The New York Times yesterday had a great article about the latest digital fad — “ambient awareness.” Being aware of hundreds or even thousands of other people’s lives, while still not even necessarily knowing any of them.

Ambient awareness is a term to describe the sum of knowledge pieced together from the little tidbits of information we gain from others through information technologies such as Facebook’s News Feed, or twitter. It requires each user, however, to keep that feed updated. Constantly. Without updates, the feed becomes completely stale and useless. Like blogging, most people who sign on to try out a service like twitter don’t keep it updated for very long unless their immediate social network also uses it.

The author, Clive Thompson, makes the argument that ambient awareness allows us to know someone on a deeper, closer level than traditional relationships allow:

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.

Notice how the author biases you already, by using the word “friends” even though most people follow far more people than merely their friends online.

I don’t know. Having used all of these technologies extensively, I found that the type of knowledge and information they offered was of a very certain type. I wouldn’t necessarily use the word “shallow,” but how about “mundane?” I mean, it’s great to know some person I’m randomly following on twitter has the sniffles this morning, but that no more makes me knowledgeable about that person’s life than if I had read about a celebrity’s sniffles in the most recent copy of Star magazine.

Just like a magazine, it’s also a very one-way relationship. Others publish, you read; you publish, they read. It seems like a step back from the interactivity so hyped in the Web 2.0 era. (Yes, I know you can address a tweet to a specific person, but it’s not really the same as a conversation, is it?)

Having a hundred tidbits of mundane knowledge about Person X doesn’t make me any more informed about that person’s life (or allow me to really know a person) than if I had one or two really good emails from the same person. Or even blog entries. (Oh, you ate a sandwich?! Wow, great for you. Thanks.)

So no, I could twitter all day and of the hundreds of people who followed me, none knew me any better because of it. Because, like most, most of what I wrote was a tiny, minuscule part of my life’s grand landscape. 140 characters can’t even capture 2 thoughts in my head in one minute, much less the 200 thoughts and actions I’ve done in the past hour. Am I unusual? I don’t think so.

On one hand, Thompson is suggesting by following these micro-feeds on people’s lives, we can really get to “know” someone else. But he also suggests — with a straight face — that a person really can also “follow” 1,000+ people on twitter and similar services and get something useful from it:

I asked Seery how she finds the time to follow so many people online. The math seemed daunting. After all, if her 1,000 online contacts each post just a couple of notes each a day, that’s several thousand little social pings to sift through daily. What would it be like to get thousands of e-mail messages a day? But Seery made a point I heard from many others: awareness tools aren’t as cognitively demanding as an e-mail message. E-mail is something you have to stop to open and assess. It’s personal; someone is asking for 100 percent of your attention. In contrast, ambient updates are all visible on one single page in a big row, and they’re not really directed at you. This makes them skimmable, like newspaper headlines; maybe you’ll read them all, maybe you’ll skip some. Seery estimated that she needs to spend only a small part of each hour actively reading her Twitter stream.

So perusing dozens of new tweets each hour is like skimming a newspaper headline? Taking that analogy to its logical conclusion, the information gained from simply skimming newspaper headlines is likely to be far less useful (and far more shallow) than that of reading an actual newspaper article, no? But in this hyperfast and hypersocial media, there’s no chance to “read more.” You get the headline, that’s it. Move along. If it doesn’t fit in 140 characters, it’s not worth writing about (or reading).

What is barely touched upon in the article is the facts of life — we have finite, limited amounts of time and resources. What we choose to expend them on leaves that much less time for other things in our lives. So if you spend an hour or two a day on updating (and reading about) these distant connections on the mundane actions of your life (and theirs), that’s one or two less hours you have to actually be doing something.

So while it may be an old joke, “Second Life, heck I can’t even keep up with my first one!” it’s not so much funny as simply true for many. “I’d twitter you, only I’m too busy actually doing something to stop and write that I’m actually doing something.”

“But it only takes a minute to update!” True, but updating interferes and actually interrupts the natural, every day flow of my life. Maybe not yours, but I don’t find it particularly natural to be reaching for my cell phone or computer every hour to post an update. (“Look, I’m eating nuts and still watching the game! Great game. Are you watching the game too?”)

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.

So by posting to twitter that you’re “making a sandwich,” this leads to some greater self awareness… Uh, okay. If you get some great insight from writing, “I’m making a sandwich for lunch today,” more power to you. But I can’t seriously believe this is most people’s reality in using twitter.

I’d feel differently if people’s twitters were indeed these thoughtful or thought-provoking 140 characters of insight into their own actions or feelings. But I just haven’t found that. I’m far more likely to find, “At airport, stupid flight was canceled” than “Talked to mom, really understand what it’s like to raise a child now.” While you can occasionally come across the latter, the former you are far more likely to find on twitter and similar services. “You’re a jerk.” “No, you are!”

The opportunity missed by the author of this article was looking at how Mark Zuckerberg himself found his past online life, when brought out in the open, a little embarrassing. Those who don’t understand their online public lives will one day be at the mercy of those who understand all too well how easily it is to dig up all of these wonderful histories people are making online. And then publicize them all over again.

As I’ve said privately, I think twitter is a great social media tool — for certain people in certain circles of life. But it’s not for everyone and I think it’s vast overkill for most. If your existing social circle “twitters” (or is constantly updating on Facebook or some other service), by all means, be a part of your peer group. But don’t feel forced to do something that results in very few actual, documented benefits for you (other than being yet another online time sink). I mean, while it’s great that one person said they could find the answer to any question in 6 minutes by twittering their network, I can find any the answer to any question in under 2 minutes by simply using Google.

It reminds me of the great amount of ink spilled over the rise of instant messaging back in the late 1990s and how people were using it to better keep in touch with others. Indeed, it did, and many people still use it today for just such a purpose. But it wasn’t life changing for most, and most people have found they don’t need to be “IMing” every minute of every day to still feel connected to their real friends and family.

So twitter away. But don’t delude yourself into thinking it’s anything more than it is — a way to pass some idle time and keep a network of people updated.

Read the full article: Brave New World of Digital Intimacy