Tuesday, August 26, 2008

on the concept of Intimacy - (part 3)

Initially, I proposed the use of the term “intimacy” to describe digital connectedness to a roomful of my colleagues. “Why not ‘friendship’, ‘rapport’ or ‘togetherness’?” they asked. I think that what I observe to exist in the online world is the search for something of a kind of closeness that is a level deeper than simple affinity. Intimacy may not be what is commonly achieved in the digital world, but I think it is what is sought.

Certainly for some, the desire remains to be a collector of sorts. The goal in these cases is built on discovering how many friends or followers or connections (or whatever the appropriate platform vernacular might be) one can obtain. That’s always been my hang up with MySpace – it always felt like volume was the driver. It didn’t seem to mimic my own reality of finding a smaller group of people that was predicated on shared commonalities. That in real life (using the term relatively), humans strive to find intimacy – close familiarity that reaches beyond facial identification, name recall, or the automatic, empty exchange of head nods and how-do-you-do’s in a workplace hallway.

I was unashamedly in a men’s a cappella group in college, the Tufts Beelzebubs. I describe these people as my brothers, even today. We were notoriously close. When asked what the difference was between my Bub brethren and the campus fraternity scene, I was struck at the obviousness of the answer. We were brought together for a common purpose – we all believe in fun through song. We weren’t just seeking out quantity of connections, we were limited in capacity, but the depth of connection increased exponentially because of a shared purpose, interest, and idea (that and khakis, jackets and ties).

The phenomenon of intimacy in the digital space works, I believe in much the same way. People using the social web have a deep need to create profound personal connections with their communities based on a handful of drivers: likeminded thinking, shared content, musical tastes, or common experiences. It is when online social selves are allowed the opportunity to discover what their web counterparts are all about that they actually create a deep connective bond. An intimacy. This is why I have fallen so hard for Twitter. I have found a group of people that I follow based on watching them think their thoughts “out loud”, and then decide whom I’d like to reach out to because I think we share a sense of humor, a perspective on the industry, a political viewpoint, a common ground. It is (again) why some sites don’t offer much beyond a means of finding old friends or collecting a digital Rolodex. This concept has been discussed here and there online, but I had a great discussion about it with @abfdc and @tfrommer, which was captured nicely (and thankfully not as verbosely as I clearly would have done it) here.

As we create new social platforms, sites, and online communities, I think we will find that the most successful ones of the lot are the ones that encourage and enable the opportunity to discover each other as similarly as we do in the analog world – as beings with nuanced thoughts, sensibilities and tastes seeking intimacy with others who offer complementary qualities, beliefs and purposes.

This is already too long, but I wanted to make mention of tangential thinking that relates to the topic of intimacy of this kind.

Just as we can find great connections with likeminded folks online, it would be impossible to have this discussion without recognizing the antithetical at play here. For as much as there’s depth of intimacy to be found online, there is without a doubt a major amount of illusion at play as well. The truth is, despite the great democratization of voice the Internet enables, we still create a hierarchical, celebrity-system of digital personalities. Within that mistaken fantasy that we’ve all got the same sized digital megaphone, lies the difficulty that - with such ease of access comes an assumed closeness where there probably isn’t one. The open entry to our digital heroes via blog comment pages, online forums, or yes, my vaunted Twitter, create the illusion of connection, of intimacy. We believe that in that comment/exchange/response that we are securing the attentions and affections of other members of this online tribe, when the reality is that it is often much more fleeting than that, and as with all things, time and consistency remain the best indicators of the truest connections.

Another part of that illusion of intimacy is expressed through a certain amount of voyeurism. We feel that we know certain personalities so we like to watch the tête-à-tête, the back and forth of witty barbs. There’s a safety in just watching from a safe distance as people engage in one-upmanship and juicy banter. We’re not a part of the conversation (or maybe we dare to engage here and there), but the digital world allows us to be privy to whichever intimacies we stumble upon that day.

Closeness in the comments space (or, anonymity-enabled honesty)
Michael Wesch points this out in his wonderful address to the Library of Congress, but it truly is fascinating. The most interesting dialogue happening online is often found in the comments section after an article or blog entry. Most interesting or most degenerative? I’m not sure which is more consistently accurate. Sadly, my best guess is the latter. But the point is in watching how base feelings become quickly escalated and expressed in these end sections of a webpage. And yes, Wesch specifically calls out the common radical insult escalation game that gets played out, but I think there’s an implied intimacy here as well. One that allows a person to be as explicit as he or she chooses, with whatever degree of force or opinion they wish, with virtually no repercussion to deal with (perhaps an incoming barrage of assaulting messages). It is fascinating however, to consider the boldness that is found online. I link this with a different kind of intimacy, but a form of intimacy nonetheless. This one isn’t seeking connection, it is an intimacy of allowance, of emboldened spirits based on the closeness the Internet affords.

If you’re still here, I love ya. Thanks for hearing me out. As always, I’m looking for your reactions, additions, and corrections. Agree or disagree, my guess is that we’ve shared something here. Haven’t we?


Tim F. said...

I agree with your colleagues that "intimacy" may not be the right word, but "friendship" doesn't quite capture it either. I really like your treatment of the illusion of intimacy + voyeurism. Prompted me to re-visit my nagging notion of internet as Janus -- good + bad simultaneously.

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