Social Media and Ambient Awareness

Clive Thompson wrote an excellent article in this Sunday’s New York Times that is sparking a lot of discussion. The story starts out with how Facebook has become a repository for huge amounts of highly personal data submitted by it’s users like favorite music, groups they’d joined, movies liked and their posts about their lives and friends. Facebook was just the beginning of course, and now there are a lot of places where people post their lives online for all to see. Add to this the recent phenomena of adding your GPS location through your mobile phone and people really can stay virtually up to date on every movement of their friends online.

According to Thompson, scientists call this kind of incessant online contact “ambient awareness” a term that, believe it or not isn’t even in Wikipedia yet.  I can imagine it will be soon. For me, it perfectly describes the kind of awareness that builds when one uses multiple social networks. For example,  I know that two friends are meeting for lunch in Italy because they both said they were meeting and then touted the restaurant they were at, including a link to a review and it’s GPS location. I know another friend is having a migrane, and another had a rough night with the kids but is still going to her meeting.  Another friend is making a presentation at the Red Cross, and another is about to upload Twitpics of his cruise just to make the rest of us jealous. All of this I got from a few minutes scanning my networks over morning tea.

I sometimes send out a message that I’m about to have lunch or coffee and include my location in case the friend I’m meeting needs directions, but I’ve also found that people on my friends lists who are in the neighborhood spontaneously drop by or call too. Since I live in San Jose, but often do business in San Francisco, it’s a good opportunity to let people know I’m in town and if they want to arrange an impromptu meeting I can make it happen.

This is not always a good thing. In fact sometimes it’s downright scary. Facebook stalking is a common term, and it’s not always funny. In adttion, there may be information out there you’ve forgotten about. Social media does not forget. Recently Mark Hopkins wrote about a small glitch when Vimeo updated their feed system and refreshed all of the feeds. This meant that anything you have EVER added to your favorites in YouTube suddenly came up as a new listing and was added to your FriendFeed feed. So, let’s say that years ago you weren’t so careful about what you favorited on YouTube. It seemed harmless enough to Favorite a little soft porn or something else that you maybe didn’t want the world to know about. Well, it’s out there now. Welcome to your lifestream.

Another instance where I really caution people to be careful is using the GPS location features when it could be a sensitive situation. For example I will sometimes tweet that I’m at a friends house, or working at home, but I never include the GPS location. This may seem like a no brainer, but when you are first getting used to these tools it’s an easy slip to make. I am all for sharing experiences and ideas, but my home address and the personal information of my friends should be as private as possible in this day and age. (Yes I know you can find it, but why should I make it easy?) My favorite story about learning to use GPS with microblogs was the first time I used Twittelator to post about a new restaurant we were at. You see there’s this nifty looking button with an exclamation point on it and I just clicked it to see what it was. Twittelator sent out an emergency message to all my Twitter friends with a map of my current location asking them to contact the police! Before I caught it, I had sent it and had to send out a retraction. Very embarrasing, but I had to resist the urge to see what would have happened. Would I have been branded as the girl who cried wolf? I did get at least one response to the post, but how many people would have sent help?

Although social media has in many ways allowed us to be virtually closer to our friends and associates, it may still be a good idea to keep a little distance? What do you think?

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  • Mariah B

    I see that a lot of people use their status messages to send a message about their business state. They are meeting with a new client, and important company or especially when they are meeting with someone important in their circle.. It appears to be a way of crowing about how successful they are.

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