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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.

11 Comments

  1. You know you are headed towards a book deal here. I can smell it.

    But… can you write the first draft of the book entirely via twitter?

  2. Nice use of Keynote – my presentations are rarely so words-free :-)

    I like a lot of the ideas here, and those you discussed in the recent /Talkshow. In particular I like your conclusion about authenticity and trust. I can build up networks using these tools, but I need to get to know the individuals better to develop that trust. That’s why I make an effort to extend social networks built by social software, via real world meetings.

    I also think that with good note-taking I can keep my list of contacts pretty large and active. However in general I agree with the idea that there’s a limit to the number of intimate contacts, in your sense of intimate here of course :-)

    Incidentally I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the continuous partial attention stuff – aspects of social software in some ways – is directly opposed to GTD. That’s my current struggle… trying to keep up with a combination the Dunbar constant, and the desire to remain connected, as well as achieving things.

  3. @ xian – I could certainly try!
    @ lelak – thanks. updated. I have to switch off JavaScript to edit this post because the WordPress WYSIWIG editor isn’t playing nicely with the Slideshare code.. v annoying and makes me even more prone to typos that usual!

  4. This was just excellent. Thanks for all the ideas inherent in this post. I wish I could’ve seen it live. You should come by PodCamp Europe and do a re-presentation. : )

    http://podcampeurope.org . 12-13 June in Stockholm. Please? I’d love to see you there.

    twitter.com/chrisbrogan

  5. If you can’t go to PodCamp Europe, would you consider PodCamp Philly in September?
    These things are critical- the depth vs. surface constant partial attention.
    I’m passionate about neuroscience in general, especially as it relates to learning in children and beyond. Because ultimately, we are somewhat prisoners of our biology, and we humans are wired to have relationships, villages, communities,and social groups. The connection made at meetings and conferences is the essential glue that holds the online world together, in my experience.

  6. hey PodCamp people. I’d love to come talk about Ambient Intimacy at an upcoming PodCamp – not sure that timings will make it possible tho (esp for Europe, which is really close and midweek by my calculations). It looks like it’s a topic that would fit right in tho!

  7. What I wonder is whether ambient intimacy will someday replace true intimacy. Have any studies been done on how growing up in an IM / “oversharing”-based culture impacts the real-life intimacy, trust and even romantic / sexual experiences of the current generation?

    Will there come a time when the concept of “friends” is as ambiguous as “acquaintances”?

  8. Such a shame to have missed it. The slides are a bit bare by themselves. Mind you at least I did get the 5 minute ADD version.

  9. Nicely put together… I’ve been watching this concept of continuous partial presence take foot, but like you I tend to like the idea of ambient intimacy better.

    Thinking about it further, we engage with it in mechanical ways as well, such as why we are in the habit of leaving the radio or television on in the background. Online media in this case lets us personalize the experience, but allowing us more control over who was want to maintain intimacy or presence with.

    I’ve put together my own lifecasting rig to experience this myself, right now I’m limited doing it at events such as conferences. Combining this with twitter, I have people direct me live as I receive messages via my phone. It was certainly interesting being a human platform, aka social cyborg.

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