My replies to questions from New York Times magazine readers, re: “ambient awareness”

The New York Times got about 80 reader comments on my recent story on “ambient awareness”, and they asked me to respond to a few readers’ questions. I wrote up a bunch of replies today — and the text is, hilariously, about half the length of the original piece!

My replies are now online here at the Times’ site, and I’ve archived a copy below. (About that graphic above: While composing my replies to the readers, I — of course — Twittered about the fact that I was composing my replies, whereupon the Times editors took a screenshot of my Twitter feed, and used it as a graphic to head up my replies. Very meta!)

As a nearly-78-year-old who didn’t even SEE a dial telephone till she was 10, I’m more than shocked about the ambient intimacy described. I’m an omigod reader of this article! Yet I’m still teaching, and I know my students use these tools.

I think I’ll bring the topic and the article up in class next week and ask my students how they fit into the picture described by Clive Thompson. I can’t decide if I’m a Luddite old fogy who just doesn’t get modern technology (last fall, my “kids” couldn’t believe I’d never touched an iPOD or seen a text message!) or who thinks there are some details of my life I’d just as soon keep private.

Is this a generation gap? And how will these GenY people feel when their pasts catch up with them during job applications or dating relationships?

— Jan Bone, Palatine IL

It’s an excellent question! Many of these online sites leave persistent digital trails — pictures and posts that can be Googled later on, by employers, potential mates and the like. What’s more, any time you post something publicly online, you’re inherently giving up control of that information. It’s extremely easy to cut and paste something out of someone’s Facebook page, Twitter feed, blog, Flickr account, and put it into a different blog or Web site. So even if you decided you were sick of your online life and wanted to delete it, you might discover stray bits of it floating around on other sites — where curious or admiring observers had cut and pasted it.

So you’re wondering, How are young people dealing with this? I can’t speak from personal experience, because I’m not that young (I’m 39). But what I hear from leading social scientists who study this area — including two I quote in my article, Zeynep Tufecki and Danah Boyd — is that young people’s relationship to their online lives has evolved over the last few years. In particular, they’re getting a bit more cautious about what they put out there, precisely because there’s a growing awareness about the fact that your personal details can spin beyond your control.

For example, one day while researching my article, I spent a morning interviewing a dozen recent college graduates from New York University. They agreed that they were pretty careful about what information or pictures they put up on their Facebook pages, precisely because they knew that potential employers were now looking closely at young people’s online lives. So that means, for example, that they think twice before posting a picture they consider really embarrassing — mostly pictures of drunken carousing. (Many also carefully “detag” pictures of themselves that others post, if they think the pictures are too embarrassing, so that the pictures won’t show up in a Facebook search for their names.) But then again, being “careful” about one’s online image is relative: most college-age people today have a considerably less guarded sense of personal privacy than their elders do. One 24-year-old man told me he cleaned up his Facebook page in preparation for his job hunt, and he duly landed a job at a major investment bank. “I know they look at this stuff,” he told me. When he showed me his Facebook account, though, he’d left in plenty of pictures of him partying. He simply didn’t regard them as very embarrassing; and in any case, he added, he wouldn’t want to work for a company that was completely inflexible about its employees’ personal lives.

You could regard him as naive, but I don’t think so. I think two things are happening at once. The generation of young people who grew up with online lives are becoming (despite what their critics might suggest) reasonably savvy about what personal information is and isn’t appropriate to post online. Their definition of what’s “appropriate” is probably quite different from yours. I think employers are beginning to evolve, too — they’re slowly (though certainly not always) accepting that any of their young hires are going to have online lives; employers are beginning to get a little less jumpy about it.

These shifts in what’s considered embarrassing or private aren’t new, of course. They’ve been going on for years. A couple of generations, you couldn’t run for the presidency if you’d been divorced. It was simply too humiliating — and too private. Today, of course, it’s radically different: Many of those seeking to be presidential candidates last year were divorced, some multiply so.

(By the way, if you want to read more about these questions about employability and Googleability, Danah Boyd discussed this in a thoughtful 2007 article in The Harvard Business Review.)

— Clive Thompson, Contributing writer, New York Times Magazine

If constant online contact is leading people to scrutinize themselves more closely, as the end of the article argues (and I myself have seen time and time again), then maybe the “millennials” will be more responsible than their parents or grandparents. The disclosure of personal thoughts and attitudes might violate the antiquated sensibilities of the boomers, but it also keeps the disclosers accountable to their peers and their own consciences. It’s entirely possible that Facebook, Twitter, and blogs will make the millennials more thoughtful, honest, compassionate (you have to care enough about other people to keep tabs on them, right?), and articulate. Don’t worry — if we need a bail-out, we know better than to go to the generation that has largely forgotten the meaning of integrity. You also, by the way, oversaw the spiraling of America into one of the direst epochs of its history. Many thanks.

