Proximity Wormholes: How the Social Web Enables Intimacy at Scale

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Using Google earth, I can soar like a bird above mountains and continents and then zoom right down to my own bedroom window with a simple, relatively intuitive interface. So why do I navigate my social world using a Twitter client that looks like a command line interface, and assumes I read every update? I think personal online tools need to do a better job of understanding different levels of network scale, and as our social world become bigger and more noisy, they should make it easier for us to find and jump through proximity wormholes to move from macro-scale networks to micro-scale intimacy and back again as seamlessly as possible.

A physical social world

Once upon a time, proximity was rooted in the physical realm, and apart from traders, warriors and explorers, most people’s social world was largely inherited at birth and governed by economic or social status. But by the twentieth century, at least in richer countries, social mobility was such that an individual could maintain work, friendship and other relations across multiple countries and continents, not just neighboring towns and villages.

Now, in the twenty-first century, time and distance feel much less linear. We are simultaneously closer together and, in some ways, further apart than ever before thanks to the uneven spread of globalization. In London, I feel closer to Paris and Amsterdam than to small towns that surround my city. Within the city, the reverse is also true: we can pass somebody on the street every day without overcoming the invisible barriers that separate us by culture, status or worldview. We can be physically close but worlds apart.


Proximity in social relations used to be crucial to the norms that governed business and trade, as Doug Rushkoff explored in his book Life Inc about the history of the corporation. But this form of proximity did not scale as local commerce gradually gave way to global trade. The post-industrial era of specialization and exchange, global trade and the rise of multi-national corporations achieved great economic advances, but at the expense of some of the social checks and balances on how business is conducted. The industrialization of communication, customer relations and engagement led to call centres, segmentation and CRM, which sought to manage customer relations as cheaply as possible. Scale was therefore in inverse proportion to proximity and intimacy.

The social web

More recently, we have seen the emergence of businesses like Zappos, Threadless and others who regard contact with their customers as part of their mission, rather than simply as a cost to be minimized. Even incumbents such as Dell, Citibank, Comcast and British Telecom have started using Twitter and other social tools to embrace customer feedback and communication. This trend looks set to continue. The question is, can this more direct, personal approach scale beyond the Twitter early adopters? Probably not with our current tools.

The social web means we no longer have to choose between intimacy and scale – we can have both – but we lack tools to help us deal with signals and flow above the oft-discussed Dunbar’s number, which has been posited as an upper limit on the number of people with whom an individual can maintain stable relationships at any given time. The limits of the basic sequential update mode of email, RSS and Twitter-type tools are already painfully obvious, and these tools demand far too much attention to be useful at higher levels of scale. Also, in order to mitigate against the potentially alienating effects of large-scale networks, we might also focus on creating more opportunities for empathy and connection based on network relations, shared connections or interests and more tangential concepts such as Dopplr’s notion of coincidensity.

The emergence of ambient intimacy

I think one clue to how improved tools might work lies in the fact that communication and contact need not always be direct. For example, the emergence of ambient intimacy, which Leisa Reichelt described as the ability 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,” is one way that we can think about pushing the limits of Dunbar’s observations. By routinely sharing status updates, photos, observations and ideas with a network of weak ties, we create more and more opportunities for intimacy, without the investment of time that would be required to do this entirely in the physical realm. This has fascinating implications not only for social relations, but also for what we regard as knowledge and how we acquire it. I think the kind of ambient knowledge that geeks hold about each other due to their propensity to share in public, and which informed Leisa’s ideas about ambient intimacy, gives us a taste of the future. The human brain has a huge capacity for processing ambient signals and spotting useful patterns and cues, although the way we currently work with apps assumes full-focus attention on one task at a time. But it also presents design challenges for the products and services we use in an increasingly information-rich and attention-demanding world.

Can the user experience of our tools help us cope with these new behaviors and with the fact that technology evolves so much faster than both our biology and our habits?

Can the user experience of our tools help us cope with these new behaviors and with the fact that technology evolves so much faster than both our biology and our habits? Rather than think of user experience in terms of an individual’s relationship with an interface as a route to task completion, we perhaps need to broaden our horizons to think about how people interact with each other via systems (that may or may not have a visual interface), and how this works at different levels of scale and depth of relationship.

In social networks, we often classify network relationships into three broad categories:

  • strong ties (friends, close colleagues);
  • weak ties (your wider network);
  • absent ties (others we interact with).

When we think of network scale, we tend to think about an intimate level (about 5 people at a time), team (15), company unit (50) and friends (150 – Dunbar’s number), and then successive levels of weak or absent tie relationships (usually asymmetrical) at 500, 1500, 10k, 100k and 1m people.

