Notes from NYTimes “Ambient awareness” article

A recent NYTimes Magazine article on microblogging provides a great definition of the value of Facebook statuses, tweets, and other online “status” communication tools:

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.


“It’s an aggregate phenomenon,” Marc Davis, a chief scientist at Yahoo and former professor of information science at the University of California at Berkeley, told me. “No message is the single-most-important message. It’s sort of like when you’re sitting with someone and you look over and they smile at you. You’re sitting here reading the paper, and you’re doing your side-by-side thing, and you just sort of let people know you’re aware of them.”

Why is this important?

Paul Graham is a big proponent of face-to-face communication as a critical component to cooperation, business success, and innovation. In his article on great cities, he observes that :

Maybe one day the most important community you belong to will be a virtual one, and it won’t matter where you live physically. But I wouldn’t bet on it. The physical world is very high bandwidth, and some of the ways cities send you messages are quite subtle.

He repeats a similar “high bandwidth” mantra in an article on why startup founders should all sit together in the same room: because there is a great deal of important subtle, ambient information that we pick up in person but wouldn’t ever make time to include in a media communication.

That’s exactly the kind of communication that is provided by Flickr. Again from the NYTimes article (excerpt edited):

“Ambient awareness” is 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.

“Instant” is synonym of “immediate”. The American Heritage Dictionary defines immediate in one sense as “Acting or occurring without the interposition of another agency or object; direct.” The word’s etymology is from the Middle English immediat, from Old French, from Late Latin immediātus : Latin in-, not; + Latin mediātus, past participle of mediāre, “to halve,” later, “be in the middle,” from Latin medius “middle.”

“Instant” bypasses many of the normal downsides associated with mediated communication. This only works if microcommunications are cheap to create (e.g., Twitter, Zannel) and it’s possible for an audience to see the relationship between them (e.g. FriendFeed).