— Twenty years old, Massachusetts

Interestingly, this is exactly what Mark Zuckerberg — the C.E.O. of Facebook — told me. He argues that ambient awareness will make people behave more kindly toward one another because “when you’re sharing information publicly, it really incentivizes you to be really good and kind with people. … There’s a lot of social norms and social pressures to show that you care about other people. It aligns people so that it becomes good to be good to each other.” He also says he thinks it makes people more sympathetic to one another: “A lot of it starts out those little connections, when you look at someone and learn about their life and what they’re going through.”

Obviously, it’s in Zuckerberg’s interest to pose Facebook as a benevolent force in society. But it is, you could argue, the upside of the “return to the village” aspect of modern awareness: in a small community, people inherently care about one another because they know a lot about one another. The downside is, of course, something that the academic Zeynep Tufecki talked about: the cloying sense that everyone has their nose in your business, and you can’t reinvent yourself. There’s no free lunch in social dynamics. Every good change causes something unsettling, and, often, vice versa.

— Clive Thompson, Contributing writer, New York Times Magazine

Clive, Any thoughts on when, and if, society will tire of ambient awareness and again seek fulfillment with others through non-electronic means? Will the wired ever want to experience life off the grid?

— Al Foley, Nashua, NH

I actually think the highly wired people I interviewed for this article are, if anything, more social — with face-to-face, “off the grid” interactions — than many “unwired” people! There’s a tendency for people reading articles like mine to perceive that users of Twitter and Facebook spend all their time staring robotically at the screen. (This may be because of inadequacies in my journalism — I hope not!) But the reality is that almost everyone I spoke to told me that ambient awareness was a way to augment their pre-existing relationships, not to replace them. Here’s a good example: Last Friday, I got a message from Laura Fitton — one of the people I interviewed for my article who’s a die-hard user of Twitter — telling me that she was visiting New York and asking if I wanted to meet her for coffee. While she was in town, she Twittered her location and asked if there was anyone else who wanted to join us; by the end of the evening another six people had come out. The evening became remarkably social precisely because of how Fitton leads her life online.

That said, you raise a good question about whether people will get tired of ambient awareness. I’ve wondered whether this is a fad that will die out. It’s certainly possible to get too much of it; I talked to some people who, in the first flush of enjoyment in using Twitter or Facebook, “friended” many hundreds or even thousands of people, and then found themselves simply drowning in personal information from too many sources. They ran into the “parasocial” problem; they maxed out their Dunbar Number, and found it unpleasant. So they scaled back to a much smaller number of online contacts. From what I could discover in my reporting, the type of people who amass truly gargantuan networks of people are a bit rare. The average number of friends on Facebook is around 150, Zuckerberg estimates; precisely the Dunbar Number. Over at Twitter, things are even more intimate: the Twitter founders told me that the average user follows only 10 people — their close friends and family.

Maybe this will all die out like the Hula-Hoop! I don’t think so, though. Humans are social animals — they love consuming information about one another. If anything, the danger is that social information is simply too addictive, and that we’ll consume too much of it, and find it hard to turn off once we’ve turned it on.

— Clive Thompson, Contributing writer, New York Times Magazine

Everything that’s good as you all know is not completely good there’s a downside.

issue#1: real friends don’t need to use facebook to stay in touch.

issue#2: you can control what people know about you on facebook

issue#3: facebook or any other social media ambient awareness are for young people..unless your job requires you to pay attention.

my question: How long will these sites dominate or control the ambient social awareness in your opinion?

— nickelson, ny

You’re precisely right: There’s a downside to every single one of these technologies I’m writing about here. The question, for each individual user, tends to be: Does this tool make my life more interesting, or just waste my time? One of the things I found really interesting in my research is that people who enjoy using “ambient awareness” tools often only use one or two of them, but not all of them. Each awareness tool is engineered to produce different forms of interactions, and often people either really love or really hate what it does. So I’d talk to people who loved Facebook (they enjoyed the fact that it gave them a lot of control over who sees their updates) but hated Twitter (because its level of control isn’t as fine-grained). Or people loved Twitter (because they enjoy expressing themselves in text) but hated Flickr (because they find photographs too personally revealing, and they feel too vulnerable being “seen”). Or vice versa: I’d talk to someone who posts thousands of pictures of their lives on Flickr, but who feels completely exposed writing even a sentence about themselves.

I’d disagree that these tools are for only young people, though. A surprising number of folks I interviewed were in their 30s, 40s or even considerably older. Indeed, many found that ambient awareness is more useful the older they get, because the older they get the less time they have to see their friends face to face. Once you’ve got a couple of kids and a job, you don’t have the time to hang out in person that you had in college. So as Shannon Seery — the 32-year-old mother of two quoted in my article — told me, she actually finds ambient tools more useful.

