Ambient intimacy

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 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.

8 thoughts on “Ambient intimacy

  1. I must admit that hug did strike me as rather odd afterwards. Odd in the sense that it felt perfectly natural and yet, you’re right, we’d only met face to face a couple of times before that.

    I think the way to look at these things is to compare it with people you know loosely in the real world. Friends of friends, people who go to the same pubs as you, that sort of thing. You could know them for years before really “knowing” them but it wouldn’t be strange to explain that to someone.

    There is something different about the online stuff but I think, in essence, it’s just normal human behaviour in a different context. We’ll get used to it.

    (and as the subject of the post, thanks for writing – very interesting!)

  2. That’s a very interesting post. I have a number of people I describe as ‘Internet friends’ by which I can mean either that we ‘met’ on the internet and have also met in real life, or that we have only met in cyber space. It can be tricky indeed. On one occasion I found myself face to face with a woman I’d met ambiently, but although I knew some personal details about her it felt awkward and would have been prurient to mention them, and so the ‘ambient knowledge’ suddenly seemed inappropriate. On the other hand I’ve also made a couple of very close friends who started off as ‘ambient’ friends.

    I too have always found it quite tricky to describe these internet friends——especially the ones I haven’t actually met, the ‘ambient’ ones——to people who aren’t engaged in any kind of internet networking, and so I usually just tend to mutter something vague, in the hope I’m not asked too many questions…

    I will have to think about it again in the light of your post. Thanks!

  3. The hug is really interesting. I’ve experienced the problem of immediate intimacy when I meet someone for the first time in person.

    The affection is appropriate in my mind because we have already shared a lot online.

    That though is key. We learn to trust each other through sharing. There are people capable of exploiting that – but they are few and far between.

    So you instincts online are probably the same as the ones you use offline. Which means you don’t need a special word for the online stuff.

    I reckon we could call it something like ‘trust’.

  4. So lets see if I’ve got this right…
    You stalk blokes on the Internet and then hug them in cafes or make them be your boyfriend?

    I’ve got your number Jones.

  5. I found myself in a related, similar situation last Thursday evening in the interval for the concert at the Town Hall – my wife was just a teeny tiny bit put-out that when she came over whilst I was saying hello to Nikki & Ana that I didn’t do the introductions thing.

    Normally I do try to be conscious of that sort of thing, but thinking back after realised that the main reason I forgot to do introductions was because not only had I only met Nikki & Ana for the first time the week before, but unlike most of the rest of the Birmingham digerati with whom at least I’d started to get to know as far as one can since back in september through CriB, I’d not had any previous online contact with them – so how does one do formal introductions to people who are going to be (’emergent’ ?!) friends ?

  6. In time, the novelty of “we met on the internet” is going to fade. I think, as with anything, it’s people’s fear of the unknown that makes them wary.

  7. It would be great to have a real community, at least in London where we never had, and apart from the local phone in radio, the internet has filled this gap in precisely the way you described.
    The trouble is 90% of my friends are in America, although two have visited from Australia and one from Nigeria so not a total barrier to meeting. I also met my last girlfriend online and is as good a place as anywhere.

    When I met a bunch of people from my internet forum it was no different from having known them that long directly.

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