to analyze vastly different domains, albeit more imaginatively rather than concretely as done later by Moreno.[4] Saint Simon indeed envisioned networks as including communication, transportation, and the like, holding the idea of a network as both his primary concept and tool for social transformation. Saint Simon believes that through industrialization, it is possible to create a socialist state by reallocating wealth and resources from the rich to the poor, from the talented to the less talented, like an organism attains its inner equilibrium by unblocking all the circulations.

Today we know from history that Saint Simon’s sociology was blind to the question of classes which was later analyzed by Karl Marx in Das Kapital. Marx’s vision of the society is often distorted as social planning, which is more or less the codification of collections in the Soviet fashion. Moreno criticized this distorted figure of Marx and proposed that the ‘next social revolution will be of the “sociometric” type. The revolutions of the socialistic-marxistic type are outmoded ; they failed to meet with the sociodynamics of the world situation’. Moreno’s announcement maybe demonstrated today by Facebook as some of the pop writers on technology would say, but in fact what Moreno means by that has to further discussed, especially the concept of spontaneity. But neither Saint Simon’s distinctly old-fashioned industrial vision is considered, since it is obviously that socialism doesn’t come naturally through industrialization, but what is new is the imagination of a new democratic society (one can probably call it Facebook democracy), which is frictionless through the mediation of networks. It is the same for Moreno, the sociometric revolution never gets rid of its own shadow.

Alienation and Disindividuation

The graphical portrayal of social networks as nodes and lines reinforces the perception of Moreno and Saint Simon that social relations always exit in the form from one atomic unit to another. This image, with its obvious bias towards vision, has become the central paradigm in understanding society and the technological systems. Yet any image is also a mediation between the subject and object that preconfigures – or pre-programs – a certain intuition onto the world [5].  One can imagine that the image itself of a social network as merely lines and dots constrains innovation as it cannot understand how to graphically represent any collectivity beyond the individual as primacy, but always take it only consequence or byproduct of the map of interconnected atoms. This is something Moreno forgot or he couldn’t see at his time: the materialization of social relations, not in the figure of charts on the paper, but controllable data stored on the computer which mediate the actions of users. What Moreno called a sociometric revolution is a postulation that through certain sociometric planning, the spontaneity of human interactions can be enhanced. Moreno gained this insight from his long time works on psychodrama, based on which he criticized psychoanalyst especially Freud couldn’t ‘act out’. But we want to point out that firstly seeing each individual as a social atom already implies an extreme form of individualism that intrinsically dismiss the position of collective; secondly today when sociometrical vision is materialized in social networking website, what is at stake is exactly Moreno’s own faith in spontaneity and the question of individuation.

Social networking sites like Facebook stay within this paradigm by providing only digital representations of social relations that pre-exist in a richer social space, and allows new associations based on different discovery algorithms to emerge. Facebook’s very existence relies largely on the presupposition of individualism, as the primary unit in Facebook is always the individual’s Facebook profile. One can always recall the original idea of Facebook, as it was shown in the film, the young Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook as a tool to express his sexual desire, that is to say a libidinal economy intrinsically individualistic. This exploitation of libidinal economy is not new today, in the past decades, we already witnessed the exploitation of libidinal energy in consumerism [6]. In the turn of the 20th century, the father of public relations, Edward Barnays adopted psychoanalysis in his marketing techniques and integrated the economy of commodities with the libidinal economy. Those cynics who is so used to laugh at psychoanalytical readings of advertisements may have to step back when they discover that in fact Barnays is the nephew of Sigmund Freud.

