Ambient Awareness

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Ambient awareness is a way of describing the idea of being "ambiently aware" of another's actions, thoughts and experiences without having to be near them physically, and without specifically requesting such information.

Ambient awareness is best defined by user experience designer Leisa Reichelt. One of her definitions is that ambient awareness "is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn't usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible."[1]

Many social network clients have notification settings that provide pop-ups that pop over windows on a computer screen, providing a tiny window into the lives of others. One can sit at an office computer all day and still feel connected to friends, because they are being let in on the lives and happening of others bit by bit, in tiny digestible pieces, over the course of the day.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang wrote that "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...".[2]

Ambient Intimacy

The paradox and allure of ambient awareness lies in its shape. It's not that we're always connected, but that we have always ability to connect. This what Leisa Reichelt calls ambient intimacy, where connectivity is only a button away. Where sharing and connecting with another is not defined by geography but technosocial capability. David Weinberger called it "continual partial friendship", and Johnnie Moore pointed out that, "it's not about being poked and prodded, it's about exposing more surface area for others to connect with". Reality theorist Sheldon Renan calls it "Loosely but deeply entangled". Whatever you call it, it is a higher order of connectivity than we've ever experienced before as humans. We are beginning to see a new sense of time - the collective now.

What we're really seeing is that everything is a button away. We are mobile, and we need just-in-time information. In our mothers' wombs, all things came to us without us having to go anywhere. It is the same with the smartphone. Even though we move around in time and space, we can increasingly access social and entertainment sentience via a single device. Our devices and surroundings have become a sort of technosocial womb. Facebook's algorithm strives to keep information displayed relevant, and, if not relevant, interesting enough to browse through and click on. Twitter basically sets new users as default "socially opted out" until they gather content to follow. When they encounter something they don't like, they're free to drop them.


  1. Disambiguity -- Leisa Reichelt's Professional Blog. Accessed Oct 2011.
  2. Thompson, Clive. Brave New World of Digital Intimacy. New York Times. Published 7. Sept. 2008. Accessed 07 Apr. 2011.