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.