Infrastructures of Ambient Research

As I've noted elsewhere, I use Twitter and other SNSs primarily for research and conversation about research. This post details a core approach to the kind of research one might pursue in leveraging the potential of ambient communication.

Defining Terms

Ambient research is precisely what one might expect it to be: a framework and approach to research that is enveloping, atmospheric, ubiquitous, and unflinchingly mutable. What I want to do in this post is briefly sketch the parameters of ambient research as I currently understand them, discussing the infrastructures that enable legitimate and productive research activity that is streaming, aggregable, searchable, and conversational. In a follow up post, I'll also consider the potential of ambient research for generative productivity and cognitive recursion in my own field and beyond.


My oldest daughter's 11th birthday is this Saturday, and we're very excited to give her a new computer. Of course, she already has an older Windows XP desktop in her room, and she has frequent access to both Ubuntu and OS X laptops. But this is a computer that she can hold in the palm of her hand, that's wifi ready, and that she can use to text her friends via IM. This isn't a "computer" as we've come to understand the term, but instead a mobile computing device that can do more (better) than the laptops of just a few years ago. She's getting an iPod Touch.

Ambient research is predicated upon the growth and development of such devices, as ambient communication requires ubiquity and mobility. How, for example, can communication be ambient if there's no means for consistent contact--contact that occurs beyond the traditional screen? But even more to the point, ambient research at its most basic level is predicated upon the infrastructure of not just wifi or data enabled devices like my daughter's iPod Touch, but by the SMS capability found in standard mobile phones.

"Smart" phones are fine, but relatively new (and growing) communication platforms that leverage SMS technologies have significantly lowered the barriers to ambient communication, and therefore, research. The
combination of mobie + SMS + always-on communication platform (such as Twitter, which I discuss below) represents the fundamental infrastructure of ambient communication.

While this infrastructure is enough to support ambient communication, enabling a framework of ambient research requires an initial strategic outlay of intellectual capital in the deployment of three critical forms of information flow (Push, Pull, and Streams), and the eventual engagement of such frameworks in the form of conversation. Additionally, the initial parameters will need continual adjustment, depending, of course, on the nature of the research area and the ongoing effectiveness of incoming data. Like a growing tree, the forms of information flow will need consistent watering and pruning.


Let's say that you're interested in researching "serendiptious search." One of the first and easiest means of systematically acquiring information on your topic is a
Google Alert. Periodically (each day, for example), Google will index sites that contain the phrase "serendipitous +search" and deliver that information to you via email. This is basic "push" information retrieval.

When Apple recently announced the release of iPhone OS 3.0, much of the buzz centered on the platform's "push notification model." As my friend and former colleague Shawn Miller notes, "push gathers info from other servers and pushes out notifications to apps in iPhones." And as Paul Golding recently argued, "a push notification service is a MINIMUM level of platform support to achieve the level of ambient communication that [applications like] Twitter brings."

In short, push notifications for data enabled phones raise the bar for real-time data streams in applications like Facebook, Twitter, Google Calender, et al. Instead of running the Tweetie app in the old iPhone OS, as Golding notes, push notifications bring the data to you--immediately. But what about SMS? This is where Twitter serves as a fascinating example. Tweets received in real-time via SMS aren't technically "push notifications," as they aren't reliant on relationships to individual apps (other than Twitter itself, of course). SMS tweets are more akin to the streaming information I'll discuss below.


RSS feeds are certainly not new, nor are they even necessary to develop a "pull" framework of information delivery based on one's interests. In fact, many have simply abandoned RSS in favor of the information streams of platforms like Twitter and FriendFeed. But the widespread adoption of RSS through tools like Google Reader have validated the importance of pull--of establishing and maintaining an aggregable and searchable "feed" of information specifically tailored to one's interests.

Whether one uses
Reader, Pipes, or a similar aggregator, feeds--and the sharing of feeds--are an essential
component of ambient research. In fact, both push and pull have explicit communicative components, as these aggregators are social, and work best when shared and discussed. For example, the work of Peter West in creating "living bibliographies," and subsequently sharing such work with others through platforms like Twitter, embodies the both/and proposition of ambient research. It is the combination of push, pull, streams, and conversations that make such a framework viable--not the reliance on any one form in isolation.


If you've ever used Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed, or MySpace, then you've dipped your feet into the flowing currents of real-time conversation streams (or perhaps you're already an avid swimmer). Much has been made of the recent
Facebook redesign in the image of Twitter, and influential technologists like Robert Scoble have espoused the flexibility and potential of FriendFeed. For the present discussion of ambient research, these platforms all share certain essential characteristics.

