Social Nervous System -- Or Nervous Social System?

Last week, I was captivated by three flashes of content that sparked the media sphere: Jon Stewart going at it with Jim Cramer, stirring public commentary; Tim Armstrong taking the CEO seat at AOL, bringing on knowing banter in media circles; and a particularly well-put piece by Joshua-Michele Ross on, "The Rise of the Social Nervous System." It was an engaging and interconnected week, with the meme once again buzzing across the board. Ross' article, on what he calls the "hive mind," really hit the mark during a very buzzing week.

What is the Hive Mind?

The intense, rising interconnectivity powered by the Internet and the aggressive adoption of social media tools have spurred the social nervous system Ross describes, where we all participate in what he dubs the hive mind. "In a social nervous system there will be increasing pressure to be connected 24/7 to the hive mind that is Facebook, Twitter and so on. Those who do not connect, share and collaborate will have a hard time in business and in social life," he writes. And because communication is the base function of the Internet, when you scale up communications, you change the world.



I agree on many levels. But I can't help but wonder: is this a social nervous system or nervous social system? Nervous seems the operative word. When you look at habits, trends, character types and themes -- the palpable urgency is fascinating. Like many of you, I have been involved with digital since the early' 90s. We have watched new usage behavior emerge along with media platform and utility innovation. Research, communication, workflow management, online collaboration, and community have all seemed obsessive at one time or another. And each behavioral development moved us forward -- or moved us someplace.

Flash-forward to 2009, with social media at its compulsive hilt, and there are new, more hyper-active behaviors to consider. Within the so-called hive mind, it is the power users who are the most interesting, because they use the media with the most urgency.

The M.O. of the Power User 

I think about my friend Collins, who lives in Sidney, Australia. We reconnected recently and have discovered a number of shared networks. I have realized he is always on. I am served the articles he reads; videos he views; shows he watches; comments overheard;  random thoughts; conversation bits with people of interest; conference sound bytes; geo-political snippets. What makes this really interesting is that he was always quite shy, and he works not in media, but biochemical research. Yet he covers a full spectrum with his rapid-fire, meaty posts, tweets, diggs and social networking outreach. His recent topics (many of them from just this weekend):


  • The state of cancer research
  • Headlines in The Onion
  • Social media and consumer brand advocacy
  • Aspirations for doctor peer groups online
  • Deconstruction of the Stewart/Cramer interview
  • Elves in Iceland
  • Favored Twitter commands
  • The insecurity of Chinese leadership over U.S. debt
  • Falsity of cable programming
  • Ethics of journalism
  • His Twitter stats

    He is as well versed in the conventions of social media as anyone we know. When I look at the themes and spread someone like Collins has planted out there in the sphere, with his the round-the-clock output, I ponder these ideas:


  • How much of this is about being there, not missing a single connection point?


  • As we establish digital identity through posting, sharing, connecting, we are forcefully telegraphing value and passing cultural currency.


  • Collins didn't always have these tools, but he's always been brilliant and a great 1:1 conversationalist. Does his brain really work this way? Or, is this a sort of curated consciousness?

    Social Media is a Talkie Media

    In our day-to day-life, the adage that actions speak louder than words has always rung true. We respect those who show us instead of tell us. The show creates our perception of their personality. Yet, in the digital media sphere, where social media drives connectivity -- words, links, packets of information allow us to literally curate our public perception. We derive our identity there from the tell.

    Ross also says "the outcome of the social nervous system is that we see the shift away from privacy as an inalienable right to an individual responsibility." This rings true. If you have written, been written about, been hired or fired, posted photos, or networked online -- you have at least a seed of a digital identity. And, if you don't take hold of it, it will take on a life of its own. I have always believed this.

    Certainly, those of us who are in the business, along with avid media consumers (and Collins), take this to the extreme. We are managing digital identities and establishing our footprint all day long. We have a new relationship with our own privacy. And aggressive, agile use of social networking tools, micro-blogging in particular, removes additional boundaries. As dexterous digital natives, it's not clear that we care.

    I do not know what the future holds. Will there come a time, with new behaviors coming to the fore, that we dial back the digital identities established today? Will we erase our footprints and move on to another place? Is that even possible?

