*140 characters is the maximum-allowed length of a Twitter message.

The general consensus on Twitter seems to be that there are two groups (aren’t there always?): those who “get” it, and those who don’t.

I’ve mentioned here having tried it, and having had difficulty in comprehending its value, though I didn’t mention when I nuked my account a couple/few days after I’d set it up. Just wasn’t for me. Since then I’ve intermittently checked in other others’ feeds, seen the app’s usage evolve (even over a few weeks), and it started to make sense to me. Still wasn’t for me, but I thought I got what it was about, what benefit it delivered to those who were into it.

Then today I happened to read this post: Ambient Intimacy, and I really enjoyed it, it really got my brain juiced up… I disagreed with almost every bit of it. The author is one of the “others” — someone who uses it and values it.

What I particularly valued about the post is that it gelled for me a few things that had eluded my understanding until now. The material on phatic communication I agree with completely. However, “communication simply to indicate that communication can occur” — I think societally we’ve begun reading considerably more into this than it’s worth. I think we’re often fooling ourselves into believing these application-facilitated interactions represent real connections, contribute to our sense of identity, and provide a (false) sense of social security.

Attaching a modifier like “ambient” to “intimacy”, to me, cancels out the indescribable, the effort, and the vulnerability required to develop real intimacy. Ambience refers to the environment, the surroundings, and yes, those have an effect, but they also fade into the background and disappear when the good stuff gets going and takes precedence. Developing real relationships takes a bit more effort than lighting scented candles and putting on a Marvin Gaye cd.

A point Sherry made when we were discussing this illustrates what I think could be classified as ambient intimacy — but it exists in relationships that are already intimate. It involves those well-established and long-running friendships where you don’t need to see each other or be in contact all the time.

Weeks, months, even years can go by, but when you reconnect, you hit the ground running. Connections don’t need to be re-established because they’re already there. You don’t need to find your way to each other, even “what’ve you been up to?” isn’t necessarily necessary. You just start nattering away like little old ladies. You’ve been partners in crime, you’ve done the time, and you’ll always be there for each other, even if neither of you is actually there. The ambient parts in these relationships are the things that don’t need to be spoken, the shared memories, the stories you can finish for each other (but generally involve all involved dissolving into helpless laughter with the effort).

The irony of Twitter culture is that there isn’t necessarily any such foundation — it’s all about the stuff you never need to talk about in truly intimate relationships. Even certain completely debauched, unintelligent in-person experiences can create a sort of instant intimacy between people that a million Twitter messages can’t. Such as? Ever gotten completed wasted with someone you didn’t know very well prior to popping that first cork? A crazy drunken evening has a bizarre magical ability to bond people, sometimes for life.

Reading about one friend drinking coffee, another friend reading an article, a third putting up a Muppet icon on their account — these things accomplish nothing. Seriously: who cares? I mean really cares? I have friends who are privy to my deepest, darkest secrets, and I theirs, and we still don’t give a rat’s ass who’s having sushi for supper. These things are trivia. It’s voyeurism. You’re not taking part in someone’s life by reading these snippets. If you were taking part in people’s lives, you’d be AT the bar having drinks with your friends, not reading about them doing it.

Yes, there is value in applications like these. Catching the right flight, finding out where the good presentations and parties are at, orchestrating an introduction to cool folks, or keeping abreast of the London tube schedule. But these applications use such technologies as a tool to accomplish something that otherwise wouldn’t have been do-able, or that would have been harder to get done. Isn’t that the true value of software and web apps?

But we are not designed, not wired, to use technology as a crutch for creating, building, and maintaining interpersonal relationships. Wait… what? Someone with my background is dissing technology as a mechanism for connecting with people? Hypocrisy much?

No, I don’t think so. Yes, once upon a time I considered tech-mediated interaction to be equal and often superior to actual face-to-face interpersonal communication, but I’m not quite there anymore. I know that technology makes it possible to “meet” and know amazing people we wouldn’t otherwise even know existed. I know that it can keep us in touch much closer to “real-time” than postal mail, for example, and provides more variety (voice, text, pictures, video) than a mere phone call. But I think it’s a dangerous assumption that all interactions are created equal.

Twitter enables the formation of cliques. You’re either in (on the messaging, the in-jokes, the memes) or you’re out — just what so many geeks were denied in high school, no? Being in on it makes you feel like you belong. But belong to what? Clique participation isn’t intimacy, either. It’s exclusivity. The web, for all its much-ballyhooed democracy, is rife with clique-formation and wall-building. There was, is, and always will be assorted barriers to entrance, from a basic have/have not presence of technology, to the A-List vs. the Z-List.

Social networking has been the It concept for a year or two now. And that’s fine. Let’s all jump onboard. There is good networking and plenty of fun to be had. If there was no value to any of it we wouldn’t keep signing up and crafting profiles. But just because everyone’s doing it doesn’t make it intimacy-building/enabling. Orchestrating personas and forms of identity don’t define or communicate the real person, and adding increasingly thick layers of superficial interaction with other (generally like-minded) people doesn’t develop intimacy, either.

