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If you don’t “get” Facebook and Twitter, read this NY Times article September 8, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in facebook, microblogging, social media, social networks, status, twitter.

The NY Times is often considered the US newspaper of record, and it lives up to its reputation with an excellent article in today’s Sunday NY Times Magazine about the ambient awareness enabled by Facebook status updates, Twitter and other microblogging tools.

Even readers familiar with both popular microblogging tools and their history should read this article. High points:

Microblogging enables ambient awareness of your broad friendship group:

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?

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.

Ambient awareness comes not from any single tweet or status update, but from the aggregation of the data.

Haley discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends’ lives in a way he never had before. When one friend got sick with a virulent fever, he could tell by her Twitter updates when she was getting worse and the instant she finally turned the corner. He could see when friends were heading into hellish days at work or when they’d scored a big success. Even the daily catalog of sandwiches became oddly mesmerizing, a sort of metronomic click that he grew accustomed to seeing pop up in the middle of each day.

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. 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 Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

“It’s like I can distantly read everyone’s mind,” Haley went on to say. “I love that. I feel like I’m getting to something raw about my friends. It’s like I’ve got this heads-up display for them.” … And when they do socialize face to face, it feels oddly as if they’ve never actually been apart. They don’t need to ask, “So, what have you been up to?” because they already know. Instead, they’ll begin discussing something that one of the friends Twittered that afternoon, as if picking up a conversation in the middle.

“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.” Yet it is also why it can be extremely hard to understand the phenomenon until you’ve experienced it. Merely looking at a stranger’s Twitter or Facebook feed isn’t interesting, because it seems like blather. Follow it for a day, though, and it begins to feel like a short story; follow it for a month, and it’s a novel.

Ambient awareness helps maintain “weak ties”. Sociological research has shown that a large network of weak ties is more likely to be helpful than a small network of strong ties when trying to do things like get a job, find a mate, and other socially tinged objectives

Many maintained that their circle of true intimates, their very close friends and family, had not become bigger. Constant online contact had made those ties immeasurably richer, but it hadn’t actually increased the number of them; deep relationships are still predicated on face time, and there are only so many hours in the day for that.

But where their sociality had truly exploded was in their “weak ties” — loose acquaintances, people they knew less well. It might be someone they met at a conference, or someone from high school who recently “friended” them on Facebook, or somebody from last year’s holiday party. In their pre-Internet lives, these sorts of acquaintances would have quickly faded from their attention. But when one of these far-flung people suddenly posts a personal note to your feed, it is essentially a reminder that they exist.

Microblogging, ambient awareness and maintaining weak ties has the sideeffect of making it impossible to move away and “reinvent yourself” as your past will always be with you.

This is the ultimate effect of the new awareness: It brings back the dynamics of small-town life, where everybody knows your business…

“It’s just like living in a village, where it’s actually hard to lie because everybody knows the truth already,” Tufekci said. “The current generation is never unconnected. They’re never losing touch with their friends. So we’re going back to a more normal place, historically. If you look at human history, the idea that you would drift through life, going from new relation to new relation, that’s very new. It’s just the 20th century.”…

“If anything, it’s identity-constraining now,” Tufekci told me. “You can’t play with your identity if your audience is always checking up on you. I had a student who posted that she was downloading some Pearl Jam, and someone wrote on her wall, ‘Oh, right, ha-ha — I know you, and you’re not into that.’ ” She laughed. “You know that old cartoon? ‘On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’? On the Internet today, everybody knows you’re a dog! If you don’t want people to know you’re a dog, you’d better stay away from a keyboard.”

Again, read the whole thing.


1. Reinventing yourself — Some French Guy - September 8, 2008

[…] September 8th, 2008 | social media, web, politics Microblogging, ambient awareness and maintaining weak ties has the sideeffect of making it impossible to move away and “reinvent yourself” as your past will always be with you. If you don’t “get” Facebook and Twitter, read this NY Times article […]

2. andrew korf - September 8, 2008

very solid – very timely post. thanks

3. friarminor - September 8, 2008

Really insightful post!

Thanks for sharing!


