(Apology to Brian Eno for the title snatch)
Fascinating overview of the 21st phenomena of Digital Intimacy1 by Clive Thompson in Sunday’s NYT Magazine. I’m old and crusty enough to still be an old-fashioned introvert, but I’ve certainly exposed and expressed my thoughts to a much wider audience in the last couple of years than all my college years combined2.
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 physically 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. Facebook is no longer alone in offering this sort of interaction online. In the last year, there has been a boom in tools for “microblogging”: posting frequent tiny updates on what you’re doing. The phenomenon is quite different from what we normally think of as blogging, because a blog post is usually a written piece, sometimes quite long: a statement of opinion, a story, an analysis. But these new updates are something different. They’re far shorter, far more frequent and less carefully considered. One of the most popular new tools is Twitter, a Web site and messaging service that allows its two-million-plus users to broadcast to their friends haiku-length updates — limited to 140 characters, as brief as a mobile-phone text message — on what they’re doing. There are other services for reporting where you’re traveling (Dopplr) or for quickly tossing online a stream of the pictures, videos or Web sites you’re looking at (Tumblr). And there are even tools that give your location. When the new iPhone, with built-in tracking, was introduced in July, one million people began using Loopt, a piece of software that automatically tells all your friends exactly where you are.
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. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.
[Click to read more of I’m So Totally, Digitally Close to You - Clive Thompson - NYTimes.com]
As far as following people I don’t know: I learned from Flickr to be careful who I follow, otherwise the data stream becomes overwhelming. I’m usually not interested in baby photos of strangers, nor of parties I’m not invited to filled with people I’ve never met. Still, I know a lot more about acquaintances and friends from the past than I ever thought feasible, or enjoyable, and I’m quite delighted with the interconnectiveness of it all.
Oh, and for me, twitter became interesting after I:
1. connected it to my cellphone, but not getting updates every time somebody posted, just so that I could post while bored in waiting rooms and in airports, yadda yadda.