Reboot 9.0 – Ambient Intimacy

I spent some time last week at the fabulous Reboot conference and was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to share some ideas around concept of Ambient Intimacy, which I continue to find fascinating. It was great to have the opportunity to develop and share my thoughts.

I’ve shared my slides on SlideShare although I’m not sure how much sense they make on their own… I can’t seem to work out the ‘notes’ functionality that I think (or perhaps imagined) that Slideshare has, so I’ll give you a quick overview of the concepts here. (Note… this is definitely the Cliff notes version. I have heard rumours of a video… if that materialises I’ll try to post a link here… this post isn’t intended to give you all the detail of the 40 minute talk tho!)
Soooo… as you probably know, Ambient Intimacy is a term to describe that sense of connectedness that you get from participating in social tools online that allow you to feel as though you are maintaining and, perhaps in fact, increasing your closeness with people in your social network through the messages and content that you share online – be it photographs or text or information about upcoming travel.

There are lots of other terms that people have used to describe this kind of connected experience including Situational Awareness, Hyper-Connectivity, Hive Mind, Social Presence, Distributed Co-Presence etc. I still prefer Ambient Intimacy because it combined the human ‘ickyness’ of ‘intimacy’ with the distributed and non-directional nature of ‘ambiance’.

I talked about the ethnographic research that came out of Japan about teenagers using text messaging to create techno-social spaces that allowed them to remain connected despite geographical distance and it’s uncanny similarity to the current experience of tools such as Twitter or Jaiku. And then took it back even before the internet and mobile phone, back to our primate days when we socialised by picking fleas. Of course, we ended up using language as a more efficient means of socialising… tool that facilitate Ambient Intimacy that allow us to further amplify our social chatter possibly allowing us to maintain social groups greater than Robin Dunbar anticipated, perhaps.

Perhaps not tho’, because for people to count in your ‘MonkeySphere’, they need to be multidimensional – that is, more than a Twitter username or a FaceBook profile. Just like when you were a kid you could be surprised to find your teacher in the supermarket or in a restaurant – it had never entered your head as a child that your teacher could be anywhere other than your classroom!

So, in the end, as Dunbar theorised, it comes back to the neocortex and your ability to recall and assimilate all the information about your fellow primates and how they fit together in your tribe. My neocortex isn’t up to more than 150 (Dunbar’s number), I suspect. Is yours?

I talked a little about the difference between self presentation online and offline, and how maintaining your ‘image’ offline is much more hard work that maintaining it online – how often maintaining it online is as much about omission than anything else eg. only Twittering when you’re doing really cool stuff. This, for me, leads to questions about authenticity & trust. Are these people online really your friends? And how do you *know* this if you don’t know them offline?

So… what is Ambient Intimacy good for? I think it’s incredibly good at providing phatic expression online. Phatic expression being the language we use for the purpose of being social, not so much for sharing information or ideas. It’s like the virtual ‘what’s up?’ or ‘how’re you doing?’

There are a million places on line for you to develop and expound upon your life changing thesis, but for me, Ambient Intimacy is the village green of the global village.

David Weinberger calls it Continual Partial Friendship. Johnnie Moore says that it ‘exposes more surface area for others to connect with’. I think it can be incredibly powerful.

What I’ve noticed is that Ambient Intimacy is quite polarising. For as many people that love it, there are plenty who intensely dislike it. There are two key issues at play here, I think – the first is the idea that the communication is actually not high value at all, and perhaps even causes cognitive dissonance and stress. This is an idea that Kathy Sierra posited in her post ‘Is Twitter TOO good?’. Many people find the idea of communications that weren’t particularly created for them and don’t necessarily require their attention somewhat distasteful. All of this periphery communication can also mean that we are in a state of Continuous Partial Attention, and not achieving the state of flow that our brains like so much.

I think that we need to take some personal responsibility for perhaps switching off the feeds if we know we’re liable to distraction and we need to maintain focus. I also love David Weinberger’s take on this, which is that ‘it helps that the volume of flow is so impossibly high that there’s zero expectation that anyone is keeping up. ‘hey dude, what didn’t you know that? I like twittered it two days ago’ is just not a reasonable complaint’.

Of course, there is a challenge for designers of current and future applications to help support us in maintaining focus when we need to without disconnecting us from our network. For me, this is all around design interpretations of ambiance. Having just enough impact to create an effect without being overly demanding and needy.

Even just being at Reboot and having some great conversations has helped me develop some more thoughts about Ambient Intimacy, in particular the economics of it within a network. I’ll be writing up some of those thoughts in the very near future.

UPDATE: if you’re reading this via RSS you may not be able to see the slides I’ve included above. Check them out on the blog or go see them on Slideshare.

Will anthropomorphism decline with the rise of social software?

Here’s something I’ve been pondering a while, and I’d be interested to hear what you think.

We know that people anthropomorphise technology, that is to say, they relate to it as though it has human qualities. People talk to their computers, they talk about them as though they are capable of having human emotions or objectives. They have, for many years, had more or less a one-to-one relationship with their computer.

These days, if you’re a fan of social software, it seems as though your computer is now crawling with *real* people. Emails, twitter messages, incoming IM conversations, skype calls. Photographs of people you know, used as avatars, are constantly popping up on your screen, appearing in the web pages you’re browsing. Real human voices, voices of people you know, abound.

It seems to me an odd juxtaposition – anthropomorphism and the increasing *realness* of the voices of the people who now ‘populate’, so vibrantly, our computers. (Did we ever feel the need to ‘humanise our mobile phones? I mean, I hate mine passionately… but I’m pretty sure it’s not ‘personal’).

I get a sense that, perhaps, our need imagine our computers human-like may be on the decline as they become more and more tools for transmitting the voices of people we know and love.

Anyone else getting the sense that anthropomorphism may be, slowly, on the way out?

If it wasn’t for Twitter I wouldn’t be here…

People ask me what I think of Twitter and whether it’s really important or useful. I’ve already said a bit about it, but here’s a funny story.

A few days back I was flying out of London to come to SXSW. I left home a little early because I quite like hanging out in the duty free stores and wanted to give myself a little time.

After lugging my heavy bag through the tube I settled myself down into a comfy seat on the Heathrow Express to wait a few minutes before we set off when my mobile did the buzzy thing… a twitter message had arrived.

It was a message from Jeremy Keith saying that he was waiting on a taxi to take him to Gatwick. Interesting, I thought. What were the chances of two planes setting off from London from two different airports to Dallas at roughly the same time.

I thought it might be worth just double checking that I was heading for the correct airport.

Of course, I was not.

Much frantic rushing through London peak hour ensued with rapidly beating heart as I tried to get to Gatwick in time to board my flight to SXSW. As it turns out, they’re not so strict with the 2 hour check in thing afterall… thank goodness.

But, here’s the thing. If it wasn’t for Twitter, I’d have stayed on the Heathrow Express and by the time I worked out I was in the wrong place it would have been far, far too late. 

Thanks to Twitter, and Jeremy (I still owe you beers!) I made it.

Flash forward to this afternoon and a Twitter from PeterMe lets me know there’s a UX meetup this evening. Again, something I would have totally missed without Twitter.

So yes. I think it matters. And then some.

Ambient Intimacy


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.

I’ve been using a term to describe my experience of Twitter (and also Flickr and reading blog posts and Upcoming). I call it Ambient Intimacy.

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!

Twitter Me

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