joe moon

Intimacy is Performance

I was surprised to find a lot of interesting discussion around my last post about Intimacy and Performance on Facebook. Some of it was about the distinction between ‘intimacy’ and ‘performance’ and a lot was about mediated experience. Both of the discussion tracks got me thinking about our relationship to communication technology.

We can measure the progress of communication technology in two ways:

Inventions like writing, telegraphy, telephony, etc. break down the limits of physical interactions geographically and temporally, but each introduces new limits. Telephony, for example, broke down the barrier of distance, but introduced limits of one-to-one and voice-only. As telephony and its replacements improved, these introduced limits disappeared. With group video chat technology, we can now have fairly high-fidelity social experiences across long distances without those early limits, and we can safely expect the fidelity to continue to increase.

Intimacy is Performance

At least part of the reason I posed a distinction between intimacy and performance in my last post is that that’s one of the limits that our technology imposes on our social interactions. Offline, intimacy is much easier to understand as a subset of performance: performance in a smaller context. In our analog social interactions, we have many different contexts that overlap in complex ways, and we perform slightly differently in all of them. In the context of close friends and family, that performance is called ‘intimacy.’


Earlier communication technologies were easier to understand and adopt because they were simpler, and they more easily mapped to physical interactions. Letter correspondence and telephony were easy to understand as versions of a face to face conversation. Email, SMS, and chat are similarly easy to understand. But the increasingly complex world of online social networking does not map to the offline very well.

Chris Poole, founder of 4chan, provided one interesting criticism at Web 2.0 conference, which @dannygilligan sums up nicely on Twitter: “Sharing on the web not a question of who you share with but who you share as.” But that’s only half-correct. The fact is, offline these two concepts “who you share with” and “who you share as” are really the same thing: context. It’s only online that they’re separated artificially, and this asymmetry is one of the limits of the digital social medium.

Many of these limits are ones of sharp distinction: between private and public; and between one-to-one and one-to-all. While things like email lists made the representation of different contexts possible, they didn’t make it easy or frictionless. Facebook and Google+, with their respective list features, each take a step toward removing some of the friction by offering more granular contexts, but these steps are not big or particularly inspired ones.

Even with Google+ Circles, to take an example, the asymmetricality and nonobviousness of the social context places friction on every interaction. When you post to a Circle, you decide what your context is. But when you comment on someone else’s post, it takes some work to figure out the context, and thus, your behavior. That’s friction. This is what I was trying to get at with an earlier post on ‘place’ as a more intuitive metaphor for social networking.

Context is something that might be hard to think about when implementing a social network, precisely because it’s so ubiquitous, obvious, and unconscious in an offline setting. But these are reasons why it should be a prime consideration for any online social interaction service.

Digital Augmentation of Social Interaction

Of course, in the digital medium, there are many novel concepts that simply can’t be analogized to offline interactions easily. The fact of a permanently and publicly accessible record of interactions is the most obvious one. The spectrum of publicity is another. I would argue that the spaces on that spectrum that digital media open up to us are genuinely enriching and useful. It means, for example, that @mention conversations on Twitter, which aren’t broadcast (don’t appear in followers’ timelines with exceptions) but are publicly accessible if you look for them, provide access to an entire category of information on the internet that was never available before.

I think these are the type of technological innovations that are drastic enough, i.e. don’t map well enough to previous paradigms, that they represent inevitable shifts in the culture. It’s hard to recognize calls for a new ‘forgetfulness’ on the internet as anything other than nostalgic Ludditism, at least for me. I think making social context clear through user interfaces will mitigate some of these effects. For example, a permanent record of statements you make within a specific context will only ever be available to others who share that context, so the eternal memory of the internet doesn’t matter as much as the eternal memory of the public internet. But some of the digital age’s affordances will be drastically culture-changing, not features or bugs, but simply facts of digital life.


There are also more ambiguous artifacts of digital representation. The combination of ubiquitous access and time-shifting capabilities afforded by the internet blur the old distinction between real-time presence (face to face, telephone) and correspondence (letters, email, SMS). There is now more of a spectrum of synchronous to asynchronous communication, with some technologies, like Twitter and chat, existing on a broad range of it.[^1]


It seems pretty clear to me that as digital identity and analog identity become increasingly collapsed, the notion of presence will resolve away from binary states and toward a constantly fluctuating analog amount. We will always be available for digital communication at some level, but we will be more or less digitally present depending on what we’re doing and what kind of access we have at any given point. This is already true enough that the idea of going completely ‘off the grid’ for some amount of time is increasingly popular and we are already starting develop social norms on behavior related to immediate level of physical-digital presence.

Nathan Jurgenson, who writes about “digital dualism” on his blog, emphasizes that the distinction is artificial.[^2] I sort of disagree. I think the virtual is currently another context with varying degrees of overlap with other contexts, just as ‘work’ and ‘home’ and ‘friends’ are different contexts. And somewhat paradoxically, I think the distinction of ‘digital’ as a separate context will fade and collapse as our digital tools more accurately represent the distinctions of our offline contexts.

But I don’t think publicity-pushing policies like Facebook’s help to close the gaps of digital dualism. Facebook’s goal is to obliterate context online by defaulting everything to public. If anything, this abuse of users’ trust is driving them to compartmentalize their digital lives more. It drives them toward more conscious and more active management of their digital identities, which is the exact opposite of what Facebook wants.

The problem left to solve is removing the friction of cognition involved in placing yourself in and managing your social context.

Further Reading

  1. Alexis Madrigal on identity.
  2. danah boyd’s thesis on “Managing representation in a digital world.”


[^1]: Fascinating research by danah boyd on teenagers’ risk reduction strategies on Facebook.

[^2]: William Gibson on the subject of cyborgs: “The real cyborg, cybernetic organism in the broader sense, had been busy arriving as I watched DR. SATAN on that wooden television in 1952. I was becoming a part of something, in the act of watching that screen. We all were. We are today. The human species was already in process of growing itself an extended communal nervous system, then, and was doing things with it that had previously been impossible: viewing things at a distance, viewing things that had happened in the past, watching dead men talk and hearing their words. What had been absolute limits of the experiential world had in a very real and literal way been profoundly and amazingly altered, extended, changed. And would continue to be. And the real marvel of this was how utterly we took it all for granted.

Science fiction's cyborg was a literal chimera of meat and machine.
The world's cyborg was an extended human nervous system: film,
radio, broadcast television, and a shift in perception so profound
that I believe we're yet to understand it. Watching television, we
each became aspects of an electronic brain. We became augmented. In
the Eighties, when Virtual Reality was the buzzword, we were
presented with images of…television! If the content is sufficiently
engrossing, however, you don't need wraparound deep-immersion
goggles to shut out the world. You grow your own. You are there.
Watching the content you most want to see, you see nothing else.

The physical union of human and machine, long dreaded and long
anticipated, has been an accomplished fact for decades, though we
tend not to see it. We tend not to see it because we are it, and
because we still employ Newtonian paradigms that tell us that
"physical" has only to do with what we can see, or touch. Which of
course is not the case. The electrons streaming into a child's eye
from the screen of the wooden television are as physical as anything
else. As physical as the neurons subsequently moving along that
child's optic nerves. As physical as the structures and chemicals
those neurons will encounter in the human brain. We are implicit,
here, all of us, in a vast physical construct of artificially linked
nervous systems. Invisible. We cannot touch it.

We are it. We are already the Borg, but we seem to need myth to
bring us to that knowledge."