I was fascinated by Sunday’s New York Times article, “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy,” in which writer Clive Thompson examines the increasing use of social media like Facebook and Twitter. Guilty as charged — it seems the more I use them, the more I rely on them.
The piece looks back at Facebook’s decision to introduce the “News Feed” tool, which initially created a firestorm from users who felt that constant updates about their activities on Facebook was an intrusion. But then, just as suddenly, the tide turned.
In essence, Facebook users didn’t think they wanted constant, up-to-the-minute updates on what other people are doing. Yet when they experienced this sort of omnipresent knowledge, they found it intriguing and addictive. Why?
Thompson’s piece notes that scientists have a name for this kind of nonstop online contact: “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. 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.
Twitter, of course, is the premiere site for microblogging, where more than 2 million users provide brief updates about themselves, their work, their daily lives, sometimes on a minute-by-minute basis.
The Times article also notes that in 1998, the anthropologist Robin Dunbar argued that every human being has a limit on the number of people he or she can personally know at any one time. Dunbar estimated that our maximum number of connections would average 150, which is now known as the “Dunbar number.”
So, Thompson asks, are people who use Facebook and Twitter increasing their Dunbar number, because they can keep track of more people? Try adding the number of contacts you have on Facebook and Twitter, as Thompson did for his article. He had 301 contacts on both sites, more than double the Dunbar number.
Check out the Times piece and think about your expanding world for a few minutes.