The Intimate in social networks
In his book Raison, bonnes raisons [Reason, Good Reasons] (2003), sociologist Raymond Boudon examines the “good reasons” that people invoke to explain that their actions are less irrational than they seem. Yet those actions still follow certain rationales that researchers work to uncover. In other words, although people’s choices are not all necessarily rational, they have good reasons to act as they do.
In my thesis defended in 2016, which deals with the practices of personal life on social networks, I wanted to examine the good reasons that Internet users have to open up about their private lives. To do so, I had to move beyond the negative, hasty judgments that dismiss such people as disturbed or narcissistic, and instead to look at the benefits expected by these new practitioners of the intimate.
New ways of living
First, I felt it was necessary to take stock of transformations in our ways of living and working, and to question how the former dialogues with the latter by examining changes in how we live together as a society.
Our ways of living have evolved greatly, sometimes for reasons we don’t think of right away: for example, the sound travelling through thin walls of our apartments and the disappearance of partitions reveals the intimate lives of our neighbours to us. More symbolically, the working world is increasingly encroaching on time for our private life with evening work events or team-building weekends…It is as if the boundary between private life and all our existential areas has been blurred. Moreover, our sexual lives are now subject to the austere liturgy of institutionalized discourses from the medical world, trying to improve our sex lives for our own well-being. These discourses are now even part of magazines – women’s magazines for the time being – in the “Sex” section which provides a plethora of tips for optimal sexual fulfilment.
All our ways of living are involved in discourses of power that draw on our private lives. When people move, change their career or their partner, they are encouraged to question themselves, “Who am I really?” for their own benefit but also for the rest of society. Will I be fulfilled in this career? In this neighbourhood? Am I a good lover for my partner? In an annual interview, a department manager asked the employee which personal life problem could explain the drop in results. It is as if our personal lives must be conceptualised, dissected, and deeply analysed to liberate the intimate by expressing it. There is a sort of injunction “tell everything to be free.” Thus, from a society of internal reflection, we have become an expressive society of saying everything, hoping to liberate ourselves.
Three kinds of intimate
Based on this observation, I performed a content analysis of a hundred Facebook profiles and dating sites (Pointscommuns, Zoosk, Meetic), as well as followed humorous blog posts for four years in order to understand what kind of intimacy is exposed in these spaces. I thus identified three forms of intimacy.
The first, which I term “normative” is expressed through ordinariness, the quest for authenticity, and the reactivation of myths of love. For example, this means mentioning on a social network the fact of paying your taxes to generate a feeling of community with others who also pay. There has also been a sort of standardization of romantic relationships through the search for authenticity: in a couple, you have to tell each other everything to be happy and experience the epiphany of meeting the One: “We were made to be together” or “If I can show you I know how to do normative intimacy, the kind expected by society, and you, in return, are able to do the same, then we can begin a relationship.” This reduction of our uniqueness toward sameness serves as a kind of “average alterity” – as Henri-Pierre Jeudy would say – in order to diminish the virulence of the encounter and to hope to form a connection. The anxiety of creating bonds drives this normalization, hoping to establish relations that we think are safer. This is one of the good reasons people have for “talking about the intimate.”
The second kind of intimate, the “now you see it / now you don’t” game, appears in the practices of declaring love and supposed secrets. Some people declare their love on social networks and we are right in asking who they are really telling – it’s no longer just their beloved. Today, we need witnesses for strong ties, and weak links (the 300 friends on Facebook) serve to legitimate the strong ties.
It is the same for the supposed secret. These are messages that retain a certain mystery: “A little dinner with you, tonight, so happy.” The person posting does not say who this “you” is, because the person addressed will know … among the many others who will once again be curious witnesses and wonder who is this “you.” Internet users thus oscillate between excessive talkativeness and secretiveness, but always in front of witnesses. It is this need for witnesses to our personal ties that gives people another ‘good reason’ to expose their private lives.
