In September 2008, Clive Thompson of the New York Times coined the social science based term, Ambient Awareness in his piece Brave New World of Digital Intimacy. He described this phenomena as social media connections creating a sense of community from ‘weak ties’ rather than close, personal relationships we experience in our day to day lives. Social scientists are now using the term “ambient awareness” to describe a peripheral social awareness of the lives of others “propagated from relatively constant contact with one’s friends and colleagues via social networking platforms on the Internet” (Wikipedia).
Daily postings on Twitter or Facebook may seem mundane individually, but when a person follows the ongoing stories of their ‘friends’ lives, it can become a “surprisingly sophisticated portrait of friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting.” While these connections may be considered ‘weak’, there are numerous personal and professional benefits possible. When your network extends beyond your immediate social community members, a simple posting requesting help could quickly generate career opportunities, advice, interest in supporting a business, event participants or creative solutions to problems.
Consider the forum social media presents for those who would be typically isolated from their personal community, for all kinds of reasons ranging from business travel to confinement to a home for medical reasons. Social media combats loneliness, a universal human experience that comes from the same emotional strain as boredom. I challenge anyone to deny that is a huge motivating factor for those who frequent highly interactive platforms such as Twitter or Facebook.
Also consider how ‘weak connections’ can grow into much stronger ones and even shift from acquaintance to an actual, personal friendship. Sometimes the people that surround us face to face are not as open and willing to share in person as they are online. Or maybe you would normally overlook someone based on an assessment that the person “couldn’t possibly have anything in common with me”. I’m sure anyone who regularly engages with social media can anecdotally describe ways in which a digital connection has evolved into a live, personal connection. Online interactions offer the real possibility of creating affinity between people who may not have connected well in person.
Some people have yet to truly adopt popular social media tools, and challenge their value, but I challenge them to go online regularly for a few weeks and to follow the stories and “shares” that amuse or interest them in any way. Ambient awareness is likely to draw them in to a world they didn’t previously consider relevant.
To those who approach social media as a sales tool or chance to “convert the market”, consider that our virtual, global community is not about “us versus them”. There is no “them”. We are all “us” once we truly engage. And engagement may mean many things to many people; just remember why YOU personally want to be present online. Honour that when creating content and reaching out to others.