Friday, December 5, 2008

Birds of a Cyber-Feather Flock Together?

A few days ago my roommate and I had a cookie making party at our place. A couple of neighbors and a friend came over to bake and nibble, drink cheap wine and decorate the branch that we nailed to the wall (our poor girls' Christmas tree). We made the plan the day before and coordinated the details via texting and a few Facebook messages but it was a real, live, face-to-face hangout session. That night one of my friends mentioned an interesting article to me during a conversation about society and the impact that technology has on our friendships and relationships. I texted him today to get the title, Googled it and poof!

"I'm So Totally, Digitally Close To You", by Clive Thompson for The New York Times

I loved this article because I spend a lot of time thinking about the impact that technology has on my relationships. I think it's fascinating and also important to analyze ourselves as we change our interactive behaviors because then we can make better decisions about how we choose to participate in something like Facebook, for example. The rate at which these "awareness tools" develop is extremely fast and it's easy to get swept away...

In the article, Thompson begins by focusing on a "revolt" that happened when Facebook users took issue with the addition of the News Feed; "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." As Facebook has changed so have the people who use it. Some of us get used to the way things were and resist the changes at first but usually, we all come around. I've had my account since college and I've watched it morph and grow so fast that I sometimes find myself starting to predict what will be next, like some weird, giant chess game, only I have no idea who's winning!

Thompson goes on to describe what social scientists call "ambient awareness", something that's "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". The thing is, the "ambient awareness" we experience online comes from picking up the mood of our friends based on the tidbits shared through "'microblogging': posting frequent tiny updates on what you’re doing".

Most people I know "microblog" by changing the status on their Facebook or Gmail accounts throughout the day. Another popular way is through Twitter. In fact, I believe that's all it's for. Twitter is something I've just recently heard of and have never used but I think I'll probably keep it that way. You're reading this blog right now, so there's a good chance you clicked on the link that I posted as my Facebook Status or the one I have in Google mail. I think that means I'm microblogging my blog... weird.

When I think about my online world I often tend to focus on what strikes me as negative or potentially harmful. Maybe that's just because new can be scary; however, I'm starting to observe it in a more neutral way. Towards the end of the article a few interesting ideas came up about "awareness tools" and mindfulness. As someone who practices meditation I still don't think I'd have made this connection but it kind of makes sense in a strange way:

"It is easy to become unsettled by privacy-eroding aspects of awareness tools. But there is another — quite different — result of all this incessant updating: a culture of people who know much more about themselves [...] The act of stopping several times a day to observe what you’re feeling or thinking can become, after weeks and weeks, a sort of philosophical act. It’s like the Greek dictum to “know thyself,” or the therapeutic concept of mindfulness. (Indeed, the question that floats eternally at the top of Twitter’s Web site — “What are you doing?” — can come to seem existentially freighted. What are you doing?) Having an audience can make the self-reflection even more acute, since, as my interviewees noted, they’re trying to describe their activities in a way that is not only accurate but also interesting to others: the status update as a literary form."

Status updates as a literary form? Woah. I could discuss this for, well, a long time but I'll save my ramblings for the lucky few who do me the courtesy of tolerating my wine-induced monologuing. Little Twitter updates are apparently called "Tweets" which makes us the chatty birds. When I think of "ambient awareness" and the strange, almost telepathic connection we seem to be developing by staying constantly plugged in, it makes me think of a flock of birds. They move together with a secret connection that has nothing to do with talking or even body language, they can sense each other, can we?

*Randomly Related?
Yesterday I woke up missing a certain (sort of) ex. It was one of those moments where you kind of wish you hadn't said "stop texting" or start thinking to yourself, "I wonder what he's up to today?" This guy is not a Facebook friend and I would fall over laughing if I found out he had a "Twitter" account. There is no profile for me to visit, no digital image of him for me to pine over and I think I like it that way. Right now a memory feels better, fleeting though it may be, than a cold computer screen.


Shikka said...

A G-chat conversation from this morning...

me: bloggy blog blog blog!

Charlie: oh yeah?
link me!


Charlie: man
online communication is so strange

me: i know!
did you like it?

Charlie: i do
i love how meta you got on it

me: heehee

Charlie: i'm blogging as a selfaware person talking about selfawareness online

me: ha!

One-Taco Josh said...

Brilliant article. Brilliant analogy. My comment turned into a post of its own. Thank you very much for sharing.

One-Taco Josh said...

It's just totally, totally not easy. Especially when the world and everyone in it is at our fingertips. But yeah, I guess it can start with a few deep breaths. And getting out of the house.