The Inbox, Part Two: Facebook Has An Ambient Awareness Problem

I do this too much – post something short, as a note to myself and all of you that there is way more to say, then end with "I'll say more in the next post." Then I get busy and forget about that "next post" thing, and start posting…

I do this too much – post something short, as a note to myself and all of you that there is way more to say, then end with “I’ll say more in the next post.” Then I get busy and forget about that “next post” thing, and start posting on other stuff. What I really meant was, “in my next post on this topic.”

Hope that clarifies things.

OK. So what was I talking about when I wrote: “Facebook had a “malfunction” today that reset all my email notifications. All of a sudden, I am getting Facebook notifications in my email inbox about all manner of things.

A conspiracist will claim this was on purpose. I’ll explain why in the next post”?

Well, as many of your comments pointed out, both on Twitter and here, one could argue that this particular malfunction really helps Facebook – I’d wager that many folks, like me, turned off nearly all our email notifications way back whenever we set up our original Facebook account (mainly due to all the stupid app spam), and that has led to some problems when it comes to dealing with upstart, competitive services like Twitter.

What do I mean by that? Well, let’s focus on Twitter. Every time someone new follows me, I get an email from Twitter. It’s pretty much the only way I can find out who’s joining my “social graph” on Twitter, and it drives a lot of traffic back to the site (to find out who the person is, read their tweets, then wander around and see what’s going on, read replies, maybe tweet a bit, etc). Facebook, on the other hand, keeps your new friends in a queue you can check in on every so often, and all the platform app spam (“You’ve been bitten by a Vampire!”) led me and I suspect a ton of others to turn off nearly all email notifications. Even when I do get notifications in email (I only got notices when someone “friends” me), I don’t usually go back to the site -I know I can deal with that in batch mode later.

In short, Facebook is not a network driven by ambient awareness, it’s more batch mode driven. And I have come to this startingly obvious conclusion: Social networks driven by ambient awareness will win. And, by the way, so will search solutions that can deal with ambient awareness – AdSense ain’t there (yet – more on that in later posts, but that is a big big deal).

Because Twitter is an ambiently aware network, mail from Twitter means a lot more to me than mail from Facebook. And given that folks at Facebook have been staring pretty hard at Twitter lately (a $500mm deal was lost last week), well, as I said, a conspiracy theorist might find it far too coincidental that Facebook recently reset everyone’s email notifications.

Having cleaned up the platform mess and focused developers on applications that add long term value to the Facebook ecosystem (more on that here), it is certainly time for Facebook to start acting, well, more like an ambient network. That means, among many other things, communicating again in a meaningful way via email. I have found that I have not re-configued my email settings since they were reset for me, and further, I have found that the emails coming from Facebook are pretty useful – for example, I never knew, before, when someone posted on my wall, or sent me mail inside Facebook mail. Now I do.

This is another step toward Facebook doing what Mark Zuckerberg talked about in our interview at Web 2 earlier this month – pushing Facebook out of its own domain and into the web itself. The issue, however, is keeping it two way – I can make Twitter my Facebook status front end, but I can’t Tweet inside my Facebook status or see Facebook responses to my Tweets inside Twitter.


18 thoughts on “The Inbox, Part Two: Facebook Has An Ambient Awareness Problem”

  1. Twitter does have a sort of “queue” for new followers. Followers in twitter are listed in the order that they started following you, most recent first (at least that’s how it seems to be for me).

  2. thanks john.

    i’m really curious what affect this drive towards ambience will ultimately exert (is exerting) on mainstream media.

    i was stunned more than ever, after following the #mumbai tweets in the moment, how “old” mainstream news reports seemed — not to mention the newspaper, lying on the ground the following day like a relic.

    will ambient twitter-like “news” eventually topple at the mighty mainstream suggestion that you can’t take it seriously (“a vast number of the posts on Twitter amounted to unsubstantiated rumors and wild inaccuracies” — — or rather is the path inevitably towards the value in the ambient mass itself (which might indeed disrupt the concept of “truth” –ultimately)?

    i’m totally for it! since my captcha below is “aligned Lark,” i believe signs are good!

  3. John,

    it seems that one of us seems to have entirely missed what Facebook is all about.

    Facebook is supposed to be a platform upon which other applications can build. If you sign on to nonsense applications, then that is your fault, not Facbook’s. I do not accept most of the crap that’s sent to me, because I do not accept those applications — but if you look at my profile, you will notice that I have one of the most spartan set of application across all of Facebook. (if people want to use English to send me a message, that works fine 😉

    You, OTOH, may have thousands of friends who send you infantile app spam.

    Which one got it “right” or “wrong”? Hard to tell. However, many more app developers have information about your “social graph” (those infantile apps). I do not accept them, and they are not allowed to spam me. Therefore, I may have far less interaction (and perhaps that’s the reason why I don’t have many “Facebook friends”).

    IMHO, this whole social network “friends” stuff is really stupid — it’s totally bogus.

  4. Followers in twitter are listed in the order that they started following you, most recent first (at least that’s how it seems to be for me).

