Peter M Howard ::

On Chatter

20May2009 [myth]

In which I stumble into the æther and explore Twitter, Facebook, and the always-on, always chattering future

Starting to Get Twitter

Admittedly, it took a long time (I first signed up in the second half of 2006)[1], but Twitter has grown on me. It's not quite right, and it's still incredibly geeky, but it points to an always-online, always-chattering future for everyone.

While it's geeky, it's not necessarily techy, so there are a lot of different people on Twitter, every one of them using it slightly differently. Some are using it to broadcast, some are using it to chat, some are using it to keep in touch with a group of friends. Many do all that and more[2]. I find myself using Twitter in two very different ways. On the one hand, I follow people for their links to news or cool new things online. I'll ocassionally tweet in the same mode myself. But on the other hand, I follow people I know in the real world. This is, for the moment, a much smaller group of people, and their updates tend to get lost in the noise created by the first group[3]. But it's the mode I normally tweet in myself, and it's by far the mode I'm most interested in.

Ambient Intimacy

They call it ambient intimacy[4]. At Web Directions South last year, I heard lots of people talking about it, but I never Got It, because the people twittering weren't the people I wanted, or had, any sort of Intimacy with. It was only when I found myself logging on to Facebook just to read people's status messages that I realised what it was.

Right now, Facebook is terribly mainstream[5]; Twitter remains for the geeks. They work together though — I send my Twitter updates to Facebook as status updates, and it makes me seem a lot more active on Facebook than I would otherwise. I can wish Mum a Happy Birthday from Twitter because I know she sees my updates in Facebook.

The Little Things

The beauty of the updates on Facebook is in getting that stream of news. Most of us don't read everything that everyone else posts, but we see the status updates, the photos, the comments, and we absorb it all. It's strange now, catching up with friends or family I haven't seen in a while; where we used to have no idea what the other had been up to, we're now pretty well caught up. We know the big things, like when people move, break up, when they celebrate, or choose to ignore their birthdays or anniversaries. And we know the little things, like when we've had a bad day at work or taken the day off to go to the beach, or been for a run, or failed to. All those little things add up. It makes us closer when we're apart, and it makes it easier when we're together.

The Future

The future isn't Facebook, and it isn't Twitter. I don't think the future is going to be a centralised service like either of these two, and I'm certain it's going to be a lot more mobile (outside of the States, Twitter and Facebook really aren't mobile). It'll be ambient intimacy pumped to the level of white noise, and that ambience will permeate the atmosphere. Some are calling it the cloud, but it's going to be closer to earth than that — the æther we once imagined existed. Everything we do and think, everywhere we go — it will all be absorbed into the æther, and we will feel the connections as people in our network come close.


This concept — this level of exposure — while it excites the geeks, clearly frightens many people. Facebook have tried to expose more information on a few ocassions, and every time they do, users end up in uproar. While they don't necessarily articulate it, a lot of this comes back to a fear of exposing themselves too much. It's ironic though — these same people will publish compromising photos of themselves without realising just how exposed, and permanent, those are. Nothing escapes the internet.

But while I like the idea, there are clearly barriers to break through, online and in the real world. We're seeing all sorts of conflicts as the public and private boundaries break down — from the terribly (deliberately) mis-named sexting to incidences of people having jobs threatened for joining Facebook groups mildly critical of their workplaces. Breaking through these barriers isn't going to be easy, and there are going to be a lot of casualties. But it's inevitable now, so we need to be doing everything we can to ensure people are armed and ready — teenagers need to be aware that the ways they're using the web are completely at odds with the ideas of their potential employers, and those employers need to be aware that they will very quickly run out of potential workers if they exclude people with compromising online presences.

(And this isn't just about things so trivial as work; some people will end up fighting for their lives for the things that end up on the internet. There are still plenty of things people really don't want to know about their neighbours, and when you throw some violent conservatism into the mix it will get ugly. I'm way too straight-white-male to fully appreciate this, but danah boyd's SNS visibility norms opened my eyes[6].)

Real People

The thing about ambient intimacy, is that it really only works with real people. Characters and personas you can get away with — we're all putting on personas, all the time, both online and in the real world. But no-one wants to be intimate with a corporation. And a corporation can't tweet about what it had for breakfast.

So there's no easy answer for companies, no three-step process to monetise those eyeballs. No-one will own the æther. There'll be money in plugging people into the æther, and in helping them filter it. But you'll be working with a whole lot of other people, and other systems. And through it all, you'll have to be yourself — be a real person.

