Explaining Life. 160 Characters At A Time.
One of the most interesting debates raging around in the social networking, branding, anthropological circles at the moment is around blogging and microblogging. Many of us wonder why people would be interested in knowing what their friends and acquaintances had for breakfast for instance. Or the state of a zit that recently appeared on the nose of a certain friend. Facebook news feeds, tweets on twitter, Gmail and Yahoo status reports are showing that people are willing to share more and more mundane things about their lives.
Mizuko Ito is an anthropologist interested in how digital media are changing relationships, identities and communities. She has studied and written extensively about how mobile phones are transforming the experience of place and co-presence for a wireless generation of Japanese youth. How teens gathered at a fast-food restaurant are gazing at their mobile phones rather than their friends who are around them. Using their phones they stay connected to others who are not physically present there.
Each little update writes Clive Thompson in New York Times 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. He even has a phrase to describe it. Ambient awareness.
Clive talks of Laura Fitton, a social-media consultant who has become a minor celebrity on Twitter — she has more than 5,300 followers — recently discovered to her horror that her accountant had made an error in filing last year’s taxes. She went to Twitter, wrote a tiny note explaining her problem, and within 10 minutes her online audience had provided leads to lawyers and better accountants. Fritton joked to me that she no longer buys anything worth more than $50 without quickly checking it with her Twitter network.
Danah Boyd, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society who has studied social media for 10 years, published a paper this spring arguing that awareness tools like News Feed might be creating a whole new class of relationships that are nearly parasocial — peripheral people in our network whose intimate details we follow closely online, even while they, like Angelina Jolie, are basically unaware we exist.
Further in the story, Clive has an interesting take. The ultimate effect of the new awareness: It brings back the dynamics of small-town life, where everybody knows your business.
Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has closely studied how college-age users are reacting to the world of awareness. “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.”
Clive closes out the story trying to understand what exactly these short messages mean to people who have looked at them beyond their mundane ness. The act of stopping several times a day to observe what you’re feeling or thinking can become, after weeks and weeks, a sort of philosophical act. It’s like the Greek dictum to “know thyself,” or the therapeutic concept of mindfulness. Having an audience can make the self-reflection even more acute, since, as my interviewees noted, they’re trying to describe their activities in a way that is not only accurate but also interesting to others: the status update as a literary form.
Laura Fitton, the social-media consultant, argues that her constant status updating has made her “a happier person, a calmer person” because the process of, say, describing a horrid morning at work forces her to look at it objectively. “It drags you out of your own head,” she added. In an age of awareness, perhaps the person you see most clearly is yourself.