    During the most colorful, buzzing weeks in media, I think about conversations with my dad. He was a newsman with Knight Ridder for 35 or so years, and we talk often on the future of journalism, media and related ethics or community issues. Since the early days of the Internet, we've had great talks on online media and digital platforms. But we quietly draw the line at topics like heavy-duty social media. If I were to even speak of digital identity and one's personal brand, he would smile and tell me he knows exactly who I am. And then we'd start picking apart the Stewart/Cramer smackdown.




  • 8 comments about "Social Nervous System -- Or Nervous Social System? ".
    Check to receive email when comments are posted.
    1. Mark Naples from WIT Strategy, March 16, 2009 at 11:34 a.m.

      Spot on, Kendall - This is right at the tip of the iceberg for people who don't get why Social Networks are so important, even if they aren't making money now. The point isn't whether or not some of them will make money - many will, and some will make a ton. The point resides within their reach and the influence that they can have - on influence.

    2. Catherine Ventura from @catherinventura, March 16, 2009 at 11:51 a.m.

      Great post. I've long felt we have been moving in the direction of a kind of cultural telepathy. We're clearer getting closer by the second. The footprints won't be erased. But, like cuneiform and scrolls, they may be superseded by something even more relevant and powerful...

    3. Simon Cohen from Bell Canada, March 16, 2009 at noon

      There was an episode of the Outer Limits called "the stream";recap
      in which a society that has become completely interconnected to what is essentially Google on steroids falls victim to a rampant virus which threatens to kill them all.

      What I liked most about the story was the way it presents the central character (who through a childhood accident is unable to connect with the others) as deeply disadvantaged, being regarded by all others as almost sub-human. Of course, his immunity to the rapidly spreading virus is the key that saves the world.

      It makes me wonder what exactly will be trade-offs over the coming years between being an active participant in the nervous system and being someone who either sits on the sidelines, or opts out completely.

      I'm not convinced that those who opt out will be the pariahs of our society.

      But then that might be wishful thinking biased in part by my ongoing absence from Facebook and Twitter ;)

    4. Jim Dugan from PipPops LLC, March 16, 2009 at 1 p.m.

      We want instant intelligence like Captain Kirk when he taps his communicator over his heart. We're even beyond that. We don't want to even have to take the time to do much more than twitch or twitter - if you try to get in touch with anybody - instantly - or find out something instantly as to your "call a friend" twitter - it happens. What's the holdback? It's instant, it's what we want - maybe we all don't realize it yet?

    5. David Sanchez from APCO Worldwide, March 16, 2009 at 1:32 p.m.

      The Social Nervous System, is a bit extreme, and we are still very far from it, I am afraid what Joshua-Michele Ross tried to explained on this article does not do any justice to the profound web sciences that takes to explain the internet infrastructure, social phenomena and it's social impact on a civilization.

      With no qualm most of the remarks are surely inspire by current and developing work by pioneers like Nova Spivack, Hrafn Thorisson and many other scientist, entrepreneurs and futurist currently working on semantic web infrastructure, intelligence, conciseness research, artificial intelligence, Global Brain and Global Mind and beyond.

    6. Tim Mccormick from McCormick Fields, March 16, 2009 at 3:27 p.m.

      Thank you Kendall for your topical insights
      on social media/networks. We are likely
      witnessing the development of fresh
      communities--gathering places--where we
      can share our dreams and ideas without
      fearing the dreaded woes of personal
      appearance and fashion, and do not even
      need to smell good. While psychologically
      we should not substitute physical bonding
      with virtual relationships, this is a valuable
      step in letting many people feel less isolated
      from common-value sharing. We can on
      occasion replace eye contact with I(thou)
      contact. That is welcome.

    7. Mike Azzara from Content Marketing Partners, March 16, 2009 at 7:46 p.m.

      Kendall, this was simply terrific reading. Thank you so, so much.

      I believe you would be equally fascinated to read this 1995 article from Wired magazine, titled: "A Globe, Clothing Itself With A Brain."

      I saved it all these years, with many others, in a file folder labeled "Cool Articles." I just fished it out, Googled it, and present the URL here because I know you and your readers will want to see it.

    8. Rick Lavoie from RUCKUS, March 17, 2009 at 2:55 p.m.


      I agree that this was a great post. You're spot on because you hit into the core reason of why social has taken off and that are human needs thanks to technology. So when you mention things like "the show creating our perception of our personality", "privacy as an inalienable right", and "creating digital identities", this all taps into what most are not talking about and that is the emotional drivers behind it all. Most are focused on the tools, latest advancements of the tools, and how to make money from the tools so thank you.

    Next story loading loading..