That last question is a really good one: “How long will these sites dominate or control the ambient social awareness in your opinion?” Some people I interviewed worried about the fact that these online interactions all take place on someone’s corporate turf. If you get really invested in your relationships on Facebook — just to pick the biggest corporate example here — what happens if Facebook starts doing something you don’t like? What if Facebook effectively “controls” your social interactions, by controlling the commons — the mental green space where you and your friends hang out? This is what happened last year when Facebook introduced “Beacon,” a tool that would report on your News Feed whenever you bought something at certain online stores. Many people really didn’t like that, and the outcry caused Facebook to quickly add extra privacy provisions to Beacon. In this sense, online relationships are radically different from face-to-face chatting over coffee in, say, a Starbucks. The Starbucks baristas probably aren’t listening to what you’re saying or monitoring it; Facebook and Twitter and every other company brokering ambient awareness is, however passively.

— Clive Thompson, Contributing writer, New York Times Magazine

I think technology and social networking sites are enriching, not replacing our communications with our real friends and family. Instead of focusing on just one or the other, consider how online and offline communications work together. Anyone who has lived in a different city from where they grew up, or from where there family members live, know how difficult it is to keep up with their lives, or vice versa. Well meaning intentions to call, visit, or even write are often superseded by other work or personal priorities. I have lived between 2 miles and almost 9000 miles from my family and my closest friends. Even at 4 visits home per year, which is way above average for most people, I find myself only having about 30 mins to catch up with people I see when I’m home. Have you tried summarizing what you’ve done or experienced over 3 months time in 30 minutes? We’re relegated to statements like “things are same old, same old” or “things are good. no complaints”. Even if I hear that in person, I hardly call that communicating. Brief updates on social networking sites or email or text messages allow me to follow up with questions like, “you went on vacation to Greece last month, how was that trip? was it what you expected? did you meet anyone interesting?”

The fear of permanence is another issue I hear a lot. Why are we afraid of who we are and having records of that? We all evolve over time, and whether we do it on social networks or not, there’re pictures, diary entries, emails, and people’s memories that capture we we are at any given period in our lives. To me, this is precisely why technology and social networks are so useful — rather than having these memories and records loosely scattered everywhere and among different people and places, we can centralize this and develop a true record of who we are. We can now even control this ourselves, and give it more depth than was ever possible before. Think about what you know about your great grandparents, or what information you can find about them. At best, you have census records, immigration records, family stories, and old photos. Even then, don’t you wish you could hear in their own words what a certain experience meant to them in their own words? When people talk about putting things up on social networks, there’s an assumption that all this information is completely public. If you’ve ever used one, you’d know that your information is only available to people you give access to.

— Angela L, Boston, MA

It’s a wonderful point. It’s easy to watch people Twittering and Facebooking and conclude that most of these status updates are banal beyond description. But most offline, real-world chatter is precisely as meaningless. How often, when we meet up with a friend face to face, do we plunge immediately into a deep, emotionally rich, intellectually challenging, spiritually fulfilling conversation? Almost never, of course. Chitchat isn’t supposed to serve that purpose, whether it’s online or off. It’s there simply to keep us in vague, gentle, ambient contact with one another — to remind each other that we exist, as it were. Which is precisely what a lot of Twittering and Facebooking does, according to the people I interviewed.

— Clive Thompson, Contributing writer, New York Times Magazine

Superconnection = the Roman Colosseum of our age? Is anyone thinking about anything? When is one ever *alone* with his thoughts?

— Ben M., ME

That’s a superb question. People talked to me about how ambient awareness made them feel less alone. But it’s also possible that it makes solitude harder to achieve, and solitude is a really important part of thinking and experiencing life. Nicholas Carr recently worried the question of mental peace — and the related question of the eventual fate of our attention spans — in an Atlantic Monthly article. He said that living online — epitomized by the easy access to instant information on Google — was eroding his ability to quietly concentrate on a single thing for a long time, including, alarmingly for him, books. And some people I talked to felt the same way about ambient awareness: it felt too much like being pecked to death by ducks.

Granted, you could point out that online ambient contact is voluntary — nobody’s forcing you to read those updates, or to write them. But then again, there is, certainly among younger people, an emerging social drift toward participation. It’s hard not to do it, because you can seem a little weird to your peers if you don’t. Only 10 percent of people in college stay entirely off Facebook, so you really do stand out if you’re not in there, posting updates and reading updates. Even I noticed this effect myself. A few months ago, a friend of mine who’d been avidly Twittering — posting 10 or 20 times a day — abruptly stopped. After two weeks of Twitter silence from him, I got worried and asked him if anything was wrong. As it turns out, he’d just decided to step back from Twitter because he wanted — just as this reader’s question poses — to be alone with his thoughts. But because I’d gotten used to him Twittering regularly, I regarded his desire for solitude as alarming.

— Clive Thompson, Contributing writer, New York Times Magazine

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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