Facebook has created presumptive, default closeness among casual acquaintances where we once had presumptive, default formality, and I don’t know that it’s such a bad thing. I’m a social media agnostic. I’m also wary of sounding like, say, a middle-aged crank, nostalgic for a prelapsarian face-to-face social life that she most likely found strange when she was actually living through it as a young person. New forms of connection get invented, and an Elegy for the Private Man in the Privacy-Loathing Age told in dismayed rumblings doesn’t preoccupy me.
But what do we call this chimera of being closer—in each other’s business—yet not at all intimate? On Facebook we call it being friends. It’s harmless enough. We all know that there are gradations of intimacy and that there is a friendship deeper than a Facebook friend. The lucky ones among us have people with whom we are genuinely close: those who will help us in an emergency, whom we could call at midnight with a problem, with whom we feel mutual obligations, who provide us with social identity and place, and without whom our lives would be tangibly compromised. Facebook and the like promote intimacy lite.
Lite intimacies in social media create a background din of disclosure, confession, closeness, and familiarity. It isn’t inherently fake or objectionable, and if it were only a semantic problem, I wouldn’t be concerned. But there is danger, it seems to me, of losing our coordinates. There’s a danger that the lite intimacies of the sentimental culture might deplete the resources of our true intimacies. If the intimate building blocks that once belonged mostly to a domestic partner or family—the sharing of a million little details about our moods, and what we ate for breakfast, and our daily rituals and secret gripes—now belong to everyone on Facebook in the world of lite intimacy, then how much deeper do we need to go to find the everyday material out of which to recognize, solidify, and build that deeper intimacy? Do we have to scream emotions louder to be heard over the cacophony of the lite intimacy? A mild hypothesis for the new social life of our age: the easier it is to be close but not intimate in public, the easier it is to be close but not intimate in private.