Intimacy, in the scholarship of social media communication, is a concept that has been correlated strongly with the efficacy of a message and its ability to effect change. With the advent of Web 2.0, the extraction of intimacy as a communication tool has become embedded in the way we produce and share content online. As social networking sites (SNSs) continue to encourage users to adopt a “produser” mindset, by expanding the technical affordances that they can adopt, this space promises to be a crucial to the propagation of disintermediated media; that is, advertisements, news, and messages of advocacy that stem from identities rather than organisations. It also promises to result in further profits for social media conglomerates, who are harvesting and selling this intimacy to third party marketers.
Intimacy and Communication on SNSs
According to Shirky (2008), a key prerequisite for the building of a successful online communication is the enabling of conversation. It is not enough, he states, for “mass media alone” to ignite the flames of change, and the transformative discourse that must align with a paradigmatic shift; it is necessary that these messages are communicated by friends, family members and colleagues for people’s minds to change (Shirky, 2008). To Shirky (2008) “access to information is far less important, politically, than access to conversation” and the immediacy this entails.
Boyd (2012) communicates a similar sentiment in describing her own engagement with social media. Speaking simply on what captures her attention, Boyd (2012) states that the want for social networking sites to maintain the “squishy, gooey content” of our offline interactions is often dismissed. In the current social media environment of innumerable soundbites that compete for our attention, the incorporation of the forms of communication that make us feel a part of a whole is paramount to ensuring that we continue to engage socially online. The affordances that social networking sites offer to us as a platform: that is its asynchronicity, its increasingly locative features, and its ability to instantly connect us, should, according to Boyd (2012), act in accordance with our desire for context. These affordances should serve to offer meaning to the ways we interact online.
Hinton and Hjorth (2013) suggest that, in light of such findings, it is important for a social media campaign to negotiate the offline/online tension manifest in the way we communicate, to offer resonant notions of presence (Hinton and Hjorth, 2013). Knowing that our online relationships are shaped by our offline relationships, Hinton and Hjorth argue that it is important for the micro interactions that can occur on SNSs to feed into the meso and macro levels of a campaign (Hinton and Hjorth, 2013). In applying their postulation of the “intimacy turn”, this appears to be the transition along a continuum from private to public, and individual to collective, through the piecing together of a social performance that affords users the ability to acknowledge and celebrate their closest friends and family while sharing content in a very public way.
Hinton and Hjorth (2013) add that the emerging ubiquity of intimate devices like mobile phones, that serve to instantaneously capture and share content, has further entrenched audiences’ expectations of affective media within SNSs. The inherent intimacy in such ostensibly off-the-cuff content makes the content and context of mobile media appear more trustworthy and everyday and, therefore, more relatable. In this way, the advent of the mobile era is a significant player in the application of intimacy as a communication tool.
Intimacy as a Business Model
Boyd conceptualises the overarching construct of SNSs as a sort of ‘networked publics’ (2011), that is, “public groupings that are structured by the logic and reality of computer networks” (Hinton and Hjorth, 2013: 2). Hinton and Hjorth (2013) suggest that these publics are structured insofar as to allow the “networking” that occurs in these spaces to be a harvestable asset; SNSs truncate their users from the act of socialisation to gather “storable and sortable” collections of social data (Hinton and Hjorth, 2013: 2)
In other words, our intimate connections are caught in a dragnet that can then be compiled into profiles and sold to third party marketers. Dijck (2013: 36) argues that Facebook’s infrastructure has been built for this very purpose: its “coding qualities” encapsulate the commodification of “sharing” online through two frameworks – connectedness and connectivity. Connectedness, in particular, targets intimacy as it “direct(s) users to share information with other users through purposefully designed interfaces” (Dijck, 2013: 36). Tagging your friends, clicking on recommended acquaintances through the “People you may know” page, and updating your Facebook encourage a culture of openness that is taken advantage of by Facebook and other data mining giants. This is clearly reflected in their growing stream of advertising revenue (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Facebook Revenue from Q3 2014 – Q3 2016, Source: TechCrunch
The Exploitation of Intimacy
The ever-increasing number intimate exchanges being captured and commodified on SNSs, as and their use as a tool for commercial interests, is a phenomenon that has led some media scholars to call for a deep and critical look at these models (Hinton and Hjorth, 2013: 2). Dijck (2013: 47) elaborates on such concerns by arguing that ”platform owners have a vested interest in complete openness on the side of users; the more they know about users, the more information they can share with third parties.” In this way, the exploitation of intimacy is arguably the key determinant of an SNSs success in real terms.
