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?’
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.