Does following the e-lives of ‘friends’ build social capital?

An interesting piece in the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times (9/7/08, “I’m So Totally, Digitally Close to You”) discusses the success of Facebook, Twitter, et al in getting users more comfortable with their personal details being shared with all their hundreds or thousands of friends and whether this “ambient awareness” actually produces social capital.

Clive Thompson describes how Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, realized that in order to drive usage, he had to make it easier for users to find out what their friends were doing.  Users, seeking to find juicy tidbits (like that a friend had been dumped and his status was changed back to single) on other friends’ pages “was like constantly poking your head into someone’s room to see how she was doing. It took work and forethought. In a sense, this gave Facebook an inherent, built-in level of privacy, simply because if you had 200 friends on the site — a fairly typical number — there weren’t enough hours in the day to keep tabs on every friend all the time.” Zuckerberg decided to aggregate all the new information that friends had posted when you logged onto your Facebook page.  But Zuckerberg initially faced a revolution on the part of Facebook users who demanded privacy controls when he introduced NewsFeed: “…the first reaction, generally, was one of panic. Just about every little thing you changed on your page was now instantly blasted out to hundreds of friends, including potentially mortifying bits of news — Tim and Lisa broke up; Persaud is no longer friends with Matthew — and drunken photos someone snapped, then uploaded and tagged with names. Facebook had lost its vestigial bit of privacy. For students, it was now like being at a giant, open party filled with everyone you know, able to eavesdrop on what everyone else was saying, all the time.”  Faced with skyrocketing number of petitioners asserting that Facebook was becoming the Big Brother of the Internet, Zuckerberg ultimately agreed to provide users with controls to limit who got these feeds but not to remove the NewsFeed.  Users realized that they liked the sense of connection with their friends that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.  And Thompson claims that Zuckerberg, who was intentionally pushing the envelope, made users ultimately more comfortable sharing this personal information with others.

Most of the article is about why we are addicted to getting this personal information about others (*ambient awareness*). Ambient awareness is “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. Facebook is no longer alone in offering this sort of interaction online. In the last year, there has been a boom in tools for microblogging: posting frequent tiny updates on what you’re doing. The phenomenon is quite different from what we normally think of as blogging, because a blog post is usually a written piece, sometimes quite long: a statement of opinion, a story, an analysis. But these new updates are something different. They’re far shorter, far more frequent and less carefully considered. One of the most popular new tools is Twitter, a Web site and messaging service that allows its two-million-plus users to broadcast to their friends haiku-length updates — limited to 140 characters, as brief as a mobile-phone text message — on what they’re doing. There are other services for reporting where you’re traveling (Dopplr) or for quickly tossing online a stream of the pictures, videos or Web sites you’re looking at (Tumblr). And there are even tools that give your location. When the new iPhone, with built-in tracking, was introduced in July, one million people began using Loopt, a piece of software that automatically tells all your friends exactly where you are.”  Thompson observed that this builds on patterns observed by Japanese sociologist Mizuko Ito who found that couples living apart often found renewed intimacy by Ping-Ponging mini-messages that there were on the sofa or having a glass of wine.

Thompson indicates that for many over 30 it seems inane to be interested in posting or monitoring these micro-blogs, often of banal events (having a sandwich, brushing one’s teeth, waiting for a subway).  Some users strive for the arty message in only 140 text characters. But users find the process addictive and meaningful: “Indeed, many of the people I interviewed, who are among the most avid users of these awareness tools, admit that at first they couldn’t figure out why anybody would want to do this. Ben Haley, a 39-year-old documentation specialist for a software firm who lives in Seattle, told me that when he first heard about Twitter last year from an early-adopter friend who used it, his first reaction was that it seemed silly. But a few of his friends decided to give it a try, and they urged him to sign up, too.  Each day, Haley logged on to his account, and his friends’ updates would appear as a long page of one- or two-line notes. He would check and recheck the account several times a day, or even several times an hour. The updates were indeed pretty banal. One friend would post about starting to feel sick; one posted random thoughts like ‘I really hate it when people clip their nails on the bus’; another Twittered whenever she made a sandwich — and she made a sandwich every day. Each so-called tweet was so brief as to be virtually meaningless.

“But as the days went by, something changed. 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.”  Each entry seemed meaningless, but as the hours and days went by, Thompson indicates that the messages aggregated into a short story or a novel.

“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.’ It can also lead to more real-life contact, because when one member of Haley’s group decides to go out to a bar or see a band and Twitters about his plans, the others see it, and some decide to drop by — ad hoc, self-organizing socializing. 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.”

