A few thoughts about Ambient Intimacy

Ambient Intimacy. A small observation about how we share our location, how we want to interact with the information that we are sharing and why the future of LBS is not bound to the small screen of our smartphone.

A couple of days ago, I made this observation on Twitter and Google+:

Observing with interest how quite often communication with my friends begins with an inquiry about my/their location.

Peter Rukavina commented on G+ that his was the entire premise of Plazes. He is right. It’s also the premise (even if not the entire) behind most Location Based Services these days. And not only those. We tend to share location based information on social networks as well. Be it through posting our location in itself or – to bring an example – sharing a photo of the food we’re eating and attaching this particular social object to a location.

My entire reply to Peter’s comment was this:

To a certain extent, it is the premise behind many services we use these days. Foursquare, twitter and even Facebook. But despite the fact that we are the most connected generation ever, it seems that we still do not posses the ability to share certain information in the way that helps others to have constant proximity awareness, nor does take away our privacy. That is, of course, bound to the ability of our mobile devices to transmit information in a way that is not bound to a specific location (check-in). Google Latitude is an attempt to solve just that, but it feels awkward and our hardware is no where close to be able to do it constantly of course. The other thing is that this kind of information is not really well kept in a certain application. I do not want to open up Google Latitude to check up on my friends, I want just “to know it”. Maybe it would just suffice to include that kind of information into our contact lists. At least for the people who I talk to regularly. But that’s some unfinished thinking…

I’ve been thinking ever since about this. It seems to me, as if it’s a problem with two components:

  • How do we want to consume certain information?
  • How do we share certain information without having to put in too much energy in the process of actually sharing it?

All of this brought me back to what Leisa Reichelt described as Ambient Intimacy back in 2007 (while discussing the benefits of Twitter):

Ambient intimacy 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.

This is still relevant and it becomes even more relevant with the increasing of amount easily shareable information. Back then it was Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. And maybe MySpace. We have many more services that we use these days. We apparently do not mind to share all that information as long as it creates a certain value (it’s different for different subsets of people) for us. But – and this is very much a gut feeling – it seems like we are reaching a peak of how many services we can use at once to share specific information. That’s why we tend to connect many services to make sure that the information spreads as easily as possible. I, for example, really wanted to use Foodspotting as soon as they released their Android app. After a while, I stopped, because on top of checking in on Foursquare it was just not feasible.

Speaking of checking in. Do you notice how it’s still somewhat socially awkward to do that? Every time you are not going out with fellow nerds, people will make a joke about it. Why? Sure, that was the case with many services. People made fun of Facebook and Twitter users and we all now how this story ended. The problem with checking in is that it requires a certain behavioral pattern that is almost anti-social towards the people around you. Unless everybody is doing it, of course.

The current solution of sharing your location is only iteration towards more seamless solutions. This is not news. In fact, Google Latitude enables us to share our location without having to purposefully reveal it. It’s passive, it’s ubiquitous. Which is good and bad at the same time. Unfortunately, it negates its benefits by draining the battery of our mobile computing device. To some extent, this is the reason why we still use check-in based solutions. And then there is the privacy issue. But lets not even get into that right now.

Apart from sharing this kind of information, another issue is how to consume it. From time to time, I do follow up on the check-ins my friends are making on Foursquare. It feels, tho, as if we actually want to be aware of that kind of information without giving it our full attention. Ambient Intimacy.

One solution would be to integrate location based services more tightly with the OS of our mobile computing devices. Integrating it into the environment that will always require our attention. But that’s not enough. I’m experience a certain fatigue of being enslaved to the small screen of my smartphone. I want this information to flow around me.

No, this is not a plea in favor of Augmented Reality. Especially not after listening to Kevin Slavin picking it apart. The core problem with Augmented Reality – at least as the term being used right now – is that it requires the full attention of the user. As I said, I don’t want to stare at the screen of my device all the time and apparently not that many other people are comfortable with the current solutions either. Or how many people do you know who use Layar on a regular basis?

