Friday, September 23, 2011

Ambient Awareness - Why is Everyone So Obsessed With Social Media?


Now that I'm back in town and starting to feel a twinge of nostalgia for the good ol' high school days (kinda fun to say it like that even though I just graduated last spring), I'm trying to stay in contact with people via social networking sites - mainly Facebook. I'm finding it difficult, though, to keep up with it all. Am I really that lazy? Perhaps. But, it got me thinking about what it is that makes social networking so attractive.

After some research, I ran across a New York Times article from 2008 that explains it pretty well. "Ambient awareness" is a term that social scientists coined to describe the constant virtual contact that social media users experience. Essentially, social tools such as Facebook's news feed or Twitter's timeline have the same effect as being in the same room with a large group of people and picking up in your peripheral vision the gestures, habits, and body language that communicates people's mood.

Here's a quick excerpt from the article that narrates the experience of a skeptic that was convinced to sign up for twitter:
"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."
Kinda neat and kinda creepy. While I understand the concept, I can't help but shed the feeling that interaction via these sites is a bit superficial. (Even though it is thanks to twitter that large-scale uprisings have been taking place in Africa and the Middle East.) I guess that these sites are effective when interacting with a collective - users feel that they are a part of a community. When it comes to interaction on an individual basis, however, it just ain't the real thing.

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