“In the future,” Andy Warhol said, “everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” We’ve all chuckled at the cynicism of this witticism about the fleeting nature of fame. But I’d suggest that Warhol saw only the empty shoreline of an ocean of possibility behind that statement. In focusing on the fickleness of public attention, his truism misses the wealth of a new “ambient awareness.”
Here’s the heart of my point: With social media such as Twitter and Facebook feeds, individuals are reminded of one another’s lives in a new way. For example, I have friends in Minnesota, Texas, and Kentucky—to name just a few places—whose feeds I see on Facebook a couple of times a day, which lets me know they’re alive and well. Prior to Facebook and Twitter, I might go months or even years before meeting one of them somewhere and getting an update on their lives.
This ambient awareness is not a trivial thing. Although we may be tempted to feel that our little updates are mere bottles tossed in an ocean, like Sting’s “S.O.S. to the world,” they provide a sense of community even more powerful than the “hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore” later in that song. For unlike a message in a bottle, these little status updates are read by multiple people.
The significance of this new mode of communication struck me this past weekend. As a poet, I’ve had a sporadic mailing list for a several years now, in which I share verse by myself or other people (”Intervallic Verse“). For one reason or another, it’s been several months since I made a mailing. Sometimes I worry about imposing on people’s time with these messages. But this weekend I received an e-mail from an old friend which made it clear that the mailing had made him feel connected in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Although the messages had not been specifically directed at him, he still felt as though they were.
Celebrities sometimes describe a disjointedness in which someone they’ve never met greets them as if they were old friends. In effect, a celebrity’s media presence projects a one-way sense of personal connection toward his or her fans. However, given a world in which everyone is a celebrity, at least for the 15 seconds it takes to read a Facebook status update or Twitter post, these one-way connections become interwoven in a web that supports and comforts us all. I’m not suggesting this as a replacement for face time, but as a supplement to it, ambient awareness is definitely an improvement to our lives.