The New Fear of Intimacy

I have seen this playing out already, so this is  less mad than it might initially seem:

I have this feeling that people are going to become more and more wary of direct face-to-face attention because it will seem like its wasted on them if it’s not mediated, not captured somehow in social networks where it has measurable value. I imagine this playing out as a kind of fear of intimacy as it was once experienced—private unsharable moments that will seem creepier and creepier because no one else can bear witness to their significance, translate them into social distinction. Recognition within private unmediated spaces will be unsought after, the “real you” won’t be there but elsewhere, in the networks.

via Vagaries of attention < PopMatters.


  1. Andrew Gilbert says:

    This is total c*. Sorry. The only thing that will happen is those who value what really does matter, one on one personal interactions that defines true human relationship, will opt out of the system that values ego and superficiality above substance. The two worlds may become blind to each other, but it does mean one "wins".

    FB and Twitter are really just silly time wasting amusements. The are not going to redefine human nature. That is completely stupid. The most they can hope to accomplish is amplify some of its least admirable tendencies.

    • Paul Kedrosky says:

      I dig your passion, and I know many people who feel similarly, but Idon't think you're right. As said in the preamble, I see thishappening already, even if it's among digerati sorts. It may be dumb,objectionable, and silly, but that doesn't mean it's not out there.Wrt Twitter et al., I disagree about the value. All communicationsservices — from phone, to email, to social nets — can be used forfrivolous purposes, or to amplify “less admirable tendencies”. Thereis nothing new here, nor anything particularly offensive about Twitteror its ilk. It is what it is, and it will be used for good and ill,like every service before it.

      • I have to disagree here. I think there is something inherent in Twitter and Facebook that promotes narcissism and voyeurism. They also discourage introspection and promote group-think. This may be an old debate, but I do think that the 'medium is the message'.

      • Zack Handley says:

        I agree with Andrew and object fully to a view the digerati are replacing meetspace with FB, twitter, et al. I see 100% opposite. Of Course, F2F continues to be the most valuable way to spend our time with any human(s). More and more of my friends have relegated FB to photosharing and Twitter to self promotion, knowledge sharing, & meme monitoring.

        I believe –moving forward- only communications occurring off of this social (public) grid will be valued and desired. I dont have any studies to back this up but I challenge you to tell me about the last extremely important information you learned in a public (non private) setting. It doesnt happen.

        • edward c. dillon says:

          Facebook will follow myspace within 5 years. I am already bored to tears w/ most postings and especially the photo-posting newbie parents of kids who are 5 years old or less doing anything that they are expected to be doing – who cares? It is mostly a self-indulgent forum about me,me,me

  2. If I post a link to this article on Facebook, does that mean I agree or disagree? 😉

  3. keithpiccirillo says:

    A strong personality will show through even with all the social network orgy porgy.
    Teenagers are the study group to focus on. They may be hindered from the slow pace of face to face interaction.
    What about someone who only reads but rarely if ever make a comment?
    The social media is a cauldron to our young. Add fire to a wide mouth and it will yield an unknown potion.
    Eventually some studies will be done so some inferences can be made.

  4. Hi Paul,

    Long time reader – first time commenter.

    The key to all this – I feel has to do with the way that people will be incentivised to trade out intimacy for economic reward. I described in detail one way this might happen here:

    I think the article you link to leaves out the issue of what the incentives would be for people to dismiss intimate relationships over public ones. And really – all public relationships come at great cost – the ability to market yourself differently to other people in private. So what is the incentive being assumed here? More plausible is that social networks will allow people trade out the value created in intimate relationships for some kind of economic reward. This will have a real effect of diminishing creativity at the level of small groups.

    Besides that – intimacy isn't even necessarily diametrically opposed to the public realm. An intimate relationship could be entirely public – if the people in question trusted each other, felt free to criticise one another, felt free to play with one another, and worked hard to minimise superficial, signalling type behaviours.

  5. An excellent theme.

    Over the last few years, my Facebook identity and other forms of virtual identity have been almost vacated. I am without and antisocial in this virtual world.

    In reality the opposite is true. Many amazing things in my life including a large and growing family in a deeply spiritual marriage with a wife who is totally out of my league in every way go mostly unrecorded in the virtual space.

    These days young people have more 'friends' than ever, while the marriage rate is lower than it has been at any time since records began. Just the last decade has seen marriage rates collapse. I wonder if things like Facebook provide an unnatural playground where people avoid developing true grit. To genuinely seek out love and life is to sometimes be deeply hurt.

