Lauren Berlant chronicled the first was cultural depiction of an ‘intimate-public’. Berlant, in the Female Complaint (1988), discusses the rise of women’s culture and it created a space where women had something in common to converse about and it was an intimate space of similar interests. This seems like a contradictory idea. Generally, publics and intimacy are not seen to go together. How is it possible to have intimacy in public spaces? Whilst Berlant’s analysis pertains to gender studies, the concept of ‘intimate publics’ can easily be seen through the lens of social media. Sites likes Tumblr and Livejournal fit the model of intimate publics – creating intimate publics through online communities. A criteria of intimate publics is a public space that is a space for conversations surrounding common interests (Berlant 1988) In a social media context, conversations do not have to be in the from of traditional. Tumblr’s feature of reblogging is a means of indicating that the user is part of that community. Livejournal’s affordance for users to compile similar articles into communities creates an intimate public by establishing spaces where users are able to review and discuss their interest with similar minded people.
Social media is often criticised for its alienating effects of ‘real socialising’. Numerous instances of how everyone is more connected than ever yet completely disconnected (Kaplan, A. M., & Haenlein, M 2010). However, if we were to look at social media with its definition in mind, would this be true? In a broad sense social media can be defined as a collective of online communications channels dedicated to community-based input, interaction, content-sharing and collaboration. Most social media sites were made with the idea of creating more social ties. Friendster, one of the earliest social media sites, was created with the idea of dating in mind (Ellison, N. B., & Boyd, D 2013). Largely based on profiles and followed the format of early online dating sites. The main difference between online dating sites and Friendster (and what would later define other social media sites) was the presence of a ‘Friends’ list. Platforms such Myspace and Facebook rose from these early social network sites and follow a profile-centric format with a list of friends.
In terms of linking social media to intimate publics, it would be more useful to discuss it through social platforms that grow around communities – whilst Facebook does have community pages where users are able to engage in conversations surrounding a common topic – the growth is not as organic as engagement on Tumblr (I would argue).
Tumblr has become almost ubiquitous to social justice movements and pop-culture fanatics. The sites creates communities around different movements and is less censored than sites like Facebook and Instagram. Intimate publics is the concept of having a network of people who may never meet but connect due to common interests (Berlant 1988). This is exactly how Tumblr operates. There is the argument that the use of usernames could create a sense of anonymity and lends itself to the kind of community building. The platform’s quirky default aesthetics obviously attracts a certain group of users based off that alone but the simple nature of individualising blogs made it a platform that draws in more users.
Similar to Tumblr would be Livejournal, a Russian social networking that initially started out as a personal online journal. The site evolved to the point where users no longer use as a journal but as a fan fiction platform and communities surrounding the different platform. Some of these communities are password protected and requires contacting administrators to allow ‘membership’. Unlike most Tumblr blogs, Livejournal’s password option forces a level of continued interaction within the intimate public. The requirement of a password to join a community creates a deeper sense of intimacy in the public space. Some communities have rules where there is a minimum number of interactions within the community to remain within the community.
Intimate publics are sustained and evolve off a shared central concept of being able to transcend one’s particular situations and join a larger community (Berlant 1988) – feeling part of something. Tumblr does this well, as one of the early platforms that adopted social and cultural issues – there are several blogs that discuss gender issues and LGBTQ rights along with more light-hearted content like fandom culture surrounding popular movies and television shows. The tagging systems, make it easier to follow common interests blogs. Tumblr’s addition of a private messaging tool continues in the vein of creating spaces to converse in common interest. Whilst, the messaging service is private in a one sense, it is still on a public platform and the conversations are often a result of realising the users have a shared interest based on previous posts on the blogs. Intimate publics are structured to assert a promise of belonging and involvement – due to this, the private messages between users work to affirm a sense of belonging to a community.
The social media campaign we created as part of the course, illustrated this idea of intimate publics. Businesses in the same area of interest would interact with the page as a means of being involved in the community. Engagement did not have to in the form of textual comment – rather is was seen through ‘likes’. This created a community surround a common interest that happened to come in the form of business interest.
I would argue that the criticism around social media creating disconnect rather than connections, is not wholly accurate. This argument stems from the notion that social interaction only exists if it is performed physically and in a physical space. Sociality can be in numerous forms and with the rise of the internet and social networking sites, the requirement that socialising only happens physically is not a necessity. Social media creates and intimate public as it allows for users to come together through common interests. As previously mentioned, characteristics of intimate publics include a space that enables common interests to be shared and asserts a sense of belonging and involvement in said community. Following this argument, social media sites fit into this model well.
Berlant, L. (1988). The female complaint. Social Text, (19/20), 237-259.
Boyd, D. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. Yale University Press.
Ellison, N. B., & Boyd, D. (2013). Sociality through social network sites. The Oxford handbook of internet studies, 151-172.
Kaplan, A. M., & Haenlein, M. (2010). Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media. Business horizons, 53(1), 59-68.
The Friendster Autopsy: How A Social Network Dies. (2013, February). Wired. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/2013/02/friendster-autopsy/