4. djw - September 9, 2008

nice post, cheers

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6. O’DonnellWeb - Polluting the homeschool blogosphere since 2001 » Blog Archive » Elsewhere on the Internet (September 8th 13:14) - September 9, 2008

[…] If you don’t “get” Facebook and Twitter, read this NY Times article « Lights… – […]

7. facelessbook - September 9, 2008

This “ambient awareness” thing is a phenomenon that exists only in the bay area… the rest of the world still lives in a twitbook free world. Maybe this article is slightly out of touch with whats really going on.
And why would you want to “constrain your identity”? The ability to revinvent yourself is a great gift.

8. artpredator - September 9, 2008

thanks for calling this article to my attention!

9. How to “get” Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of on-line social networking « art predator - September 9, 2008

[…] September 9, 2008 at 4:53 pm · Filed under Uncategorized People who don’t blog don’t always “get” blogging and make fun of those of us who do. What they don’t realize is that the info they are using–the recipe they bake, the poem which delights, the information they need–often comes from a form of a web site called a “blog.”  By the same token, people who aren’t on facebook or twitter often don’t understand the value of these forms of social networking. I was there too until I read this blog post about a NY Times article on blogging. […]

10. Ryan - September 9, 2008

The need to communicate and to stay connected to one another in what seems the most absurd fashions … have become the most powerful!

We are well aware of this 🙂

11. See What’s Out There » Blog Archive » Understanding Social Networks - September 10, 2008

[…] [New York Times] Hat Tip [Jeremy Liew] Share and Enjoy: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and […]

12. Subterfuge Seattle » Blog Archive » “Ambient Awareness” The Phenomenon Behind Our Facebook Addiction - September 10, 2008

[…] This blog outlines the NY Times article that explains the sociological phenomenon “Ambient Awareness” that explains why we become addicted to Facebookand Twitter. It’s like a way to be connected  psychically to people we have weak ties with. The result is a small town culture in a very big world. It’s like we’re becoming the Borg!    Click Here […]

13. Sean Tierney - September 10, 2008

This is a good layman’s explanation of the value of Twitter but I would say it’s lacking the countervailing discussion of the negative effects. The barrage of ADHD sound byte updates from a ton of people gives you a false sense of connectedness to your friends to the point where you don’t talk to them as much. I know of at least a few people who have quit the various social networking services to find an immediate flood of people calling them saying “how come you unfriended me?” The irony is that quitting the social networks restored the social-ness and put them back in touch with people.


14. Laure - September 10, 2008

“It’s just like living in a village, where it’s actually hard to lie because everybody knows the truth already,” …wellll, social communities and their profiles mostly are everything else than “truth”, everybody knows that and that makes least this part of the article a little bit of nonsense.

15. Janicek.com - Yeah, still not getting it - September 11, 2008

[…] read this recent paraphrased article from The New York Times. My thoughts on the paraphrasing are: In essence, Facebook users didn’t […]

16. “ambient awareness” - Facebook « RickMcCharles.com - September 14, 2008

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17. hannah - September 23, 2008

what information do you get if you sean a magazine?

18. Stephanie Gerson - October 21, 2008

yes, yes, and yes except for the very end: as we articulate the spectrum between fully-private and fully-public with ever-more elaborate privacy settings (e.g. “who can see this picture?”), we’ll no longer have to steer clear of the keyboard to prevent the world from knowing that we’re a dog. in fact, we can be a dog in one world, a person in another, a furry in another, etc. i.e. we’ll have more mechanisms for and get better at creating boundaries between different expressions of ourselves, er identities. just like in offline life: you don’t tell your mom the same thing you tell your best friend. and online life will enable the same kinda differentiation. just ask younger people….

Benjie Jackson - July 12, 2011

Stephanie – Whatever it is you’re on, I WANT SOME.

19. Outtanames999 - December 13, 2008

Is it a mirror, a lifeline or a noose, that is the question. When the social fatigue sets in, and it will, just tune out, turn off, drop out (for a while anyway).

20. buzzrebeeser - January 15, 2009

Social media is just a tool. Twitter was invented exactly for one purpose: so people can constantly send “micro updates” to a group of followers. Nobody asked why. Why do we need to send micro updates? Or why do we need to receive micro updates? People started using Twitter and now these people are experiencing something entirely new.

21. Robert - February 18, 2009

Sorry, I still find other peoples lives completely boring. Why would I care about the details of your life?

Would you want to meet someone and hear about when they “crap”?

Same thing when I hear about their mood at 12:45 September 12th.

