Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ambient awareness in an analog medium

The New York Times magazine featured an article about digital intimacy, and how social media networks sites were connecting people. An interesting concept was articulated that I actually use quite a bit in the analog world.
Social scientists have 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. Facebook is no longer alone in offering this sort of interaction online. In the last year, there has been a boom in tools for “microblogging”: posting frequent tiny updates on what you’re doing.

This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But 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.
So what do I like about the adventure comics in the newspaper? Ambient awareness. While most humor strips reset themselves like “Groundhog Day,” a well-written adventure strip develops and grows over time. And as it does so, it rewards the reader with little bits of information.

Take this sequence from “Prince Valiant,” for example (click on image to enlarge).

For the new reader, it’s an exciting adventure of a medieval sea voyage. But for those with ambient awareness of the strip, there’s more going on here.

Long-time readers know that Aleta is Val’s wife, who went looking for him when he and Nathan (his son) were first kidnapped by the Viking raiders in a sequence started two years ago. They also know that below deck is a representative from the African tribe they recently met (the guardians of King Solomon’s treasure and whose queen is a direct descendant of the Queen of Sheba). They also know that Sir Gawain is on board, Val’s long-time friend and one of his earliest supporters in King Arthur’s court.

Gawain isn’t pictured, but long-time readers know him as a brave knight, and as an aging ladies’ man increasingly concerned about his appearance and fading youth.

And there’s more at stake than just the  lives on this ship. Aleta is Queen of the Misty Isles, a Mediterranean nation that requires guidance to remain free of Byzantium influence (outlined in an adventure with Emperor Justinian several years ago).

In a sense, a sequential strip is something like microblogging. Each panel imparts just a little bit of information, but comprehension builds as panels accumulate. And that’s why I keep reading. It just keeps getting better.

- Ralph

Day 87 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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