I’m So Totally, Digitally Close to You – NYTimes.com: Clive Thompson
Fascinating article from Sunday’s NY Times magazine about the phenomenon of following your friends’ daily lives via news feeds like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, and others. I’m an avid user of Facebook and Tumblr and just began using Twitter, and I love seeing snippets of my friends’ lives all day long. (It’s the main reason you may have felt pressure from me recently to join Facebook.) The article tries to explain the appeal of the phenomenon and its possible cultural meaning and ramification. Here are excerpts, but I think you’ll find the entire article interesting.
How News Feed, Twitter and other forms of incessant online contact have created a brave new world of ambient intimacy.
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….
You could also regard the growing popularity of online awareness as a reaction to social isolation, the modern American disconnectedness that Robert Putnam explored in his book ‘Bowling Alone.’ The mobile workforce requires people to travel more frequently for work, leaving friends and family behind, and members of the growing army of the self-employed often spend their days in solitude. Ambient intimacy becomes a way to ‘feel less alone,’ as more than one Facebook and Twitter user told me….
But there is another — quite different — result of all this incessant updating: a culture of people who know much more about themselves. Many of the avid Twitterers, Flickrers and Facebook users I interviewed described an unexpected side-effect of constant self-disclosure. The act of stopping several times a day to observe what you’re feeling or thinking can become, after weeks and weeks, a sort of philosophical act. It’s like the Greek dictum to ‘know thyself,’ or the therapeutic concept of mindfulness. (Indeed, the question that floats eternally at the top of Twitter’s Web site — ‘What are you doing?’ — can come to seem existentially freighted. What are you doing?) Having an audience can make the self-reflection even more acute, since, as my interviewees noted, they’re trying to describe their activities in a way that is not only accurate but also interesting to others: the status update as a literary form.