Ambient awareness

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Ambient awareness is a term used by social scientists to describe a new form of peripheral social awareness. This awareness is propagated from relatively constant contact with one's friends and colleagues via social networking platforms on the Internet. Some examples of social networking websites are Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, Blogger,, etc. The term essentially defines the sort of omnipresent knowledge one experiences by being a regular user of these media outlets that allow a constant connection with one's social circle.

According to Clive Thompson of the New York Times, ambient awareness is "very much like being physically near someone and picking up on mood through the little things; body language, sighs, stray comments..."[1] Academic Andreas Kaplan defines ambient awareness as “awareness created through regular and constant reception, and/ or exchange of information fragments through social media”.[2] Therefore, in effect two friends who regularly follow one another's digital information can already be aware of each other's lives without actually being physically present to have a conversation.

Ambient Intimacy[edit]

In 1998, anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that humans have a hard-wired upper limit on the number of people they can personally and intimately know at one time within their social network. Dunbar theorised that grooming (conversation) was used to develop social bonds and that human brains could manage only a finite number of grooming relationships. Dunbar found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size when studying apes. Dunbar figured that our maximum number of social connections would be similarly larger: about 150 on average 1 7. Psychological studies have confirmed that human groupings naturally tail off at around 150 people: what literature now refers to as the “Dunbar number”. Going from inner to outer shells, the strength of the social tie progressively diminishes, while the number of friend’s increases. This means that, typically, a person has few very strong social ties that take a lot of work for a long-term and in-depth bond (inner-most shell), and many more weak social ties that aren’t as intense and not as much effort goes in as well as not expecting much in response (outer-most shell). A person may also know of more people outside their active network. However this is typically too many social ties, surpassing the cut maximum social capacity and so no significant social relation can be established due to this neocortical constraint 5.

Emerging digital technology and social media allows an extension of scoio-mental bonds via ambient awareness. This is where an individual is aware of their interactions with others, whether those are strong, weak or latent social ties, to gain a sense of their own social situation. Applied to digital technology it can be found that interaction does not pre-suppose physical connection but rather bonds can develop between individuals in a digital context. Rather than physical manifestation being the primary condition for bond forming virtual environments allow individuals to be mindful of ones personal social system of interaction to ambient intimacy. Reichelt 6 and social scientists describes this new concept as ambient intimacy, “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”. This theoretical concept is a popular rephrasing of “ambient virtual co-presence” coined by anthropologists Misuko Ito and Daisuke Okabe 3 when studying mobile technosocial lives of Japanese teens. Ito and Okabe 3 write (pp.14-15) These [mobile e-mail] messages define a space of peripheral background awareness that is midway between direct interaction and non-interaction. The analog is sharing a physical space with others that one is not in direct communication with but is peripherally aware of. Many of the emails exchanged present information about one's general status that is similar to the kind of awareness of another that one would have when physically co-located, a sigh or smile or glance that calls attention to the communicator, a way of entering somebody's virtual peripheral vision.

Ambient awareness allows individuals to easily disperse their energy and resources to facilitate bond maintenance and effectively to increase their ‘Dunbar number’ in a digital age where social media proliferates. Not necessarily something that the receiver would be interested in or find meaningful, the sharing of content creates a dialect of conversation that allows the person to immediately create an ongoing noise. These small details add value to relationships and further levels of intimacy with minimum effort. When socialising in a face-to-face setting, it feels oddly as if the two individuals have never bee apart. This is effectively the paradox of ambient awareness where over time these little mundane updates coalesce into a sophisticated portrait of a person live 7. Though bonds are kept to the peripheral intimate ties are formed and kept via this steady stream of socially shared information. This virtual connectivity that is not cognitively demanding creates a sense of presence that was not possible in the real world. The ambient information resembles an invisible dimension floating over everyday life 6 7.

As social media[edit]

Socially speaking, ambient awareness and social media are products of the new generations who are being born or growing up in the digital age, starting circa in 1998 and running to current times. Social media is personal media (what you're doing in the moment, how you feel, a picture of where you are) combined with social communication. Social media is the lattice work for ambient awareness. Without social media the state of ambient awareness cannot exist.

A significant feature of social media is that it is created by those who also consume it. Mostly, those participating in this phenomenon are adolescents, college age, or young adult professionals. According to Dr. Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist and Professor in Residence at the University of California at Irvine,[3] the mobile device is the greatest proxy device used to create and distribute Social Media. She reportedly states that "teenagers capture and produce their own media, and stay in constant ambient contact with each other..." using mobile devices. Usually while doing this they are consuming other forms of media such as music or video content via their iPods or other similar devices.[4] Effectively this has led social scientists to believe that learning and multitasking will have a new face as the products of the digital generation enter the work force and begin to integrate their learning methods into the standard preexisting business models of today. Professors Kaplan and Haenlein see ambient awareness as one of the major reasons for the success of such microblogging sites as Twitter.[5]

Ambient Intimacy in Social Media[edit]

“Virtual peripheral vision”, “ambient virtual co-presence” and “ambient intimacy” has become increasingly central to the landscape of social life since the proliferation of social media platforms 2. Mobile phones facilitate this participation in ambient awareness by functioning as a social bonding device that people can use when there is nothing immediately demanding their attention. The device can be utilised as a gap-filling mechanism to maintain social bonds regardless of a person’s geographical environment. Phones provide people with access to connection so as to not feel as though they are missing out on, abandoned by or forgotten from the constant stream of information. This attachment to social ties via ambient awareness also gives reason to why people keep their phones in sight or when a ringtone sounds and multiple people look at their phones expecting a notification.

