social & community

Ambient Intimacy


I find myself talking about Twitter quite a lot. I’m not the only one. The behaviours that Twitter has made more visible are tremendously interesting.

I’ve been using a term to describe my experience of Twitter (and also Flickr and reading blog posts and Upcoming). I call it Ambient Intimacy.

Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. Flickr lets me see what friends are eating for lunch, how they’ve redecorated their bedroom, their latest haircut. Twitter tells me when they’re hungry, what technology is currently frustrating them, who they’re having drinks with tonight.

Who cares? Who wants this level of detail? Isn’t this all just annoying noise? There are certainly many people who think this, but they tend to be not so noisy themselves. It seems to me that there are lots of people for who being social is very much a ‘real life’ activity and technology is about getting stuff done.

There are a lot of us, though, who find great value in this ongoing noise. It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. 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.

Knowing these details creates intimacy. (It also saves a lot of time when you finally do get to catchup with these people in real life!) It’s not so much about meaning, it’s just about being in touch. 

As Ian Curry at Frog Design writes: 

It’s basically blogging reduced to what the Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin called “the phatic function.” Like saying “what’s up?” as you pass someone in the hall when you have no intention of finding out what is actually up, the phatic function is communication simply to indicate that communication can occur. It made me think of the light, low-content text message circles Mizuko Ito described existing among Japanese teens – it’s not so important what gets said as that it’s nice to stay in contact with people. These light exchanges typify the kind of communication that arises among people who are saturated with other forms of communication.

I came across this research when I was doing my Masters a few years back and it’s continued to fascinate me (and yes, I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit whilst considering, and defending, Twitter).

Here’s an observation from some Japanese ethnographic research into the use of camera phones by young people undertaken by Daisuke Okabe (2004):

intimate sharing / presence – sharing intimate photos on the handset when talking face to face with people. Photos that fall into this category would be photos of partners, family, pets, etc. However, this can also be very every day stuff… eg. what I’m having for dinner. It is sharing ongoing mundane visual information with intimates, creating a sense of presence in other peoples lives without needing to talk or be physically present.

I think that the simplicity of Twitter is key to it’s success. The messages must be short and they’re simple text.  I’m starting to think that the level of stimulation is key to the success of these ‘osmotic’ communications (as the guys from LastFM referred to the IRC channel they use internally).

We’ve been trialling some options for a similar kind of osmotic backchannel to use at Flow. One of the first things we roadtested was Skype Public Chat. Amongst some other problems (including that there is no Mac version of the current release which supports the Public Chat function), it seemed that the flashing and noises and animated emoticons were too stimulating… the conversation wanted to leap to the front of the screen continually demanded attention.

IRC on the other hand (ah, what a flash back to open up mIRC again after all these years!) reminds me a lot more of Twitter. There’s none of the flashing and animating and carrying on. The humour is in the text (it took about 30 seconds for the first trout related comment to emerge… old habits…). To me, IRC seems to be a much more effective tool for a back channel, for supporting this osmotic communication within a company. (Assuming we can reduce the barrier to ‘log on’… it’s not a friendly experience for not-geeks).

What does seems clear is that, for a lot of people, this ambient intimacy adds value to people’s lives and their relationships with others. I think we can expect to see a lot more of it… but if I was building a tool to support it, I’d be keeping it very simple and unobtrusive. Osmosis is one thing, hyper-stimulation is quite another!

Twitter Me

Image credit: Slide used by LastFM in their presentation at FOWA

Reference: Okabe, Daisuke 2004, Emergent Social Practices, Situations and Relations through everyday camera phone use, presented at Mobile Communication and Social Change, the 2004 International Conference on Mobile Communication in Seoul, Korea, October 18-19 2004

158 thoughts on “Ambient Intimacy

  1. It’s not intimacy though. Intimacy can never be broadcast by its nature. Intimacy is about more than the knowing of details. It requires two way, privileged communication.

    It may be that things like twitter encourage intimacy because it’s easier to enter into intimate exchanges with those you keep up with, but we shouldn’t mistake the two.

  2. hey kyb,

    I can kind of see where you’re coming from here but I see things a little differently. For me, Twitter – for example – is not really ‘broadcast’ – even though my Tweets are public, I don’t think of them as going out to a vast and faceless audience, rather I think of the collection of individuals with whom I regularly share communications using this medium and am communicating to them, usually as a group, occasionally as individuals.

    Secondly, I think of ambient intimacy as just one type of intimacy. It’s certainly not a substitute for all the other types of more direct and in-person intimacy (at least, it is not for me and I would hope not for anyone else). I do know that certainly my experience and the experience of many others that I’ve spoken to is that tools like Twitter and Flickr and Facebook and many others *do* create a experience of intimacy where, without these tools, there would almost certainly be none.

    It doesn’t seem to be a universal experience, but certainly significant enough to be acknowledged.

  3. leisa:

    Thanks for the reply. As I understand intimacy, it’s very nature requires priviledged communication. If you talk about ‘intimate surroundings’ you’re talking about surroundings that encourage priviledged communication. If you say ‘getting intimate’, you mean that the people you’re talking about are priviledging each other in their communication. An ‘intimate group’ is a small group of people with a special bond. It’s this specialness that is important in the concept of intimacy.

    Another important part of intimacy is not just that priviledged information is received, but that the reaction to its reception is part of the experience of intimacy. You can’t have an intimate conversation with someone who is watching the tv at the same time. A single email cannot convey intimacy although an email exchange can. Intimacy is two way, and most naturally (although not exclusively) synchronous.

    Any broadcast that can be received by others (no matter who it’s intended audience) is by my definition not intimate. If someone who doesn’t know you at all can take part in the priviledged communication channel, then it’s not priviledged anymore, and therefore the transmission and reception of the information means less. I think that the extent to which it feels intimate is actually an illusion of false intimacy, and in some cases may even be harmful to the relationship.

    I don’t want to suggest that there is therefore no value in things like twitter, im and all the other paraphenalia of social networking. It can obviously have enormous benefit, but it is almost direct opposition to the way I understand intimacy.

  4. “Ambient Intimacy” – it’s a really great post.As you see, many people thinks also.THANKS for all your work and good luck on your future projects.

  5. Yeah It’s a great thing to be connected with your friends. I haven’t used Twitter and don’t know much about it but sure I’ll sign up.
    Wide Circles

  6. I found your post very interesting. I twitter and blog, but sometimes wonder whether it is ambient intimacy or false intimacy. A kind of voyeurism that makes us feel close when we really aren’t. The value of Twitter is not that I know what or when you eat, but I got a chance to read about your thoughts on “the value of twitter.” Excellent post.

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  9. Ambient intimacy ? A link on a website has brought me here. When as I read about this new online jargon I realized that its interpretation is subject to how open you are to get people to know you. Drawing a parallel with face-face interactions, “ambience” would be the the subway car, the elevator, the waiting room at the doctor’s, the cofffe shop, the snack bar or any public place you stop at and “intimacy” would be engaging in a conversation about yourself and your views with a stranger in a voice loud enough so others could hear and possibly join in. How often do we do that ? Me, personally ? Never. So I can fairly claim that “ambience intimacy” assumes a new dimension when we are away from others, behind our computers or mobile phones (as I am now). For me, it seems to bring me the comfort I would not otherwise have to walk away from any discussion any time I feel like, which come to think of it appears to contradict the very concept of intimacy (that by the way implies “closeness”, “proximity”). Since such “closeness” can only materialize in face-to-face encounter, the bottom line is that maybe the most precise word for it would have been “ambiance small talk”.

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