First of all, they are
platforms. This seems rather obvious, I know, but this is a tremendously important distinction. Certainly all four simultaneously enable and constrain, and like any communication environment, there are agency/structure dynamics that must be critically considered. But the reality is that a platform is mainly flexible (within reason)--one can use it to catch up with friends (as in the case of Facebook and MySpace), share interesting
finds and photos (FriendFeed), or share peer-reviewed journal articles in knowledge management (as in the example of Peter West on Twitter, mentioned above). It should be noted that Peter's work is particularly expansive in scope, with timely links to recently announced books, conference proceedings, and articles in a variety of scholarly and professional areas. The platform enables the widespread dissemination of such work.

Secondly, these platforms only work when multiple connections are made. Having two contacts on any of these sites will not enable a stream of conversation and connection. Having 500 Facebook friends or following 200 people on Twitter changes the game. These contacts--and the frequent conversations they engender--are the key to ambient communication and research.

Finally, like "pull" information flows, these platforms are aggregable (to varying extents). Twitter is not only aggregable, it is impressively searchable, both through Twitter's proprietary search algorithm and through Google (which, as
John Battelle has noted, seems to love indexing tweets). Moreover, Twitter's "favorites" function, much like "starring" posts in Reader, allows selective and strategic aggregation.

Twitter is the platform I know best, and it is the form of ambient communication I have most readily in mind when I envision currents of information streams. David Weinberger's recent post "
4.5 Things Twitter teaches us" is worth referencing at length here to emphasize the power of Twitter as a platform and as a stream of information.

He notes that Twitter's web UI "assumes we're ok with not keeping up with abundance. Tweets are going to scroll by when you're not looking, and you're never going to see them." This is the nature of streams--you're going to catch some things, while others float on by--and that's just fine, because the communication event is fundamentally
ambient. You can never take it all in.

"At Twitter, the people you follow are not necessarily the people who are following you." This is an important difference between Twitter and Facebook as platforms, and it's one of the core reasons that I believe Twitter is growing exponentially. The reality here is that people like Tim O'Reilly and Kevin Marks and Clay Shirky do not follow me, and I'm okay with that because Twitter is a public forum, and they still provide me with tremendous information, sometimes even engaging in conversation. Twitter would be drastically less effective if follow ratios were exactly one-to-one. (See James Governor's post on
Asymmetric Follow for an insightful approach to @ replies and social scaling within Twitter)

"Twitter is an app that scales as a platform." Weinberg is right to note that Twitter
is an application, but this simply reinforces the point I've been making all along, that as a platform, Twitter enables robust connections,
conversations, and information sharing in ways that few other platforms can.

Adding SMS functionality to your tweet stream only enhances scalability. SMS is the key feature of Twitter for ambient research; it means that anyone with an SMS enabled phone and at least occasional access to a computer can combine push and pull (via more traditional means) and streams (via real-time tweets) to enact ambient research. (As I'll discuss in the follow-up post, this has tremendous implications for curriculum and pedagogy in a variety of content areas). Someone with a high-end mobie (like an iPhone or Pre) can engage ambient research collectively (push + pull + streams).

Wading at the Confluence of Push, Pull, and Streams

As an activity, ambient research is subjective in more ways than I have time or space to consider. We're all researching different things, and we all engage the information we encounter in different ways. That said, I'd like to share a few principles that have helped me effectively wade and grasp at the flows of information that comprise much of my online research.

First of all, I'm a wannabe polymath. I'm profoundly interested in the disciplinary discourse of my field, but I'm also doubly lucky to study what is essentially a metadiscipline, as virtually every human pursuit involves communication, and a great many involve writing. In this sense, I'm always interested in the environments where writing and rhetoric occur, which leads me to follow others on Twitter with diverse backgrounds, and subscribe to feeds and notifications that are sometimes flagrantly extradisciplinary. In this sense, effective streams are necessarily cross-disciplinary and often cognitively dissonant. This is a good thing.

On Twitter, I follow others in my discipline, and I'm continuously learning from them. But I also follow as many (or more) outside of my discipline, because I'm interested in what the software developers, information architects, sociologists, and business professionals are doing, and how they are communicating about their fields. I'm interested in the research they share with each other. And I'm engaging much of this information ambiently.

The benefit of this approach to ambient research is found in collision, bricolage, and aggregation; cross-disciplinary dialogue and information sharing accretes and collides in the streams of ambient research, and it is in this collision (and resultant bricolage) that new knowledge is born. These collisions leave traces, and over time a kind of reverse
hypertie emerges, connecting researchers in digital environments and beyond.

In a follow up post, I'll tie the notion of ambient research to work on recursion theory and rhetorical invention/innovation. I will also explore some of the implications of ambient research for issues in Rhetoric and Writing Studies.

(The tweets above that mention "PolyContextual" refer to my previous Twitter name, which I recently changed to


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