The Rise of the Nuanced Social Network


The Rise of the Nuanced Social Network

What do Facebook and The Hospital for Special Surgery have in common?

The Hospital for Special Surgery recently partnered with 360 Design to design and build “Back in the Game,” a micro social website where HSS patients can share their personal stories and experiences. This collaboration gave us an opportunity to think about the value of sharing and storytelling in any customer service environment.

HSS Back In The Game. A place for former and current patients of the Hospital For Special Surgery to share their treatment and journey to recovery.

In 2004 Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook with his college roommates and fellow Harvard University students specifically for Harvard students. By 2006, anyone at least 13 years old was allowed to become a registered Facebook user. The website went from niche to mass audience, from focused content for a particular community to one channel for everyone.

Facebook has succeeded by being a catchall social network where there is mass appeal, and within that environment, giving users the ability to connect to groups or “friends” based upon common connections. The network has become a sprawling mass of postings, a kind of continuous stream of global consciousness, the digital zeitgeist.

I like to learn what my friends are passionate about, but I gain the most when I learn what others think about something I may be considering. Sometimes, however, there is a lot of filtering that I need to do in order to find the points of interest, and while spontaneous discovery can be fascinating, entertaining and even enlightening, it can also be a huge time waster.

This impulse to connect and share brings “Back in the Game” to life. In the few months since its launch in January 2015, the site has grown to become the world’s largest forum of orthopedic and rheumatological patient stories. It currently features contributions from more than 600 people who, in the words of the site, “got back to their game” with the help of HSS. Participants come from all walks of life, ranging in age and profession. (The site even includes stories from a few well-known personalities like the celebrated jazz drummer George Coleman, Jr., and the professional athlete Chase Headley of the New York Yankees.) Most tell their stories through words and personal photos, and a few posts feature video. Each narrative is tagged with the condition and treatment type, so users can easily find similar experiences, and also notes the HSS provider who worked with the patient. Users can share the stories on other social networks like Facebook and Twitter, increasing the site’s potential impact.

The only prerequisite for sharing is being a current or former patient of HSS, but the audience can be anyone. While there is no ability to connect with other patients directly through the site, it has a targeted appeal: for prospective patients to read or watch authentic experiences from former patients, for patients to get comfort and inspiration from other patients, and for patients to use the experience of writing and posting as part of their rehabilitation. This focused concentration on a related topic and experience allows for a more nuanced social interaction.

It’s a brave move for HSS to say to the world, “Don’t listen to us, listen to what our patients have to say,” and the idea plays off what we know from years of online experience: reading brand reviews of products and services is far less valuable than hearing from the actual consumers or customers. While the “Back in the Game” environment is branded and “contained” by the hospital, the content is the voice of the people.

HSS, Back In The Game
In their own voice, patients tell their story. Part sharing, part rehabilitation, the site is both a resource for prospective patients and a place for former patients to tell the world “I’m back!”.


The website serves as one big testimonial to HSS, but it does far more than that––it becomes a place for patient rehabilitation. No one is coerced to come here and post; they do so of their own free will, as a way of giving back, inspiring others while telling their own story, putting it all together and helping them begin to see their surgery as part of a journey that gets them back to doing what they love most in life. It starts to bridge the boundary between the physical and mental parts of rehabilitation, and demonstrates the role that storytelling, sharing and dialog can play in wellness.

In 1997 I was Creative Director at Time Inc. when the death of Lady Diana saddened the world and inspired a massive outpouring of grief. Right after her death, we worked late into the night and posted the largest online catalogue and collection of her photographs, mostly from the extensive People Magazine archive. As an add-on, we developed a virtual condolence album. Readers could come to the microsite, view images, and post a condolence message. The response to the experience was overwhelming.  As a news and media organization, Time Inc. was traditionally an editorial voice, a place for people to go for content and opinion––the opinions of editors. Never before had it been a place for our audience to come and participate, or to have a voice of their own.

I always wonder what that condolence microsite could have turned into, had we had the foresight to realize the ongoing need for people to have a forum to share their grief and emotions and form a virtual, collective bond. There is a need in the online world for these more focused, topic-specific places for people to gather––people with common interest and experience, without the noise and clutter of everything else going on around them. As a social interaction design, we are putting a net around the social space––to create a defined, purpose-driven community.

While the likes of Facebook and Twitter are designed for the masses and are intrinsically the sprawling streams of consciousness they have become, we see that there is room for more nuanced private networks like “Back in the Game”––places that have very specific goals and a directed purpose, for current or past patients, prospective patients and the brand as a whole.

It will be interesting to see what other kinds of industries adopt this kind of approach to sharing and community.

Ronnie Peters is founder and CEO of 360 Design, a New York City-based digital design firm.