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How Ambient Intimacy Became So Overwhelming

Social media allows us to connect with people on a level we wouldn’t otherwise have access to—but we may have gone too far.
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(Photo: Chukcha/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Chukcha/Shutterstock)

In March 2007, Leisa Reichelt, a technology critic who is now responsible for getting the United Kingdom’s state leadership functioning effectively online as the head of user research at the Government Digital Service, wrote a blog post coining a phrase that has since become infamous. “I’ve been using a term to describe my experience of Twitter,” she wrote. “I call it Ambient Intimacy,” or, “being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to.”

I’d like to take a moment to weigh the phrase before we continue. There are certain associations that come to mind immediately. The two sides of the coinage are paradoxical: they balance out or push against each other insistently. “Intimacy” is close-up, emotional, connected symbolically to all of the aspects of ourselves we keep private. “Ambient” is ephemeral and diffuse, a word used to describe things that are hazy (see: ambient music).

"I don't think my definition has changed. But the world where that definition made sense has definitely passed. The sense of wonder has kind of gone now, I think."

But that opposition is perfect for the similar paradoxes of the social Internet that ambient intimacy has come to define. The digital network is at once everywhere and nowhere; it is non-physical but it has a weighty presence; we access it through technology we created but can’t seem to shut it out of our lives. Over the last seven years, ambient intimacy—along with the Internet itself—has changed. Somewhere along the line, it broke out of its ambiance.

ISN’T ALL THIS SOCIAL media traffic, the endless tweets of friends’ breakfasts, “just annoying noise?” Reichelt asked in 2007. “There are a lot of us ... who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances,” she explained. “It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like.”

In 2015, it’s not just tweets and Flickr uploads. We have Instagram to get a closer look into our friends’ (IRL and online-only both) daily lives. Snapchat zings us literally ambient dispatches from their surroundings. Digital payment services like Venmo even let us interact monetarily with our distant pals—I’ve digitally bought a beer for more than one friend who’s had a bad day. Since so much has changed online, I recently asked Reichelt what she thought of her coinage today.

“I don't think my definition has changed. But the world where that definition made sense has definitely passed,” Reichelt says. “The sense of wonder has kind of gone now, I think.” What’s changed isn’t so much how we interact with others online but the scale at which it happens. “The volume is much greater,” Reichelt says. “Now, keeping up with people non-stop on social media is mundane, not a novelty.”

Reichelt made repeated reference to the increased “noise” online today, a striking contrast with the previous use of “ambient.” Ambient is supposed to be unobtrusive and pleasant, as musician Brian Eno originally defined it. Ambient anything should be “as ignorable as it is interesting,” he wrote in the liner notes to his Ambient 1: Music for Airports. The online socializing that first defined ambient intimacy has since become both unignorable and uninteresting.

THIS SHIFT SEEMS TO undermine ambient intimacy’s status as ambient, even if it’s still intimate. The term is often taken as derogatory—we can’t make real friends or have real communication on the Internet. But it’s shown itself over time to be as real as anything else, and just as overwhelming as life in the real world can be. I don’t think ambient intimacy is a degraded version of some imagined ideal of “true” intimacy, but too much can certainly be a bad thing.

Knowing mundane, daily information about a friend “is what makes you feel like you really know someone,” Reichelt says. “Knowing something more than the 'official' version of them.” But these social channels have indeed become noisy, not because we try to have too many friends but because too many entities are trying to be friends with us.

Today, with actual friends, brands, publications, and advertising all using the same social channels, it’s more difficult to tell who or what you’re emotionally connecting to than it once was. To solve the dilemma of ambient intimacy, we need to figure out more ways to filter it and to make the possibility of intimacy more useful to us when any entity online can buy access to the spaces we share with friends. The problem has become, how do we be intimate with only the people we actually want to be intimate with online?

Maybe, like our tastes in music, we’re just stuck with whatever form of online intimacy we grew up with as teenagers, and that forms the space we’re always looking to return to. Yet there are always reminders of how the Internet has shifted, and perhaps intensified, how we communicate with each other permanently. “I watched my six-year-old son Skype with his best friend from [second grade] who has just moved away and to another school,” Reichelt says. “It made me think again that losing touch with people has changed completely.”