Are You Ambiently Aware?

My new favorite phrase is “ambient awareness” which is a something I read in a NY Times Sunday magazine article yesterday by Clive Thompson.  The name of the article is “I’m So Totally Digitally Close To You” and it explains the background behind Facebook News Feed, Twitter and other forms of “incessant online contact”.

“Are you ambiently aware?” is the almost the same as saying “Do You Twitter?” or “Do You Facebook?”.  More and more of us have joined the ambient awareness revolution recently, and Clive’s article provides some excellent background reading the psychology of Twitter and other social media awareness applications.

For example, Clive brings up the topic of the upper limit of the number of people that a person can personally know at one time.  Anthropologist Robin Dunbar was one of the first people to research this phenomena by watching ape social networks and determining that ape groups top out at 55 members.  The number of social connections is now referred to as Dunbar’s Number.  Wikipedia describes Dunbar’s Number as:

..the supposed cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable social relationships: the kind of relationships that go with knowing who each person is and how each person relates socially to every other person.

Psychological studies have confirmed that human groupings generally top out at around 150 people.

Clive also includes discussions with Twitter celebrities such as Laura Fitton (@pistachio) and social media researchers like Danah Boyd (@zephoria) whose papers are available here.

Several questions are raised by the article including:

  • What is it like to never lose touch with anyone?
  • How does ambient awareness impact privacy?
  • Can technology like Twitter and Facebook increase your Dunbar Number?
  • Is the rapid growth of ‘weak ties’ with fleeting acquaintances a good thing?
  • Does constant online contact enrich relationships?

On a personal level, I generally make comments (or tweet) on Twitter about 6 to 8 times per day.  I try to follow the unwritten guidelines of keeping the tweets 60% focused on work-related topics and 40% on non-work-related topics.  I guess I would say I am an active Twitter user, but not a Twitterholic – and that I enjoy using Twitter to keep up with friends and other ‘parasocial’ contacts.

Clive’s article is a must read for anyone interested in social media – and the more than 75 comments to the article on the NYTimes site are definitely worth skimming too as there are people who agree with Clive and many others who “do not get it”.

And you can also follow Clive on Twitter (@pomeranian99) and see what he’s eating for lunch (which is an inside joke you’ll only get if you read the article).


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