social & community

Ambient Exposure

It’s been more than a year now since I first wrote about Ambient Intimacy, and in that year it seems a whole lot has gone on. Twitter continues to be the predominant micro-blogging(?) platform although Google now owns Jaiku. Presence continues to be compelling, yet there hasn’t been the growth in ‘life streaming’ that perhaps we were expecting to occur. Everyone loved FaceBook, and now many of us love to hate it. And we’re all still talking about Portable Social Networks and better tools for managing our social networks across platforms, but we’re not really seeing very much of this in action yet.

On a personal level, I’m sure that many of us have had some pretty significant personal changes in the past year. For myself, the two highlights have been moving from working with a consultancy to going freelance, and starting a family.

All of these changes in the past year have gotten me to thinking about something that I’m going to call Ambient Exposure. Exposure in terms of disclosing information of course, but also exposure in the way that a trader might think of it – a vulnerability, a risk associated with taking a position that could, potentially, result in loss or harm.

There are two key attributes of social tools social tools such as Twitter, Jaiku, Facebook and others that means that Ambient Intimacy leads to Ambient Exposure being the content you are sharing and the contacts with whom you are sharing it.

Ambient Intimacy occurs as you share your presence information and other personal information with people in your contact list – that is simple enough, and on the surface the exposure is obvious. However, for very many of us, we have taken little care in managing and really understanding exactly *who* is on our contact list. As your friends or followers list becomes progressively larger, we are less able to remember exactly who is listening – employers? colleagues? people we want to impress professionally? clients we’re currently working for? people we’d like to work for later? (just to focus on the professional aspect – there are a million potential personal minefields).

Essentially, we may not *want* to have the same level of intimacy with some people as we do with others … but do our social tools support this in helping us either be more thoughtful about who we add to our networks and who we don’t (and allowing ‘not adding’ in a way that is polite), or in allowing us to maintain awareness of who we are talking to (what kinds of people) and to isolate groups of people for various types of communication.

My Twitter account, for example, is completely public and there are lots of people ‘listening’ to what I twitter who I don’t know. There are so many of them that I can’t remember who is there or not. As this list has gotten longer I find myself Twittering more cautiously and self consciously. I don’t want to be twittering about procrastinating on a project when the client for whom I am working is ‘listening’. My FaceBook friends list, on the other hand, is more private and has a much smaller collection of people who I actually know. I feel much more comfortable sharing personal information in this space now – so even as the rest of the world seems to be moving away from FaceBook, I actually enjoy it more than ever because my exposure is reduced and my ability to be authentic is increased. (Which raises a whole other question about what is authenticity in this space, and how much authenticity is required for proper ‘intimacy’ to be sustained. A whole other blog post, that is…).

In the same way that we are not necessarily good at or able to forecast the impact of choosing to add someone to our contact list, we are similarly perhaps not good at anticipating the impact of sharing particular types of information with others.

For some reason, I felt incredibly reticent about sharing in a social space anything about what felt like the incredibly personal experience of being pregnant and having a baby. I’m quite open about it in my relatively protected FaceBook environment, but in my highly exposed and less personal Twitter and blogging spaces I’ve been a lot more restrained.

Similarly I was intrigued to observe the almost brutal honesty of Tara Hunt‘s Twitter messages in the aftermath of her relationship breakup. As someone who is highly proficient in the social space, one could only assume that Tara had given some thought to the potential consequences of such honest tweeting. I believe that at some point around this time Tara did actually change her Twitter account from public to private, possibly as a reaction to others’ response to this openness. Nonetheless, Tara knowingly continues to take what I think is a very brave stance, only hours ago tweeting, on a totally unrelated topic – ‘Better yet, if I stumble, I do it openly and spectacularly on Twitter and YOU learn too! :)’

Tara and I and probably you take these risks or precautions in the social space because we are literate in this space. There has been a lot written about young people and the risks of openness, but the rest of us need education and potentially protection from this exposure. The benefits of ambient intimacy far outweigh the potential risks of exposure in my opinion, but awareness of this exposure is important. Education is probably the best way to help people manage exposure via content, but one of the key challenges for designers in social spaces is to design tools that support awareness and management of this exposure through unruly contact lists.

