Social media and ambient intimacy

There’s a pervasive tendency to see social media as something detrimental to the quality of human relationships. The precise formulation tends to vary but in practice it amounts to a claim that ‘real’ and ‘meaningful’ (i.e. relationships sustained through face-to-face communication) are being replaced with ‘virtual’ and ‘superficial’ ones (i.e. relationships sustained through digitally mediated communication). It doesn’t take much thought to recognize this is simplistic but I think something important is changing here.

One important aspect of this is how intimacy emerges within geographically dispersed but highly networked social orders. Intimacy is an important part of human relationships and for much of human history it was grounded in (to some extent) shared experiences within a (to some extent) common context – what Margaret Archer calls contextual continuity. The continuity that such circumstances made possible provided a reliable stock of common reference points, taken for granted understandings and modes of self-expression: a shared mental furniture. This facilitates forms of self-disclosure that are otherwise unreliable. When we share this common mental furniture, it becomes easier to externally communicate our internal conversations: the other is much more likely to understand what we mean when we disclose our inner life to them. They understand where we’re coming from.

This general experience finds it apotheosis in the development of intimacy: a general understanding of where we’re coming from develops into a refined sense of who we are. With such people, we don’t need to explain why we experienced something as a slight or a joy. They get us. In romantic relationships and close friendships this is something elective: we work at sustaining continuities because we value the relationship. My suggestion is that the degree to which this intimacy is elective goes hand-in-hand with a decline in our ability to take for granted a general continuity with the other people in our lives. We value intimacy more because a commonality rooted in a converging context can no longer be taken for granted. It still exists but it’s becoming the exception rather than the rule for most and it’s a contingent accomplishment rather than an ongoing feature that fades into the background. However new forms of intimacy are facilitated by digital communications. I like the idea of ambient intimacy suggested by Leisa Reichelt,

Ambient intimacy is about being able 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. Flickr lets me see what friends are eating for lunch, how they’ve redecorated their bedroom, their latest haircut. Twitter tells me when they’re hungry, what technology is currently frustrating them, who they’re having drinks with tonight.

Who cares? Who wants this level of detail? Isn’t this all just annoying noise? There are certainly many people who think this, but they tend to be not so noisy themselves. It seems to me that there are lots of people for who being social is very much a ‘real life’ activity and technology is about getting stuff done.

There are a lot of us, though, who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like.

Knowing these details creates intimacy. (It also saves a lot of time when you finally do get to catchup with these people in real life!) It’s not so much about meaning, it’s just about being in touch.

This isn’t intimacy in the sense in which we usually use the term. I’d prefer to think of it as a form of mediated continuity to be compared to contextual continuity. Could we say that continuity itself – either mediated or contextual – stands as a necessary but insufficient condition for intimacy? It does not in itself lead inexorably to intimacy, to the discovery of commonality in spite of difference and the emergence of relationships, but without this continuity the possibility of intimacy doesn’t arise.

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