Sep 5, 2008

Social Media's Defining Moment

There’s a fascinating article in this coming Sunday’s New York Times by Clive Thompson called Brave New World of Digital Intimacy on how our digital world is making us closer to each other than ever before, a phenomenon Thompson calls “ambient initimacy.”

It’s probably one of the most important articles anyone associated with the digital world can read, since it will be talked about by people outside of our world for years to come, and may actually mark the very moment that social media goes mainstream.

Some of the key points Thompson makes are:

The idea of constant life updates takes some getting used to.
Indeed, many of the people I interviewed, who are among the most avid users of these “awareness” tools, admit that at first they couldn’t figure out why anybody would want to do this.
The "a-ha moment" comes when we start to sense patterns in people’s tweets and updates and lives.
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.
Social media's affect on offline, face-to-face socialization can be surprisingly positive.
(W)hen they do socialize face to face, it feels oddly as if they’ve never actually been apart. They don’t need to ask, “So, what have you been up to?” because they already know. Instead, they’ll begin discussing something that one of the friends Twittered that afternoon, as if picking up a conversation in the middle.
Our mobile society and workplace isolation make these services more valuable.
The mobile workforce requires people to travel more frequently for work, leaving friends and family behind, and members of the growing army of the self-employed often spend their days in solitude. Ambient intimacy becomes a way to “feel less alone,” as more than one Facebook and Twitter user told me.
Twitter demands a lower level of commitment than phone calls, email and other non-ambient forms of communication.
(A) point I heard from many others: awareness tools aren’t as cognitively demanding as an e-mail message. E-mail is something you have to stop to open and assess. It’s personal; someone is asking for 100 percent of your attention. In contrast, ambient updates are all visible on one single page in a big row, and they’re not really directed at you. This makes them skimmable, like newspaper headlines; maybe you’ll read them all, maybe you’ll skip some.
Social networking doesn’t increase the number of close friends we have as much as it allows us to expand our contacts with “weak ties”-- loose acquaintances—someone we met at a conference who we otherwise would have lost all contact with.
In their pre-Internet lives, these sorts of acquaintances would have quickly faded from their attention. But when one of these far-flung people suddenly posts a personal note to your feed, it is essentially a reminder that they exist.
Our network of weak ties helps us to solve problems faster because it expands our greater network.
Laura Fitton, a social-media consultant who has become a minor celebrity on Twitter — she has more than 5,300 followers — recently discovered to her horror that her accountant had made an error in filing last year’s taxes. She went to Twitter, wrote a tiny note explaining her problem, and within 10 minutes her online audience had provided leads to lawyers and better accountants.
One potential downside is that we may be spending too much time on “parasocial relationships.”
Danah Boyd, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society who has studied social media for 10 years, published a paper this spring arguing that awareness tools like News Feed might be creating a whole new class of relationships that are nearly parasocial — peripheral people in our network whose intimate details we follow closely online, even while they, like Angelina Jolie, are basically unaware we exist.
For people in their 20s, who have basically grown up with social media, disengaging is simply not an option.
(P)eople in their 20s who were in college when Facebook appeared and have never lived as adults without online awareness. For them, participation isn’t optional. If you don’t dive in, other people will define who you are. So you constantly stream your pictures, your thoughts, your relationship status and what you’re doing — right now! — if only to ensure the virtual version of you is accurate, or at least the one you want to present to the world.
At some level, social media helps us to recreate a pre-urban world of small towns and villages where anonymity was non-existent.
“It’s just like living in a village, where it’s actually hard to lie because everybody knows the truth already. The current generation is never unconnected. They’re never losing touch with their friends. So we’re going back to a more normal place, historically. If you look at human history, the idea that you would drift through life, going from new relation to new relation, that’s very new. It’s just the 20th century.”
Participation in social media can actually lead to greater self-awareness.
Many of the avid Twitterers, Flickrers and Facebook users I interviewed described an unexpected side-effect of constant self-disclosure. 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.

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