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Social Intimacy and Twitter

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A marked shift away from an intimate society was described by Elaine Storkey in her book “In Search for Intimacy”. The longstanding patterns of urban society, providing close-knit communities, physically gave way to a spread of detached suburbia. In patterns of living, both those climbing the ladder of success and those forced to flee from depressed areas seeking work, uprooted and relocated. No longer do people live their lives in the midst of parents, brothers and sisters, cousins and extended family within walking distance.  She argues that the intimacy of regular contacts between ordinary people is being eroded from our lives. A couple of examples:

Neighbourhood shops, where were known, have given way to large supermarkets where we accept service standards of anonymity and indifference as a way of life.

How many people’s daily commute often consists in intimacy avoidance, may consist of sitting in silence amid a crowd, ironically surrounded by advertisement portraying closeness and intimacy to sell their wares.

Elaine Storkey tracks the influence of individualism in the 80’s and 90’s, noted in Thatcher’s phrase “there is no such thing as society (only individuals and their families)”, to a negative impact on personal relationships.

I should confess to being one of life’s radicals. On my daily commute I walk into town and I try to greet a number of familiar strangers which I see each day. Only rarely has this lead to anything more substantial , such as once when I bumped into a ‘familiar stranger’ not in the morning but on the tube travelling back back from London in the evening, we talked at length about our lives and how we came to pass daily. Even without developing beyond a brief ‘good morning’, I’m convinced that this simple act of meeting and greeting familiar strangers is life enriching.

In this recent blog,A return to the “old skool” – Social Media challenges in the Public Sector, Carl Haggerty commented that social media is starting to help “people to reconnect in convenient and timely ways” and that this may be the underpinnings needed for genuine transformation of the public sector. In a similar way, I’d like to raise the question how far can Twitter go in re-introducing intimacy.

By way of positive examples, I’ve noticed in recent weeks there’s been a great many messages between twitter users discussing matters of health, especially passing on best wishes to those succumbing to swine flu. Indeed whilst suffering a recent chest infection I’ve been cheered by a fair number of well wishes from those I’ve never physically met, but with whom I’d only exchanged messages over Twitter. Isn’t it also interesting how one feels slightly bereft when a friend on twitter is wrongly suspended – not just that sense of injustice but also a lack of intimacy when someone you’ve connected with is removed from you. I’m thinking here of both @karenblakeman and @alncl (with the ensuing #freealncl campaign).

Twitter too favours the strong

Storkey highlights a fundamental dilemma, that the individualistic society naturally favours the stronger individuals – they have the resources and the drive to pursue their goals whilst weaker individuals are marginalised. Unfortunately, the networked nature of Twitter naturally follows this pattern, those with great reach in their networks can exploit their networks more effectively. We should seek to make twitter more accessible to all and be careful to welcome newcomers.

Twitter favours the elite

The demographic on twitter is notably not representative of society. Judging by the network of friends I’ve developed there’s a definite bias towards the educated professional with values of respect, liberty and justice. However, this won’t build directly build a more cohesive society in our locality unless we can build stronger local networks. Perhaps we should deliberately seek to connect with other Twitter users in our local area rather than just those we connect with through our usual professional and personal networking.

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8 Responses

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  1. There’s a question around whether things like Twitter are a ‘means back’ to a more traditional social intimacy (a la ‘the corner shop’ etc.) or whether they’re actually introducing new forms of intimacy. The answer is probably a little of both but I share your lament for the absence of a more immediate, physical (not in that sense!) intimacy and struggle to see how technology will ever address that loss.

    Would be interesting to see if any research has ever mapped social networking usage against other community or social cohesion indicators. Could ‘online intimacy’ simply be a proxy favoured by the growing number of people devoid of the more traditional sort?

    Liam Murray

    July 21, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    • Social media brings new ways to express intimacy. However, it does also lead to the traditional and there’s something really special when you meet up with friends/followers in the flesh as well on on-line. The ‘social’ element of social media coming to life.

      I’m inspired by your thoughts on tracking community cohesion indicators against social media engagement. Perhaps taking similar demographics groups and comparing cohesion scores against engagement scores within the group may be an entry point. I fear it may well juist be too early to see a discernible difference.

      In terms of social media as a proxy, there’s a growing understanding that the elderly are adopting social media. Interesting to comparative ease and safety of popping on-line than down to town to bingo.
      Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

      Neil Mackin

      July 21, 2009 at 5:18 pm

  2. Many people have experienced that the demands of job mobility have resulted in domicile neighbours sharing little more than convenience of location. Overcoming the barriers to get involved with neighbours usually requires a common interest such as schooling or a threat to the immediated area or property values. Even in these cases, ‘good fences make good neighbours’ which means being clear about the boundaries for engagement. It doesn’t just mean reinforcing the barriers.

    Social networking, such as Twitter, allows the identification of subjects of shared interest between people. Although, in many ways, the web denies the significance of proximity, where there is a local or community angle the geography is fairly easy to identify.

    Mainly as a personal experiment in these matters, I have a relatively small proportion of my ‘following and followers’ as people in the local area. Most are involved in IT, in some way, in connection with their work or business. I attended the second of two Tweet Meets held at a nearby pub and was interested to share views and tales about Twitter and other computer matters. Of the ten people present I had tweeted with less than half and the demographic was more mixed than one might have expected.

    So, there we have it: re-connecting in the public house. Indeed, it could have been a coffee shop. Another date has been set and we will see whether it is sustained. I value the informality and loose commitment. Carl Haggerty’s point may well be valid. However, I doubt that tracking an explicit connection with engagement, well-being or community cohesion will be upper-most on our minds.

    See my blog on ‘What I have learned from Twitter’
    http://pannage.blogspot.com/2009/06/what-i-have-learned-from-twitter.html

    Angus Willson

    July 21, 2009 at 8:20 pm

  3. […] Prestolee, a new blogger, suggests that Twitter can help restore some of the social bonds and intimacy that were lost in the urbanisation and individualism of the 1980s and 1990s. Prestolee suggests two key caveats: that Twitter favours the strong and it favours the elite. In Prestolee’s experience: Judging by the network of friends I’ve developed there’s a definite bias towards the educated professional with values of respect, liberty and justice. […]

  4. […] media and society. Prestolee has written a post on social intimacy and Twitter, where they say the networked nature of Twitter naturally follows [favours the stronger […]

  5. I was writing a long comment, which I decided to make into my own my own blog post, here.

    I got here via the BloggersCircle…

    Patrick

    July 22, 2009 at 3:39 pm

  6. […] Illusion of Intimacy Prestolee’s blog post on social intimacy and Twitter has been discussed by the Gingerbread Girl, and her post reminded me of something that was at the […]

  7. […] latest blogs to be posted at the bloggers’ circle, I was particularly interested in a piece by Blog for Prestolee on social intimacy and twitter. Prestolee outlines how the intimacy of regular contacts between […]


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