The real question it seems to me is to what extent this Twittering (posting and reading) is the equivalent of either mere voyeurism or people speaking into the wilderness (I have memories of a stranger who was once on a group bike ride trip with me in Canada. 80% of his comments were of the form ‘Having a little trail mix’ — comments seeking to establish some social ties with others, but coming out in self-focused banalities that were of little or no interest to anyone other than possibly the trail-mix eater).  But if the tracking of a friends’ rhythms really does make one better able to see when they have gotten sick or better able to build stronger friendships faster, my hats are off to them.  Myself, I think if I were monitoring 150 friends’ Twitterings a day, I’d be far less likely to understand whether someone was sick or have the time to provide TLC than if I actually called or e-mailed him or her.  Thompson’s anecdotes seem a mix of the two: folks who are following strangers’ Twitters but feel highly connected to them and ones who monitor their friends’ Twitterings.  I must admit that my priors are that the ‘sense of connectedness’ to others that comes from feeling intimately connected to others may be good for happiness, but I’m much more skeptical that it provides social support, or job leads, or TLC.   What’s most promising is that Twittering does seem to support and increase the number of weak ties and weak ties can be especially helpful in connecting one to job leads. It would be interesting to learn more about whether Twitterers twitter the fact that they are unemployed and looking for job leads or ask for social support through their Twitters.  Most of the Twitterings appear to be mere updates rather than demands on others.  But in principle Twitter contacts might be good sources of job leads (connecting to divergent social networks) even if they are unlikely to be fertile sources of social support (which usually require stronger social bonds of trust).

Thompson acknowledges some of this:

”I outsource my entire life,” Laura Fitton said. ”I can solve any problem on Twitter in six minutes.” [by asking her circle of thousands of Twitter-followers] (She also keeps a secondary Twitter account that is private and only for a much smaller circle of close friends and family — ”My little secret,” she said. It is a strategy many people told me they used: one account for their weak ties, one for their deeper relationships.)

It is also possible, though, that this profusion of weak ties can become a problem. If you’re reading daily updates from hundreds of people about whom they’re dating and whether they’re happy, it might, some critics worry, spread your emotional energy too thin, leaving less for true intimate relationships. Psychologists have long known that people can engage in ”parasocial” relationships with fictional characters, like those on TV shows or in books, or with remote celebrities we read about in magazines. Parasocial relationships can use up some of the emotional space in our Dunbar number, crowding out real-life people. 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.

”The information we subscribe to on a feed is not the same as in a deep social relationship,” Boyd told me. She has seen this herself; she has many virtual admirers that have, in essence, a parasocial relationship with her. ”I’ve been very, very sick, lately and I write about it on Twitter and my blog, and I get all these people who are writing to me telling me ways to work around the health-care system, or they’re writing saying, ‘Hey, I broke my neck!’ And I’m like, ‘You’re being very nice and trying to help me, but though you feel like you know me, you don’t.’ ” Boyd sighed. ”They can observe you, but it’s not the same as knowing you.”

….Caterina Fake, a founder of Flickr (a popular photo-sharing site), …suggested an even more subtle danger: that the sheer ease of following her friends’ updates online has made her occasionally lazy about actually taking the time to visit them in person. ”At one point I realized I had a friend whose child I had seen, via photos on Flickr, grow from birth to 1 year old,” she said. ”I thought, I really should go meet her in person. But it was weird; I also felt that Flickr had satisfied that getting-to-know you satisfaction, so I didn’t feel the urgency. But then I was like, Oh, that’s not sufficient! I should go in person!”

Ironically, Thompson notes how Facebook can start to approximate life in a small town, where you find you can’t get away from the people you dislike or the past you want to leave behind.  He provides stories of Facebook users seeing old hideous pictures of them posted on their Facebook site and tagged with their name, or exes discussing what you were like publicly.  One social scientist wonders whether every misstep will follow you through life and whether kindergarteners will have to face active choices about de-friending others.

It’s a thoughtful and provocative read.  Read the interesting “I’m So Totally, Digitally Close to You” (9/7/08, New York Times Sunday Magazine, p. 42, Clive Thompson).  The future of socializing is likely changing.  Let’s hope it is for the better or that we’re smart enough to make wise decisions about how to use it that leave us the master and not the slave to technology.

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One response to “Does following the e-lives of ‘friends’ build social capital?

  1. Just a thought on the point about a sick friend… in you sphere of 150 closest acquaintances, the chances you would find out one was ill are very low if the only means of contact were telephone or email… When I see an earthquake in LA, I pick up the phone and call my best friend there to see if it upset her baby. She’s not even on Twitter, but enough people are that I know about that quake within moments…

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