One-liner status reports (sorry, “status microblogging”) aren’t conversations. (Yes, it’s possible to hold conversations in Twitter, but how many really valuable conversations take place there?) Conversations take effort, input, sometimes prodding. Typically the most important things for people to say are the hardest to spit out. Cajoling and coddling sometimes, sure. But at the most basic level of interaction? Just show some interest. It cannot be underestimated how much it means on a human level to look someone in the eye. To face them with your eyes, face, and body. To ask — and mean — how are you? And generally the real answer to that question can’t be crammed into 140 characters.

We’re the most connected people who’ve ever lived… in certain ways. Hundreds of years ago, people were actually all connected, because they lived in small settlements where families remained tight, and few people travelled far because it was really hard and it sucked. Neighbours were close and people had to rely on each other to get the work done and help everyone survive the winters. And to survive life’s hardships. Cuz there were a lot of them. And really, it was pretty much impossible to keep people out of your business. A lot of things, good and bad, were unspoken. They didn’t need to be discussed because everyone already knew — they’d been there from the beginning. The greater part of intimacy is experiential, not conversational. Of course, that didn’t stop everyone from gossiping like fishwives given the slightest opportunity, human nature being what it is. But I digress… (And I am not, by any means, painting feudal society as overarchingly superior to our own…)

These days, we’re always on, always connected, and yet we can talktalktalk typetyeptype all day and all night, and never say anything that matters. I’m having sushi for dinner — but did I mention that I haven’t eaten sushi in seven years because my fiance dumped me over a sushi dinner and the taste of it nauseated me for years? Probably not. I’m listening to Blue Rodeo — but did I mention my son was conceived in a tent at a campsite up north while the strains of Bad Timing wafted from the car stereo? Guess not. (I have never had a fiancé or a son, for the record.)

I think a lot of social apps allow us to think we’re getting to know people, when all we’re really doing is painting pictures of them — and ourselves. I freely admit that I have made this mistake. And realizing the error of one’s ways in that vein hurts and is incredibly frustrating. But pictures are only two-dimensional. Do we really want to define ourselves thusly? (Think of archaeologists digging up the remains of us centuries from now.)

Granted, I guess it would fit the standard pattern of how we understand the past. We learn the most from garbage. Societal castoffs, refuse. (And financial records, but that’s not central to my point.) So we have pretty much unlimited, practically free storage. An unprecedented ability to record who and what we are. To tell the story of our lives and culture… and so we’re saving terabytes upon petabytes of… “I think I want to get a latte” and “this t-shirt has a hole in it”? Surely such a legacy isn’t the best we can do…?

Yeah, maybe I sound like I’m overreacting. Nah, not really. I choose not to Twitter, no big deal. It’s one app of zillions and will probably be well-forgotten in a year. I’m just using this application as an example. An example of what we’re increasingly doing, of what we’re increasingly becoming. The danger in false or mislabeled intimacy is that it’s a postiche. It allows us to feel, on the surface, as if we’re more connected, more involved, more networked. The problem is, despite our ability to connect in more ways than ever before, there are bellwethers that indicate that we are feeling more isolated, more alone, more confused than ever before. Our levels and sheer volume of interaction aren’t fulfilling us.

Other cultures often have words and phrases in their languages that cannot be adequately translated into English. But interestingly, English has words and phrases that cannot be adequately translated into English. For example, “fellowship”, very commonly used among Mennonites, but with a meaning far deeper and more subtle than a dictionary definition. Same with the true meaning behind Australians and “mateship”. And neither of these concepts can be demonstrated via MySpace.

Ugly examples of antisocial behaviour among us come to light from time to time, and we rant and rave and show solidarity and circle the wagons and light the torches for a good old-fashioned witch hunt to purge these negative influences from our midst… while at the same time we fail to understand that we built these communities (or failed to). We chose anonymity and free speech (or denied it). We have shaped these spaces in which we exist and interact. Our choices can, and have, made us the witches we go a’hunting.

We surround ourselves with twittering and chattering that fills up the silence. We have networks that we can share laughs and go for beers with. We have contacts we can ping for favours and information. And we have a nice, cushy social layer also happens to exist and grow and change… while remaining entirely under our individual control. Its members are as close or as far away from us, interpersonally, as we decide they should be. Is that, perhaps, the real draw of this format for interaction? Does our fear of others trump our loneliness?

Despite what our gaming predilections might suggest, we are not gods, aloof, omniscient, devoid of need. We’re mammals, and how many mammals are predisposed to being born into, living, growing, learning, working, and dying in herds, packs, and other types of groups as opposed to those that choose to live solitary existences?

Problem is, control is not how you develop intimacy, either. Real relationships are messy. They involve trial and error and risk and vulnerability and misunderstandings and hurting people and getting hurt and healing people and getting healed and teaching and learning (always learning) and profound connections and acting like complete dorks and sharing secrets and discovering surprises and not controlling how open or closed the doors to our psyches are. Intimacy can’t be managed via API, and it requires a helluva lot more than 140 characters to build it.

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