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Human Potential in the Age of Exponential Tech

Digital Intimacy – Dunbar’s number evolved ?

Michael Dila forwarded me the link to this article which explored the impact of micro-blogging and the emergence of what author Clive Thompson calls “Digital Intimacy.” I find this subject extremely fascinating particularly in how it’s changing the way we interact with each other.

Redefining Our Social Circle

Wikipedia defines Dunbar’s number as:

The supposed cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable social relationships: the kind of relationships that go with knowing who each person is and how each person relates socially to every other person.[1] Proponents assert that group sizes larger than this generally require more restricted rules, laws, and enforced policies and regulations to maintain a stable cohesion.

No precise value has been proposed for Dunbar’s number, but a commonly cited approximate figure is 150.

But with the advent of cellphones, blogs, email, text messaging, social networking and more, there are many who claim that number is on the rise. The latest entry into the market is Microblogging, with services like Twitter, and Rejaw and of course, the infamous Facebook Newsfeed to name a few.

Micro blogging has emerged as yet another extension of our online selves. To many, the activity seems pointless. I mean, who cares about the minutiae observations and remarks generated by our ever expanding  networks? It seems like another time-wasting, self-promoting, privacy-violating fad. However, Thompson points out the benefits of these activities and the new areas of opportunity they are creating within our social lives. To others (me included) the aggregation feature allows me to quickly scan a wider group of people and more easily keep up with my online friends.

The rise of these services are an indication that the nature of the way we work and communicate is changing. Particularly, it is impacting our “weak ties,” or the people we connect with outside of our immediate family and close friends. These will be our resources for business development, recruiting, marketing and communications. It is the new and extended corporation.

Transforming the “face of business” into the “faces of business.”

With the rise of free agents & mobile workforces more and more of people are working on their own, often isolated. Microblogging helps us connect to people in an effortless way. Unlike blog posts which tend to be more structured, tweets are spontaneous little glimpses into one’s daily life.  Thompson calls this constant online contact “Ambient Awareness.” Which is similar to hanging out in a room with a friend and you’re both doing different things, but every once in a while you exchange a smile. You don’t have to be aware of every little thing they do, but it’s nice to have them there.

To me, this is a reflection of the changing nature of business models. Microblogging grew in popularity to fill a need, in this case a viable replacement for the daily gestures we used to get from those around us. The way we collaborate and co-create are being redefined and technology is responding to that.

Plugged into the Collective Unconscious

Psychologist Carl Jung described the Collective Unconscious as a reservoir of the experiences of our species. Microblogging in particular has plugged in to this wisdom of crowds by providing the ability of a near-instant response.

Information Exchange: I find my Twitter community to be an invaluable resource, in fact, I don’t remember how I ever did anything without them. From answering questions about every conceivable topic to becoming an extra set of eyes or ears, they always make sure I am in the know, and I am only too happy to return the favor.

Trend Spreading: Things that are cool become really cool, really fast. From new gadgets to new websites, once the buzz starts it seems like everyone is listening.

Ad-Hoc Social Organization: this is one of my favorite twitter phenomenons. Someone tweets about a cool conference or event and before you know it, I’m signing up. I have met so many great people by the spontaneous gatherings that have popped up in Toronto. From the Mozilla Firefox 3 launch party to the seminars at MaRS

Transparency: I find the low commitment of microblogging sites encourage a deeper level of transparency. I like it because it shows a softer side of the people whose blogs I read, including anything from an affection for their children, the joy of a new puppy or even the excitement of starting a new job. There is something nice about sharing the little milestones in our lives together. I recently lost my grandfather and was in a strange city where I didn’t know very many people. It was my twitter friends who offered words of comfort and support through out the day, making me feel less alone. We share both our sorrows and our successes together.

What this means:

Ultimately to me this means the rise of the “in between,” which is the most interesting space of all.  Web 2.0 has fostered conversations in the space between traditional business models and corporate communication channels . Now, these new tools are creating a “digital intimacy” that is delving even deeper, tackling the moments between blog posts and social network activities. The conversation is a little rough around the edges at times, but its true potential lies in the fact that it is still evolving and still very much unfinished.

Comments: 3

  • Dave

    September 16, 2008

    Great post, Rahaf. I hadn’t seen that Clive Thompson article, but just read it and I think it’s brilliant. Some time ago he did an article for Wired about “micro celebrity” and I thought it was fascinating and right on target.

    This article struck me as being so accurate because I saw it as being applicable to a lot of people I knew (of).

    The more recent conversation about ambient awareness and such is an extension of this, and really quite fascinating. In fact, it’s this and/or closely-related subjects that I’m aiming for an academic career in, so thanks a lot for this post. 🙂

    And for the record, I think I agree with every word that Clive Thompson says.

    (dbeatty on twitter)

  • Cherrie

    September 16, 2008

    Nice post. I also wonder about the asynchronicity/continuity of it all. You tweet news. Some hours later, half-way across the globe, I wake up and respond immediately. You have, in the meantime, received a continuous stream of responses from your network. You see my response, you respond.

    It’s like we perceive it as continuous when it is really not. It is like we are connected for a duration that we are not connected. We (me, you, anyone else who sees and jumps in) are able to continue ‘conversations’ for potentially lengthy periods, allowing our thoughts and opinions to simmer without actually having to be focussed on this one conversation continuously.

    I don’t know if it makes thought-development more innovative, but it sure is more handy. 😛

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