Barnays employed the psychoanalysts to participate in designing marketing strategies. One of the well known examples is to promote the tobacco business, since at that time there was not many women smoked in united state. Barnays hired the female movie stars to smoke in the public, this create a circuit of libidinal economy which has to be completed through the action of smoking, which is also to say buying the cigarette. Today it is no longer simply cigarettes, but whatever commodities. We see a circuit is completed on the bodies of human being, firstly the bodily exploitation and secondly by controlling the desire of the workers to speed up the circulation process. On Facebook, it seems as if the users have their own will to execute actions, but in such as technological system, the vision, actions have to adopt the configurations and functions of the system. In general, on other sites such as Google+ group profiles or anonymous profiles are actively discouraged. One cannot deny that these social networks are able to bring people together and form groups whose activity ranges from shopping to protests. Yet we have to be careful here, as these groups are positive externalities in economic terms. These social networking website support only a few collective actions, but are instead optimized for individuals to map their own network of friends so they can leave individuals commenting on each other’s posts and clicking on very basic individual operations such as ‘Like’ and ‘Want’, which are now increasingly littered throughout the entire Web.

When the users are considered as social atoms which can then be superimposed onto a technological network, the spontaneity and innovation within the collective is given to control of the networks, which is mainly driven by intensive marketing and consumerism aimed at individuals [7]. Social networks have obviously become both an apparatus to express and control the desire of the users. The subject is an atom, and within the social networks, subjectivation becomes an engineering process subjected to careful monitoring and control, which has been thought of by theorists like François Perroux [8] as a source of a new kind of alienation. This is not entirely dissimilar to the alienation which Marx described in Das Kapital which was produced by having human workers adapt to the rhythm of the machines, so the worker loses control of his vital energy and ultimately his time to reflect and to act. When Marx describes the vital forces of the collective, he uses the German word Naturwüchsigkeit, which can literally translated into English as the nature-growth-ness, which is similar to what Moreno calls spontaneity [9]. If an existential critique can be introduced here, we can say time hence attention of each social atom is chopped into smaller pieces and disperse on the networks by the status updates, interactions, advertisements, and the like. This form of collective that is exactly what Martin Heidegger would call ‘das Man’, the ‘they’ who exhausts one’s time without giving meaning to one’s own existence. In fact, Bernard Stielger would hold that these constructed social atoms are not individuals are not really ‘individuals’, but the disindividuals, as they seem to have lost their ability to act out and to relate except within the apparatus of an atomistic social network [10].

Social Engineering and Technical Engineering

Moreno’s sociometry as response to both Marx’ economic materialism and Freud’s psychological materialism encounters its own impasse today; Moreno and Saint-Simon didn’t take digital networks and telecommunication into account in their theories – yet nonetheless technological materialism is currently tied to this new digital economic, psychological, and technological network.[11] Society is mediated by data. Sites like Facebook uses graphs of personal connections to predict and hence ‘recommend’ products, and so produce desires in the individual that show that the autonomous individual is in fact shaped not only by their relationships in the network, but by the existence of the network itself. While the Internet is a distributed and decentralized network, industrialization reverses this principle as simply to maintain a social graph for analysis the size of Facebook requires immense centralization. At the same time it creates a technical reality, with a deception of being an unmodifiable default. Yet, we have to ask: is Facebook a social collectivity, or the false image of one? Going beyond the social graph, we need to grasp other possibilities of ‘social networks’.

The social engineering of facebook is supported by its multiple features ranging from sharing and ‘I like’ functions to privacy settings. Here we sees the unification of social engineering and technical engineering, which also poses the great challenge to the humanities. It will be necessary to look at how these realities are created and accepted, for example if one tries to leave, one losses everything, including the social relations, profile data, the possibility of communicating with friends. Even when one uses social networking sites, individuals and expressions are conditioned by the capacities permitted according to the features of the website and there is little to no privacy. One cannot choose to be anonymous, on the other hand the verification of identities become more and more an important to industry.