As the objectification and extraction of connectedness and intimacy online has become so pivotal to the profits of such organisations, it is unsurprising that the agency and privacy of users has been meticulously obfuscated in response (Dijck, 2013). Any user that may not wish to participate in the private to public continuum of sharing online is presented with a rather unnavigable series of settings and links to alter the trail of data they leave behind. This is, of course, inevitable as it serves the best interests of SNSs like Facebook to promote openness and “(divert) attention” (Dijck, 2013: 47) from any measures that avoid a user’s complacency in participating in such an environment. An example of this logic can be seen in Figure 2, with particular reference to Facebook’s recommendation to users that “the more information you share, the more social the experience”. It is for this reason that media activists have called for the need for alternatives to such business models (Hinton and Hjorth, 2013).
Figure 2: Changing privacy settings, Source: Gawker
Additionally, the use of digital intermediaries as conduits of sponsored messages online similarly feeds into the exploitation of intimacy. The strategic use of the social and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1983) such intermediaries possess to persuade and advertise to their audience is often done with a conscientious effort to appear authentic and seamless within the backdrop of their own user-created content. As Moor (2008: 411) states, the work of cultural intermediaries “involves them … drawing upon ‘legitimate’ culture and embedding it in goods circulated to a mass audience”. The disintermediation of advertising on these platforms exploits the ties that audiences build with particular personalities to fulfil a neoliberal agenda; undermining the “intimacy” that is arguably perceived by users who interact with these intermediaries online.
The integration of intimacy into social media communication has been well-substantiated as an effective and affective communication tool. With regard to the campaign that my group and I designed for #bethefilter, we integrated these ideas around intimacy to incentivise the creation of user-created content to propagate our message. This was accomplished through the proposition that our audience create and film the sharing of fake news amongst their friends and family, to add humour and intimacy to the message that the news we access on social media should be scrutinised carefully. This approach was inspired by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge campaign, which utilised ideas around intimacy to encourage its audience to film and share themselves being doused in cold water, and to then “tag” friends and family in order to encourage them to participate as well (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Mark Zuckerburg participates in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, Source: USA Today
The concerns that media scholars have pinpointed around the use of intimacy as a strategic communicaton tool is something, I believe, that can be overcome by transparency and authenticity. The message that we are trying to spread through the #bethefilter campaign is one that does not seek to do anything but educate. In this way, I believe intimacy is an effective conduit for the propagation of this message as it does not lend itself to exploitation: it is an inherently authentic message that users who find themselves concerned by the current media climate can adopt. I, therefore, do not anticipate that there will be a backlash on the use of intimacy in this circumstance.
Idealistic as it may seem, as a user of social media I believe that it is important that intimacy online stays relegated to instances of authentic communication. While there is certainly an apparent benefit for corporations and social media platforms to take advantage of disintermediation as a means to communicate with networked publics, I do believe that greater digital literacy in successive generations of Internet users will combat such profit-seeking methods. As with the #bethefilter campaign and its problemitisation of “fake news”, I anticipate that movements will arise around “fake communication” and that the general public will eventually learn to digest such directed advertising in the same way that they do e-mails from Nigerian princes.
Bourdieu, P. (1983). The Forms of Capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (pp. 112-141). New York: Greenwood.
Boyd, D. (2012). Participating in the Always-On Lifestyle. In M. Mandiberg (Ed.), The Social Media Reader (pp. 71-76). New York: New York University Press.
Dijck, J. (2013). Facebook and the Imperative of Sharing. In The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media (pp. 45–67). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hinton, S., & Hjorth, L. (2013). Introduction to Social Media Understanding Social Media. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Moor, L. (2008). Branding Consultants as Cultural Intermediaries. Sociological Review, 56(3), 408–428
Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organising without Organisations. New York: Allen Lane