How the web fosters intimacy

Social networking has been criticised for devaluing our relationships and blunting our communication skills. But, says Jacqui L’Ange, the truth may be quite the opposite.


How the web fosters intimacy

‘Only connect.’ EM Forster’s classic novel Howard’s End was written one hundred years ago, but its motto still has a very particular resonance. How might the story of relationships across class and social divides in Victorian England be rewritten in the age of social networking, when we are connecting in ways which, not so very long ago, were considered science fiction? And, most importantly, is all this connecting happening at the expense of real intimacy?

Cognitive scientist Stefana Broadbent thinks not. A fellow at the new Digital Anthropology department at University College in London, Broadbent uses ethnographic tools to analyse how people’s use of social networking technologies is evolving. In particular, she focuses on how we use media to connect with our loved ones — and not only those living far away. We use these new tools to touch base with friends and family every day, closing the gap between private and public life that developed with the Industrial Age.

‘Just step back 15 years,’ she says. ‘If you worked in an office, a factory, a hospital, there could be no contact all day.’ You left your private space behind you, not just because of a lack of access to things like telephones, but because the institution effectively owned your time. Now, thanks to instant SMSing, real-time Tweets, regular Facebook updates and the like, the boundaries between public and private are blurring, in what Broadbent calls ‘the democratisation of intimacy’.

Quality vs quantity

Joseph Lawrence is a social media and networking professional with a particular interest in how evolutionary and cognitive psychology shape the way we use the Web (and vice versa). In his blog Facebook vs the 150-Club, Lawrence notes that, while human beings have evolved to cope with a social group of about 150 people, social networks like Facebook connect us with many more than that on a regular basis, often in a fairly intimate way.

But without the kind of reciprocity – such as feeding the neighbour’s cat — that you might have with your real-world community, the boundaries are blurred. ‘Would we show each of our 600 “friends” our holiday snaps if we bumped into them at the supermarket?’ Lawrence asks. Probably not. The evolving trend is to group the overwhelming number of possibilities into smaller, more manageable chunks.

In fact, as Broadbent explains in her TED talk ‘How the Internet Enables Intimacy’, no matter how large our circle of friends, most of us only talk regularly with six or seven people in our most intimate sphere. The average number of ‘friends’ on Facebook is 150, but we only have regular two-way communication with about six of them. ‘My own research on cellphones and voice calls shows that 80 per cent of the calls are actually made to four people,’ Broadbent says. ‘And when you look at Skype, that goes down to two people.’

EM Forster probably never imagined that his future readers would create alternative selves to interact in a virtual world, share triumphs and tragedies with a few hundred selected friends around the globe, or share weekly meals with their elderly parents in other time zones. He would probably have enjoyed the idea that you could meet the love of your life online — but might remind you that you still have to consummate such a relationship in the flesh. When it comes to intimacy, we all still hanker for the real thing. So it seems the incredible social transformation brought about through social networking is not so much about expanding the number of people we connect with, but enabling us to better connect with the people and ideas that matter to us, whenever and wherever we want to. Not ‘only connect’, but really connect.