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Ambient Intimacy

August 14, 2009
Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase

I first heard this term a couple of months. It immediately resonated with me, and without even reading this article, I knew what it was about. If you haven’t heard the term, and you’re not a big fan of social-networking, I’d encourage you to go read this post before reading any further.

It’s OK, I’ll wait…..  Ambient Intimacy

If you’re really hungry for more, here is an excellent follow-up post: Reboot 9.0 – Ambient Intimacy

The video above became our theme as we built a start-up organization in Colorado a few years ago.  With limited resources, limited volunteers, and not enough leadership, we really were building our plane while we flew it.  It was an amazing experience – exhausting – but amazing.

Photo by David Boudreau

Photo by David Boudreau

A couple of days ago, while browsing for a video on YouTube, I stumbled across this old favorite.  It made me think about careers, social-networking, friends, and family.  Those of you who know me, know that new ideas and new technology excite me.  When my budget allows, I am the consummate early adopter.  I don’t usually have a lot of friends, but I make friends for life.  It is very hard for me to walk away from friendships – whether dictated by time, geography, or circumstances – my dear friends are never far from my heart (even if I haven’t spoken with them in ages).

Because I am not very sanguine, and more than a little introverted, most people don’t know how special my friends are to me. I rarely express these emotions.  (I also get choked up and a little teary at sad and sappy movies, but that’s another story for another day)  To make a long story short, my family moved a lot when I was a kid, and I’ve lived in five different states over the last 15 years.

There are pieces of my heart spread all over the country.

Much has been written about Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and a host of other great social-networking sites. Let me summarize: These are tools.  They are the medium for communication in a new age.  Long after the  invention of mail, the telegraph and telephone, we now have email and a host of other media for us to connect with one another.  It’s not perfect, but then again, neither is our  society and culture.  There is a lot to be said for living in small, rural villages – when three or four generations shared the same household, one’s extended family lived within walking distance, and everyone was interdependent on their neighbors.

Today’s society is very different than it used to be. The town square and local church do not hold their place in society they once did.  We are no longer dependent on our neighbors for our survival, nor are they dependent on us.  Nuclear families are drastically different than even 40-50 years ago, and rarely will you find multi-generational households.  In fact, extended families are often living far away from each other – we build families where we live, based on personal selection, not biology.

This is where tools like Facebook are proved to be valuable. As the author of the post above so eloquently states, no, it’s not important to hear what you had for breakfast, or that your kids are being unruly today, but as I follow your life from a distance, there is a certain intimacy that is regained in our relationship.  Ambient, yes, but intimate nonetheless.

Over the last year or so that I have been involved on Facebook, I have reconnected with dozens of friends that I haven’t seen in awhile. I generally know how they are doing – more so than I did last year.  Yes, following their posts online is not as good  as a nice two-hour phone call, but who has time for that (which is probably why we never call)?  That two-hour phone call isn’t as good as a weekend visit either – and neither of those will ever replace the times we worked or lived side-by-side – back in the day!  Still, we remain connected.

Photo by Marco Bernardini

Photo by Marco Bernardini

Yesterday, two friends posted something on Facebook that made me sit up and take notice. One of those friends I barely know in real life. In fact, our friendship has grown during our interactions online.  Because of that  friendship, because I follow his life from afar, I was able to send a brief note of encouragement.  My other friend, whom I’ve also not spoken to in ages, was definitely experiencing some life-changing issues.  I sent him a note, he emailed back, and this morning we spoke on the phone.  And because of our constant contact online, our phone call immediately went deep and real.  But without the medium of online social media, I would have missed out on a couple of significant connections.

When I surf through posts on Facebook, when I read your tweets on Twitter, and when I browse you photos on Flickr, or Picasa, I am connecting with you. It is real, it is interactive, and it is personal.  When I read your blog post about your dog eating rat poison, and then you mistakenly give him ipecac, I empathize – whether I respond or not.  When we get together, and I ask you, “How’s it going?” We don’t have to talk about your dog, the Canadian vacation you just took, or the book your editing – in the Queen’s English no less!

Instead, we can talk about how you’re really doing.

