As social media has continued to expand across media and social contexts, and across platforms, including desktop computers, laptops, mobile phones, tablets, televisions, and watches, it has infiltrated more and more aspects of our everyday lives and made itself integral to them. Many argue that this is causing an increasing lack of intimacy in our interpersonal relationships (Chadwick, 2010; Reiner, 2013; Redmon, 2015). This article will evaluate whether this is the case, and thereby expand upon and respond to one of the main themes of this Unit of Study – that of intimacy. While intimacy can be experienced and expressed on macro (cultural), meso (social) and micro (individual) levels (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 3), this article will only be considering interpersonal relationships – intimacy experienced and expressed on a micro level – in its evaluation (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 44).
Social media as another mediated form of communication
In order to evaluate whether social media is the cause of an increasing lack of intimacy in interpersonal relationships, we must first consider what social media is.
Although it is easy to adopt a belief or philosophy of technological determinism with any technology, particularly one that seems to be as omnipresent as social media – easy to see social media as a technology that is causing an increasing lack of intimacy in interpersonal relationships, or at least transforming our conceptions of intimacy – it is clear that the relationship between intimacy in our interpersonal relationships and technology is far more complex than that (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 136). Indeed, the relationship between intimacy in interpersonal relationships and the technology of social media is particularly complex because of the extent to which it has infiltrated aspects of our everyday lives and made itself integral to them. Rather than seeing social media as a radical technology that is simply causing an increasing lack of intimacy in interpersonal relationships, therefore, we should see it as one that is both reflecting and responding to transformations in our culture and society, as well as our conceptions of intimacy, and transforming our culture and society, as well as our conceptions of intimacy (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 136).
Hjorth (2005) rightly argues that interpersonal relationships have always been mediated by technologies, with past technologies like letters, for example, acting as a substitute for the physical presence of a person and mediating interpersonal intimacies before present technologies, including emails, did the same. Milne (2004) rightly argues further that social media functions is simply yet another technology that is acting as a substitute for the physical presence of a person and mediating interpersonal relationships, and should therefore be historically contextualised with other technologies that have done the same thing. They argue, therefore, that social media has not simply transformed our conceptions of intimacy, but that it is another technology that is acting as a substitute for the physical presence of another person and mediating interpersonal relationships, and thereby reflecting and responding to transformations in our conceptions of intimacy and transforming our conceptions of intimacy.
Social media does indeed act as a substitute for the physical presence of a person and provide us with the opportunity to mediate our interpersonal relationships – we are all provided with an opportunity to present ourselves to others in the way in which we would like to be presented to others, which is a fact that we are all all too conscious of as we use social media. We all decide what not to publish and what to publish based on what we would and wouldn’t like others to see, which means that we all often decide to only publish content about the best aspects of ourselves and the moments of our lives.
What does this mean for intimacy?
Although social media is a mediated form of communication, this doesn’t mean that it can’t be any less intimate than other forms of communication, nor that it is the cause of any increasing lack of intimacy in our interpersonal relationships. Indeed, all forms of communication are mediated to an extent, even when we are communicating with others in our presence. We all choose what we communicate in what we do, say and wear or don’t do, say and wear when we are in the presence of others based on what we want them to hear and see and what we don’t want them to hear and see. We are all self-conscious constructs of ourselves to some extent, therefore, or self-conscious in the way that we present ourselves in ‘real-life’ at least, and what we do, say and wear can all be ambiguous or simply deceitful, if not misunderstood.
None of the intimacy that we experience and express, therefore, is unmediated. We still need to interpret another person’s words to some extent even when they are in our presence, which means that we need to interpret all words, whether spoken, typed or written, yet we can experience and express meaningful and true intimacy with a person who is in our presence. Why, then, can’t we experience and express meaningful and true intimacy with a person via social media, if all forms of communication are mediated? Why, then, does what it means for me to experience and express meaningful and true intimacy offline have to be any different to what it means for me to experience and express it online via social media?
Though all forms of communication are mediated, we can experience and express intimacy in all forms of communication. We can experience and express intimacy online when we engage in social media and when we do so it is not made meaningless or unauthentic by the fact that social media is a mediated form of communication, nor is it necessarily any less ‘real’ than experiences and expressions of intimacy offline.
Like any mediated form of communication, therefore, social media can lead to greater intimacy or less intimacy.
Indeed, social media can allow for a number of forms of intimacy between family members, friends and strangers from different localities that would otherwise never exist due to a lack of physical presence, and it has transformed media so that it is more intimate. Live tweeting, for example, has become a very powerful form of media, allowing thousands to millions of people to follow an event as it unfolds as people who are present tweet about it, and thereby provide a far more everyday and intimate form of media that can be delivered to intimate devices like mobile phones (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 66).
However, social media can prevent a number of forms of intimacy as well. It is hard to judge someone’s character online because you are only seeing that which they choose to show you, and which you interpret with prejudice. The conditions necessary for intimacy are less available in social media; we can be more easily deceived by others, and we can deceitfully self-construct and dissemble ourselves. The temptation to project what we want other people to think of us is, indeed, often too great to resist.
Ultimately, however, the extent to which we experience and express meaningful and true intimacy depends on the extent to which we all, as individuals, decide to exploit the opportunity to present ourselves to others in the way in which we would like to be presented to others, rather than as we actually are, in all of the forms by which we communicate, including social media. Although the conditions necessary for meaningful and true intimacy are perhaps less available in social media and we can deceitfully self-construct and dissemble ourselves, our capacity to do these things are not limited to social media alone. We cannot only exploit the opportunity in respect to social media – we can do so in respect to emails, texts, letters, and even what we do, say and wear.
In conclusion, social media is not the cause for any increasing lack of intimacy in our interpersonal relationships: we alone are as individuals. Social media is, obviously, open to misuse, though if we condemn social media for being a mediated form of communication and open to misuse we will fail to recognise that all forms of communication are mediated and therefore open to misuse. We each have the capacity and responsibility to choose how we present ourselves offline and online to others, however, and what we decide will impact the extent to which we experience and express true intimacy in our interpersonal relationships.
Chadwick, V. (2010, May 23). In reality, our online obsession shuns the kiss of life. The Age. Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au/it-pro/in-reality-our-online-obsession-shuns-the-kiss-of-life-20100522-w2wt.html.
Hinton, S., & Hjorth, L. (2013). Understanding Social Media. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Hjorth, L. (2005). ‘Locating mobility: Practices of co-presence and the persistence of the postal metaphor in SMS/MMS mobile phone customisation in Melbourne’, Fibreculture Journal, (6). Retrieved from http://six.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-035-locating-mobility-practices-of-co-presence-and-the-persistence-of-the-postal-metaphor-in-sms-mms-mobile-phone-customization-in-melbourne/.
Milne, E. (2004). ‘Magic bits of paste-board’, M/C: A Journal of Media and Culture, 7(1). Retrieved from http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0401/02-milne.php.
Redmon, M. (2015, January 31). Social Media and the Illusion of Intimacy. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michele-redmon/social-media-and-the-illusion-of-intimacy_b_6584974.html.
Reiner, A. (2013, November 1). Looking for Intimacy in the Age of Facebook. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/education/edlife/looking-for-intimacy-in-the-age-of-facebook.html?_r=0.