As anyone who has been the target of a harsh tweet or a negative Facebook comment can attest, being harassed online can feel as physical as a slap in the face. It’s as if a stranger passing you on the sidewalk punched you as they walked by, then kept moving without turning around to explain the attack. It hurts—even if it’s only targeted to your Internet persona.
Last week, I wrote about how the idea of ambient intimacy—a term coined in 2007 to describe how we passively keep up with the details of our friends’ lives online—has changed as social media has become a larger part of the Internet. Namely, these online exchanges that were once seen as too shallow to be authentic (we can’t have real relationships without face-to-face interaction, the critique goes) are now overwhelming in their volume and the degree to which they expose us to others.
When Leisa Reichelt, an official helping the United Kingdom’s government transition to the Internet, coined the term ambient intimacy, online social media was a more private sphere. But where we once kept up with a few college friends through Facebook, we now amass hundreds or thousands of “friends,” and use the platform to promote ourselves as well as be promoted to. It’s not so much how we communicate online that has changed, but its scale. “In the same way that Facebook made social media accessible and interesting to people who never really got into Twitter, Slack does the same for people who would never log into IRC [chat],” Reichelt says. “It's making it more mainstream.”
"We have lots of real-life selves that we vary depending on the audience—your parents versus your kids versus your work mates. The way we project ourselves online is just another version or two."
The mainstreaming of ambient intimacy is also what makes it overwhelming. We have not yet developed ways to better organize our social media relationships, nor protect ourselves from the potential of very real harassment online. The Internet enables great forms of interaction, but that intimacy, as it always does, also makes us vulnerable.
Redefining ambient intimacy means accepting that intimacy online is much the same as intimacy in real life—whether it’s positive, like keeping in touch with a long-lost friend, or negative, as in the case of drive-by harassment.
WHAT WE NEED TO fix this situation are better ways to control how vulnerable we make ourselves online, treating our virtual selves more like our physical ones rather than less. Just because Facebook wants to make your identity all about what you consume and what your favorite brands are doesn’t mean that’s what defines you—or what you want to define you. Just because businesses want you to have as many social contacts as possible doesn’t mean you have to become friends with everyone you meet. You wouldn’t do that in real life, so why do it online?
“We have lots of real-life selves that we vary depending on the audience—your parents versus your kids versus your work mates. The way we project ourselves online is just another version or two,” Reichelt says. “I think we're a little less experienced at knowing how to ‘do’ ourselves online, and the feedback loops are a little different.” Even though being online is a familiar experience, we’re still learning how to act on the Web. “We actively construct our identities all the time whether we’re using a screen or not,” says sociologist Nathan Jurgenson.
When Reichelt mentions “feedback loops,” I think about the favorites, likes, and comments that provide our motivation for what we share and discuss online. Real life provides far less literal feedback for conversation—smiles, maybe, or abstract emotional satisfaction—than social networks driven by clicks. This biased feedback shapes the kind of relationships we have on the platforms we’ve chosen to inhabit.
In searching out ways to better manage our online intimacy, what we really need are spaces that are relatively independent from the pressures of being public on the Internet and the endless need for exposure and data commodification that makes it run. Companies may not be able to provide that, but we can give it to ourselves.
There should be a hierarchy of how we put ourselves on display: Facebook for the loudest life announcements, Twitter for networking conversations, private group chats for close friends, and email for private missives. But as the Sony hacks proved, even email has a very real chance of being revealed to the world.
We should recognize that public social platforms always come with the threat of harassment and work to fix the problem not just by creating powerful blocking and muting tools but also by understanding how we can control our own ambient intimacies.
Finally, though we all live our lives on the Internet, we also have to decide what we want to keep online and what should stay off. We’re so used to talking about and through the Internet, we might just have neglected thinking about how not to use it. Navigating the continuum between virtual and real “is usually less about inventing a Matrix-like online and more about inventing the offline,” Jurgenson says. “If 1990s technology fiction was cyberspace, our current fiction is the IRL.”
As we continue to define just what IRL means, we might do well to make a phone call, schedule a hangout, go take a walk—do something that leaves no trace on the Internet. I bet it’ll prove worthwhile.