The strange public intimacy of social media

by | Aug 19, 2013 | Social Media | 18 comments

Social media is a strange medium. You are staring at a computer or a mobile device when you post and tweet. By its very nature you are not engaging with another human. You are sending messages to an unknown number of recipients you can vaguely imagine but can’t really identify.

The result of that communication can alternately feel like shouting into a quiet forest or a very loud, crowded room. And yet, because it’s so public and so immediate, there are moments when tweets and Facebook posts can feel shockingly intimate.

The latter kind was on display when an NPR host live-tweeted his mother’s death.

Some people might find his tweets unseemly and some commenters thought it trivialized the moment, but I think this kind of public experience of real life will increasingly be a part of our future. We’re all living simultaneously public and private lives. And not just public and private, as in the case of writing a memoir, but instantaneously public and private. It’s something entirely new.

I’ve remarked in a recent interview about how pleasantly moved I was by the outpouring of support after I announced my divorce. It didn’t strike me as false or trivialized by the medium. It was real, even though it was coming through a computer.

Whatever it is, this is a completely new medium for experiencing life, one that is both distant and immediate, public and intimate, and mechanical and human.

What do you make of this new social world?

Art: Saint Jerome by Carvaggio


  1. Thomas D. Kersting

    I think you're spot-on about the paradoxes of our experience with social media, Nathan. It is indeed both detached and intimate, and as a result, a new way of experiencing life. There is simply no precedent, and our sense of writer and audience is altered in ways that are still reverberating. Terrific post.

  2. Richard Gibson

    Mostly I don't care; I feel comfortable and more or less in control of the public-private spaces (even while realizing that to some degree, maybe even a great degree, I'm NOT in control).

    But today is my birthday, and I admit to being surprised and — not sure what else — when I clicked on google (simple search) and there was a generic doodle with the tag, 'Happy Birthday Richard.' Not sure I'm really ready for that!

  3. Guilie

    Interesting, Nathan. I wonder whether the difference between online and in-person relationships is truly a core difference, one that truly revolutionizes how humans interact with each other. In essence, every relationship sector is unique in its interactions, isn't it? You don't relate to people at the office the same way you relate to friends, and you don't relate to them the same way you relate to family. In that sense, social media relationships could be just a different sector. On the other hand, the public quality–that shouting out into a blur of faces–might have consequences that in the long term could affect in-person relationships. These consequences might include a Fahrenheit 451-type of participation at a distance; perfect strangers involved with day-to-day happenings in each others' lives. We have that, sort of, already–reality shows? Intimacy might spread out, expand like a balloon inflating, until it's so thin it's barely recognizable. And, eventually, pop.

  4. D.G. Hudson

    Social media puts in print or text what we may have 'said' in the past. Once in print or online, that line, post, or comment stays a lot longer than things we may have only voiced in the past.

    Be cautious, don't divulge too many personal details, and think before you react. It's nice to receive support, but I'm frequently a little surprised at what people do tell the world.

  5. Peter Dudley

    I didn't follow that live-tweeted death just as I wouldn't have listened to a live radio broadcast of the same. A radio personality might already be used to this, especially if he was talking into his phone and just hitting send between sentences (I do not know).

    But I agree. There will be more of this, but I think also there will be a recalibration of public attention. People used not to talk about family things in cafes, but now you can't sit in a cof fee shop without hearing conversations about marriage troubles or sick/aging parents, etc. at the same time, societally we've learned how to eavesdrop but not really pay attention, or to tune it out altogether.

    Seems like twitter is just an extension of that. But what do I know?

  6. Natalie Aguirre

    I do feel like it's shouting out to the universe and not knowing who is reading, especially with Facebook and Twitter. At least with blogs, you know who is reading in part from the comments.

    I agree that social media is here to stay. Sometimes I worry that I spend too much time on it to build my writers platform and not enough time talking with my friends and family who I don't interact with online.

    I do think it's great how supportive the writer community is.

  7. wendy

    I'm surprised that the NPR host was criticized for tweeting about his mother's last moments. Surely this was an effective way to inform those in his inner/outer circle and his family at the same time. When we write letters, we focus on what is going on in our lives, and most of us tend to reveal almost as much in social media, despite being a public forum. I believe some people have even admitted to committing crimes on Facebook and then, of course, been arrested for that admission.

    I've noticed a trend lately where talk shows and reality TV shows are able to entice many people to reveal the most intimate details of their lives for worldwide scrutiny.