I set up an account, and maybe look at it once every two months. 😉

As someone said in a marketing sale once and I’ll apply it to Facebook:

I take as a given that Twittering is a largely pointless exercise that seems best suited as an outlet for narcissists and input for stalkers. Having been both in my lifetime, I can admit that earlier versions of myself might have rapturously embraced it as liberating. I harbor no such illusions now.

I really don’t care what ANYONE is doing at 1:12am on Thursday night. Now, if you are using facebook to get laid, go for it…but I just find it a complete waste of time.

I propose that 24/7 masturbation is more productive.

lynnmontoya - May 7, 2012

24/7 masturbation?….”LIKE”

22. Jeremy - February 23, 2009

Thank you Robert… the only one who makes sense on this page.

“Scientists noticed that their subjects had no initial attraction to crack cocaine, but once they started using it they realized it was a good way to keep their mind off real world issues and become complacent zombies.”

Is what I heard from this article.

23. Bob - March 11, 2009

Have you read “The Best of Times: A Life in California? It’s a blast!

24. Becky - March 14, 2009

That was the longest article I ever read about nothing. Robert is right on about Facebook: narcissists, stalkers and pointless. It gives a whole new meaning to the word “friend”. Sorry, but I ‘m not into giving complete strangers my personal information and without knowing if they’re Jack-the-Ripper or another Bundy asking them to be my “friend”. I’ll just stick to the old meaning of what a friend is. Oh, but in case you’re interested it’s almost 3:00am and I’m going to bed now.

25. What’s the real world analogue of Twitter and Facebook? « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog - March 30, 2009

[…] March 30, 2009 Posted by jeremyliew in facebook, twitter. trackback Last September the NY Times did a terrific job of explaining microblogging, including the key elements of Facebook and Twitter. However, one thing has always bothered me […]

26. vj - October 2, 2009

I really don’t “get” Facebook! Not only do I not care who all of your friends and acquaintances are but who mine are, is none of your business!

27. vj - October 2, 2009

#18, huh?

28. Joe - October 18, 2009

I find twitter to be a rather creative way of letting those you know what you are doing and keeping up to date with your hobbies and interests. For example, you can ‘follow’ a certain network and be reminded when shows are going to begin. That is a big problem for me, because I’m usually very busy and don’t have to time to remember when my programs, movies, etc are going to be released. News is another update you can receive on a somewhat real-time basis. It’s not necessarily for stalkers, but I won’t deny its implements in that category. And as for “would you want to meet someone and hear about when they crap? business…nobody you follow or know should tweet about that. If someone you know tweets about that, then I’m afraid your choice of friends is questionable. Twitter, Myspace, Facebook, social networking sites are just online tools. ‘Social Hangouts’ that people communicate with one another. It’s the people that make it good or bad. I for one and very content with the concept of them. Although I don’t understand why facebook became the “next best thing” when myspace was first. I understand it’s simplicity….eh maybe someone else can explain that to me.

29. Houston Divorce Lawyer - October 12, 2010

You are absolutely correct, the new York Times explained the lure of Facebook and Twitter in a dynamic way. My favorite line of the article: “If you don’t want people to know your a dog, stay away from the keyboard.” The new internet is made not for hiding behind a computer, but rather projecting yourself through a computer. Even the most uninteresting people become celebrities when assisted by Facebook and Twitter. Unfortunately, there is so much information out there now that it is hard know who is worth following. I suspect that soon people will go into overload, and we will go from over sharing through the internet to becoming completely aloof.

30. nobody cares - March 28, 2011

Facebook is to socializing as masterbation is to sex

31. Wiggington Fforbes-Smythe - July 12, 2011

I’m sorry, but I don’t understand the attraction of endless repetition that is Twitter or the endless dirty washing that is Facebook; the endless stream of “Lolz cool man” and similar vacuous comments.

I’m not at all happy with being a commodity , either. My demographics are available – for a fee. I don’t feel at all compfortable becoming – or rather my lifestyle and demographics becoming – something to be traded for commercial gain. If you want my opinion or input, engage me as a consultant. Until then; go away.

Sorry, but Facebook, Google + and Twitter, et al are the unacceptable face of “Web 2.0”. They are probably attractive to people who talk about things like “User Experience” and studiously believe the content of cosmetics adverts is real science. They are probably happy fo rBT, yahoo and Phorm to intercept their web browsing to feed them tailored advertising.

