Sep 7, 2008

Digitized Society

A collegue passed a very interesting article from the New York times about the changing dynamics of social relationships when experienced via internet applications and services (i.e. emails, Internet Messengers, Facebook, Blogs, Twitter etc.).

[...] When students woke up that September morning and saw News Feed [on Facebook], the first reaction, generally, was one of panic. Just about every little thing you changed on your page was now instantly blasted out to hundreds of friends, including potentially mortifying bits of news — Tim and Lisa broke up; Persaud is no longer friends with Matthew — and drunken photos someone snapped, then uploaded and tagged with names. Facebook had lost its vestigial bit of privacy. For students, it was now like being at a giant, open party filled with everyone you know, able to eavesdrop on what everyone else was saying, all the time. [...]

Within days, the tide reversed. Students began e-mailing Zuckerberg to say that via News Feed they’d learned things they would never have otherwise discovered through random surfing around Facebook. The bits of trivia that News Feed delivered gave them more things to talk about — Why do you hate Kiefer Sutherland? — when they met friends face to face in class or at a party. Trends spread more quickly. [...]

Social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it “ambient awareness.” It is, they say, 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. Facebook is no longer alone in offering this sort of interaction online. [...]

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. [...]

In 1998, the anthropologist Robin Dunbar argued that each human has a hard-wired upper limit on the number of people he or she can personally know at one time. [...] Sure enough, psychological studies have confirmed that human groupings naturally tail off at around 150 people: the “Dunbar number,” as it is known. Are people who use Facebook and Twitter increasing their Dunbar number, because they can so easily keep track of so many more people?

As I interviewed some of the most aggressively social people online — people who follow hundreds or even thousands of others — it became clear that the picture was a little more complex than this question would suggest. Many maintained that their circle of true intimates, their very close friends and family, had not become bigger. [...] But where their sociality had truly exploded was in their “weak ties” — loose acquaintances, people they knew less well [...] — maintained via technology. [...]

Psychologists have long known that people can engage in “parasocial” relationships with fictional characters, like those on TV shows or in books, or with remote celebrities we read about in magazines. Parasocial relationships can use up some of the emotional space in our Dunbar number, crowding out real-life people. [...]

What is it like to never lose touch with anyone? [...]

“It’s just like living in a village, where it’s actually hard to lie because everybody knows the truth already,” Tufekci said. “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.” [...]

Cartoon by Peter Steiner. The New Yorker, July 5, 1993 issue (Vol.69 (LXIX) no. 20) page 61
She laughed. “You know that old cartoon? ‘On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’? On the Internet today, everybody knows you’re a dog! If you don’t want people to know you’re a dog, you’d better stay away from a keyboard.”

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. It’s like the Greek dictum to “know thyself,” or the therapeutic concept of mindfulness. [...]

In an age of awareness, perhaps the person you see most clearly is yourself.

- from Brave New World of Digital Intimacy

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