Cruising altitudes

In fact, we can probably simplify these scales of online social activity into three basic ‘cruising altitudes’ that cover the majority of an individual’s online social behavior, and of course, these networks and groups will intersect at various levels with those of our friends, colleagues or strangers:

  • micro: strong (sometimes weak) ties with 50 people or less – e.g. collaboration;
  • meso: strong or weak ties with 50-1500 people – e.g. sharing;
  • macro: weak or absent ties with thousands of people or more – e.g. discovery.

At the micro-level, maintaining contact, keeping up with group activity and finding information are simpler problems to solve, and existing tools do a relatively good job of this, and will doubtless improve. At the meso level, basic flow-type tools (e.g Twitter) are becoming a dominant means of sharing, which they do quite well, but they demand a level of attention to real-time data that the majority of people cannot afford. At the macro level, we have search, search alerts and broadcast media (including Twitter, when used in asymmetrical celebrity mode with hundreds of thousands of followers), but discovery remains hit-and-miss.

It is on the macro level that we need to do better. I think we need to start by designing better flow tools and filters to do much of the discovery work for us. Creating opportunities for us to jump through proximity wormholes to the more intimate sharing or collaboration levels when we discover something (or somebody) interesting. As more people and machines come online, this will become more important if we are to cope with the huge fire hose of status updates, activity streams, links and other signals that surround our work and that of our colleagues, company, markets and ecosystems. A bigger world of data need not mean that we feel increasingly small and insignificant if we focus on opportunities for connection and intimacy, rather than risk drowning in aggregate data.

The macro level is mostly about discovery and spotting patterns in aggregate data, but usually with no significant network ties to those whose signals we are monitoring. Dropping down to the meso level, we are often dealing with some form of weak ties, which are maintained by simple network ‘grooming’ activities such as link sharing, micro messaging, ‘likes’ and other signals. This helps us maintain our personal networks and reduces the ice-breaking time needed to switch into collaboration or conversation mode when we zoom in to the micro-level of high intimacy and small scale. Weak signal shared flow creates just enough contact to maintain relationships, and then we can jump through a wormhole to be ‘close’ to that person whilst we get something done, and zoom out again back to the macro level of our social world.

On each level, the amount of cognitive or identity surface area we expose can increase our findability and create openings for proximity wormholes. For example, social objects such as Flickr photos, Youtube videos or games can act as attractors for intimacy, by establishing common ground, in a way that connecting by more generic methods such as email or LinkedIn does not. People are more likely to connect via a common object than by  formal introductions.

We already have some design patterns for zooming in and out between different levels of scale, whilst receiving useful information at every level. Google maps on multi-touch interfaces are one example of this. In terms of devices, the iPad looks like a better candidate for a social network cockpit than the desktop right now, but the solution will probably not look like more and more vertical columns of sequential updates. I hope in future we will see flow tools that allow us to manage the macro, meso and micro levels of proximity and scale with the same ease as we are now able to navigate our physical environment.

The Web & Beyond 2010

Want to know more about Lee Bryant’s thoughts? He is one of the speakers at The Web & Beyond (June 1st), a one day event held in Amsterdam.

top image: left-hand / CC by-nd 2.0

Lee Bryant

Lee Bryant is an online community and social networking specialist, and co-founder of the leading social computing consultancy Headshift (part of the Dachis Group), which helps companies use lightweight social tools to create meaningful applications and purposeful social networks.

6 comments on this article

  1. Pingback: The web and beyond 2010: Proximity | UserTopia

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  4. Nice thoughts.. Very resonant with a lot of the work going on at the moment around data viz.. Seeing the forest and the trees at the same time etc..

    Here’s one thought I had while reading : while agreeing with you on the macro view being the key here, i wondered how we make that concrete, to understand it – one example using twitter might be a view of all the people followed by the people that you follow. Followed of followed, if you will ;-)

    services like mr tweet go some way to looking at this situation, but imagine the firehose we need to handle to get a grip on that (and to some extent it’s only really at what you’re terming meso level.)

    Maybe we’ve blown away the Dunbar limit, or even just introduced a hereto impossible social connection type that augments the ideas behind Dunbar’s magical 150, introducing a new type of technologically managed connection. Like we use tech to augment our ability to do stuff (like remember facts, manipulate data etc) maybe these connections are of a different type than the ones originally described as “strong ties”?

  5. Lee on

    Thanks Jeremy – good points about how to start thinking about a more effective macro view

  6. Pingback: Rich reading (delve later!) » Proximity Wormholes: How the Social Web Enables Intimacy at Scale Johnny Holland – It’s all about interaction » Blog Archive « Transmedia Camp 101