Ambient awareness, lifestreams and personal storytelling. Will it change my relation to You?

“Ambient awareness” has been on a group of Dutch researchers agenda since 2004, but it seems like a slightly modified understanding of the concept,  has taken on a life of its own as a quickly spreading meme since Clive Thompson (writer of the blog Collison Detection) recently published a piece about the phenomena (from his perspective) in the New YorkTimes Magasine: “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy” (he’s posted the piece on his blog).

His point is that through the many quick and constant updates of what is going on in people’s lives (using Twitter, Facebook status updates etc), we create an ambient awareness of what is going on in their life, that accumulated over time gives us, their followers, an idea of the rhytm and content of their everyday lives. Most posts are insignificant and mundane, but by reading many posts we might end up with a general sense of the interests and character traits of the posters. This particularly pertains to people we don’t really know that well offline, i.e. our so-called weak tie connections. I like the concept and Clive Thompson has some good observations (and user sources), so what follows is mainly a few additional observations  and only semi-critical comments of my own:

1) Awareness arises from following lifestreams
In many ways, it seems to me that the concept of “ambient awareness” is closely linked with the notion of “lifestream” that also seem to become more dominant as buzzword these days. A lifestream is (as far as I can figure from the various technerds and social media afficionados who are currentlywriting about it) the constant stream of info about what a person is doing, emerging from the collected sum of this person’s posts to online services such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, LastFM, etc etc (actually some has pretty high expectations to what lifestreaming should include).

You can tap into this lifestream by subscribing to people’s feeds on services like Friendfeed or PlaxoPulse – or by zooming in on their activities by telling Facebook that these are people you would like “to hear more about”. Hence, not just following postings one place, but following a person’s lifestream, either fully or in pieces, seems to be become part of the process of creating this “ambient awareness” of your network connections.

2) You get to know about the life of the few, not the many.
In my personal experience (this is not documented research), as always, it is the internet researchers, the online media communication workers and the tech nerds that actually engage in lifestreaming. Granted, I have gotten to know more that I wanted to know about the activities of also more “normal” friends and family members through Facebook, but their postings are infrequent and a majority has only been active in the first weeks/months of their Facebook life.  Exceptions to this rule might be younger people that Im not very much in touch with on FB (sadly), but once they get the hang of FB, some of them seem to communicate/post quite a lot. I suspect that a lot of their “update” activities otherwise happen in person-to-person communication on the mobile (aside, this lack of knowledge plus curiosity is also one reason I have engaged in the Mobity project).

Anyway, my point here is that even if you have 200+ friends of Facebook, and you might subscribe to x number of blog- and Twitter feeds, you definitely don’t get constant “lifestream” feeds or even infrequent status updates from them all, rather, as indicated in the beginning of this section, it is the selected few early adopters that continue to keep you posted and that you develop a solid ambient awareness of.

3) It’s the same old, in a new setting?!
One of the thing that “amazes” Clive Thompson in his article is the fact that now you can begin conversations with people you don’t really know that well, by asking them (in his example) “how are the migraines are doing?” (because you have been reading about them for the last week on FB, Twitter etc).  Having the sense that you sorta know somebody and therefore can freely open an offline conversation with what is in fact an almost complete stranger by asking the person “how the holiday to X went” or “if the boss is really still that bad” etc… because your “ambient” knowledge of this remote connection justify this easy conversation, surely seems to one of the effects of this ambient awareness digital lifestyle?!

Well, the funny thing is that I had exactly the same kind of realisation/experience, when I started blogging in 2001. Especially during the period 2001-2003 when I was blogging quite a lot about the writing of my Ph.D., problems with my back and arms etc, I would once in a while be confronted by almost complete strangers (to me) who confronted me at conferences, meetings and the like and opened the conversation by stating “I read your blog. How is your arm doing?” – and perhaps I  would in return turn out to also know this person from a blog, being aware that this person was also struggling with her writing etc etc and so conversation was easily kicked off. So the experience of being “monitored” or monitoring other people’s lives and through this periperal monitoring acquiring an ambient awareness of their existence; as well as the experience of using the acquired knowledge as a way to open conversations once you meet them offline, is in itself nothing astonishingly new, it has just been moved to another genre/format.  Because now I get this kind of intimate knowledge from people’s “microblogging” activities, not their “macroblogs” (the real blogs, where at least people I know/follow tend to write about less personal stuff these days).

What has  however significantly changed from the early days of blogging and knowing people through bloggging, is that the “lifestream” monitoring is now a mutally agreed on and consented act: whereas everybody could read my blog and I wouldnt know who were getting to know me better (apart from those I was in a blogroll relation with), the infrastructure of current social networks demand that giving off knowledge is, to a certain degree, a reciprocal activity: you become my friend, I become yours, and we thus grant each other the right to spam each others “friend news feeds” ad libitum.

4) Will it continue like this?
At the heart of all these speculations about what we do this and what is happening to our social sphere as we do it, the most interesting question linked to these current “trends” in the development of personal storytelling (as I like to call it) is of course: will it continue? Will microblogging and mobile posting about your own life and tracking other people’s lifestreams (those of real friends, as well as “weak tie” acquaintances and remote colleagues) become of an integral part of the future digital native’s “social being in the world”? Will we develop mental capacities and methods to handle this constant ambient awareness of other people’s lives? – Or is it a “bubble” that will eventually burst, and return us to a way of living where we keep personal communication about ourselves at a minimum and mostly focus on those near and dear to us, whether it be in digital or analogue mode?

I dont have the answer (journalists please note this ;)), but I actually have no doubt that personal publishing “online” (to mobile as well as www) is here to stay, whether it be in excessive or moderate scale . Allow me an “old” person’s personal smugness here for a moment: I think it is great to have lived life online for almost 10 years now and to start to get a sense of recurrent trends and actual changes, because I believe that identification of recurrences and permutations more clearly indicate which aspects of new forms of online activity and communication are truly changing our social lives and which aspects and social experiences of life online will essentially remain “the same old” as the day the www were born…

1 Comment

morten saxnaesSeptember 20th, 2008 at 1:53 am

Great article with some interesting perspectives!
If you are not on Friendfeed yet, I would recommend that you check it out. Lifestreaming at its best and worst. Great search oportunities and a great way to get new insight. The comment feature that Facebook now have integrated is fantastic to.

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