Saturday, November 8, 2008

Ambient awareness and findability



Mark Granovetter’s research on the strength of weak ties for spreading information in social networks is indeed groundbreaking ("The Strength of Weak Ties", 1973) and in September this year, Clive Thompson discussed how weak ties can be strengthened by ambient awareness in an excellent article in The New York Times called "Brave New World of Digital Intimacy". He used the newsfeed in Facebook as an example of an environment which creates ambient awareness and “…brings back the dynamics of small-town life, where everybody knows your business”. That is in short what ambient awareness is ultimately about according to Thompson.
"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. "

The concept of ambient awareness and creating an online environment which fosters ambient awareness among employees should be interesting for any organization that has a large and distributed workforce. In a way, it can be seen as a way to mimic the dynamics, efficiency and agility you can achieve quite easily in a small organization due to reach, transparency, trust and immediacy.

Here are a few comments about ambient awareness that I have come across on the web.
Chad Gabriel commented on a blog post by John Battelles that quoted the article in NYT.
"Has any one heard of this being used in a corporate environment? it seems that it could have great power in raising the awareness of others within an organization. Awareness of what others are working on can create opportunities for learning, collaboration, and innovation; ultimately leading to new product development and great ideas."
That is exactly what popped up in my mind when reading the article and what got my wheels spinning.

I have previously referred to Betsy Carroll post "Fostering Ambient Awareness in Virtual Teams" where she wrote about ambient awareness for virtual teams and I find much of what she wrote worth repeating:
Since virtual team members are typically dispersed, awareness tools might be very useful for leaders to help team members grow closer, building cohesion and trust. Be warned that the use of frequent, small communications may be in stark contrast to the current standard of business communication. The more people are inundated with too many incoming messages to handle, the more they simply shut down to communication. But we can confidently recommend the use of numerous small contacts nonetheless, because the quality of each message will be different from most of the impersonal, directive messages that bury people.
Lisbeth Klastrup has written a piece called "Ambient awareness, lifestreams and personal storytelling. Will it change my relation to You?" where she makes a connection between the concept of ambient awareness and the concept of lifestreams:

His point is that through the many quick and constant updates of what is going on in people’s lives (using Twitter, Facebook status updates etc), we create an ambient awareness of what is going on in their life, that accumulated over time gives us, their followers, an idea of the rhytm and content of their everyday lives. Most posts are insignificant and mundane, but by reading many posts we might end up with a general sense of the interests and character traits of the posters. This particularly pertains to people we don’t really know that well offline, i.e. our so-called weak tie connections. I like the concept and Clive Thompson has some good observations (and user sources), so what follows is mainly a few additional observations and only semi-critical comments of my own:

In many ways, it seems to me that the concept of “ambient awareness” is closely linked with the notion of “lifestream” that also seem to become more dominant as buzzword these days. A lifestream is (as far as I can figure from the various technerds and social media afficionados who are currentlywriting about it) the constant stream of info about what a person is doing, emerging from the collected sum of this person’s posts to online services such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, LastFM, etc etc (actually some has pretty high expectations to what lifestreaming should include).

You can tap into this lifestream by subscribing to people’s feeds on services like Friendfeed or PlaxoPulse - or by zooming in on their activities by telling Facebook that these are people you would like “to hear more about”. Hence, not just following postings one place, but following a person’s lifestream, either fully or in pieces, seems to be become part of the process of creating this “ambient awareness” of your network connections.
I am however more fond of the term "ambient awareness" and I am especially interested in how ambient awareness relates to findability which has traditionally been focused mainly on active methods of finding information such as searching and browsning.



I dare to say that humans are lazy by nature and that we are likely to use the method that requires the least effort when we look for information. We even tend to use less reliable information if it’s just easy to find and use. Instead of actively looking for information we prefer to passively monitor the flow of information in our environment. In fact, some say that actively looking for information is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. So, just being in an environment and becoming passively aware about things that happen in it is something we find very natural and convenient.