Social Media and Perceived Intimacy

October 18th, 2012

In 1963, anthropologist Edward T. Hall coined the concept of proxemics. The concept says (my paraphrase); What we intend to communicate and how messages are received are affected by the distance between us and another human being (space) as well as by certain “codes” we send intentionally or not (body temperature, touching, eye contact, smell, volume). The categories of space Hall identified are public, social, personal, and intimate space.

Each space has rules and expectations. Some seem intuitive e.g. “Mom! She’s touching me!” (personal space invasion) and others are learned; such as the unfair expectation of thinking one will find community in a church service (public space) he or she attends two times a month.

Internet Social Networks exist in a space we are still defining. I like to call it the Not-So Space (or Nutso as the case may be). Not-So Space aggregates friends, family, and acquaintances in to something that only resembles and has ripples of the traditional spaces.

Here, a post our spouse makes is followed with a quip from a co-worker, and then commented on by an old elementary school friend who is recognized by someone we barely know who attends our church. While these newly discovered connections are often amusing, the fallout is frequently a false perceived intimacy that is exponential compared to a scenario where all these people meet on the street. Soon, the person we barely know is swapping recipes with our co-worker and posting emoticons on our vacation pictures. The feeling that we’re all in this together is intensified in Social Networking (SN) platforms.

Many recognize this false sense of intimacy and as such have abandoned the mediums in favor of “real community” found in traditional spaces. Frustrated by sarcasm and name-calling by people who think they have a right to speak into one another’s lives, many are leaving SN behind. Bewildered at how someone we barely know is offended by something we posted or saddened because we did not wish them a virtual  “happy birthday,” more are shutting down their profiles.

Recently, I was asked to facilitate a wedding for a church attendee. In the course of negotiations the couple decided to have another friend facilitate. They asked if I would still attend. I was happy to do so and put the date on my calendar. Due to a calendar sync computer issue, the date came and went.

Days later, I received a Facebook message saying I was missed at the wedding. I apologized and explained. They said they understood. Weeks later, I received another message saying how hurt they were—especially since they saw posted photos of me at another party. I hadn’t made contact with them at church since the wedding and they wondered why I was “ignoring them” adding, “It seems like you go to everyone’s events but ours.” Truthfully, I barely know them.

Internet communication and devices have heightened perceived intimacy between us all.

  • Most nights I can be found at home with my wife snacking and sipping wine. Then again, a camera on every phone combined with tagging photos has depicted me as a party animal. I may go to two gatherings a month but a hundred shared photos of me tell a different story.
  • Bite-sized conversations make it seem like I have a ton of close friends but in reality I have only two or three friends I spend a lot of time with.
  • On any given day I may have the same amount of online conversation with my best friend and a mere acquaintance—onlookers understandably perceive the relationships the same.
  • Before SN, a birthday wish, a comment about a photo, or giving a compliment usually required depth of intimacy and knowledge and/or physical proximity. Today, public bios, compliments, birthday wishes, and “liking” a status update are universal and add to the confusion of perceived intimacy.
  • Years ago, we might have snail-mailed a close friend an event invitation. Today, SN platforms allow us to quickly invite everyone we know to every event we host or are interested in—all at the same volume without favor.

Artificial perceived intimacy is not necessarily our fault. But it is our predicament. We can abandon the medium all together, or we can face it head-on. Honestly. Carefully. Lovingly.

I thanked the aforementioned couple for their honesty. Many would have harbored bitterness. I let them know I turn down multiple invitations out of necessity. I carefully shared the dilemma a pastor has of knowing he can’t be everyone’s buddy though he hopes he’s friendly to everyone. Finally, I shared they would have future events I won’t attend but it isn’t personal.

Honestly, I’m often exhausted by these interactions. But I am encouraged by follow-up conversations like the confession from this couple affirming their sensitivity, unfair expectations, and connecting mistaken dots. Are we besties now? No. Probably won’t be. But, we’ve also removed speculation, confusion, and seeds of bitterness. And, we in fact understand each other a bit better now.

While Social Networking may not be the depth of community we ultimately aspire to, it is nonetheless a “kind” of community. Let’s not forget that community in traditional spaces also has shortcomings and requires great care and intention. With all its flaws, frustrations, and facades, SN remains an opportunity to invest in people.

Look behind the voices that are shallow, obnoxious, and abrasive and you just might find a soul looking for anyone to listen—rejected by a world that embraces only the lovely, damaged by toxic relationships, and craving spiritual conversation. Look beyond the awkward conversations and you might find a soul who has just been given a voice for the first time. Press beyond the uncomfortable interactions and you may find questions behind questions that get to the root of real issues and opportunities to foster real relationship.

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