How “Ambient Awareness” Can Strengthen Your Community

“Why should we do things online when we all live in the same place, and meet up at the synagogue (or JCC or havurah or Hillel, etc.) in person? Online can never replace the face-to-face experience!”

I hear this often, and spend a lot of my time explaining that an online experience is a complement, not a replacement, to face-to-face experiences. In our rapidly evolving world, two things are happening simultaneously which I believe are critical for the Jewish communal world to understand.

  1. The reality is, Jews are using these online tools to shape an increasing amount of their day-to-day experiences. If the Jewish community does not offer the same convenience for initial and ongoing engagement that our members take for granted in other aspects of their lives, they may never walk through our doors to experience the power, importance, and value of the face-to-face experience our community can offer. We simply cannot afford to not be in the game. Furthermore, we need to learn how to use these tools as effective gateways – one of many points of access – for engaging and connecting people in a community.
  2. Culturally, our use of new technologies is evolving into more social experiences. Human needs, emotions, patterns of socializing, innate cues, etc. are essential to the universal human experience. Recent trends in technology the “web 2.0” phenomenon (aka social media) can be summarized as making the web more social and people-centered: friendly, casual, accessible, democratic. And not only are the technologies evolving, but the ways in which we use them are changing as well.

    Clive Thompson recently wrote an article in the New York Times, “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy,” about the evolution and success of Facebook and other social tools like Twitter. Thompson discusses the birth of the Facebook newsfeed,

    a single page that like a social gazette from the 18th century delivered a long list of up-to-the-minute gossip about their friends, around the clock, all in one place. ‘A stream of everything thats going on in their lives,’ as [Facebook founder, Mark] Zuckerberg put it.

    While users were initially uncomfortable with details of their private lives being broadcast, they quickly learned the value of it, and adapted accordingly. Thompson provides a larger context for these types of short-hand communications:

    Social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it ambient awareness. It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does body language, sighs, stray comments out of the corner of your eye.

    Though each Facebook status update or Twitter post (“tweet”) may seem insignificant, Thompson suggests that “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.

    In an age where people are very busy, with both parents in a family working, it is hard to squeeze in time for engagement with the Jewish community. Often it is not that we don’t want to, it’s just that it is not always convenient enough to rise to the top of the priority list. This is critical for the Jewish community to understand. Developing online relationships is not about watering down or distilling. It’s about widening the doorways and strengthening ties.

    “[T]he ultimate effect of the new awareness,” Thompson writes, is that “[i]t brings back the dynamics of small-town life.” What more do we want in our local Jewish communities? It is not enough to see a person in the single context of a study group or a synagogue service. Rather, we need to recognize the whole person, and be seen as a whole person, in order to form the tight bonds of community we crave. Facebook, Twitter and other technologies are tools that can be used in support of this.

    Through these tools I keep up with friends from Pardes and Livnot U’lehibanot who are all over the world, youth group and camp friends from the congregation where I grew up, Rabbis I admire, and friends who I will see at next week’s tot Shabbat. And when I see them, we’ll pick up the conversation as though it had been hours since we last spoke, not weeks.

    Curious? Sign up for Facebook and search for 10 friends from various areas of your past and present lives. Get a taste of Twitter – if you need someone to follow, I’m lisacolton (be warned: this is my personal life, not strictly professional, but I invite you nonetheless – you’ll be more ambiently aware of me!). And be sure to read Clive Thompson’s article in the New York Times article for more.

    Postcript – Social Media in Action
    This blog post was written on a Friday afternoon based on an article in the New York Times that was already available online but which was not accessible in print until delivery of the Sunday magazine section. The sequence of events that led to this blog post were as follows: the New York Times publishes the article online, budtheteacher “tweets” about it on Twitter, Caren Levine, Director of Darim’s Learning Networks, sees the tweet, reads the online article , and updates her Facebook status referencing the article, with a nod to bud’s tweet. I notice Caren’s status update, and as I know her recommendations are always home runs, I read the article, gears turn, and I compose this blog post, which you’re now reading. The information is valuable, but it’s made possible through the connection of the people.

    Welcome to Web 2.0.

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