A few weeks ago, there was an excellent article in the NYTimes about online ambient awareness. This article was immediately influential — it was quoted and passed around by a lot of blogs and readers, and I got personal e-mails saying that it reminded them of my Galapag.us project.
But as the days went by, something changed. Haley discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends’ lives in a way he never had before. When one friend got sick with a virulent fever, he could tell by her Twitter updates when she was getting worse and the instant she finally turned the corner. He could see when friends were heading into hellish days at work or when they’d scored a big success. Even the daily catalog of sandwiches became oddly mesmerizing, a sort of metronomic click that he grew accustomed to seeing pop up in the middle of each day.
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.
“It’s like I can distantly read everyone’s mind,” Haley went on to say. “I love that. I feel like I’m getting to something raw about my friends. It’s like I’ve got this heads-up display for them.” It can also lead to more real-life contact, because when one member of Haley’s group decides to go out to a bar or see a band and Twitters about his plans, the others see it, and some decide to drop by — ad hoc, self-organizing socializing. And when they do socialize face to face, it feels oddly as if they’ve never actually been apart. They don’t need to ask, “So, what have you been up to?” because they already know. Instead, they’ll begin discussing something that one of the friends Twittered that afternoon, as if picking up a conversation in the middle.
I’ve met a lot of new people since coming to Georgetown, and they’re more wired than many of my friends in the military, who are for the most part still not publically online yet. Combine this with work commitments and trying to get myself enmeshed in the startup/web2.0/online communities, and I get inundated with a lot of information flows.
This is not to say they’re more important than my friends and my family, but it did get me to start thinking about passive communication.
A lot of people are still not contributing information to the internet. They write some e-mails, they view some web sites, and that’s about all they have time for. This is fine, and is to be expected.
But for people like me, I share quite a bit of my life and opinions online and anyone who was even vaguely interested in keeping up with what I do would be able to without really knowing me. This could potentially be bad, but if you were to total it all out in the long run, it’s probably more beneficial towards me and my reputation (my brand, as it were) to share.
But most of my friends and family do not share. At least not in a way that is captured easily. So I am learning how to allow for passive participation but it needs to be reciprocated.
More people need to contribute, even if only a little. Perhaps this is why Twitter has done so well. It allows for 140-character updates. So you don’t feel burdened by writing a lot. Just a little note to say what you’re up to.
Let’s do this…it makes for sharing what’s on all our minds easier. You may have great ideas and thoughts, but how will people know about them unless they directly ask you?
“I don’t understand how this stuff works.” Well, like e-mail and the web, you’ll be using it eventually. Stop fighting it and learn. Certainly find what makes the most sense to you, but don’t write it off. It might be that you’ll end up having to use it at work, so see it as an investment in your communications education.
Letting your data connect to other people’s data is a bit about letting go in that sense. It is still not about giving to people data which they don’t have a right to. It is about letting it be connected to data from peer sites. It is about letting it be joined to data from other applications.
It is about getting excited about connections, rather than nervous.
Whilst sharing music, video, intimate details is both inherently human and mostly positive – we have to recognise that when the default is to share then it creates significant social pressure on those that prefer not to since the question of opting out of adopting a technology becomes one whether to opt out of society. You can see it today with late adopters who are pressured by relatives or their employer’s [sic] into carrying a mobile phone, but the same applies to any mainstream connected technology.
If everyone I knew contributed, it would certainly make my life easier…and I’d be able to keep tabs on what everyone’s doing without being a burden.
And while nothing beats a phonecall or personal visit, those aren’t always realistic options.
Stop being stingy!