2600 Article: Roll Your Own Hive-Mind

Editorial comment: This initially showed up in the Autumn 2009 issue of 2600: The Hacker Quarterly,Volume 26 Number 3, which is on stands now! I wrote it almost a year ago. Today, I would say that Google Reader's new options make it a very important part of my personal hive-mind, allowing me to crowd-source my news by hand-picking a relatively small group of people who reliably share and comment on things that I find pertinent, urgent or fascinating -- often near real-time. At the time of writing, sharing with people in Google Reader wasn't nearly as intuitive so it got a lot less play. In the past few months, though, it has grown up to become far more than just an online RSS aggregator and a web filter evasion tool to me.

While I don't feel like this is my best work, I do make a habit of publishing all of my printed articles here after they've hit the newsstand.

There's no doubt that social networking is all the rage on the Internet these days. Places like MySpace and Facebook have become ubiquitous social hubs that start out as a circle of your real-life friends. Eventually, others join in that you've probably never met and might never meet in your lifetime. Your reasons for befriending them may be many: interesting photos or content, similar interests, or simply because they're a friend of a friend (of a friend of a friend). Maybe, you just like to compete in the popularity contest to see how many e-friends you can collect.

LinkedIn has a business focus. Maybe that's where you keep all of your professional contacts or hunt for job opportunities. Brightkite is a location-aware microblog with photo hosting ability; Like Twitter on steroids. Maybe that's how you find out who hangs out at your favorite local places to try to find new friends. Friendfeed can aggregate most content from your other social network accounts. Maybe that's where you go to get your 50,000 foot view of your online social sphere.

What if you wanted to craft a specialized hive-mind, though? I'm interested in security, and I've found that online, quite a few security geeks have blogs, twitter accounts, facebook profiles and the like.

Instead of just looking for your existing friends online, you can leverage microblogging services like Twitter to find and follow like-minded strangers. Obviously, self-described social media addicts have no problem finding their cliques, but everyone from World of Warcraft Gamers to Bacon-lovers can find a niche in most social networks. Security nerds like me have SecurityTwits.

The people you follow will frequently ask or answer questions of other folks. You can follow them as well, and pretty soon you end up with a news-feed of data you're interested in. Assuming enough of them follow you back, you will have a powerful hive mind at your fingertips: This collective will give input on ideas from within itself. It will refine, disprove, or validate answers given to questions within the collective. It will link to fascinating content elsewhere on the web that other members might not otherwise find. It will challenge you to participate by giving as much as you get.

I've found that this hive-mind functionality works best on lightweight services like the aforementioned Twitter, or with link-sharing tools like Delicious, Digg, and Google Reader. Facebook and MySpace are far too cumbersome and broad-sweeping in their content to be used efficiently. Plus, most of the services I mentioned have easy-to-use RSS feeds that can be indexed, processed, aggregated, and searched later.

Of course, if you want people in your niche to acknowledge your existence on these social networks, you need to establish your presence with relevant content that's as equally interesting to them as their content is to you. Jumping onto Twitter and following every single member of SecurityTwits, for example, won't immediately integrate you into the hive. By lurking, however, you can learn a lot.