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.

Dialog Boxes: Making simple things simple…


How much thought do you give to writing the text on dialog boxes when you’re designing?

It’s fairly common for these to be written by the developers as they’re being coded, from what I’ve seen. They certainly deserve a whole lot more attention than they generally receive.

Here’s a prime example.

Notice the text that has been bolded. It’s asking me a question ‘do you want to allow the new version to access the same keychain items (such as passwords) as the previous version?’.

Is it just me, or are the obvious answers to this question either Yes, or No. Yet this dialog box presents me with the options ‘Don’t Change’ or ‘Change All’. To which my immediate response is… Change What?! I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Let’s ignore the fact that, hypothetically, I have pretty much no idea of what a keychain item might be, the next line of text reassuringly tells me that whatever option I end up guessing at is permanent and affects all keychain items used by Adium.

OK. So here’s what I know… whatever choice I make here is pretty important and not able to be undone… and yet I know little about what the question is and pretty much nothing about what the options represent.

Not a pretty situation considering I was just installing an update to my IM application.

Potentially enough for me to bail and go install another application instead? Maybe.

It’s in the details people.

[Note: Yes, I’ve heard that Adium is the best IM client for Mac. I’m sticking with it for the time being.]

[Another quick note: how much do I *hate* the way that Mac software uses that little triangle on it’s side to represent ‘if you click here, a whole stack of functionality that you *really* need but have no idea where it is, will be revealed. Who thought *that* was a good idea? It has caused me grief over the past couple of weeks… even *after* I learned its meaning. End of moaning.]

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?

Remind me … what’s so great about Omnigraffle?

For many years, as the groundswell towards Mac has gathered pace, I’ve had to endure many of my colleagues scoffing at the fact that I continue to use Visio when they’ve seen the light and made the move to Omnigraffle.

I got my first Mac in more than a decade last week, so I’ve left behind all my Visio skills for the time being and am trying to ‘level up’ in Omnigraffle as quickly as possible!

But I don’t get what’s so special about it. Can someone remind me?

Making the switch to Mac has been a fascinating experience. I’ve had so little experience with OSX and Mac applications, that I really feel like a beginner. And, no. It’s not as easy and idiot proof as those of you who’ve been using Macs for a while seem to think. Sometimes, really basic tasks like trying to save a document into a particular folder, seem completely impossible to me (there is a lot of functionality hidden behind little black triangles, I’ve come to discover).

I miss knowing all the shortcuts desperately. And knowing how to diagnose problems. I have to learn entirely new patterns and ways of interacting.

I’m a beginner. And it’s really frustrating, and disempowering. It makes me feel pretty dumb.

It also makes me think that I wish that I could have this experience about once a year to REALLY bring home what the experience of using the interfaces that I design must be for very many people. It lifts the ‘Curse of Knowledge, or the The Curse of Expert Ennui as Anne Zelenka might describe it.

We know so much about making our computers work and so much about how they are designed… it’s impossible for us to forget enough to really empathise with novice users.

Which, of course, is why it’s so important to regularly, carefully and empathetically observe users of all levels of expertise and familiarity using your product. You might *think* you know what they understand, but you’re probably wrong. Design expertise is incredibly important, but it only goes so far. Regular observation of real people interacting with technology is a really important input to good design, and becoming a good designer.

Meanwhile. I’m taking any tips on how to become an expert in all things Mac. Let me have ’em.