I find myself talking about Twitter quite a lot. I’m not the only one. The behaviours that Twitter has made more visible are tremendously interesting.
Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. Flickr lets me see what friends are eating for lunch, how they’ve redecorated their bedroom, their latest haircut. Twitter tells me when they’re hungry, what technology is currently frustrating them, who they’re having drinks with tonight.
Who cares? Who wants this level of detail? Isn’t this all just annoying noise? There are certainly many people who think this, but they tend to be not so noisy themselves. It seems to me that there are lots of people for who being social is very much a ‘real life’ activity and technology is about getting stuff done.
There are a lot of us, though, who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like.
Knowing these details creates intimacy. (It also saves a lot of time when you finally do get to catchup with these people in real life!) It’s not so much about meaning, it’s just about being in touch.
As Ian Curry at Frog Design writes:
It’s basically blogging reduced to what the Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin called “the phatic function.” Like saying “what’s up?” as you pass someone in the hall when you have no intention of finding out what is actually up, the phatic function is communication simply to indicate that communication can occur. It made me think of the light, low-content text message circles Mizuko Ito described existing among Japanese teens – it’s not so important what gets said as that it’s nice to stay in contact with people. These light exchanges typify the kind of communication that arises among people who are saturated with other forms of communication.
I came across this research when I was doing my Masters a few years back and it’s continued to fascinate me (and yes, I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit whilst considering, and defending, Twitter).
Here’s an observation from some Japanese ethnographic research into the use of camera phones by young people undertaken by Daisuke Okabe (2004):
intimate sharing / presence – sharing intimate photos on the handset when talking face to face with people. Photos that fall into this category would be photos of partners, family, pets, etc. However, this can also be very every day stuff… eg. what I’m having for dinner. It is sharing ongoing mundane visual information with intimates, creating a sense of presence in other peoples lives without needing to talk or be physically present.
I think that the simplicity of Twitter is key to it’s success. The messages must be short and they’re simple text. I’m starting to think that the level of stimulation is key to the success of these ‘osmotic’ communications (as the guys from LastFM referred to the IRC channel they use internally).
We’ve been trialling some options for a similar kind of osmotic backchannel to use at Flow. One of the first things we roadtested was Skype Public Chat. Amongst some other problems (including that there is no Mac version of the current release which supports the Public Chat function), it seemed that the flashing and noises and animated emoticons were too stimulating… the conversation wanted to leap to the front of the screen continually demanded attention.
IRC on the other hand (ah, what a flash back to open up mIRC again after all these years!) reminds me a lot more of Twitter. There’s none of the flashing and animating and carrying on. The humour is in the text (it took about 30 seconds for the first trout related comment to emerge… old habits…). To me, IRC seems to be a much more effective tool for a back channel, for supporting this osmotic communication within a company. (Assuming we can reduce the barrier to ‘log on’… it’s not a friendly experience for not-geeks).
What does seems clear is that, for a lot of people, this ambient intimacy adds value to people’s lives and their relationships with others. I think we can expect to see a lot more of it… but if I was building a tool to support it, I’d be keeping it very simple and unobtrusive. Osmosis is one thing, hyper-stimulation is quite another!
Image credit: Slide used by LastFM in their presentation at FOWA
Reference: Okabe, Daisuke 2004, Emergent Social Practices, Situations and Relations through everyday camera phone use, presented at Mobile Communication and Social Change, the 2004 International Conference on Mobile Communication in Seoul, Korea, October 18-19 2004