Then there is of course the case of the abundance of screens. There are many screens in our life and some could be employed to display the kind of information that we will help us establish Ambient Intimacy with the people we want. Russell Davies wrote about this just recently, but as always it is BERG who done some research an prototyping in this field (they call it Incidental Media).

Media surfaces: Incidental Media from Dentsu London on Vimeo.

As a scenario, this is not completely unfeasible. With the abundance of computational resources and the increasing connectedness of physical objects, we can make this reality.

Author: Igor

Igor likes to connect the dots. As a strategic consultant in an increasingly complex world, he favours broad knowledge over specialisation. In the last five years, he helped shape strategic decisions at large corporations like Deutsche Postbank AG and Deutsche Telekom AG as well as at startups like Amen and refund.me. In his work he is focusing always on finding the appropriate solutions as well as the people who will be executing upon his advice. Beside the consulting work, Igor speaks at international conferences on variety of topics (SXSW, PICNIC, re:publica, etc.).

5 thoughts on “A few thoughts about Ambient Intimacy”

  1. I’ve found myself thinking about this notion of ambient intimacy when thinking of modes of communication the modes of communication we naturally employ for different people in our lives. I might use long but infrequent email to message certain old friends from high school. Or just glances of facebook for others. I phone my parents. I text my brothers. I message certain types of people on twitter. Etc. All of these are levels of communication that we assign pretty naturally. I like how the designer Ji Lee has taken a stab at it here: http://bit.ly/p1tTh7

  2. My trip to Berlin for Cognitive Cities in February was my first experience of socially-acceptable-Foursquare-checkin-at-lunch; to that point I’d only ever seen this as a “lunch mate steps away from table for a moment, quick, pull out mobile” activity. But almost every time I dined with (admittedly hyper-nerd) friends in Berlin there was a seemingly well-established routine after being seated at the table.

    On another plane, I was interested to come across a “unplug for father’s day” campaign in the USA this June, the messaging being “stop ignoring your kids by hiding behind digital devices at the park” etc. In March at a children’s museum in Florida I was amazed at how almost 100% of parents had their mobiles out while their kids were playing, presumably seeking out ambient intimacy in lieu of the real thing right in front of them.

    In my heart of hearts I’ve slowly come to believe that ambient intimacy, geoenabled social search (“show me the coffee shops in this neighborhood that my friends like”) etc. are, in general, a very neat set of wizardly solutions to problems that don’t actually exist. Or at least that don’t offer a return on time investment commensurate to the effort needed to enable them: between Twitter, Plazes and Foursquare I have checked in more than 25,000 times over 7 years and experienced less than a dozen episodes of serendipitous joy.

  3. I wonder if Apple’s location alerts (http://www.apple.com/ios/ios5/features.html#reminders) will be available to other apps? It would make automatic checkin easier to all apps but it could also be used to filter checkins from others according to a certain zone around you. If you could also chose a status of wether you want to get those notifications or not, for example wether you are interested in going out or not, that would make the whole ambient intimacy thing much more doable.

  4. Kyle, I like Ji Lee’s work. It’s a good visualization that gives opportunity to muse about those different modes. But it gets really complicated when those modes merge and intersect. The question is: wouldn’t your high school friend, with whom you email from time to time, like to tap into certain information about you without investing too much time to it. After all, all of this is a question of how much cognitive space do I want to allocate to acquire a specific information? This is a general question, not only with week ties. While I’m interested of knowing what my friends are doing in Berlin, I find it increasingly unsatisfying to have to look it up on 4sq. That’s where Ambient Intimacy kicks in. When I’m actually interested in a certain information, but do not want to intentionally (?) acquire it.

    Peter: I agree, we haven’t seen too much serendipity created by location based services (I like your stats). But it seems like the current solution is the necessary stepping stone towards a more integrated solution of Ambient Intimacy/Awareness. On a technical level and also as a way to actually learn what it is that we want to know, how we want to know it and how we relate to the privacy issues.

    Additionally, I like the quantified self aspect of it. It gives me the opportunity to collect data about myself. While I’m not yet sure what I’m actually going to do with it, I do appreciate the fact of having access to it (unfortunately I can’t say “owning it”).

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