  5. The Ambient Awareness angle is right-on and an angle I didn’t expect.

    But when I think about it, that’s exactly why I now more or less use Twitter instead of facebook for status updates. (where they end up as well anyway)

    However, that wouldn’t cause me to abandon facebook since it has other advantages. (like persistance of message)

    The partner to “ambient awareness” must be something akin to a capacity for “contextual response”.

    In other words, it’s good for the rabbit to know the fox is in the neighborhood or the farmer’s not watching his field…

    But then the rabbit needs a way to do something about it.

    I think this may be what you refer to by opportunities for AdSense.

    As by now could be expected from my focus, I believe this has import in the relationship between the Internet and Political Action as well!


    Re “Ambient Awareness” and the capacity for “Contextual Response”


    Is there a relationship between:

    *The Ultimatum Game (from behavioral economics)

    *Increased speed, volume and breadth of information flow (a form of ambient awareness).

    *Increased vulnerability of a complex world civilization’s systems

    *A failure to provide methods for meaningful ‘Contextual Response’


    How might reasonable contextual response be provided and encouraged? And what happens if it isn’t? Can Internet approaches to political “meta-issues” be found that address these problems.

    The Internet is more than a new tool or toy. It’s a major change for the mental landscape in which evolution takes place.

    I believe so, yes. Certainly worth considering.

  7. I reacted pretty much the same way when facebook reset my email prefs

    I only go to fb iff I’ve caught up on twitter. It’s the micro part of twitter micro blogging that hooked me on the ambient awareness. Sort of like when I became a news junky in the early days of CNN when you could be up on current news bites in any half hour then tune into more in depth reports elsewhere or follow up in a periodical (alas, nothing on TV works like that anymore). Same on the radio in my car. I tune first to WTOP (DC area) for ten minutes then switch off to NPR. Efficiency matters

  8. Fixed-length microblogging is a fad. You can tell yourself it’s about brevity, counting down the characters you have left. That’s absolutely not it.

  9. Great thoughts John.

    Facebook can be a network driven by ambient awareness, if you set it up that way. The way I use it it absolutely delivers on the NYT definition.

    FB definitely screwed up the email update thing early on in the game which made it easy to keep the entire network at arm’s length, and therefore undermined its value to its users, owners and advertisers.

  10. Interesting post, John, but I think it’s backwards. Twitter is limited to short wordy bursts. Facebook encompasses photos, web posts, automatic feeds of personal book, movie and restaurant reviews and much more. Ultimately, it is Facebook that can create (or recreate) a missing sense of close connection between friends and family members who are separated by physical space and time.

    “Ambient awareness” is the slightly wrong metaphor. I much prefer Leisa Reichelt’s term “ambient intimacy,” which she blogged about back in March, 2007 ( And to achieve this intimacy, it’s not necessary to have intrusive, real-time messaging. I can catch up on my former co-worker’s clever jokes, my brother’s recommended foreign policy web reading or my cousin’s Halloween pictures of her kids on my schedule. I can comment on this stuff and feed back into a virtuous circle of connections and emotional bonding when I have time. In other words, batch mode is good! That was the point of my recent blog post combining Facebook with the thoughts of Mad Men’s Don Draper: Facebook isn’t a web site (or a spaceship), it’s a time machine (

    This is much bigger than 140-word bursts about what I had for breakfast. Which isn’t to say I see no value in Twitter (a subject for a whole other post), but it’s not the best tool or medium for building ambient intimacy.

  11. Facebook is supposed to be a platform upon which other applications can build. If you sign on to nonsense applications, then that is your fault, not Facbook’s.

  12. John,

    I think you are a bit all over the place with this post, so here are a range of thoughts.

    1) Twitter email notifications are far *more* obtrusive and I would guess that a much higher % of users have those turned off than have turned off Facebook notifications. Odds are you do not know the person who just followed you on twitter and therefore it is inherently less relevant/interesting. Using it in an aggressive social marketing context (as you do) would be a 1% case.

    2) You seem to be conflating “ambient awareness” with “real-time” and it doesn’t really fit. Facebook is exceptional for allowing the passive broadcasting of information. If anything it is flawed because it is not comprehensive enough. Since most consumption on twitter is not SMS based there will be a variable lag in the consumption of Twitter status updates and hence not much of a real-time advantage.

    3) You can use an application within facebook and update both Facebook and Twitter. How can Facebook be in the business of tailoring their own apps for edge cases? That is exactly why they launched the platform.

  13. @Narenda and @Aaron – I accept your criticisms, my writing was a bit all over the place. My own experience is certainly unique, but then again, all of ours are. I check Twitter way more than Facebook, and I’m thinking out loud as to why. Thanks for adding to that process. I’m listening.

  14. It was a technical problem, not a conspiracy.

    I stopped getting email alerts for a while; there was a bug in facebook.

  15. I bet it was a bug too, but if it was intentional, it failed miserably with me.
    I was annoyed that ALL of the settings defaulted to YES and I clicked no for absolutely everything, In the past I had some of the alerts set to on.

    (btw, your captcha seems one of the more sensitive I’ve found- or I just seem prone to typos when I come here)

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