Friday, January 16, 2009

Close to you

Because Alfred requested me to, I've been Twittering a lot more this week; it was a way to keep him up with with was going on at Rebooting Computing. Until this week, I didn't get it. I pretty much only Twittered when someone new started following me, I wondered why some of those people were following me, and I really didn't see the potential for education.

I still don't see great potential for education, but reading "I'm So Totally, Digitally Close to You" might have changed my whole relationship with Twitter. Clive Thompson addresses why people use Facebook and Twitter and what it's doing to our society, and he says they're doing some really good things.

He begins by describing when Facebook implemented the news feed, that page that tells you what your friends have been doing lately. "Social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it 'ambient awareness.' It is, they say, very much like being physcially near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does - body language, sighs, stray comments - out of the corner of your eye." 

He says it is hard to understand the appeal, especially if you don't do it. "For many people - particularly anyone over the age of 30 - the idea of describing your blow-by-blow activities in such detail is absurd. Why would you subject your friends to your daily minutiae? And conversely, how much of their trivia can you absorb?" But it doesn't take a lot of energy to absorb their minutia. If you get an e-mail from a friend, you feel obligated to read it carefully. Looking at a twitter stream or the friends page on Facebook only requires skimming. It's much closer to glancing around the room and sensing how people feel by looking at their body language than it is like having an intimate conversation. It's called ambient awareness - when you're in the room with someone and you smile at them occasionally or share a funny thing you see. "This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update - each individual bit of social information - is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends' and family members' lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting." [How much do I love that this article references pointillist paintings? Very much.] I have seen this myself - in October I had a Terrible Week at work, expressed through increasingly desperate Facebook updates, and several people who were not near me at the time expressed their concern for me. I felt cared for.

Thompson addresses the question "what kinds of friends are these?" Remember the Dunbar number? That's the theoretical limit of friends a human can have - how many close relationships our brains can handle. The number is 150. What does that mean for people with hundreds of Facebook friends? 

The answer is two-fold. First, these tools enable us to have richer close relationships. Our close friends and family members can start in the middle of the conversation - they already know that the water heater broke and the plumber had to come three times, even before we meet for dinner.  Heck, they knew to call and offer a hot shower. Second, they increase our number of "weak ties." People you aren't close friends with and never will be, but their status popping up occasionally on your news feed reminds you of them. I would never think of the lovely young woman I sat next to at Rebooting Computing again if I hadn't friended her. Now she's part of my extended network. Weak ties help you solve problems - they won't offer you a shower, but they will offer the name of a great plumber. You didn't already have the name of the plumber because you called your close ties for a recommendation.

On the downside, online tools promote the growth of parasocial relationships - people who read a blog or follow you on Twitter and they feel like they know you, but you don't have any awareness of them. This has been around for years, ever since online tools started. I participated in's Table Talk in 1998 and there were a handful of well known talkers and probably hundreds of lurkers who felt that they "knew" those people. Parasocial relationships have happened to celebrities for years, but now they can happen to regular people too. 

Finally is the issue of identity maintenance, but I think that needs to be the subject of another post.

1 comment:

Alfred Thompson said...

I love the term "ambient awareness." I think that describes what Twitter is about for me. Since I work from home - an otherwise empty house - I find that I miss the feeling of people around. I have been known to go into an office for no other reason than to be with people. With twitter and to some extent IM tools it sort of feels like I am not so alone - that there are people around. It probably seems strange to people who work with a lot of people around all the time but for me its been helpful.