    I think the modern generation are, perhaps, less pretentious and more open and less embarrassed to discuss any skeletons ratting in closets or personal foibles than those, say, in the Victorian era where a code of behaviour was established by Queen Victoria which couldn't be lived up to by most and unrealistic expectations and shame and secrecy was the result. But, today, because of the media freely and openly reporting on the lives of royalty and celebrities alike, everyone is revealed to be human and flawed,and the best of us just pick ourselves up and keep going despite continual mistakes and personal weaknesses.

    Btw, Happy Birthday to Richard! *g*

  8. Bryan Russell

    I think social media and life in the digital world requires a clearer knowledge of the social strata — the endless rings of interlocked sociocultural circles that overlap and link up, shifting and pushing and grinding against each other like a sea of tectonic plates. I think it requires a more conscious effort to understand the personal and public self. Who are we? And who are we to different people? And who do we want to be to different people? The world is on our doorstep and peeking in our windows, and we don't want to be endlessly slouching around in three-day-old underwear.

    And yet we don't want to forget the wonder of having the world on our doorstep, and the amazement when a wizard and gaggle of dwarves trip through the door for an afternoon tea.

  9. Amber

    I live-tweeted my father's death last November and the outpouring of support was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

  10. Mira

    Really terrific post, Nathan! Clear thinking: and it made me think about the social changes.

    I hope that the new ways of connecting are so powerful, they may be the answer to many social ills – especially the 'isms', racism, classism, sexism, etc. Peoples who never spoke before (rich and poor, for example) now have a way to access each other instantly.

    I doubt that will all be smooth, but over time, I think it's really hard to be biased against someone when you're speaking to them mind to mind (and can't even see the color of their skin, gender, appearance, etc.) Over time, I hope that understanding and connection will spread. These things tend to root in the collective 'mind' and expand. Which can be a very good thing, if what is spreading is acceptance.

    Great post, Nathan!

  11. Christine Monson

    I completely agree. I've been riding the social media wave for a couple years now, and I'm constantly having to adjust for the change of the "current" surf report.

    Great post as usual, Nathan. =D


    This new way of relating is like anything else in existence – there's a yin and a yang. My family didn't tweet my 80-year-old Uncle's death last year, but we all offered each other support and ongoing updates via IMing on Facebook. My 73-year-old mom and her 68 year-old-sister didn't make those traditional notification calls, they were like, "Sorry, didn't you see it on Facebook?" when some off-line cousins and other relatives asked for details. Speaking of relatives, it's the number-one reason I'm grateful for social media. I would never have been able to remain this close to my family without social media. Writer's platform aside, the love connection means most to me in this techie age. Thanks for sparking this conversation!

  13. Matthew MacNish

    Without any question whatsoever, I have made some of the best friends of my life through internet relationships. But … it has to eventually evolve into something more. Phone calls. Emails. Meeting up in real life.

    The internet is brilliant for discovering like minded people, but social media alone is not enough.

  14. Anonymous

    I think it's all good, but we need to tread with care all the time. Just one wrong word…or comment…and it can spark a variety or reactions we never expected.

    And then there are the sexual aspects of social media that always seem to be lurking in the background. People don't like to admit it, but it's a huge part of social media and we have to be even more careful in that respect.

  15. Melanie Schulz

    It's good and bad at the same time; good because of the variety of people you come in contact with, and bad for the same reason.

  16. Nora Lester Murad

    I'm not a tech savvy person like you. I don't get what's happening when I'm "out there" but I can tell that the world is totally different than it was before. When I share something on Facebook, not only do people from many sphere's of my life and past lives reply (primary school, high school, college, job #1, job #2, family on mom's side, family on dad's side, etc. etc.), but they "see" one another. So strange when someone in the US replied to me here in Palestine, and then someone in Australia replied to the person in the US and then someone in Japan replied to the person in Australia. These people don't know one another except through me. It's overwhelming to contemplate.

  17. Jan Goldie

    When my grandfather died, my half brother posted it on facebook before anyone had a chance to call me. Somehow, finding out that way seemed to trivialise what had happened and make me feel I was less important than his myriad followers – many of whom have never met him and definitely didn't know my grandfather. I understand facebook's role in providing support for one another at a time when you are grieving but isn't there the need for a kind of etiquette that can be observed, so as not to diminish anyone's experience of life's uniquely transient moments, whether they be celebrations, a birth or even a death. Maybe that's something new families can add to the agenda of their next family meeting/get togethers – or maybe people will end up including social media instructions in their will?

  18. Barbara Bartels

    Blogs I like best have an intimate tone but are not necessarily intimate. They are careful but appear casual. It's a kind of crafted intimacy. Not embarrassing. Giving me just enough to feel I know someone, but not so much to feel burdened by the knowledge.


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