Saturday, September 13, 2008

Feeling Connected

A while back, I shared an item which was in turn about an article from the NYT Magazine about how facebook, twitter, and other social web stuff leads to "ambient awareness", a kind of internet-powered ESP about your friends. Excerpt:

In essence, Facebook users didn’t think they wanted constant, up-to-the-minute updates on what other people are doing. Yet when they experienced this sort of omnipresent knowledge, they found it intriguing and addictive. Why?

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. ...

...Each day, Haley logged on to his account, and his friends’ updates would appear as a long page of one- or two-line notes. He would check and recheck the account several times a day, or even several times an hour. The updates were indeed pretty banal. One friend would post about starting to feel sick; one posted random thoughts like “I really hate it when people clip their nails on the bus”; another Twittered whenever she made a sandwich — and she made a sandwich every day. Each so-called tweet was so brief as to be virtually meaningless.

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.


As I interviewed some of the most aggressively social people online — people who follow hundreds or even thousands of others — it became clear that the picture was a little more complex than this question would suggest. Many maintained that their circle of true intimates, their very close friends and family, had not become bigger. Constant online contact had made those ties immeasurably richer, but it hadn’t actually increased the number of them; deep relationships are still predicated on face time, and there are only so many hours in the day for that.

But where their sociality had truly exploded was in their “weak ties” — loose acquaintances, people they knew less well. It might be someone they met at a conference, or someone from high school who recently “friended” them on Facebook, or somebody from last year’s holiday party. In their pre-Internet lives, these sorts of acquaintances would have quickly faded from their attention. But when one of these far-flung people suddenly posts a personal note to your feed, it is essentially a reminder that they exist. I have noticed this effect myself. In the last few months, dozens of old work colleagues I knew from 10 years ago in Toronto have friended me on Facebook, such that I’m now suddenly reading their stray comments and updates and falling into oblique, funny conversations with them. My overall Dunbar number is thus 301: Facebook (254) + Twitter (47), double what it would be without technology. Yet only 20 are family or people I’d consider close friends. The rest are weak ties — maintained via technology.

This rapid growth of weak ties can be a very good thing. Sociologists have long found that “weak ties” greatly expand your ability to solve problems. For example, if you’re looking for a job and ask your friends, they won’t be much help; they’re too similar to you, and thus probably won’t have any leads that you don’t already have yourself.

I'm in the middle of experiencing this phenomenon lately, primarily through the explosion of people I used to know being connected on Facebook. Almost all the people who were active in my High School drama dept. are suddenly there, updating and adding photos of us all when we were younger, or just commenting about their lives. I had completely lost touch with most of them, and now, suddenly, I have these newly re-established 'weak ties' that lead to funny conversations about photos, or trying to guess who wrote a given comment from a yearbook, or just this sense of ambient awareness.

In practice, the Facebook News Feed catches lots of interesting status updates, but I prefer to get all the status updates in Google Reader, both because it doesn't skip any, and because that's where I do all the rest of my catching up on blogs, flickr updates, news, trends, friends' shared items, etc. Plus, since I don't usually have internet access during the day, I need to cram in as much efficiency into my online time as I can.

Here's an example of this ambient awareness from today: my friend John and I were driving this morning to pick up a big mahogany dresser I bought at auction yesterday, and John says "I wonder when Ty (another mutual friend of ours) is getting back [from vacation]". I knew from Ty's last status update that he'd be driving to SW France today, so I told John and then it hit me that normally there's no way I'd be that up to date on a casual friend's whereabouts on vacation, you know? I presently have 165 'friends' on facebook and I probably have picked up on things about each of them, even my own sisters and wife, that I wouldn't have otherwise. For a 'facts curator' personality type like me, that sort of information flow can be fairly addictive.

And then there's the weak ties thing - like the other day I mentioned in my Facebook status that I'd be visiting America around Halloween. People that I haven't seen in years started talking to me about it, and I'm planning on getting a bunch of people together for a meal while I'm there to see each other and catch up. We'll probably take pictures and post them on Facebook and tag ourselves in them so the rest of our weak ties can see who was there and what was going on and what they missed out on. They'll comment, there will be witty banter where there would have been only lost connections.

