Intimacy is being eroded by technology. But can we successfully forge close relationships across the digital divide?
It’s 11pm on a Friday night, and I’m drowning in conversation. I’m flirting outrageously, I’m laughing aloud, I’m having fun with my friends. But I’m not in a pub, a bar or even at a house party: I’m in bed with the lights off and my phone in my hand.
As for many people, my social life in part revolves around the internet. We make plans online, spend days exchanging messages with friends, meet romantic partners on apps and often overanalyse their every communication. Sometimes our relationships end online, too. Even for the most technologically-averse of us, it’s clear that new forms of communication are affecting how we experience human connection.
Ziyad Marar, a psychologist and author of Intimacy, describes true intimacy as “very rare, elusive and short-lived”, adding, “I think most of us spend most of our time not being intimate with each other.” But is it possible to experience this idealised version of intimacy in an increasingly digital world? Or are our online modes of communication preventing us from connecting for real?
Perhaps the most common form of online communication is the humble group chat – small clusters of friends, colleagues and families who we regularly message en masse. These can run the gamut from silly to serious, sometimes occupying small and infrequent spaces in our inboxes and sometimes sprawling out over hundreds, or even thousands, of back and forths. A quick glance at my WhatsApp inbox confirms this. I have long-running chats between groups of friends, old colleagues, and my mum and sister, as well as a host of abandoned ones: requests for owed money, trips to the pub, and – my favourite – a chat with the express purpose of arranging to meet my friend’s new puppy. They can also be a particularly powerful force for groups of female friends – as Suze, 29, tells me. “There’s something about the easy intimacy of the group chat that, for me at least, allows for the development of a partly politicised but very personal female solidarity,” she says. “They have a huge, quiet power to me – a space with enough informality to be able to say, ‘I think I’m being treated badly in a situation because of my gender’, for example, and to discuss that as a personal and politicised matter.”
She also highlights the “great freedom” of a fast-paced group chat. “There’s a collaborative element, and also a licence to be yourself that I think increases the closeness you feel. The other side of that is if I’m having a bad day then I can talk about it, but have the sense of security that comes from knowing that the subject can always be changed, and the conversation would always move on. There’s a real deep intimacy to that which group chats really lend themselves to.”
For Dr Linda Kaye – senior lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill University, Lancashire, who specialises in the psychosocial impacts of new technologies – group chats perform several functions, both practically and emotionally. On a pragmatic level, group chats send information to more than one person at once. But they’re also about trying to “build a community, and have that shared understanding that’s unique to that community”. In most cases, Kaye says, these aren’t replacing real life connections – they’re supplementing them. The vast majority of group chats are between people who already know each other – colleagues, friends, families – and are used as an addition to existing offline relationships and communities, not instead of. “In my research I’ve generally found that it’s a really useful way to build social capital,” she explains. “People feel like they get lots of social resources from group chats, and that has a really positive impact on many aspects of wellbeing.”
The internet can also provide a safe haven for people to discuss their personal lives – warts and all. Mary, 27, uses Twitter to talk about her life – primarily her experiences with anxiety and OCD. Explaining her symptoms and experiences to friends in the offline world can be helpful, Mary says, but can get tiring.
“They try to understand, but sometimes they just don’t get what I’m going through, and sometimes I feel like constantly bringing up my mental-health problems can get tiring for them,” she says. “I know that on Twitter I can talk about the things that affect me to a group of people who I know will immediately get it.”
In many cases, people do feel more comfortable sharing personal information online, Dr Kaye says, “It’s not necessarily a synchronous place, so if you see something, you don’t feel you have to respond to it straight away – so from that perspective, it’s a more comfortable environment if something is sensitive.”
Many such conversations are sensitive: Dr Kaye highlights young LGBTQ people coming out online before they talk to friends or family. “There’s the fact you don’t have the pressure of having an immediate, intense conversation about something and you don’t have somebody there looking at you when you’re saying it,” she says. “There’s less pressure, an opportunity to edit what you’re writing and time to make sure that what you’re saying is being presented in a coherent way. The self-presentation, self-editing, modifying process is a lot easier. It just takes the pressure off.”
Many mental-health professionals espouse the benefits of sharing online. The Mental Health Foundation says that discussing personal issues online can be “a form of therapy”, providing not only validation but also the opportunity to help others and to refute stereotyping. Problems arise when information given is inaccurate. Dr Kaye says this might happen in real life, too: a friend might give you the wrong advice. “But because you’re speaking to more people, you might get more bad advice. It’s always a risk – like googling your symptoms.”
Mary’s modest Twitter following has also been a drawback. She describes several occasions she’s been on the receiving end of trolling, with groups of people mocking her mental-health problems – and using details she’d shared in personal tweets as ammunition.
“When I’m surrounded by people who want to listen, and who understand what I’m going through, it’s amazing,” she says. “When that came under attack… I felt worse than I had before.” It’s a risk that sharing personal stories online sadly always carries – balancing the pros and cons is very much up to the individual.
More complex are voice notes. Somewhere between phone call and text message, they provide a glimpse into someone’s life – with all the vulnerabilities. Kaye says they capture “emotional nuances involved in speaking, but without the pressure of a full conversation. It’s an enrichment of a text message.”
Moya, 23, used to send voice notes “with reluctance and primarily to friends”, feeling as if she was simply “monologuing into the void”. When a Tinder match sent her a voice note she saw some potential. “It’s a great way to suss out how someone sounds, which is a huge part of realising if you’re attracted to them,” she says.
They can be more intimate, too. “The sound of someone’s voice is a reminder of their presence,” Moya says. “An email or written message is flat; you have to interpret meaning. A voice note is going up a level of connection – you’re saying, ‘I want you to hear me’.”
Marar agrees. “Face to face, there’s a whole host of things that allow people to know you – sometimes better than you know yourself. I would say that is what’s generally missing from the digitally managed relationship.
“[The philosopher] Wittgenstein said that people know each other not just because of what they say to each other. You also have to factor in their manner, their tone of voice, their laugh – the non-verbal stuff.” These things are often missing from online relationships.
While they shouldn’t replace conversations entirely – they’re a new form of Post It note, really – I send gossipy voice notes to friends and sometimes to people I have intimate or romantic connections with. When I ask a friend from the latter category how he feels about our back-and- forth voice notes, he agrees that there is something intimate about them.
“I now have a genuine fondness for voice stuff after resenting the idea of it. I like the idea of a captive audience,” he told me. “I like being able to flirt with someone in a focused way that also doesn’t feel invasive like an IRL date might. The currency of texting and talking has flipped. I feel much less comfortable rambling on most voice notes and phone calls than I do in text.”
I tell him voice notes can make me nervous.
“That’s sweet!” he says. “We realise the stakes are higher when we go from texting to voice. There’s so much text static in our lives that only 50% of whatever I text is really seen. A voice note is like you’ve got to tear that letter open.”
For Marar, much of this behaviour is driven by one thing: a desire for human closeness. “We have a hunger to connect with people, and therefore a hunger to reveal ourselves,” he says. “That’s what people are doing online – even if they don’t always get the result they expected.”
This hunger will ultimately keep human intimacy alive – in whatever form it takes as we move forward together.
Images: Getty Images