    • Good for you Dan, i too am "virtually antisocial" – what does it matter that i post a stream of my own consciousness somewhere in the hope that someone will take the random bait on the end of the line, and give the fleeting social nourishment, the odd tit-bit, the odd nibble? Im reminded of Marcel Proust’s interpretation of the kiss, in which he sees the act itself as a crude act of needy possession, a clumsy saliva induced human effort to get closer to the mind of the receiver…an attempt at literally possessing a mind. Much like virtual social mediums are a way at getting closer to humans, but in the end, even after meeting them and sucking on their face, you still cant ever possess them. (cue weepy music)

  6. Tom Johnston says:

    Maybe the digital world is an amplification of all things face to face. I thought social media was a joke too for a while- the trivial garbage that people post is ridiculous. Then I discovered the leverage in learning. OH MY GOSH! I am a teacher and the internet and social media can leverage learning in everything from Photosynthesis to personal communication skills to finding a life mate. This is a game changer. And it will take people, who use it positively to create and communicate productively, to new heights. One potential drawback of this is that it could create greater disparity between those who can leverage it and those who cannot/do not.

  7. Without more evidence than "I have seen this playing out" this simply sets of my Social Media Paranoia BS detector. How do you see this playing out? In what ways are these actions or "creepy feelings" negativity effecting F2F relations and positively effecting social media relations? Without this information your post reads a local news teaser: "Something in your house can kill you, news at 11:00!"

    But then again I use social media to reinforce and enhance my face to face communication. Without Twitter (mostly) and Facebook (a bit) there are hundreds of face-to-face experiences I never would have had. And full immersion experience trumps glowly screen and keyboard any day.

    Social media is a tool, like any other. People tend to use tools to reinforce their personal values. For some that will be to isolate themselves more, for others it will be the opposite.

    The real question is: For those that choose to isolate themselves: Should something be done or should we respect their decision even if we disagree with it?

  8. I agree w/ Steve It would be helpful if you gave some examples with sufficient details and context to frame the discussion. On the face of it the only creepiness in sight remains with those afflicted by this social and psychological distortion.

  9. Quentin Hardy says:

    Paul, I see you almost continually appearing onstage at one conference or another. Clearly, people go to trouble to see you in the flesh, and you go to trouble to be there. There must be value in that, for it to keep happening.
    Tech journalism businesses from TechCrunch to GigaOm to AllThingsD count on these things for their revenues — I think the deluge of digital information is in fact making live face-to-face events even more valuable. These have a kind of relative scarcity and authenticity that they didn't before the deluge.
    To put it in another context, Music is free, but U2 gets $500 a seat.

  10. Fear of intimacy, perhaps. But new? Not exactly. Social media has impact to language: the way we think and talk about relationships — 'to follow', 'to friend', 'to link to' are all new senses of old verbs — and to the opportunities we have to define our boundaries. So each new flavor of technologically mediated social interaction creates a fresh set of social interactions to classify and ways to label existing relationships.

    Some of these are genuinely new, like twitter-storms about breaking news, or facebook reminders about birthdays of people in geographically remote locations whom we haven't seen in ages. But a lot of these questions are just new forms of older questions like "do I know this person well enough to call them at home?", "or should we invite them to the party?" There is just enough really stuff going on to justify a new industry segment, and one which will have a long lasting place in the world. But the usual hype about 'this changes everything' is just that: hype.

  11. I think it says something that in the hyper-networked nations of Japan and Korea where technology is tightly intertwined with socializing for *all* young people, birth rates have for a number of years now collapsed to far below replacement. Japan's young men have been dubbed "grass eaters" for their timidity and passiveness and new households are hardly being formed. It is worse than terrible. The 'virtual girlfriend' (not a person guys connect to online but a software creation) is sadly not a joke.

    Moving toward real love is terrifying but nature steps in to give love a huge assist from deep within our selves when there is physical presence. This huge assist that hits through all of your senses all at once has helped continue the human race for the last many thousands of years.

    For large swaths of the human population, I bet Facebook and texting and gaming are the end of the lineage.

  12. Sarah Lance says:

    I think the last line sums it up.

    "We are always elsewhere, in the cloud."

    We are so easily distracted, and living in an imaginary digital world. It's a melange of videos, statistics, infographics, songs, tidbits, snark. It is just a communication medium, all very fleeting, as you find out if your phone stops working or your ISP goes down for 24 hours.

    Somehow we've made it "real", and so yes, the face to face suffers, as so much face to face service that we used to have with our banks or stores etc. is reduced. There's a need for greater awareness of the interconnected web of all things.

    We do not heal alone.

  13. Jean Jordaan says:

    I experience the exact opposite. Less & less eager to speak out online as a specimen in the panopticon.

  14. I think people with addictive personalities are always seeking new avenues for addiction while those without them eventually are repulsed and reject them. I remember getting my first camera and having to photograph most things but finding viewing the world through a viewfinder essentially becoming a barrier to experiencing the real world in real time and substantially reducing use of it.

  15. Wasn't ….yes let's bring it up again…. Cong. Anthony Wiener a near perfect reflection of the points you raise?
    Is this why he never ACTUALLY had a physical affair? it shows as a case study the preening narcisssism that FB and twitter indulge? So much media hype surround FB and T with constant referenes to their name and brand, you''d think we live in a dictatorship: "Look you lowly masses, I bring you tweets ooooh aaaaah"

  16. I've seen this playing out too. People who act like the don't exist if they're not on-stage/on-camera. Life as theater. I think extroverts are more vulnerable than introverts. But even introverts are not immune. I for instance, no longer feel like I've read a book unless I blog about it. A case of fear-of-intimacy with a dead/strange author rather than a person.

