Sociologists describe Facebook "Ambient Awareness"

As a blogger and an avid user of social networking and new forms of web-based communication, I find it absolutely fascinating how they are changing the ways in which we communicate and live.

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It’s just passed the second anniversary of the introduction of the Facebook “News Feed”. For people who don’t use Facebook, the News Feed keeps you up to date on what’s going on in your social circle: new photos, wall posts, relationship statuses, events and parties your friends are attending and so on. I must admit that when I first signed up to Facebook I found this really scary. To me, it seemed really strange that a) instead of email, people would send communique to me by writing it on my wall which is publicly readable and b) these “wall posts” and my conversations would sometimes appear on the front page of Facebook for some friends of mine, who would then be provided with a link to view our entire conversation. When the news feed launched two years ago, 750,000 students protested against its launch.

Since the launch of news feed, Facebook has grown from 15million active users to 100million active users. It’s now become an integral part of the site, and the upcoming profile redesign makes the feed even more prominent throughout the site.

After two years of news feed, sociologists now describe an “ambient awareness” of friends. There is a fascinating article over at the New York Times about this:

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.

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The article goes on to describe microblogging where people post small and short updates throughout the day of their activities (e.g. Twitter or Facebook)

For many people — particularly anyone over the age of 30 — the idea of describing your blow-by-blow activities in such detail is absurd. Why would you subject your friends to your daily minutiae? And conversely, how much of their trivia can you absorb? The growth of ambient intimacy can seem like modern narcissism taken to a new, supermetabolic extreme — the ultimate expression of a generation of celebrity-addled youths who believe their every utterance is fascinating and ought to be shared with the world.

The article goes on to describe further research. At the end, Thompson concludes:

This is the ultimate effect of the new awareness: It brings back the dynamics of small-town life, where everybody knows your business. Young people at college are the ones to experience this most viscerally, because, with more than 90 percent of their peers using Facebook, it is especially difficult for them to opt out.

Certainly I think it’ll take a bit more time to see how Facebook changes the dynamics of society in the short run. At the moment, it’s impact is very limited to people at college and university. Perhaps it’ll be a welcome thing in our celebrity culture – where Paris Hilton and Wayne Rooney seem to be more important than issues such as climate change and where we feel we know celebrities better than our next door neighbours. Perhaps it’s a cool that’ll lead to a more responsible society.

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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.

Psychologists and sociologists spent years wondering how humanity would adjust to the anonymity of life in the city, the wrenching upheavals of mobile immigrant labor — a world of lonely people ripped from their social ties. We now have precisely the opposite problem. Indeed, our modern awareness tools reverse the original conceit of the Internet.

Certainly the subject of some interesting research. What’s more, browsing the internet on our mobile is still something most of us seldom do. Here in the UK, various mobile companies have been advertising free Facebook access on your phone and new phones such as Android and iPhone make mobile internet access something which is much more palatable. We’ve definitely got more of this coming our way.

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