The Illusion of Intimacy

Prestolee’s blog post on social intimacy and Twitter has been discussed by the Gingerbread Girl, and her post reminded me of something that was at the back of my mind when I was warbling about internet identity and privacy on Friday.

The Gingerbread Girl reckons that

Internet relationships (especially the ones on the websites most employers ban) are not intimate relationships… We may care about our virtual friends at some level and wish each other well. We may help each other find something or solve something, raise money for charity, or provide support and encouragement. But at the end of the day, we do not really know the people on the other end of the ether, nor they us.

But the social media and the internet have provided opportunities to form friendships with people in circumstances we wouldn’t have had before; and also to find out a lot more about those people, rapidly, than we have had before, too.

Those of us even slightly active on the internet leave trails of information behind us – blog postings, Facebook updates, comments on others’ blogs – and streams of utterances on Twitter, if that’s where you think it’s @. A quick Google, and we can find out lots of information – for instance, I am listed on business networking sites, social network sites, photosharing sites, and have several blog comments. (Apparently I am also an author and an American football player in the US and a sports coach in New Zealand…) Very quickly, you could gauge my interests, the music I listen to and what my political views are, and see places I have been to and things I have seen.

Access to this information allows us to construct a social picture of our online contacts that feels like intimacy: we now know things about friends – online and offline – that it would have taken months or years of casual conversations to build up. It is easy to feel like we have known people online for a long time when in fact we have only just met them – or haven’t physically met them at all.

This can create a sense of intimacy – a deep knowledge of another person: but it is illusionary, too – it is virtual, not real.

There is another complication. One of the recent changes in social media – for me, at least – is the crossover between offline and online: people who know each other on social media are meeting offline too, face-to-face at Tweetups or Twestivals. I have been to a Tweetup in Edinburgh and I regularly to Tuttle, a regular social media, offline meeting place; I’m going along to Ale2point0 – a social media meetup with beer – in a few days.. The people I meet at these events become offline as well as online contacts and friends: the social in social media. A lot of these relationships are mainly online, but some become solid, intimate offline friendships too.

It is quite hard to know what to think about this. The internet, social media and the interaction with offline relationships are new, and people haven’t developed behaviours – or even words – to manage these situations yet.


8 thoughts on “The Illusion of Intimacy

  1. Ros

    I think this is all very interesting. I do find meeting online friends offline an odd experience. In many ways they are strangers and yet often I know all sorts of very personal things that would normally be the signal of an intimate friendship. I was thinking about this on the way home on Saturday night after meeting so many LJ people for the first time. It seems to me that knowing people online is a little bit like ‘knowing’ a character in a book. We know enough to construct a fully-orbed person in our minds. But when we’re faced with the reality, the jigsaw has to be pulled apart and redone in a different pattern.

    But this is a thing that we’re constantly doing with all our relationships, I think. The difference is only that normally we do that very gradually as we get to know someone better, whereas the ‘first meeting’ online/offline marks a distinct shift.

    So yes, I think that there can be real intimacy in online friendships. Online friendships can develop more quickly but they can stand the test of time as well. Some of my closest online friends live on the other side of the world and I don’t know if I will ever meet them. But I have known them for years. I know what I can trust them with, I’ve seen how they’ve responded in all kinds of situations, I know their weaknesses as well as their strengths. And no, I don’t know them perfectly and I’m sure that if I met them there would be some surprises. But I’m really sure that those relationships are real and significant.

    1. Patrick Post author

      this is a thing that we’re constantly doing with all our relationships – yes, I can see that: I suppose we do reassess relationships as they progress – we’re usually not even aware of it.

      Clearly, we can form close relationships online; for me, though, I think they will have a qualitative difference to offline relationships.

  2. finiteattentionspan

    streams of utterances on Twitter, if that’s where you think it’s @.

    Oh, very good!

    Very much relate to all this — have been navigating the choppy waters of online friendship/acquaintanceship for the last *counts* 16 years or so and still feel like I’m not always getting it right.

    It actually helps, massively, that my current online presence is quite heavily rooted in work stuff, as it’s so much easier to interact with people thinking of them as colleagues than it ever was with the loaded term ‘friend’ in more traditionally social online arenas. I have got more clarity from this and from mostly dropping the socialising stuff than it ever occurred to me that I might.

    Of course, I still maintain some of those online social relationships, many of which have spilled over into what we used to quaintly refer to as ‘real life’.

    Food for thought. Thanks for the meal!

    1. Patrick Post author

      I used to use “real life”, but since what goes on in the internet is real too, I m trying to use “offline”!

      It is interesting that focussing on colleague interactions has clarified things for you.

  3. Jim Anning

    Not sure that it extends to ‘intimacy’ but I’ve certainly found that online presence seems to ‘accelerate’ the off-line relationship.

    With people I know though both online and offline means, the experience I’ve had is that the openness and transparency of platforms like twitter have a real impact on how these relationships form. Seeing how someone conducts themselves online, the conversations they get involved with and the connections they have all complement the offline cues picked up through face-to-face meetings.

    I’m coming to the view that the online stuff is just another ‘lens’ through which you see the people you interact with. I’m glad that ‘lens’ is there and from my experience so far I believe it is a very positive thing.

    1. Patrick Post author

      I think a “lens” is a god analogy: online media allow us to interact in different ways, but fundamentally we are still interacting.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s