  17. Quite an interesting *mediated* conversation about the "value" of mediated conversation – the answer lies within. Clearly we have a new disease, that of amplified mediated narcissism, this though is just narcissism for the masses, nothing more. Mediation does change the nature of an interaction, and as we have never had this ability, we as humans are still trying to figure out how best to employ it.

    • odd that this clipped:

      Quite an interesting *mediated* conversation about the "value" of mediated conversation – the answer lies within. Clearly we have a new disease, that of amplified mediated narcissism, this though is just narcissism for the masses, nothing more. Mediation does change the nature of an interaction, and as we have never had this ability, we as humans are still trying to figure out how best to employ it.

      intimacy in many of the comments is used in an exclusive sense, and I think this is a mistake. Intimacy requires Attention and Trust (and is thus scarce by dependency), it is often traded for Patronage, in short it is a multidimensional beast. While our monogamous cultural bias seems to require intimacy to be exclusive, like all other relationships intimacy is becoming leveraged through our tools. The dunbar number (150 people in a group) is being redefined constantly to keep it current by making the bar for inclusion of a relationship in the 150 higher and pushing all other relationships out to another tier. This is natural but we need to be aware of what we are doing.

      We are able to be 'intimate' with far more people with tools that reduce transaction costs and encourage disclosure but this forces us to redefine intimacy if we tie it to exclusiveness. Intimacy is a gradient and the volume of people at a given distance is increasing. A change in quantity eventually means a change in quality and we start to try to quantize these relationships into concentric circles with 'intimate' being the inner most. Again this is a natural 'chunking' instinct for our brains to deal with large sets.

      There are people online who know far more about me than my closest 'friends' in real life, simply because those friends are not online. This is not a 'fear' of intimacy, this is an emergent effect of a toolset. Regarding the Macluhan quote above, the medium is the message – in fact we human beings are a medium, the message is culture and bandwidth for that message is increasing exponentially, such that we are able to pass immense amounts of knowledge on the the next generation (assuming we 'get together' enough to make them :-) ) This cannot be a bad thing. More choices = more freedom.

      For the same reason I hate video I am impatient with face2face, they are both inefficient mediums – that said I still do it as there is an intangible value for human beings in touching smelling and hearing one another. I suspect this need is a vestige, but leave that to future generations to sort out.

  18. I absolutely agree. This is especially pronounced in current teenagers, who never knew a world without the internet. They've had text messaging, myspace, and facebook the majority of their lives and don't know/remember a world where communication took place face to face, by phone, or letter. They don't remember a world where normal moments in life were documented and published to the internet in (near) real-time. They don't know what it's like to not walk around without a cell phone/text messaging device/internet connection/digital camera/video camera at all times. I get the impression that teens feel a "need" to capture and publish their lives… almost in a competitive way to prove their social standing, similar to the way that past generations of teens have always felt a need to look cool and act cool. The difference is that the internet is open 24/7 and allows for so many different means of expression, that these kids don't get a break.

    I'm in my late 20's and feel there will be an enormous generation gap between myself and our current teens due to the tremendous change in the use of communication technology. When I was in high school we did have instant messaging. It was very popular and did change the way many of us communicated with each other and in some cases slightly broadened our social circles, but overall our lives weren't hugely different than they were before IM was popular. Our identities were based on the real world and our online identities were minimal. My friends and I did have our own individual webpages on "expage", where we listed our hobbies, favorite food, and best friends . We linked our pages to a handful of friends and no one else visited. There were no photos, only clipart. The pages did have an option to leave comments, but it was nothing like a facebook or myspace wall. Usually your best friends each commented once to say hello and that was it, you had a handful of comments for the lifespan of the webpage. We had little self value invested in the pages.

    We took pictures with disposable cameras, so the number was limited. The pictures were for ourselves, not to be published to the public to "prove" we had a fun or cool life. Now it seems that teens take pictures more for the benefit of people who weren't there, rather than the people who were.

    It'll be interesting to see what this generation will be like when they enter the workforce. Although each generation throughout history has found fault with the generation after them, I think the concerns about current teens are quite valid. I think in some ways they're very well prepared because communication through social media is here to stay and they're very good at it. On the other hand, they're likely to have difficulty interacting and understanding those who are much older than them, because they don't know how/when to revert to "old fashioned" ideas/communication/manners. I expect customer service to decline because social media has taught teens to be too self-focused. I'm not sure they see the value of pleasing others. There's been an enormous change in social norms and the way people interact and what they value in such a short period of time.


  1. […] The New Fear of Intimacy I have seen this playing out already, so this is less mad than it might initially seem: I have this feeling that people are going to become more and more wary of direct face-to-face attention because it will seem like its wasted on them if it’s not mediated, not captured somehow in social networks where it has measurable value. […]

  2. […] Signal:  New Fear of Intimacy (Paul Kedrosky uses this phrase here) […]