Just something I'm thinking about; enjoying.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating article and musings. Thanks for clipping and sharing.

Should I be feeling left out, if I'm not on Facebook? I've resisted it, not sure why.

And where will you be in America around Halloween?

Dave Y said...

@tona - that reminds me of another 'ambient awareness' example: remember how I knew Gizmo was dying because I read Thompson's status that he was digging a grave in the yard? Same deal.

Well, you're missing out on your weak links, but I can't say what effect that has. But all your siblings are on there. And your son. And there's pictures of you in High School there. So I say go for it.

I'll be in VA for a friend's wedding, just for the week.

Shells said...

Awesome picture cobweb. Don't we have a pack that when you go to the States you can't do anything fun?? While I am back here with three kids counting down the minutes? Actually, I expect to live vicariously through you, so you are required to visit AT LEAST the following: SweetWater, Chipotle or Baja fresh, Panera, Target, and as many friends and family as you can possibly fit in.

Unknown said...

As a stay-at-home pregnant mom with two kids stuck in rural VA, facebook has become my only source of adult conversation! I love getting posts, updates, etc. from my 'weak-links.' It helps keep me relatively sane. This ambient awareness has really saved me these past 4 months. And I admit I do feel more connected to the closer friends and family I check in on/with daily as well. Thank you for the post! Its satisfying to understand why things affect us the way they do. See ya on facebook... :)

Lyf2.0 said...

I couldn't find Waldo in your web?!?!?

(M)ary said...

all the twittering makes me feel smothered.

like that star trek episode of the crowded planet...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. From one weak link to another I'm glad I saw your status a few days ago.

Facebook has made me feel more aware of distant friends and acquaintances in the most wonderful way, but I'm not sure it always makes me feel closer to them.

It is interesting and frustrating to try and piece together what has actually happened to old friends over the last decade. Because many of us haven't had contact for so long I don't feel comfortable asking certain questions. The ones like "Are you divorced or not?" or "what happened between you and so and so?" Stuff we just would have known about each other had we stayed in touch.

I don't know. Through sites like Facebook our weak links suddenly provide such intimacy, but they are simultaneously completely superficial. It certainly is uncharted territory...

But if you plan a night out in DC this fall with the Robinson crew I just might try and make the trip down. The best part about the weak links is I really want to make some of them stronger.

Dave Y said...

@Shells: Don't worry; I'll eat everything in sight and then tell you all about it.

@jakota: I have a thing I think about sometimes, about the way our society is set up and the effect that has on women & families trying to raise children on their own. Perhaps I'll blog about it sometime. I'm glad we're keeping you relatively sane; happy to do my part.

@supergabers: check on my shared items; I think he's hiding out there today.

@(m)ary: I remember that episode, and you're right - I don't subscribe to anyone's twitter, but I might soon. It helps, I think, to take it in doses. I read all the facebook updates at once, maybe 100 at a time, and then it only takes a minute.

@Karen: I totally get you about the questions it's weird to ask, while there's a newfound intimacy, there's still awkward chasms in places. If you travel down to VA, I will rejoice! But if it doesn't work out, we'll make another chance sometime. Ditto on all this making me want to strengthen weak ties.

Disco Mom said...

Bout time Tona joined. Fascinating article. I've used facebook to find people, pass a few notes back and forth to catch up, but that's all. I don't keep up much with status or check in regularly unless I've been sent a friend request. Matt C told me yesterday he's been neglecting his blog lately because he's currently so addicted to facebook and I was like, "Really? Why?" I'm not. He also mentioned at a separate time that you are the most-like-him person he knows, so this is just further evidence.

While the overall effect of re-forming weak connections via facebook is positive for me, I also find it somewhat disorienting, to check in on so many people I know from so many different chapters of my life in the same place - mission companion followed by high school aquaintance followed by college friend followed by nephew followed by NY church friend. Kinda weirdo. Checking in too often fills my head with too much to think about - strings from too many webs getting tangled up - and again, I get disoriented. I can't do it much.