The third form of intimacy is that of “escape.” Being fake or funny colours these utterances. The fake means to tell the truth by performing the false; like giving a fallacious political opinion and the person’s real position must be read between the lines. Humour means twisting a reference to an injunction imposed on the individual by adding one’s own code: “Mountain guide seeking an igloo wife” [from an internet dating site]. The requirement to specify the kind of partner one is looking for is turned on its head in order to show that you can laugh about it. This kind of intimate that has “escaped” out of our mouth portrays us as a unique individual again, which has been lost in the ‘normative’ intimate, and this is another good reason for unveiling one’s inner life.
Why expose your private life?
Having identified these three uses of the intimate, I then studied the ‘good reasons’ that concern the ways of becoming subject, that is to say, of producing oneself, of being the reference of one’s thoughts and of one’s acts as constitutive of what one is.
The communicative process on social networks allows us to reveal the intimate to strong ties as well as to weak ones by exposing ourselves to others, by exposing ourselves to risk, and by becoming vulnerable. But this process also opens us up to new ties and intensifies old ones. Therefore, through the communication process, the relational process is constructed. With no real purpose, the circulation of information generates new discourses, the subject of which matter very little because it is the process itself that is essential. Acting even without a purpose, the Web records the traces of our use, enabling people to evaluate links. The relational process counts more than the content of the exchange. Others viewing us is no longer enough – we need regular recognition from the weak ties to avoid being assigned the same single identity throughout our lives.
This process has another reason: that of the disappearance, not of the body from the spaces of the Web, but of the flesh. Indeed, through photos and videos, the body is constantly present on social networks in the various situations of social life, as well as on medical forums. It does not disappear because it is everywhere. The Web is teeming with images of bodies without flesh, where excitability is allowed, but is often overplayed to compensate for this loss of real flesh.
Moreover, in our daily lives, whether we want it or not, the flesh of the other may be imposed on us. This is the case, for example, in concentrations of people in cities or in public transport: we are sometimes very close to touching, to encountering another body, which triggers an excitability we must restrain. In a paradoxical experience, it is necessary to repress the real excitability of the flesh (cities / transport) and at the same time, accept to brush up against an excessive, overdone, and above all impossible excitability without flesh (the Web). Exposing our intimate lives means the wish to regain the sensation of flesh that is chosen, desired, hoped for. It is like a secret that is a bit revealed, but still remains a bit covered – this opens the door for fantasies, and it is through these fantasies that one hopes to encounter the flesh of the other.
However, trouble may arise between these physical territories and their digital imposters. What people say on a dating site reveals a bit of themselves, but not quite. When meeting in “real life,” people who had first met on a dating site regularly point out that the description given on the profile didn’t match.
These difficulties prompt individuals to invent all sorts of strategies to create tools to mitigate them. The original purposes of some sites evolved according to the uses that were made of them. For example, the site Badoo, initially created to meet new friends, was quickly used for romantic encounters. Similarly and more recently, Leboncoin, initially specialized in other types of classifieds, has now become a job search site. This creativity makes it possible for users to rediscover the freedom of expression and to provide new definitions on these networks, which will in turn also change the sites’ purpose. It is an endless game between the processes of subjectivation and alienation. Individuals create themselves and at the same time agree to play with the false subjectivity expected by these sites.
In this infinite process of producing subjectivity, the intimate has its place because it has a non-signifying aspect: “saying” the intimate does not exist and has never existed. In other words, one can never express the intimate; we may believe that we express it, but it remains unspeakable. In fact, what we express is not “saying” the intimate; it is an attempt to make it meaningful. This attempt is certainly worrying, but it is without any possible result, because the intimate will keep its non-significance. To express a simulacrum of one’s intimate life can never replace one’s real intimate life, and in this, it is a contemporary imperative for producing subjectivity.
Crédits image à la Une : CC Pixabay 73454 et crédits image d’entrée : CC Pixabay Johnhain