The good and the bad of “ambient awareness”

A friend asked me about my response to this blog post – I Love You But I Don’t Care About Your Status Updates. In it, Mark Sayers talks about the influx of “junk information” about the lives of other people that has been inflicted upon us by sites like twitter and facebook.

Have a read of it: I think the best summary is to quote the last paragraph.

We instead of broadcasting need to recallibrate our sense of self. We need to rediscover the lost art of humility, to understand our place in the world. Instead of dreaming up new status updates to get you through the day, mediate upon the truly freeing thought that the world does not revolve around us.

The examples that Sayers cites of status updates are the really ordinary stuff of life – overcooking the 2-minute noodles and such. At this level, he is correct: these social networking sites have the potential to add a great deal of noise to our already over stimulated minds. The bad side of using social networking sites is the same as the bad of adding anything else to our lives: another slice of time is gone, never to be seen again.

As someone who works in social media (and is hoping to continue working in social media for a while), I obviously think that there is some value to these ways of staying in touch. It’s hard to communicate this to people who haven’t already signed up for one of the services, but there’s a benefit to what these sites provide. Some have called it “ambient awareness”. An ability to be connected to people even when you don’t see them or get to catch up with them.

I think the benefit of social media sites goes beyond this, however. By following (and being followed) on twitter for example, it’s possible to receive feedback and insight from people you don’t know well on questions you might have.

I’ve seen people on twitter ask questions of the crowd, and receive useful answers from people they would never have asked directly. It’s been an opportunity to see people be incredibly generous with their time and skills. I’ve met people (not on the computer, but spoken to people over coffee) who without social networks I would never have encountered. And so these sites are providing something unique.

The strength of twitter comes when people progress beyond the point of answering the “what are you doing” question, and start interacting with others. If there’s some interest, I’ll happily share some more about how to use twitter in this way: for now, I think I’ve rambled enough.

I would go so far as to say, if you haven’t tried twitter yet, have a go. Sign up, follow some people, and see what comes of it. You can always delete your account later. A word of advice: give it a couple of weeks before you abandon it – you might find your life unexpectedly richer as a result.

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1 Comment

  1. Ahh, the old social media argument again. I take your point about some of the good things that can come out of these things – collaboration with people you wouldn’t otherwise meet, sharing ideas, etc.

    What I worry about, though, is whether all of this is doing something to real friendship.

    I remember when I was a teenager in the 90s, back when only some of us had mobile phones, and none of us had email addresses – in those days, there was something quite special about spending time *with* people – actually physically in their presence.

    It had its tough side as well. There was the alienation you could feel at a gathering where everybody else seemed to be friends, and you didn’t know anyone. There was the awkwardness of relating to difficult people. But there was also the pure exhilaration of hanging around friends.

    I think for all of my close friendships from those years, it took about three years an countless hours spending physical time (or having phone conversations) with these people to make those friendships work.

    Since moving to Sydney (or is since I’ve left my early 20s? or since I’ve had kids?), I’ve found friendships have never been as simple. No body drops around any more. I might get an invite to something every now and again, but it’s more likely to be a big generic gathering, rather than because somebody is particularly interested in getting to know me or my wife better.

    If you try to get alongside other people, they all seem to be booked up for at least three weeks’ in advance . . . In fact, the best summary of this I ever found was in the Introduction to the book Total Church by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, where the authors tell their story. Tim talks about how he was part of a close Christian community in his early university years. He goes on to say:

    “But life was very different after graduation when Tim and his wife, Helen, moved to north London. Tim still remembers the first time they were invited out for a meal. They assumed it would be maybe now or the next day. But a date three weeks away was suggested. It turned out to be their first experience of a ‘dinner party’. It certainly wasn’t sharing lives.”

    This is in the context of church fellowship, but I think it could easily apply to life in Sydney. Life just seems much more fragmented nowadays.

    And social media just seems to exacerbate the problem. You can quickly go through and become “Friends” with a whole range of people, but do you really develop deeper friendships with them because of these things? You either end up sharing very little of yourself so as not to make yourself look bad in front of the vast masses of loose acquaintances who are reading your every move, or you become one of those individuals who shares all sorts of random information in a desperate hope that people might take a closer interest in you, if they just knew more about you.

    Don’t get me wrong – for those few strong relationships I have, it’s always great to be able to keep tabs on what people are doing and see photos, etc. But I can’t help but wonder if this technology, instead of helping us enhance our offline relationships, actually contributes to the increasing fragmentation and isolation that people feel.

    I’m not sure here exactly whether our culture is becoming more isolated, or whether I’m just particularly bad at making friends. Either way, I think Facebook and Twitter won’t help.

    An interesting article along similar lines that suggests that young people will learn disastrous relationship skills from social networking is here:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/feb/24/social-networking-site-changing-childrens-brains

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