Reciprocateable Ambient Intimacy

Mar 24, 2008 16:37 · 679 words · 4 minute read

It sounds slightly heretical given what I do for a living, but I’ve never really fallen in love with social media like Facebook in the way that I’m apparently supposed to. The closest I’ve come to this is Twitter, which I do use, although I’d be hard-pressed to describe exactly why.

One of the terms used to describe Twitter was coined (as far as I know) by Leisa Reichelt, who calls it “ambient intimacy” (a long quote, but worth citing in full):

“Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. Flickr lets me see what friends are eating for lunch, how they’ve redecorated their bedroom, their latest haircut. Twitter tells me when they’re hungry, what technology is currently frustrating them, who they’re having drinks with tonight.

Who cares? Who wants this level of detail? Isn’t this all just annoying noise? There are certainly many people who think this, but they tend to be not so noisy themselves. It seems to me that there are lots of people for who being social is very much a ‘real life’ activity and technology is about getting stuff done.

There are a lot of us, though, who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like.

Knowing these details creates intimacy. (It also saves a lot of time when you finally do get to catchup with these people in real life!) It’s not so much about meaning, it’s just about being in touch.”

This is a useful description, but it doesn’t quite get it for me - Twitter is actually more than just ambient intimacy. It helps to contrast it with blogs: which are, fundamentally, a broadcast medium. Now I realise that this is a statement that’s probably going to get me blackballed from the Social Media Brotherhood, but bear with me - while I know that “blogs are conversations” is the conventional wisdom, experience suggests that actually blogs are POTENTIAL conversations.

Having the facility to comment does not a conversation make. And in some circumstances, having the facility to comment actually DECREASES the signal-to-noise ratio, as anyone who’s spent any time reading the Guardian’s Comment Is Free site will know. It’s not so much conversations, as a thousand opinionated drunks in a bar all shouting over each other.

So why is Twitter different?

Firstly, there’s the 140 character limit. Expressing yourself in a smaller space is far more difficult that doing so when space is unlimited (which is why this post is three screens long) . The limitation emphasises the NOW of the “what are you doing right now” that is Twitter.

Then, there’s the follower / following function. Unlike blogs, I can see exactly who is reading my tweets. And not only that, but I have the option to follow them back - which together with the ‘@’ function means that the Twittersphere (appalling term, I know) seems like a bar with a number of people of varying states of inebriation having more or less coherent conversations. Some take this to the extreme, twittering bowel movements, but in general the signal-to-noise ratio is pretty high.

And overlaying the follower / following, I have the option to block potential followers. The result of this is a near-total lack of trolls and spammers - it’s incredibly easy to make a quick judgement on someone’s worth as a follower by looking at their following / followers ratio. All of the Twitter spambots have without exception had a massive inbalance in the relative numbers.

The end result is reciprocateable ambient intimacy - I can follow someone, they can follow me, but we both have complete control over the relationship. Which is a far closer analogue to real-life relationships that anything that’s come before.