Obvious Concept: Intimacy

Quite obvious a concept, but it could simplify some things in so-called “social media” and other online applications of social network analysis. In simple terms, why can’t we control (“slide up and down”) the “degree of friendship” implied in sharing an item? Because some people, North Americans especially, have an ideal of “equalization” in social relationships? Fair enough. “Friendship” in the U.S. often means “friendliness” or mere “reciprocity.” But, as most people realize, the content we share (microblog posts, funny pictures, academic references, music files…) is meant for a specific audience which can range from an audience of one (for archiving or “private communication”) to an audience of millions (everyone who can read English, for instance).
Most “social media” systems out there allow users to share items in private or to “the whole wide world.” Some systems have “privacy settings” so that one can distribute items selectively to a number of people without “leaking” the item to the public sphere. And the “social network” dimension often implies that people’s “inner circle” serves as the primary audience for items which are semi-public.
Contrary to what some people seem to assume (especially in educational contexts), these systems often mean that users think about privacy quite a lot. In fact, strategies to control how private or how public an item should become run at the center of those online systems.
Yet, most people have much more elaborate concepts of privacy and intimacy, much more “granular” ways to approach information sharing than what is involved in almost any online tool available. Put simply, users often know very precisely how widespread they want an item to become and how fast it can spread but they often don’t have ways to control these.
We all have strategies to cope with these issues in face-to-face relationships (what some like to call “meatspace”). For instance, breaching secrets is often considered a serious offence resulting in loss of face which, in turn, leads to avoidance strategies and other social control mechanism. Our social tools are more advanced than our online tools.
What’s funny is that some very simple solutions could be found to overcome discrepancies in sophistication between social and online relationships. An obvious example is the use of “groups,” “tags,” and “scopes.” These are already available and we can select a specific audience for a specific message (at least on Facebook, not on Twitter). But this “audience selection” process is rather cumbersome and most people end up posting things for much larger audiences to hear than what was originally intended. Some entrepreneurs are also thinking about the economic and ludic aspects of social capital, reifying “importance” with a form of currency in symbolic exchange.
All good and well. But adoption of these solutions depends on a number of factors, including the “transaction costs” and the “workflow integration.”
If these all fail, we’ll just have to bet on the ingenuity of teenagers to come up with new ways to use what was once known as “Web 2.0 technologies.”
Ah, well…

5 thoughts on “Obvious Concept: Intimacy”

  1. Obvious? Strong word. What is intimacy? (It’s the central topic of my master’s thesis, so I can’t help but comment!) You seem to link intimacy with privacy and with friendship, but I’m not sure I understand the nature of these links. In the literature I read, intimacy is commonly — and, in my opinion, erroneously — automatically linked to privacy and secrecy, as if this link were “obvious” and nonproblematic. But intimacy does happen in public. The public context sometimes allows a certain type of intimacy which wouldn’t occur in private – some men would, for example, demonstrate more affection and intimacy “markers” in public, where they feel it has less chances of being mistaken for romantic love or sexual interest (according to Danny Kaplan, 2005). Also, intimacy can happen between total strangers. When I was a teenager, I would share with strangers on the Internet details I didn’t want anyone close to me (be it friends or family, “mes intimes”) to know. I’m not sure how “intimacy” would have helped me manage the sharing of my thoughts…

    Just my two cents… And sorry if I rambled, I’ve been working on this “intimacy in public” for months now, I couldn’t help but write… 🙂

  2. @Émilie Honestly, this post was botched up (as evidenced by the sloppy term use). So it’s nice that it should generate such a thoughtful response. Maybe I should botch blogposts up more often… 😉
    More seriously, I’m finally finding ways to communicate more by writing less. It’s still a challenge, though.
    I’ll write a new post to address some of these issues. It’ll still be kind of sloppy in the write-up but it should be somewhat clearer.

  3. Hopefully, this second post on confidentiality may generate other thoughts.
    On intimacy… I think I’ll tackle it later. Yes, it can happen in public and so can secrecy. Because “secrecy in broad daylight” is part of my own research, I can’t help but think about it. The gendered character of intimacy markers are interesting, especially in contexts in which, say, wife and husband are expected to never show signs of intimacy in public. I really should explore this further as Malian hunters openly display something like intimacy in public contexts.
    Food for thought. Makes me hungry.

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