Social media is pervasive in this digital age. With the portability and convenience of the mobile phone, social media is everywhere we go and recording everything we do. However, in this social media sea with Facebook and Twitter, a sense of intimacy is available in this most public of networks, allowing individuals to be next to each other, yet physically apart.
Intimacy is defined primarily as a close connection with other individuals. It is through these connections that a world can be built, Berlant (1998) explains. She goes on to say that intimate spaces are produced through relationships, a collaborative space where “the inwardness of the intimate is met by a corresponding publicness.” Intimate publics are mediated through social media and the mobile phone, where the latter acts as both a “conduit for intimate relations and a repository for the user’s intimate gestures” (Hjorth & Kim, 2011).
As social media is widely used in the world today amongst people of all ages, backgrounds and professions, it is hard to imagine that intimacy can be achieved in such a public space with a large number of connections, or ‘friends’ online. Hinton & Hjorth (2013) further add to the definition, saying that it is not the quantity of the relationships, but the quality; the strength the user has with the other parties. These other parties are not just limited to family and friends; it also includes individuals with whom the user shares a connection at a social or cultural level (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013; Berlant, 1998), such as being from the same country or sharing a similar interest.
Intimate publics are a necessary part of everyday life, as users utilise this space on social media to maintain relationships with their families and friends abroad. Social media platforms break down the temporal and geographic barriers, allowing for a long-distance connection (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013; Hjorth & Lim, 2012) and ensuring a sense of intimacy online. In a way, it acts as an extension of face-to-face interaction (Young, 2011), strengthening and reaffirming the closeness between friends and family members. One example is the use of social and mobile media by Filipino women who work abroad, utilising its convenience and mobile nature to keep in contact with their loved ones back home and maintain a motherly relationship with their children (Madianou & Miller, 2011). It assuages their guilt from not being in close proximity to their family as mediums like Skype make it possible to see face-to-face in the online setting.
In addition to the maintenance of their strong connections, social networks also facilitate the formation of new relationships in the intimate public sphere due to its open nature. Lost family members are reunited through this media and are able to maintain this newfound connection on these platforms, allowing it to foster and strengthen. This is evident in the reunion of long-lost identical twins on Facebook, who were separated at birth and only discovered each other through the networking power of Facebook.
In a similar vein, Facebook’s controversial check-in function also helps to maintain the relationship in the intimate public sphere. Users who are caught in a natural disaster away from family and friends are able to alert them of their safety through this function. The convenience and instantaneous update of this feature allows intimacy to be mediated in this public space (Hjorth & Lim, 2012) as phone lines were known to be jammed when the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake in Japan occurred. In this example, many turned to social media to get in touch with family and friends in those areas (Hjorth & Kim, 2011).
My work on Japanese pop culture this semester reflects the social and cultural aspect of intimate publics. Fans of anime and manga utilise online forums and social media sites to discuss and theorise on their favourite series, creating a social and cultural intimate public space. Users who contribute to this space form relationships due to their similar likes, and social media allows them to keep in contact with one another and “strengthen social ties” (Hjorth & Lim, 2012). Furthermore, this social and cultural intimate public allows fans in the same location to communicate regularly and strengthen their already strong offline bonds in the online sphere. Young (2011) also found that social media amplifies offline relationships and helps users feel closer to their friends.
As Japanese pop culture is spreading around the globe, following its activity on social media might give more insight into the social and cultural aspect of intimate publics as most individuals still associate intimate publics with an individual’s inner circle. One relatively unknown example is the Cosplayers page on Facebook, where many share photographs of themselves dressed up as their favourite character and others comment and bond over the costume or character. In addition to studying the breakdown of time and space barriers, an insight into the creation of cultural intimate publics on a global scale may consolidate this concept further.
While intimate publics are significant in the social media sphere, new studies suggest that this concept requires revision. Due to the ubiquitous nature of mobile and social media, Hjorth and Lim (2012) found that there is a blurred division of private and public, work and leisure, and offline and online personas precisely due to the breakdown of the time and space barriers—a presence bleed. Instead of going home after work to be with family and relax, workers bring their work home with them through their mobile phones, checking their emails during leisure time. Moreover, the question of privacy is more prevalent (Hjorth & Kim, 2011), as social media is a public space and completely visible, meaning once someone uploads information on it, it cannot be removed (Baym & boyd, 2012). Invasion of privacy is not a surprise as profile stalking, or ‘Facestalking’ (Young, 2011) remains to be a problem when operating on a public platform like Facebook. As profiles are free to view on major social media platforms, it is difficult to control who views one’s public sphere. This in turn causes the user to control their information more so as not to affect the intimate public they have created and the relationship between their inner intimate circle (Baym & boyd, 2012).
In contrast to the findings that intimate publics on social media strengthen relationships between friends and family, Mihailidis (2014) conducted a study which discovered the opposite effect. Mihailidis’s research (2011) found that children would rather separate their familial intimate public from that of other intimate publics on Facebook, feeling as though their parents are invading their space on Facebook. In a similar study, Madianou and Miller (2011) found that while social and mobile media allowed mothers to keep in touch with their children, the children felt that social media was a poor substitute “for the depth and quality of relationship you want” with their mother.
Mihailidis’ (2011) findings conclude that intimate publics do not strengthen the bond individuals have with each other; it creates distance between them. Due to the online nature of social media, individuals are gradually less inclined to meet in person, let alone venture into the offline space. In a way, the online intimate public spheres as well as social media have caused human interaction to plummet, eliminating any interest in the real life, offline sphere. If this trend continues, it is possible that human face-to-face interaction may cause many of us to miss out on life itself, as this Youtube video titled “Look Up” delves into.
Intimate publics in the online sphere allow users to deepen their bonds with their family and friends. It breaks down the temporal and geographic barriers inhibiting everyday face-to-face interaction. However, for the same reason, it can also tear these bonds apart. The theoretical framework, while solid in definition, is lacking to reflect today’s digital age. However, despite its lack of depth and meaning, intimate publics on social media still play a vital role explaining the relationships between people in the public sphere.
Baym, N. K., & Boyd, D. (2012). Socially mediated publicness: an introduction. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 56(3), 320-329.
Berlant, L. (1998). Intimacy: A special issue. Critical Inquiry, 24(2), 281-288.
GeoBeats News. (2014, February 12). Separated Twins Find Each Other and Reunite Thanks to Social Media [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6aMKrqywDc
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Turk, G. (2014, April 25). Look Up [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7dLU6fk9QY
Young, K. (2011). Social ties, social networks and the Facebook experience. International Journal of Emerging Technologies and Society, 9(1), 20.