There can be political considerations, for example, in China the social networks request the users to prove their identities by showing their identity cards, and this may be in response to the fact that the question of anonymity is seemingly increasingly important for democracy and transparency as has been shown by Wikileaks. There is even a demand for anonymity, as the Japanese Ni Chanel(2ch) which entirely operates on the basis of anonymity has became one of the most popular social network website in Japan. These features would obviously be vital to those in the Middle East, London, Spain, and #OccupyWallSt. If subjectivation within social networks is an engineering process, what is necessary is to produce a new type of thinking and new form of social networks. Some of this thinking can be seen in various slogans: data portability, privacy and personal possession of data. These slogans are natural responses  to the monstrous ability of social networks to create “walled gardens” out of personal data. Though these slogan are important to fight against the dictatorship of Facebook, they still lack an overall reevaluation of facebook and a vision of an alternative social network which is not merely an immediate response.

Project, projection and collective individuation

Simondon and Collective Individuation

Hence we propose to rethink from the perspective of the collective, as a remedy to the individualistic approach of the current social networks. Sociometry demands a mapping which is becoming more and more precise, and reflects the probabilities of connections, interactions, marketing, that is an individuation that leads to disindividuals. Can we think of an new kind of individuation that cannot be reduced to statistics, and whose power only work in ambiguity, instead of precisions? The French philosopher Gilbert Simondon proposed in his book L’Individuation psychique et Collective a model of individuation which can be therapeutic to the current technological catastrophe.[12]

Simondon suggests that individuation is always both psychical and collective. What Simondon means by psychical individuation can be considered to be the psychology of individuals, for example under the situation of anxiety, grief, angry, etc. Simondon also emphasize on collective individuation. For Simondon, individuals and groups are not opposite to each other, meaning while in the group, one loses his or her singularity, as what was considered as the Soviet type of collectivism. Instead, the individual and the group constitute a constant process of individuation. Psychical individuation to Simondon is more an individualization, which is also the condition of individuation, while collective individuation is one that bring the individual to constant transformation. Hence one can understand that nature is in fact not in opposition to human being, but rather the primary phase of being, human being and the technical milieu created by them constitute the second phase of being, which if we can say so, it is the technical individuation proposed by Bernard Stiegler.

Simondon hence rejected the American  microsociology and psychology, which indirectly includes Moreno’s sociometry (it is considered as a type of microsociology), as being substantialism. The substantial approach towards individuals and groups easily ignores the dynamic of the social, and see individual and collective as interiority and exteriority that has to be separated . This approach falls prey to the extreme of psychologism and sociologism. Simondon instead proposes to think of individuation as a necessary dynamics between individuals and groups. He distinguishes ‘in group’ and ‘out group’, and suggests to think of ‘in group’ as an intermediate between individual beings and ‘out group’. Simondon considers individuation as a process of crystallization. Considering a supersaturated solution is undergoing crystallization, by absorbing energy, each individual ion is transforming itself according to the relations with others, that is its milieu. What Simondon is trying to provoke is to bypass the question of social as a question of form, which is also a question of norms, and consider it as dynamics of energy distribution. Crystallization is a process that though finally gives a form, e.g, the identity of a specific crystal, it is also at the same time a process depends less on the form(on can always figure out forms) but rather on the redistribution of energy and matter. One may sense some similarity between Moreno and Simondon in this respect, that is the spontaneity of ingroup and outgroup; and it is also by this reason that we believe Moreno’s sociometric technique though can be used today to analyse social networks like Facebook, Twitter, but it also post tremendous danger of social engineering that fall back to psychologism and sociologism.

Projects as the Basic Unit of Group

One may want to ask:  isn’t what we have seen on Facebook already a psychic and collective individuation? It is true to a Simondonian philosophy can be a tool to analyze social relations, but one must go beyond the limit that thoughts are merely tools of analysis, and recognize that it is also tools for transformation. As we have seen, Facebook individuates primarily atomistic individuals, and we propose to start from the collective instead in order to redesign the relation between the individual and the collective. Instead of a social atom, we must find out how a collective social network changes shapes the individual and take this phenomenon as primacy. This social network will be one that enables collective individuation but also as a remedy to the industrial toxication and exploitation of libidinal energy.