At work we're starting to get into the social media space a whole lot more. But when we looked at the idea closely, we realised, we don't want to go into that space as Gruden. Most of us already have a presence, and an identity of our own, and Gruden is just a part of that identity. So we blog and tweet in our own spaces, and sometimes we blog in Gruden's space, and sometimes we link or tweet each other, just like anyone else in our social space. It's not about creating a new persona, it's about being real people. And any company looking to get into this space needs to be ready for that — you don't do this as a job, it's just something you do as a person.

Arbitrary Limitations

Part-way through writing this, I tweeted:

trying to write about twitter but the post keeps growing; there's something to be said for arbitrary limitations

And it's so true. It's taken me weeks[7] since to get this thing finished, and all because of the format. When I write an entry like this, I need to take my time on it — it spent a few weeks in my head, a few weeks on paper, and a few more on my laptop. I still enjoy writing long-form, but I end up writing an awful lot that doesn't end up finished.

I want to experiment with Chatter. Because Chatter is short. It's always on. And because Chatter is the Future.


To that end, I've started looking around at the data — or the noise — I'm creating. There's Twitter, of course. And there's Facebook, to a lesser extent. But there's more. I see movies and Greater Union scan a card, and that information ends up stored somewhere. I subscribe to Quickflix and get sent a couple movies a week, some of which I bother rating; that information is online, somewhere. I run a few times a week and all sorts of data gets tracked by my iPod and sent to Nike[8]. I don't even know how much more information is learnt by Safari and NetNewsWire about what I'm reading. And then there's all the noise I'm creating that doesn't yet hook into the æther — books and comics I'm reading, TV shows I'm watching, photos I'm taking, all my scribbles and ideas jotted in a notebook.

All that noise takes different forms; all of it is me, even if it isn't as well thought out as a post that takes me weeks to prepare, write, edit. And I don't want all those pieces of me scattered around and controlled by others. I don't mind relying on third parties to create the chatter; I just want to be able to take those pieces and use them myself. So I'm going to start collating the chatter, presenting my lifestream here somewhere.

It will be messy.

Additional Reading

None of this is new, but lifestreaming is starting to be talked up in a big way.

With the announcement of the magical Rudd-powered broadband network, Mark Pesce wrote Super-fast trip to a world full of surprises (8 April 2009).

Within the next few years lifestreaming will become the norm for the younger generation - they'll be sharing their lives with their friends as freely as they share text messages today.

Adam Rothstein writes a delightfully rambling, and very heavy, piece on speech, and privacy, The Confused, Ice-Cream Stained Dogs of the Internet (7 April 2009).

... is this the free speech of the polis, or the private machinations of the home?

Well, I wonder, what's the difference? These days, our speech is about our homes, we work out of the home, and we speak about our work. Our homes are no longer private places, now grouped in stacked architectures, as is our work, and as are our lives.

And Tim Bray, experimenting with a camcorder app on Android, stumbles into the æther, writes Cupcake (6 May 2009).

I suddenly have a Neal-Stephenson-flavored vision of the of the future, in which everybody videopublishes all the time just for the hell of it. ... My feelings about this are, well, ambivalent.


  1. When Did You Join Twitter tells me I joined on 10 September 2006; that sounds an awful long time ago now, mostly because my first tweet wasn't till May 2008 and I didn't start really using it until late 2008. ↩︎

  2. Who is on Twitter, Sasha Frere-Jones, 31 January 2009, via Daring Fireball ↩︎

  3. Back when I first wrote this, it was most certainly true. Right now, people I know in the real world are up to 17 of the 61 I'm following, and I find myself adding the unknown people less and less. ↩︎

  4. There are numerous sources for this, but the original use of the term appears to be Leisa Reichelt's March 2007 post, Ambient Intimacy, which is still a good read, and as good a rebuttal as any to the regular anti-Twitter articles:

    There are a lot of us, though, who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we're not able to participate as closely as we'd like.

    Knowing these details creates intimacy. (It also saves a lot of time when you finally do get to catchup with these people in real life!) It's not so much about meaning, it's just about being in touch.

  5. Since first writing this, Facebook turned on its stream, which is just a little too geeky for many of its users, but fits right in with the future of chatter. ↩︎

  6. SNS visibility norms (a response to Scoble), danah boyd, 9 September 2007. In the article, danah writes:

    It's OK to be transparent when you look like everyone else

    which is what really opened my eyes. But the whole thing is a really good primer on visibility and privacy; danah does a lot of research with teens and social networks, and that's the main focus of the article. ↩︎

  7. Obviously; this was 11 weeks ago now. ↩︎

  8. Nike+ is a pretty incredible service, but most of the data is locked away behind a Flash-based interface... Fortunately, there are workarounds; eg, on making your profile public, it's possible to pull all runs in an XML format. ↩︎

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