Saturday, March 21, 2009

Facebook and "Ambient Awareness"

Over the last few weeks, I have been heavily moderating my experience with Facebook. I have been doing it in order to give myself a sort-of Lenten reflection on social networking and digital intimacy: is it really a positive experience, or is it a meaningless distraction? This type of thing isn't new to me. My friends and I grew up with dial-up bulletin board systems (even ran my own for a while) and chat-boards (I'm not talking about Prodigy or AOL) long before blogs became popular.

Facebook is a strange beast. Before really getting into it, I had really come to question the worth of the micro-blogging phenomenon supported by networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter in which one is encouraged to post brief messages concerning the unimportant minutiae of one's daily life. Yet, I found myself also strangely addicted to it. Clive Thompson of the New York Times asked the same question in an article published last September, "Brave New World of Digital Intimacy":
In essence, Facebook users didn’t think they wanted constant, up-to-the-minute updates on what other people are doing. Yet when they experienced this sort of omnipresent knowledge, they found it intriguing and addictive. Why?
Why, indeed? And what does one do with all of that knowledge?
Social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it “ambient awareness.” It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye. Facebook is no longer alone in offering this sort of interaction online. In the last year, there has been a boom in tools for “microblogging”: posting frequent tiny updates on what you’re doing. The phenomenon is quite different from what we normally think of as blogging, because a blog post is usually a written piece, sometimes quite long: a statement of opinion, a story, an analysis. But these new updates are something different. They’re far shorter, far more frequent and less carefully considered.
Yes, far, far less carefully considered. Writing a blog post takes some time, reflection, and analysis (not including those blogs prone to constant axe-grinding, which I make a point of avoiding and encourage others to do so as well). On the other hand, micro-blogging takes no time at all. I quickly saw how easily the most reasonable people post not only about the meaningless details of the day, but also their many erratic frustrations with the people and events of their life and life in general, including politics and religion. One friend proclaims, "The pope is an idiot!" Another proclaims, "Obama is an idiot!" And another, "Palin is an idiot!" It wears on a person after a while.

I myself have been tempted to vent my frustrations in ways I am not always comfortable doing on my blog, particularly recently with the efforts of the Obama Administration to destroy protections on human life. I began to see a picture of myself emerging in which I saw myself as a particularly negative person, prone to outburst, lacking reflection and balance. I am not a hot-headed reactionary, yet I began to understand that this must be how others were beginning to see me, particularly those with whom I did not maintain close contact, something Facebook was designed to remedy. That was my first indication that something was amiss. It also seemed to encourage people to develop erratic opinions about things they really knew nothing about, leading to the temptation to be deliberately provocative and incendiary.

But why the fascination over people's minute-by-minute reports? Thompson continues:
For many people — particularly anyone over the age of 30 — the idea of describing your blow-by-blow activities in such detail is absurd. Why would you subject your friends to your daily minutiae? And conversely, how much of their trivia can you absorb? The growth of ambient intimacy can seem like modern narcissism taken to a new, supermetabolic extreme — the ultimate expression of a generation of celebrity-addled youths who believe their every utterance is fascinating and ought to be shared with the world. Twitter, in particular, has been the subject of nearly relentless scorn since it went online. “Who really cares what I am doing, every hour of the day?” wondered Alex Beam, a Boston Globe columnist, in an essay about Twitter last month. “Even I don’t care.”

Indeed, many of the people I interviewed, who are among the most avid users of these “awareness” tools, admit that at first they couldn’t figure out why anybody would want to do this.
"Modern narcissism". I like that description. Posting my opinions gave me a sense of value, as though the details about what I ate for lunch that day were really that interesting. But it adds up:
Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as [Ben] Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.
And that's just it. People's lives unfold before you like a soap opera. You gain a sense of control even as a silent observer, privy to intimate life details people feel compelled to share. It seems to me that this can be good, but it can also be bad. And what are we to make of the distinction between real "friendship" and "Facebook friends", which for some, seems to be more of a popularity contest than about maintaining solid relationships with other people?

The thrust of Thompson's article seems to be that this type of intimacy is, at its root, good and is getting us back to what's really important about healthy relationships. I'm not yet sure about that. While Facebook is a very good means to keep folks updated on important items, easily share photos, and post links, it also provides a really good distraction from one's own life. Personally, I have found that by distancing myself from it, I have found myself more easily able to do constructive things, whether it be spending time with my wife, or immersing myself in prayer and study. I'll leave it there... for now.

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