Hence we want to reflect on the question of group, and we want to propose that what distinguishes a collective from an individual is the question of a common project pertaining to groups. Take for example Ushahidi, a website that provided mapping capabilities after the earthquarke in Haidi in 2010 in order to help Haiti recover from the crisis. Using a web-based platform, Ushahdidi enabled both locals and overseas volunteers to collect SMS messages with a special code to map the crisis in order help save people who might otherwise be lost.  After the earthquake and  tsunami in Japan in 2011, engineers from Japan developed a map of damage of the tsunami and the emergencies need to be taken care of through analyzing tweets and other social medias. The dynamics of these projects go far beyond simply posting status updates, but allow people to dynamically work together on common goals. It is the moment of the formation of projects that allow the individuals to individuate themselves through the collective, and so give meaning to the individual. On Facebook, one can establish a group, a page, an event, it seems to allow a common project to appear, but it doesn’t provide the tools for collective individuation based on collaboration.

Passing from a philosophical model to its realization in a technical system, we propose that the social networking site should exist as a set of tools to enable the collective creation and administration of a project. The collective intelligence is activated insofar as the group successfully uses its human and technical abilities to accomplish its goals. A user must always belong to a project, without which he or she will not be able to fully utilize the features – and projects are defined by groups. This is a first attempt to tackle the individualism proposed in the current paradigm of social networks. Each project is defined by a goal and requirements of fulfillments as collectively initiated and updated by members of the group. Tasks will be assigned to users either in the form of individuals or subgroups, the progress of the tasks will be monitored and indicated. However, the collective should be dynamic rather than static, groups can be merged together to form larger projects and a project can also be split into smaller collectives. Groups can discover each other and communicate to seek possibility of collaborations and information sharing.

Case Studies and a Possible Framework

In our project ‘Social Web’, we look at some of the current models, including Wikipedia, some open source platforms, and alternative social networking projects like Lorea, Federated General Assembly, Crabgrass, and Diaspora –  as well as unusual social networking websites such as Ni Channel, NicoNico Douga in Japan. Some of these groups already demonstrate the value of groups and projects, for example the encyclopedia project of Wikipedia, also Lorea and Crabgrass to create an alternative social networks that favor groups and common working spaces. We also recognize that though each of them has some of the collaborative features necessary for a new kind of social network, they don’t really take the idea of individuation at the core of there designs. Besides returning to the primacy of groups, and emphasize on group management, we also suggest some other technical features for such a vision of collective social network:

  1. The network primarily exists as directed social communication aiming at a project, and to enable these various natural language forums such as discussions and wikis should be added. However, unlike traditional social networks, the purpose of the social networking site will be to help users store and refine data, with the data being stored in an open format such as RDF.  Users and groups have the permission to manage the data of the project, and retrieve this data using tagging and search. Mapping should be employed as one possible, and easily interpretable, way to understand collective data collection.
  2. Anonymity can be allowed under certain conditions (for example the group is wholly anonymous, or the group decides to open to anonymity) by collective projects.  For example, in Ni Channel, one of the  reasons that the inventor wants it to be anonymous is that there won’t be segregation that might harm the formation of collectives. [13] Personal data should be accessible only to the collective, and not even to those that run the server. Concerning the security of the networks, data either on the servers will be encrypted by implementing public key infrastructure, with the group being defined by shared public keys. Hence the ISP and system administrators won’t be able to access the data on the server. Secondly the data will be stored distributed across multiple servers in order to minimize the consequences of attacks.

