The Power Of Ambient Awareness

from the getting-to-know-you dept

When I first heard of Twitter I didn’t get it. I saw some friends using it, and tested it out for a bit, but again concluded that it just didn’t make sense to me to be able to write short, 140-character, explanations of what I was doing — or to read similar blurbs from other people. But about a year ago, I started using it again, and quickly discovered that it was much more useful and interesting than I had ever expected — often in totally unexpected ways. Since then, I’ve run into a bunch of folks who seem to feel exactly the same way. They absolutely did not understand Twitter until they actually started using it, and then suddenly found it incredibly useful in totally unexpected ways. So, I can absolutely understand the many, many people who continue to mock Twitter as being useless — I felt exactly the same way — but haven’t been able to explain why it is actually useful.

However, Clive Thompson has done an excellent job with his latest piece for the NY Times Magazine, explaining the concept of “ambient awareness” that describes Twitter and things like Facebook’s news feed. It’s not so much about telling everyone everything you’re doing, or knowing everything that everyone is doing, but it does give you an amazing ambient view into what’s going on in the lives of whoever you follow, and in an odd way makes you feel much more connected to them than you might otherwise. I know that I’ve become much closer friends with some folks entirely due to Twitter just because I’m more aware of what they’re up to on a regular basis, rather than only talking to them infrequently.

I think the problem is that many people, myself included, originally think of Twitter in similar terms to email or instant messaging, where you’re really expected to provide your undivided attention and to respond to what is sent to you. But Twitter doesn’t work that way. It really is an “ambient” flow of information about what’s happening with lots of different people, which makes you feel much more connected with them. It’s great to see Thompson do such a good job explaining why, because despite experiencing it, I couldn’t have put the concept into words like he did.

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Companies: facebook, twitter

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Comments on “The Power Of Ambient Awareness”

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Sean (user link) says:


I’ve several friends who use twitter, but I never really looked into it until now. Signed up now so let’s see if I actually find it useful/interesting, or if, like facebook, it’ll just drop off my online-activities-radar.
BTW, if mmasnick is Mike, I’m following you… 🙂 Everything you say, every step you take, I’ll be watching you… (to quote Sting, badly).

MAtt says:

You are not special

I don’t buy the idea that more connections equals deeper connections. Twitter, as well as more traditional blogging, give people the false sense that their opinions, thoughts, feelings, and other crap they vomit to the WWW on a daily basis actually matter.
Well, they don’t. You are not special. Very few people are. And I bet they spend a lot less time prattling on about cats or boys or politics than you.
Most peoples’ opinions do not matter, nor do they need to be heard. Blogging had opened up the world of editorializing to anyone with an internet connection, and in doing so has lowered the bar most of the way to the ground.
I will grant that it does open up the floor to some brilliant people who otherwise may have not had a chance, but that truly is the exception, not the rule.
What exactly is a blog that quotes a blog that references and editorial piece on a third web site? News? Not hardly.
FYI – I like TechDirt, /., and a few others.

whitneymcn (profile) says:

Re: You are not special

Matt –

I totally agree that “more connections” != “deeper connections,” and that I’m not particularly special (though my mother would like a word with you about that), but neither of those really address the issue under discussion.

As the other half of the “expected ways” link above [summary: through Twitter, Techdirt Mike and I discovered that we both love a particular NYC falafel place], I’d say the key is that tools like Twitter can facilitate deeper relationships based on the stuff that isn’t “special” or “important.”

Mike and I learned about a shared interest through Twitter, and precisely because it was unimportant it would likely have never come up otherwise. (Imagine the comment: “great post on the economics of abundance, Mike, and by the way, what’s your opinion of Mamoun’s falafel on Macdougal street?”)

Through Techdirt I knew that Mike was a smart guy who wrote interesting stuff on important topics. After adding Twitter to the mix I know that he’s a smart guy who writes interesting stuff on important topics, has great taste in falafel, and knows more about ska than I thought was possible.

To some that perspective might seem unnecessary, but I love having that additional depth.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: You are not special

I don’t buy the idea that more connections equals deeper connections.

Indeed. I agree. That’s why I don’t follow that many people on Twitter. But no one said that more connections equaled deeper connections at all.

Twitter, as well as more traditional blogging, give people the false sense that their opinions, thoughts, feelings, and other crap they vomit to the WWW on a daily basis actually matter.

Actually, the point of Twitter is that it doesn’t. It’s not about expressing opinions to make you feel special. It’s just a way of communicating.

John (profile) says:

Too Much Noise

I’ve looked at Twitter and for me it is not useful for a couple reasons. The same goes for instant messaging.

First, my job is one that requires a lot of concentration for extended periods of time. Thus, trying to pay attention to things like Twitter or IRC or instant messaging, makes my work even more difficult.

Second, except for my immediate family, I don’t really care about what is going on in other peoples lives from minute to minute. If it is something really important to me I will read it in a blog or on a news site, or someone will call or email me. This is especially true for things that I can’t do any about immediately anyway.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Too Much Noise

First, my job is one that requires a lot of concentration for extended periods of time. Thus, trying to pay attention to things like Twitter or IRC or instant messaging, makes my work even more difficult.

But that’s the point: it’s ambient. You don’t have to pay attention to it all the time, but can drop in on occassion and get good use out of it.

And if it’s “too much noise” just change who you follow.

DellP says:

I think Matt expressed it best. People now believe just because they now have the ability to post their opinions then those opinions must be relevant. I see services like Twitter, Facebook, etc. as simply digital narcissism, born of the modern day idea that everyone is a winner, everyone is a hero. Instead of giving voice to eloquence they merely increase the background static.

mobiGeek says:

Re: Re:

Don’t pay attention to those who will waste your time.

Realize that this is all fairly new. Yes people are posting about their cat’s current meal or whatever, but that will fade with time. Eventually those people will get bored and move on to watching TV or something, or they will continue to post to an empty audience.

Find people that have things to say that you do care about. Push back when they post lame things. Make them work to keep your interest. Think: economics of (micro)blogging.

Obserever says:

Panning for gold

I find it interesting when people tell about how they started using Twitter even though they thought it would be utterly useless. If I think something is useless I won’t usually waste my time trying it (like panning for gold in the water fountain). So I’d really like to read some comments from people (Mike?) explaining what made them start using/doing something they thought would be useless. Seriously, that would be interesting.

DSchwartz says:

On omelettes

Now, YOUR comment is hysterically funny and infused with exceptional intelligence. Utterly concise, the wit of your comment is extraordinary although my guess is that many will not understand what you were trying to accomplish with your succinctly voluminous comment. Of course, I am making the perhaps arrogant assumption that I do, in fact, understand it–that your reply is a comment on the inanity of so many of the posts on Twitter (and other social media sites) as well as the sense of egocentricity and sense of self-importance by a number of these posts. If I am indeed making improper presumptions about your post, please forgive my own arrogance, but your username suggests to me that you are well educated and remarkably crafty with the written word. By the way, I have replied to posts on any Web site only a small handful of times over years of Internet use although admittedly, I use the Internet primarily for academic research. Thank you for quite the belly laugh.

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