What connects Ebola, SONY, Facebook, and coffee houses in 2015?

Civilisation and networks. How networks operate and behave define modern society. Networks on which we live, travel, connect, create, communicate and share are now embedded in every aspect of how we live, everywhere in the world.

In 1615 the precocious teenage painter Anthony Van Dyck painted ‘Portrait of a Seventy Year Old Man’ just as the culture of civilisation flourished in the new coffee houses of Europe: In 2015 we still will want to talk, share, exchange ideas, be culturally rich and diverse.

Except that this teenage century has unprecedented levels of technology which create epic levels of choice, volume, and a landscape which needs constant navigation and curation in order to simply understand.

A healthy person and society enjoys good physical health. Good psychological health. And good social health. Lonely? You don’t have good social health. Unable to get offline and meet people face-to-face? You are out of balance. Limited in your ability to filter information and know what is good and bad intelligence? Another kind of poverty.

All of this is what I call Social Health. Nearly fifty years ago the World Health Organisation identified health as being the triptych of Physical, Psychological and Social Health http://www.who.int/about/definition/en/print.html. I believe that it is time we understood what ‘social wellbeing’ means in the context of modern networks, social networks, and a mobile world.


Networks wind around us more tightly than ever before. As I said in the series of short programmes I made for BBC Radio 4 in 2014, ‘Networking Nation’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04l0gdl networks are everywhere.


We can see the patterns in how we live, work, socialise in network science, no more so than science itself. The spread of Ebola conforms to network science behaviour of the so-called ‘spreading rate’ and the exponential increase in hosts behaves just like an internet virus on another ‘free scale network’ http://www3.nd.edu/~malber/sem_un/Project%201/Ebola.ppt.

I gave a short presentation about Ebola and the spread of information and disease at WPP Stream in Greece which you can see here: Stream Global 2014 // Editorial Intelligence’s Julia …

Ebola is largely confined to Western Africa, where communities have had to adapt to a huge changes in behaviour in order to stop the spread: They have had to stop and limit physical contact.

The social impact on society in West African countries affected by Ebola – the devastation to the surviving communities – is far less publicised than the medical implications for the developed economies whose media focus on spreading fear of contagion.


The cognitive psychologist Professor Matthew Lieberman puts it so well in his stunning book, Social: Why We are Wired to Connect http://www.scn.ucla.edu – The human brain is fundamentally geared, anthropologically, to focus on connection and social relationships. If you diminish or kill the ability to make relationships you cause huge damage.

Humans build networks of relationships which all mimic the family, the closest human network bond. It turns out – research famously conducted by Professor Robin Dunbar – that far from human networks being as vast as social networks would suggest, they are in fact small: a nucleus of between 7 and 11 connections, rising to a maximum of 150.

So we need to rethink how we connect ands how we manage and absorb our networks in our increasingly blended work and home lives, if we are to successfully have good social health around these networks.

Part of this will mean letting go of the fantasy that having hundreds and thousands of friends, followers and connections is ‘better’ than having a few. What matters is reconnecting to the quality of relationships, not the quantity.


To my surprise I found myself gravitating back to Facebook at the end of 2014, having spent three years happily tweeting on Twitter several times a day.

Something about Facebook attracted me. The postings were made by people I know, whose faces and voices I could recall. Being face to face in a Facebook world is something I have talked about before. I realise it matters when you use social media that you can summon up the person you are communicating with more often than not.

Mobile and technology social networks do mimic face to face connection well: Robin Dunbar’s research shows that people find Skype a good proxy when you are geographically far apart.

And I hear my youngest son on his headphones on the Xbox not just playing with someone he has never met but having a friendship with him: He recently asked if I could organise a meeting with this kid (to which I replied: “Only when I speak to his mother!”

But we know the dependence on networks, the alternative reality which intrudes: When hackers recently took down Playstation and Xbox causing ‘denial of service’ to millions of users connected to their networks it exposed a new reality in our lives: We are so dependent on networks that we mimic them: When they ‘go down’ we go down, unable to function or socialise easily.


But network inflitration also causes problems, as SONY discovered, not so long after Edward Snowden revealed that the rest of us are monitored daily in ways we still cannot completely imagine.

I was just as keen as anyone else to pore over leaked emails showing just how venal and crass movie executives are when they think they are not being ‘overheard’ electronically. But of course what the intrusion of privacy represents is complicated and not at all straightforward.

In 2014 we understood that the price we pay for internet access and ‘freedom’ to connect on social media or use mobile phones is also intense surveillance. Getting that balance of personal privacy versus state security and commercial viability right will affect our discussions about networks and how much we want to be on them – or asked to be on them.


We have a productivity crisis in Britain at work. This is partly due to to pure economics but it is also affected by behavioural economics. How people at work behave and absorb the tremendous changes and challenges of technology and the Social Age – and with it their Social Health – will affect the bottom line and with it workplace wellbeing.

As I wrote recently in HR Magazine, management attitudes to health and fitness need to change and absorb the latest thinking on social health and the ability to manage networks and knowledge and time effectively and efficiently http://www.hrmagazine.co.uk/hr/features/1148575/networking.

In 2015 we need to rebalance our use of networks and how we live on them.
Human behaviour, not technology, is often the central key to change. We need to look at our social health – our use of networks and our behaviour on them – as much as we do our physical and our psychological health.

In the meantime my recommendation is this: Get face to face with somebody and go and see some wonderful art. Be friends on Facebook with someone whose face and voice you recognise or get to know them. Focus on developing strategies for your social health as you head out, new year’s resolutions in hand, to that other place of health: The gym.