Conclusions & future work

The above outline is an introduction philosophical framework of a funded project on ‘social web’. Facebook to us, represents an industrialization of social relationships to the extreme that it transforms the ‘social’ to a totally ‘atomic’ individualism. The Saint Simon’s imagination of socialism based on the believe of the common good and well being of individuals through building networks is deemed to be a failure, but the relation between network and society take a more aggressive form at the time of ubiquitous metadata. Moreno’s sociometry technique probably finds its best companion today on Facebook and other social networking apparatus, but celebrating the reemergence of sociometric technique is only blind to the danger posed by the presuppositions of such theory and the technological development. We propose that social computing today must go beyond the traditional digital humanities, which  propose to analyze the social transformation by taking technologies into account, rather it will be more fruitful to follow what Stiegler calls pharmacology, which is to say technology is both good and bad at the same time, but it is necessary to develop a therapeutic approach against the toxicity generated by it, which in our case is Facebook(s).

Collective individuation proposes that another social network is possible, and it is necessary to consider an economy which is far more than marketing, click rate, number of users, etc. For us, a project is also a projection, that is the anticipation of a common future of the group. By tiring groups to projects, we want to propose that individuation is always a temporal and existential, rather than merely social and psychological, the projecting a common will to a project, it produces a co-individuation of groups and individuals. The project is under development, but we hope the above outlines show the problem of the social networks and the limits of digital humanities (especially those who embraces sociometry) in understanding social computing, and it is clear that a new method towards software development is possible, and urgent.


[1] J.L. Moreno, Who Shall Survive? Foundations of Sociometry, Group Psychotherapy and Sociodrama, Beacon House Inc .Beacon, N. Y. 1978

[2] J. L. Moreno, Foundations of Sociometry: An Introduction, in sociometry, American Sociological Association , Vol. 4, No. 1 (Feb., 1941), pp. 15-35

[3] Such a view of individualism is also naturalized in economic studies since Adam Smith, who saw division of labour as a natural development and the exchange between individuals as the origin of economic life.

[4] P. Musso, Aux origines du concept moderne : corps et réseau dans la philosophie de Saint Simon. In: Quaderni. N. 3, Hiver 87/88. pp. 11-29. doi : 10.3406/quad.1987.2037

[5] One can also speak of the Weltbild as deployed by Heidegger, where Heidegger showed that an image is not simply a representation of the world, but also that the world can be controlled and manipulated as an image.

[6] Bernard Stiegler, For a New Critique of Political Economy, Polity, London, 2010

[7] After the Like button, Facebook has announced in September 2011 of  introducing the Want button, that is designed for marketing, http://www.auctionbytes.com/cab/abn/y11/m09/i23/s01

[8] The French economist François Perroux took up the question of industry and social transformation from Saint-Simon and developed a vision of collective creation, in which humans and machines act on each other and through the standardization of objects, human beings can renew their life style, and produce a system of ‘auto collective creation’. Notably Perroux was also influenced by Schumpeter, especially the concept of creative destruction.

[9] Hence one should recognize the problematic of Moreno’s critique of Marx, and one may be able to develop a new relation between Moreno and Marx

[10] B. Stiegler, états de choc : Bêtise et savoir au XXIe Siècle, Mille et une Nuit, 2012, p.102-105, where he proposes three types of disindividuation, firstly the regression to the pure social, what is pure social is the animal form of life; secondly the deskilling process by technologies, for example when the craftsmen had to enter factories and gave up their own skills and way of life; thirdly the process of ‘bracketing’ the previous individuation which produces a ‘quantum jump’ and exceed the threshold of the psychical transformation, according to Stiegler, these three types of disindividuations cannot be separated.

[11] J. L. Moreno, The Future of Man’s World,, New York Beacon House, Psychodrama Monographs, 1947

[12] Gilbert Simondon, L’individuqtion Psychique et Collective, à la lumière des notions de Forme, Information, Potentiel et Métastabilité, Paris, Editions Aubier, 1989 et 2007

[13] Satoshi Hamano, Architecutre no seitaikei: Johokankyo wa ikani sekkeisaretekitaka( The Ecology of Architecture), Chinese translation, Taiwan, 2011

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Collective Individuation: A New Theoretical Foundation for Social Networks