Within the digital there are services for reporting where you’re traveling (Dopplr) or for quickly posting online a stream of pictures, videos or websites in in order to add to this ‘fire hose’ of information (Tumblr and Instagram). These tools also assist in giving details on location, such as attaching a location tag in a photo on Instagram so that followers know where the picture was taken. 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 7.

The messaging service Twitter allows its two-million-plus users to broadcast to their friends haiku-length updates on what they’re doing or their thoughts 7. Murthy, Hastings and Mawrie 4 looked at the scientific organisation SciCity’s, which has a strong virtual presence and resulting face-to-face meet-ups, and evaluated its use of social media to foster trust, collaboration and mentorship. Results found that Twitter was the prominent social media platform used to foster trust and created and maintained lightweight collaborative relationships. Additionally, Twitter-based relationships often acted as precursors to collaborations that in occur face-to-face setting. Twitter was also found to serve as a “social lubricant,” making contact easier and faster, thereby acting as an excellent platform for maintaining ambient awareness.

Before the news feed was introduced to Facebook, if people wanted to find out details about each others lives they had to actively surf through their individual profiles. Facebook’ news feed feature, a built-in service that would actively broadcast changes in a user’s page to friends, modernised the platform by allowing users access to this steady stream of information via constant, up-to-the-minute updates on what other people are doing. “A stream of everything that’s going on in their lives,” as Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, put it. The presentation of this omnipresent knowledge all in one place and incessant online contact was found to be intriguing and addictive by users. Facebook simulates being physically near someone and picking up on their mood through the little things they do, body language, sighs, stray comments, but rather in a virtual environment by look at the posts they like, the comments they write and statuses they post 7.


The earliest available technology that could be used for constant social contact is the cell phone. For the first time people could be contacted readily and at will beyond the confines of their work or homes. Then later, with the additional service of texting, one can see the somewhat primitive form of the status update. Since the text message only allows for 160 characters to transmit pertinent information it paved the way for the status update as we know it today. The transition from only having a few points of regular long distance contact to being constantly available via cell phone is what primed society for social networking websites.

Perhaps the first instance where these websites created the possibility of larger scale ambient awareness was when Facebook installed the news feed. The news feed automatically sends compiled information on all of a users contacts activities directly to them so that they can access all of the happenings in their world from one location. For the first time becoming someone's Facebook friend was the equivalent of subscribing to a feed of their daily minutiae. Since this innovation, a new wave of micro-blogging services have emerged, such as Twitter or Tumblr. Although these services have often been criticized as containing seemingly meaningless snippets of information, when a follower gathers a certain amount of information they begin to obtain an ambient understanding of who they are following. This has led to the mass usage of social media as not only a social tool but also as a marketing and business tool.

Uses in marketing[edit]

'Websites such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Myspace, among many others, have been used by people in all forms of business to create a closer digital/ambient bond with their clientele base. This is most notably seen in the music industry where social media networking has become the mainstay of all advertising for independent and major artists. The effect of this type of ambient marketing is that the consumer begins to get a sense of the artist's life style and personality. In this way social media outlets and ambient awareness have managed to tighten the gap between consumers and producers in all areas of business.

Uses in business processes[edit]

As web-based collaboration tools and social project management suites proliferate, the addition of activity streams to those products help to create business context-specific ambient awareness, and produce a new class of products, such as social project management platforms.[6]


  1. ^ Thompson, Clive (09-07-2008). "Brave New World of Digital Intimacy". NY Times. Retrieved 16 December 2011.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  2. ^ Andreas Kaplan (2012) If you love something, let it go mobile: Mobile marketing and mobile social media 4x4 Found, Business Horizons, 55(2), 129-139 p. 132.
  3. ^ Mimi Ito Bio
  4. ^ "mLearnCon 2010: Dr. Mimi Ito – What the User Wants in mLearning". Archived from the original on 29 August 2010. Retrieved August 2010. 
  5. ^ Kaplan Andreas M., Haenlein Michael (2011) "The early bird catches the news: Nine things you should know about micro-blogging", Business Horizons, 54(2)
  6. ^ "Social Business Applications Promote Observability via Ambient Awareness". Archived from the original on 31 March 2011. Retrieved 16 April 2011.