Sunday, October 12, 2014


I’ve been thinking about intimacy, lately. Not sex. They are not the same thing. 
My pondering did start with musings about sex and intimacy and power and relationships, but in my usual tangential way I wound up also considering something entirely else: social media.

Recently a number of people I know joined the new social media site Ello and exclaimed with joy: “It’s so different!” and “There’s so much interaction!” I’ve been told they feel less restricted in what they say. They wondered why exactly, Ello feels so special? I joined, too, in part to see what all the hoopla is about.

After a couple of days of dabbling, my take is that the structure and presentation of Ello isn’t really different. It’s a social network, just like Facebook and G+ and Tumblr and Twitter. I have a theory about Ello, but honestly? I see them all as dating sites where the users seek some sort of match. Not looking for sex. Seeking connection. Validation. A response to barbaric yawps and howls in the wilderness. 

You disagree? A riddle for you: what do Facebook, a church basement, and the sidelines of a children’s soccer game have in common? 

My answer: they are places where communities form. If you think about it, that’s all social media is – an online substitute for the in-person interaction that used to come naturally (if not voluntarily) in church-basement suppers and sideline commiseration. Human beings have a primal need to create social groups. Some of us aren’t church or soccer types. Instead we find electronic contacts who share our experiences or have common interests. 

I’m not judging. Hell, my “virtual” relationships have restored my sanity, propped up my marriage, and probably saved my life once when I was in a really desperate place. I spent years feeling alone and isolated, until I built my tribe online. Here I share fandoms and post my real writing as well as drivel about my day, and people respond with care. They are my friends.

The question of why Ello feels so different is linked to all of this.

In the real world, we advertise our personalities externally: we choose how we dress, style our hair, even how we smell. Online we cannot put on our best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes; instead we carefully select avatars and make sure the wallpaper on the "about" page is meant to convey something about ourselves. I used the term “dating site,” but we’re not here to hook up. We want longer term. We want friendship. We want shared experience. We seek connection. That doesn’t come easily, though, either in person or online. We stand in our own way with first impressions and crafted personas. Moreover, we cannot interact online without words, which means everything we do online is a calculated reveal. Some people are deliberately provocative and even obnoxious. Others lurk. Some people might never mention a spouse – the electronic equivalent of removing a wedding ring in a bar. Others (like me) say far too much.

But if we do find our place, our tribe, our online community – then we can share our quirky humor. Announce our triumphs. And sometimes, if we trust enough, if we have enough commonalities and interactions, if we feel safe, we share our bad days or our wretched pasts. That? That is intimacy.

The thing is, it’s just as easy to get lost in a sea of bits as it is in a sea of faces. I’m unusual in that my Facebook friends list is fewer than 175 and although I’ve circled just under 500 people on G+ my “important people” list has 28. That’s not very much. Many folks with whom I interact regularly have followers in the tens of thousands. When they “share privately” the message may go out to a thousand people. On just one site. Some people have different identities on Tumblr and Instagram than they do on Facebook and Twitter. I get that. I wonder, though, how one can have any intimacy with one's contacts at that volume. My approach has been to keep my list of connections small and my posts similar (if not the same) across platforms. This saves me from feeling the need to switch hats depending on my audience, and to recognize the people who, by being responsive, fulfill my need for emotional connection – what I consider the intimacy of friendship. 

Circling once again to the question of why Ello feels different, I posit that the difference is simply a matter of size. Small towns are curious places. When you run into someone on the street, familiarity allows you to bypass the pleasantries and jump to the more intimate inquiries of health and wellbeing. In a small online community the same thing happens. Ello is young and has relatively few users. People who bounce to that platform have an opportunity to build a fresh persona and develop intimate connections with folks who share common experiences and interests. Ello is doing exactly what users want in a social media network – providing a space where people can build a community. 

I’ll keep my profile, although I probably won’t shift to Ello as my primary online home. I am very fortunate to already have thought-provoking, supportive, amusing, intimate communities already both on Facebook and G+. I have shouted over the rooftops and my voice has been heard. I just hope Ello becomes a place where those who seek the same can find it.


  1. I think you make some great points, and some I hadn't considered when I left FB. Having my own worth issues, FB was a great way for me to feel validated, and wanted, and that I mattered somehow. However, it was also a huge time suck, and I realized I was not spending quality time with the people who mattered most to me - namely my spouse and children - because I spent hours on FB counting "likes" and seeing what post could garner the most attention. It was like a validation drug. I was starting to feel somewhat dissatisfied, and disappointed in myself. I have huge self worth issues, and FB was doing me no favors as I found I was mostly comparing myself to others accomplishments. It was time for me to get off and take the time to work on myself and learning how to value myself for me. I've been on a self-discovery journey, and I've discovered - most of what I do, my accomplishments I've achieved, have been to feel worthy - because it wasn't enough to just be myself. I'm learning to be comfortable in my own skin, with the validation of others. To value myself for just being me as I am. I read something recently that really struck me:
    "it's not the shape or size of the vessel that matters, it's the content of the soul that's carried within that matters."
    I forged some great friendships on FB, and met people I otherwise never would have. It was not only a great place for validation, it was also solace when my life has gone south. The support and encouragement from some on that online community really carried me through some dark desparate times. And when I left, I did not want to lose those friendships, and I'm trying to maintain them. But after leaving I feel like I'm adrift. It's not a feeling of abandonement, I put myself out on that boat to see if I can figure out who I am. And value the person I am, rather than the person I think others want me to be.
    These thoughts have been on my mind for awhile, you just gave me the venue with which to express them. Sorry for taking advantage of your blog site to brain dump. It helps to write it down.
    Thank you so much

  2. I'm teaching a Writing for Social Media class this term (for the second time ever), so my brain is constantly trying to analyze what's going on with social media, both for the good and the bad. In addition to that, I've been wondering about Ello and the fact that it can't be joined without invitation (yes?), which then lends it a certain mystique. Anyhow, the upshot is that your post hits home with me on various levels. My sense from students is that they like social media because it's a way of being with people that they can control.

    Mostly, I'm left wondering if you have any desire to friend up on FB. No worries, of course. Just thinking it would be nice to "see" more of you.

  3. Oh, hell if I didn't just reread my comment and realize it sounds like I meant my students want to control people. What I mean is that they can control the social interactions--the when, how, and content of them--in a way that doesn't happen in real time, face-to-face. Oy.