I’m hearing the phrase “ambient intimacy” a lot these days. Ambient intimacy is a term coined by Leisa Reichelt last year to describe the kind of relationships that the internet allows you to have with people. She describes it as “being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible.”
I’ve been wondering how to describe these types of relationships for a couple of years now. I like “ambient intimacy” but I think it’s a bit of a mouthful. But there are people that I only know like this, so it’s becoming more necessary to find a phrase.
Take my relationship with Pete Ashton. Pete’s always been on a couple of the same local interest internet groups that I’m on, so his was one of the first blogs I knew about. When I first started reading peteashton.com regularly, though, it surprised me with its openness. He kept a record of not just interesting links he’d come across, but where he’d been, what he was up to and, more importantly, how he felt about things.
A short while later Pete and I became contacts on flickr – so I got to put faces to names. We met on a flickrmeet and commented on topics that we’d already discussed online elsewhere. After that, we became “friends” on facebook, even though we’d only actually met once.
Now that we follow each other on Twitter and mix in many of the same circles at work, there is a real sense of the ambient intimacy Leisa talks about.
I feel like I know Pete pretty well and yet, when I found myself next to him in a queue at a cafe one lunchtime, I had to look twice to be sure it was him. (Then, of course, I had to introduce myself as “editorialgirl” rather than Emma – which felt a bit silly, but elicited an “ohhhh!” and a big hug, which was lovely).
So I don’t think that having ambient intimacy with someone means that you know them. Pete knows a lot of people and I can guarantee he’s met them more times than he’s met me. If someone says “do you know Pete?” it feels slightly stalky to say yes and realise that I know what he’s listening to, what he’s working on and what he had for dinner. Because we don’t know each other.
So I need a phrase or a verb to describe a relationship that’s been formed almost entirely via the internet. “I know him, but only ambiently”? No.
Really; it’s getting tricky. I met my current boyfriend online. I read his website religiously and we chatted on various groups for a good six years before actually meeting up and gedding it awn. But when I tell people “we met on the internet”, people make assumptions of dating websites or seedy chatrooms. “I got to know him ambiently“, I want to explain. The truth is, I got to know him bit by bit, through websites and forums, comments and groups. But there isn’t an easy way to say that.
Perhaps it will become so commonplace that I won’t need to worry about it. Perhaps friendships like the one I have with Pete will become the norm and everyone else will meet their partners online, just like I met mine.