‘Ambient awareness is the experience of knowing what’s going on in the lives of other people — what they’re thinking about, what they’re doing, what they’re looking at — by paying attention to the small stray status messages that people are putting online.’ –Clive Thompson
I recently came across an article by Clive Thompson called Brave New World of Digital Intimacy. In the article, he talks about the rise of social media and how little pieces of information, when taken together over time, can make us feel like we are close to people without actually communicating with them one on one. In the past, this type of experience wasn`t possible because no one would bother to phone their friends and family to talk to them about the daily minutiae of their life (and friends and family wouldn`t necessarily want to hear those apparently insignificant and mundane bits of information—e.g. ‘Waiting at the bus stop and it`s freezing cold!’). However, with social media, you can broadcast the details of your life to friends and family and they can tune in (or tune out) whenever they choose.
Some argue that there are a number of benefits to this change in the way we communicate and interact with others. For starters, all this constant updating and broadcasting is creating a culture of people who know much more about themselves. The social media users Thompson interviewed allowed him to see that ‘the act of stopping several times a day to observe what you’re feeling or thinking can become, after weeks and weeks, a sort of philosophical act.’ Essentially, users become more mindful of what they are doing and, as they disclose more information about themselves and their lives, begin to wonder about how others may react to that information.
Some also argue that it improves one-on-one time because conversations can become more focused: you spend less time on idle chit chat because you’ve checked out their social media profiles and updates and can move the conversation more quickly to the next level.
The downside to this however, is that some social media users can begin to develop parasocial relationships instead of deep social relationships. Parasocial relationships are the types of relationships we develop with fictional characters, like those on TV shows or in books (e.g. Twilight saga or Fifty Shades of Grey), or with remote celebrities we read about in magazines (e.g. Justin Beiber`s YouTube Channel). Since social media allows us to observe the lives of other people without necessarily being involved, we can develop relationships that are nearly parasocial—we know a lot about the lives of other people in our network, but they don`t nearly know as much about our life; we feel connected to them, but they may not. Parasocial relationships can quickly eat up our time and emotional energy as well as crowd out real-life people (i.e. we never really go offline and engage in one-on-one conversations). Face-time with people in real-life is important to developing deep social relationships.
Another downside is that other people may begin broadcasting information about you. This is referred to as the revival of small-town dynamics, where everybody knows your business. This was actually the way things were for most of human history. Drifting from town to town and relationship to relationship is actually a very modern phenomenon. So, just like you have to manage your reputation in a small-town, you have to manage your brand or persona online.
The take home message: think about why you want to be present online and remember that when you reach out and create content for others—or as Eric Qualman suggests: learn how to behave correctly in this newly opened society.