Monday, March 16, 2009
Social Nervous System -- Or Nervous Social System?
By Kendall Allen 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 Forbes.com, "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):
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:
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.
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Kendall Allen is headquartered in New York City. She consults for publishers and agencies on integrating digital -- most recently at MKTG, where she just completed a long-term assignment. Previously she was managing director of Incognito Digital, LLC, an independent digital media agency and creative studio. She also held top posts at iCrossing and Fathom Online.
Online Spin for Monday, March 16, 2009: