Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Ambient awareness, digital ESP

There is a great article by Clive Thompson in New York Times magazine:

Brave New World of Digital Intimacy

that explains the appeal of Twitter. Like many people, when I first heard of Twitter, and even long after I signed up for it, I thought it was pretty useless. At the very least it seemed useless for verbose bloggers like me, who don't like to post mere facts or sound-bite opinions without context or analysis (and you can't provide much analysis in 140 characters). But, as Clive Thompson says, the constant stream of friends' tweets provides an "ambient awareness" of daily rhythms of friends' lives. To quote the article, "It is 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."

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.

I'm beginning to feel that way about it too. And it's good for those fleeting observations that are not meaty enough to warrant a blog post. I might even change my mind about whether such observations do not reveal someone's personality better than well-thought-out blog posts. (If anyone wonders, my Twitter ID is elze.)

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