For me, a “User Experience” is something one gets from 14 pints of guinness and a vindaloo chaser – it’s not nice – and the nearest I get to a cosmetic is Polyfilla.

@ Houston Divorce Lawyer
Why the heck would i want to “project myself”?
why should I want to be considered a celebrity?

32. Benjie Jackson - July 12, 2011

@ 20. buzzrebeeser

No. Twitter was not invented as any kind of service for the punters. Where the hell do you think the money comes from to run it? The Internet Fairy?

It’s like Farcebook. The Users are NOT the customers. They are just a commodity, with their habits, opinions and demographics, gullibility for advertising and the like, ultimately to be prostituted off to the highest bidder.

And don’t you forget that.

Nothing you say online not even in personal email is private.


33. Knud Sandbæk Nielsen - August 9, 2011

F#@k the game of twitbook and facade
if I don’t get it
it has to get me
and it won’t
cause I’m no longer there

Life, as you know
moves on

And since I’m not dead
I don’t need to “get” twitter,
after all I got y’all
and there’s a dream
right outside everything

34. Ambient Awareness | Agile Coach Journal - August 14, 2011

[…] of what is going on with people in your greater sphere at any one time. Here is a description: If you don’t “get” Facebook and Twitter, read this NY Times article.    I have not used FaceBook but I am envious of my kids’ use of it to keep track of their […]

35. Disappointed Human. - February 16, 2012

We were able to function, interact, keep in touch and share idea’s before facebook, yet facebook has become a crutch for many.

So often I’ve heard the phrase – “I don’t know how I’d function without it!”, and that is a tragedy. I completely reject the stream of so-called social science that backs up the idea that maintaining an online identity enriches and betters a life more than another life that lives in this modern world without it.

The interpretation of what ‘being connected’ is has been warped, and isn’t natural. Yet it is very very easy to create a veil of meaning about it all, or to convince yourself or others of social networking’s importance. It isn’t important, though. If someone won’t value my friendship or bother to maintain it because I am not in-tune with their virtual ‘rhythms’, then honestly they aren’t worth my time. I simply don’t care enough, or have enough time to keep up the constant data flow.

Does anyone stop to think nowadays that we as people NEED time in relative solitude, time disconnected in order to be with oneself, on a daily basis,without feeling the need to check friends updates, or have everyone know what you’re doing. Don’t fool yourself, that is exactly what it becomes – a need. Much like an addiction. Also, if I want to experiment with traits of my personality or other interests, I should be allowed that, without somebody else remarking about how I am ‘different’, or ‘changed’, when in fact it has nothing to do with them. How dare they presume who I am based on information about me on a website?

If I want to recreate myself completely, I should be able to do that, but through trial of real life, real circumstances involving mistakes and learning from them, not by creating a virtual version of me, tailor made to how I want to be perceived, and then pushed off onto others. Finding out who we are as individuals is arguably one of the key factors to living at all. To discover yourself, to explore yourself and your interactions with others. This cannot be done when we are torn between a made up and photoshopped virtual world and a reality where we can’t censor life to our personal greeds and wants. You will sooner or later be immitating the virtual you in order to keep up the ruse.

Real life – where you can’t undo, can’t delete, can’t spellcheck, can’t auto-tan, can’t crop – that is the real rhythm. Not the online version, where everything, no matter how trivial, is calculated and false.

Seems like these days we’re all meant to be ‘projecting ourselves’, ‘finding and audience’ and ‘staying connected, and if we’re not then there’s something wrong with us. ‘I DON”T BUY IT!

I’m just another human, the same as the millions of other humans that lived before me. I don’t need to be famous, or have a bunch of people I don’t even know and may not even like following what I have to say on things. Hell, maybe in a month or a year my personal views will have changed anyway. What, I ask, is the point of it all? I’ll say it again, I don’t buy it, and as other commenters have mentioned, I don’t need to be sold a lie dressed up as a shiny new lifestyle who’s real purpose is to gain information about me in order to increase sales for corporations and agencies that I couldn’t give a *$#@ about.

It’s insulting to me and to my intelligence, and most of all it’s insulting to my humanity.

36. Time To Go Home - May 13, 2012

@ Disappointed Human

Couldn’t have said it any better!

I’d also like to scream out to the world –

Who said it was ok for you to post and tag a photo of me?

Who said it was ok to tell the world where i am at or what i happened to do with you today?

Let ME make that decision!

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