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For many people life goes on within a complex media ecology. Within this ecology social media have become a dominant genus and Facebook the dominant species. Facebook’s massive population, third to India and China, makes it a significant global phenomenon with deep-reaching social and cultural effects. Consequently, Facebook has fallen under the microscope of social scientists from numerous disciplines and generated a rich body of political, economic, legal, psychological, sociological, anthropological and technological insights. These construct Facebook in different ways, and this suggests that Facebook is not one ‘thing’. Rather, it is an assemblage of protocols, software, interfaces, media, content, contracts, marketing, public relations, surveillance systems, bureaucracies, shareholders, users and global and local cultures — the list goes on. I am concerned with one ‘field’ within this arabesque: Facebook’s influence on everyday social relationships and identities. Facebook is having a significant effect on these phenomena which, I argue, can be theorised in terms of intimacy.

1. Discovering Intimacy on Facebook

Fundamentally, SNSs are online worlds which facilitate the creation of personal profiles capable of connecting people with other users (Lenhart & Madden 2007a; boyd & Ellison 2008). Profiles often afford forms of social interaction and the expression of personal information such as tastes, interests, political views, sexual orientation, and so forth (Stutzman 2006). They also afford the articulation of one’s connections, commonly displayed as a ‘friends list’ (Donath & boyd 2004).

2. Frameworks: Privacy, Performance, Social Capital

Facebook provides various social benefits for my participants. However, it also concerns them by making intimacy problematic. In response they develop novel solutions to these problems. I seek to theorise these problems and solutions through mobilising appropriate conceptual frameworks. Three fields already prevalent in SNS scholarship help in this regard: ‘privacy’, ‘performance’, and ‘social capital’. Each provides a particular way of thinking through these issues. In what follows I tour through literature which explores these frameworks, suggesting points of critical synthesis which will be taken up in the empirical chapters to come.

3. Methodology

The study of Facebook and SNSs in general has yielded a large amount of deductive methodologies. Although qualitative and ethnographic research exists, it remains in the minority. Consequently, a collection of disparate, often discrete, concepts has been produced. There remains a need for inductive research and theory. I do not seek to prove or disprove specific hypotheses under exclusive conditions. Instead, I combine ethnography and Grounded Theory so as to produce a collection of qualitatively grounded concepts which are theoretically related. I recruited a small group of Facebook users in early 2010, interviewed them numerous times both face to face and through email, and spent a period being a participant observer as their Facebook ‘friend’. I continued to communicate via email with each participant into mid 2012, saturating my grounded concepts and updating my ideas as Facebook changed.

4. The Performance of Connection

My participants use Facebook to make connections, perform connections, and gather information on connections. ‘Connecting’ is the first act required of a Facebook user. This involves finding others and sending and accepting ‘friend requests’. Once friends, people have public access to one another’s Facebook Timelines. When a person addresses another person or interacts with another person’s content, he or she is ‘performing connection’. For example, commenting on a status update is a performance of connection. On the one hand, performances of connection are private social exchanges aimed at social gratification through the mobilisation of interpersonal intimacy. On the other hand, they constitute the public performance of social relationality which projects out toward a bounded public, garnering a form of recognition which strengthens social connections. This should be understood as a mutually constitutive duality which acts to reproduce social connections.

5. Distant Intimacy

Participants value Facebook as a means of connecting with people who have moved out of their immediate life-worlds. These ties have become ‘distanced’, although this term can refer to different kinds of ‘distances’. For example, people may become geographically distanced; they may remain geographically proximate but exist in different social spaces — say, different workplaces — and they may become distanced in time. Old high school friends are a common example of temporally distanced, ‘estranged ties’.

6. Prosthetic Intimacy

In this Chapter I discuss the various social surveillance practices my participants engage in on an everyday basis while using Facebook. I emphasise the role of intimacy and social context in structuring how and why surveillance takes place, and what consequences result. I build up to a discussion of voyeuristic ‘spying’ and the way it ‘steals’ intimacies from weak ties in order to morally and biographically articulate the self. Because of its distinctly artificial qualities, I term this process ‘prosthetic intimacy’. It can be contrasted with the more natural, ‘symbiotic’ intimacy which is produced from watching and interacting with close friends. Finally, I discuss how Facebook affords a kind of subjective truth-giving, constituted through the mediated gaze, which I term first-hand judgement. This becomes significant in the following chapter, as this gaze can often make participants feel objectified and dissatisfied with Facebook.

7. When Insecurity Looms

In 2009 the New Oxford American Dictionary anointed ‘unfriend’ its word of the year. This term encapsulates the contradictory connotations ‘friendship’ has taken on in the SNS era. One would think ‘friendships’ involves a degree of commitment. Hence, the notion that a person can be quickly and easily ‘unfriended’ seems paradoxical. Drawing on her ethnography of Friendster, danah boyd (2006) argues that ‘friend’ connotes different things when reffering to ‘actual’ friendships or to SNS connections in general. Flash also explores this distinction:

I mean, the term ‘friend’ is a loaded one, I’m not really sure it’s a very appropriate one, but — because it presumes a kind of


that isn’t often there. You know, my mate in year seven who I haven’t seen for — how many years would it have been now? — seventeen years, you know, isn’t technically my friend any more. We don’t know each other on a day-to-day basis.

8. Negotiating Intimacy

Facebook is influencing significant transformations in the nature of social intimacy and public life. Bret is struck by this while reflecting on his time using the service:

I feel like I had done a lot of talking about Facebook before I joined it because everyone else was excited about it for six months or 12 months earlier, and then for the first few months of joining it I did a hell of a lot of talking about it and it was really exciting and it did feel like it was this paradigm shift, right. And it’s — it’s really hard to say what it was, but it was — it was amazing to see how different people use it and that some people would become obsessed and update their statuses all the time and that — and that there was this whole, I guess new, social contract being evolved and yeah, levels of appropriate and inappropriate disclosure maybe. And I think some of that stuff is around, for example, how affectionate you are to — to your girlfriend or boyfriend in that sphere in a way that’s shared and, you know, I think there is this — this new kind of social contract maybe that Facebook has — has created.


In a mobile world in which people face nebulous contingencies in their efforts to sustain important relationships, a service such as Facebook capitalises on a growing need for intimacy. People make use of Facebook’s bounded publics to perform their connections and reproduce the intimacy therein. However, Facebook also puts intimacy at risk. The pressure to capitalise on social connections from various situations in life and with various ‘degrees’ of intimacy can cause the accumulation of heterogeneous personal networks. The public spaces which result endanger the capacity for Facebook to positively service interpersonal intimacy. On the one hand, this doubles and dispossesses the intimate self and demands that intimacy be carefully controlled. On the other hand, it mediates people and potentially alienates and objectifies them. This threatens the interpersonal recognition which they desire, producing a looming state of socio-ontological insecurity. In order to assuage this insecurity, people mobilise intimacy, carefully targeting the interpersonal fabric which binds them to those who matter.


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