Photo by Christian Guthier

Photo by Christian Guthier

Yes, it’s only ambient – but it is still intimate. If that’s all  we can get, that’s fine.  It’s better than nothing.  Besides, we’re still building this plane, none of us really have it figured out.  At least it’s still in the air.  Let’s keep building and working on it.  Share your tricks and tips with me, and I’ll share with you.  (Twitter has a bunch of cool third-party tools that make it manageable, and Facebook has some really nifty  filters and tricks to make it really easy  to keep track of your folks.)

A couple of months ago I found a childhood friend on Facebook. Her family was really close to ours when we were growing up. My first crush was on her sister – who was also my first kiss.  They used to live on SE Yamhill St, around the block  from us, near Mt. Tabor.  It was really fun to “friend” her, catch-up a little, see photos of her kids, etc.  In fact, my heart skipped a little beat when I first saw her photo.  “The melancholy runs deep in this one,” Obiwan once said.  A month or two later, I connected with her sister, we exchanged a couple of messages, and then we moved on.  It was just nice.

It is nice to know that someone who is a part of you, a part of your past, a  part of your history, and a significant part of your coming of age – well, it’s just nice to know that they are alive and well. This is why I like the ambient intimacy of social-networking.  (Even if we are still trying to build it, at least it’s flying!)

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  1. Brandi permalink
    August 14, 2009 4:05 pm

    I totally agree! But that weird, cause I never agree with you! 🙂 Being online is not as nice as being face to face, but sometimes it’s the next best thing. I appreciate people’s post about the silly little things that are going on in life. I really like it when I have a funny comment to post back! 🙂

    Oh, and who would edit a book in the Queen’s English? (I know who, I just thought it was funny you included it.)


    Just, FYI there is no place to rate this article!


    • August 14, 2009 5:30 pm

      I moved the rating to the top of the post – thanks Brandi for the feedback!


  2. Jason Grigsby permalink
    August 15, 2009 3:36 pm

    This really goes beyond connections with lost friends. The random inconsequential bits of our lives helps humanize people that we otherwise would have no contact with.

    This first occurred to me when people who I hadn’t liked in high school asked to friend me on Facebook. My first that was that I wouldn’t accept the friend invitation because we weren’t friends in high school.

    Upon reflection, I realized that cliques, awkwardness, self-doubt, and even the abuses that I tangled with in high school are gone now. Am I who I am, and I’m comfortable with that.

    After I accepted the friend requests, I began to hear updates from people who were cooler, more athletic, more intelligent, etc. than me in high school. What did they talk about?

    They talked about their lives. The challenges of raising their families. Struggling with the economy. Losing loved ones. And the simple joys their children bring.

    There is no story but the human story.

    Similarly, I think the experiences of those who were following protesters in Iran via Twitter had a similar effect. Instead of simply watching the news from a far, we knew the names of the people protesting. We heard their fears, their hopes, and even the mundane updates between.

    It became impossible to look at them as simply “those people” in a situation incomprehensible to us.

    I remember reading studies that talked about attitudes towards minorities being heavily influenced by whether or not someone knew someone in the minority.

    Most of the studies like this focus on the obvious and historical things that have separated people from each other: race, religion, sex, and gender.

    Yet, the same dynamic applies when relating to people from high school whom you didn’t know well as it does to people in a foreign land whom you’ve never met. Ambient intimacy and all of the mundane details associated with it humanize us.

    It enables us to realize that everyone is part of the same story. That my life is not so different from yours. That your hopes and dreams are the same. That our families bind us and matter to us.

    And that we spend far too much time focusing on what separates us whether it be cliques in high school or our governments and not enough time on the fact that we are all human with all of the pain, glory, beauty and yes, the mundane, that goes along with it.


    • Gary S. Walter, Personal permalink*
      August 15, 2009 5:24 pm

      You are so right Jason! The barriers are being broken down. Thanks for sharing.

      When I went to my 20 year reunion and found out the shy girl no one talked to was now a beautiful woman and well respected hair stylist in Hollywood (then working on the set of Melrose Place) and our class president was working at a Safeway – well, let’s just say it was an eye-opening experience.

      But then, here I am conversing with a guy who helped develop the Obama iPhone app! He knows someone, who knows Obama – how cool! 😉


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