See also: Gardening Tools for Social Networks

10 thoughts on “Ambient Exposure

  1. This is interesting — I wondered why you got quieter on Twitter and I was very surprised to learn you had had a baby since I heard nothing at all about it though I’ve been following you on twitter for a whole year now :). I was thinking if it had been that you had been busy, if twitter just became less relevant to you or if you felt you were too overexposed. My bet was on #1. :)

    I think many of us are wondering about the same implications and the reaction I’m seeing more often is people pulling away, being more discretionary. While that’s sensible, I think we lose a lot of the fun and the benefit of having ubiquitous technologies that just work for us. If we have to think about them too much, I feel it defeats the purpose somewhat.

    I don’t mean to say that relying on a system implies we stop thinking about the consequences of our acts, but it’s the balance of being confortable enough with the system and aware enough of what your actions mean in the future.

    My strategy has been for a while, to use personas. Ok, sorta. I have these prototypical people that represent folks on my list of contacts (representing a biz partner, a colleague, a friend, people I don’t know, etc), and when I post something I imagine them reading it. It’s good enough a filter for me to establish the balance between Ambient Exposure (in my level of comfort with what I present to the world) and Ambient Intimacy (my desire to be social with certain frequency).

    While this is a habit for me, I know I don’t do it every time. So when you see me regurgitate 6 messages in a row because I’m running around excited doing something or batch-responding to people, I’ll very likelly be going “oh crap, I just spammed all my followers” and I’ll feel bad. If I share something that I regret, I’ll delete it. The world is forgiving enough – if someone saw it for a split second it doesn’t matter, it won’t haunt me for the rest of my life.

    So, while I’m seeing a lot of people pulling away because of these concerns, my idea has been to push those boundaries further for myself (I’m an introvert and I’m shy so this is a good way for me to deal with that in an environment I don’t feel threatened by).

    While I was wondering if you had been busy and therefore twittering less, I started twittering more regularly and it has affected my day to day. Because I’m more exposed there, I’ve had more conversations in person at work and with friends and more interesting topics have oppened up. People that were acquaintances have become closer, people who thought I was too much, stopped following. I am really enjoying the experiment. :)

  2. If we think about this in terms of how to tag the “Social Graph”, what’s coming out for me is that it won’t be along those old traditional lines: “friends”, “co-workers” and so on.

    Actually, everyone’s developing fairly complex carve-ups of their contacts, deciding who’s in each group and collectively finding particular ways in which they communicate with that set of people.

    I also find that I’m consistently coming across new dilemmas about how much or little to share – and there aren’t really any social norms to go by yet! It’s one of the most fascinating things to me about the emergence of social media and I guess that the norms us “early adopters” are discovering in place now may stick around for quite some time.

  3. Perhaps the core of the issue here is that “ambient intimacy”, despite being an intriguing notion on a buzzword level, is an inherently contradictory idea — “ambience” and “intimacy” are opposites that really can’t be reconciled. In your original “Ambient Intimacy” post, you seemed to equate intimacy with the twitter-enabled remote awareness of the ongoing, small details of peoples’ lives. But I’m not sure being aware of what someone is doing or even thinking all day (had a donut for breakfast; going into a meeting now; my boss’s tie is really ugly, wish I could tell him) really constitutes intimacy. I remember a college creative writing course I took, where the instructor told a student that his writing wasn’t creating any concrete sense of his characters as “real” people. In desperation, the student wrote a store that was essentially a serial narrative of his character’s every action from the minute he got out of of bed. Unsurprisingly, the result was about as far from a “flesh and blood” character as you could imagine. I think your reluctance to twitter about your pregnancy simply represents a totally reasonable intuition about what true intimacy is. The things that we feel most deeply and the most special moments in our lives are by definition not “ambient”. Far from being “authentic”, I think “broadcasting” those experiences via twitter would simply leach the authenticity and intimacy out of them.

  4. This is so timely. A friend of mine just asked me to join Twitter (and I had no idea what it was). It seems like a little research is helpful when implementing new technology.

    Although I’m fairly comfortable with being online, I’m definitely concerned about revealing too much.
    Thanks for exploring this important area of ambient intimacy.

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