Redefining Intimacy in the Age of Tumblr

There are things that are so personal that they can only be said to someone who is not close. Someone you don’t know. A person who is not an intimate friend or relation. There are things too personal to be shared with intimates.” – Hunger of Memory

Richard Rodriguez’s quote rings incredibly true for the millions of people logging into sites like Tumblr, where all is required of users is a username and a desire to blog (whether it be one’s original thoughts or the ‘reblogging’ of others’ thoughts to express one’s own or show solidarity) to become a part of a community that either does care or very convincingly gives the illusion of caring about each other. Juana Maria Rodriguez, in Queer Latinidad writes that “Sex, love, quarrels, and reunions [are] mediated through technology” (115). Not only are internet relationships able to become intensely emotional and intense with the aid of technology, but more communication, in so many different forms has also been increased, possibly enhanced for people in real life relationships. However, Rodriguez’s definition, just as most of the dictionary definitions of intimacy, talk about closeness, warmth, and understanding, but all in the context of a relationship that has been created and maintained in person.

Is being able to bare your soul to a group of complete strangers, be it on some form of social network or in person with folks that you’ve never met or may never see again a form of intimacy? Is this type of act (full disclosure to complete strangers) possibly even more intimate than trusting these details with the people that we’ve known and have known us for a long time? Can intimacy be achieved in anonymity? The definition of intimacy itself is “Close familiarity or friendship; closeness,” but does one have to be familiar with the person they are interacting with in order for closeness and intimacy to be achieved? In creating an authentic connection with someone, even if it is temporary, are we achieving intimacy, or are incredibly raw, impersonal personal moments in our one night stands and blog posts less intimate and valuable than the intimate relationships that are developed over time?

Intimacy, like the World Wide Web as mentioned in Queer Latinidad, is rhizomatic, no particular beginning, end, or center, as well as it can grow and flourish (albeit in many drastically different ways) wherever it is planted and utilized. People emerge and exit; “linkages assembled and dismantled.” (Queer Latinidad, 121) With the growth of use of social networking sites, people are allowed to express as much of themselves as they want or create whatever persona they desire to be read as by their readers and viewers, which adds a new dimension to intimacy that allows for transparency and anonymity, which often cannot exist in spheres outside of cyberspace. Users are able to represent only the parts of themselves that they wish to make public. In a realm where people are simultaneously present and absent, intimacy can be achieved in being able to bare one’s life of truths to a complete stranger while missing the traditional ‘intimacy’ of being physically close and in near proximity to one another.

Sites like Tumblr, specifically, allow for users to communicate aspects of their identities that may have been difficult to talk about in person or with people who they interact with in person that have already developed ideas of who they are and how they feel. Talking about one’s feelings to a group of users who have made the conscious decision to follow you, often because they are picking up what you’re putting down or at least trying to. People that aren’t familiar or someone regularly interacted with cannot say “this isn’t like you” or “I didn’t know you felt like this,” nor can their opinion of you drastically change because of what you posted, because they don’t know you (yet;) they can only listen or read what you have to say.

In Maria Irene Fornes’ play “Fefu and Her Friends,” one of her characters, Paula, articulates that relationships (and breakups) include different parts of the self: the brain, the heart, the mind, physical belongings, physical space, and the memories of it all (38). These are all things that she argues are a part of long-term, intimate relationships, then do interactions that are missing only the physical aspects but include the brain, heart, mind, and memories (the parts of relationships that are arguably the most important and meaningful) less intimate than those that exist within a physical space? When two people interact on the internet, “language is disjointed, fragments of thoughts brought together to create a mood and meaning understood by only the two participants, the white spaces of personal history and emotion haunting the lines of the text,” (Queer Latinidad, 116). Both what we choose to include and what we choose to leave out in our interactions with strangers on the internet aids in the redefinition of intimacy and allows us to define what intimacy can mean with each person we choose to become intimate with.


4 thoughts on “Redefining Intimacy in the Age of Tumblr

  1. I think you’ve picked up on something really cool here. Tumblr is a strange animal, since it can serve a lot of purposes for different people. I’m reminded of one friend, whose Tumblr functions as a platform for compulsive and nearly thoughtless reblogging, and also of another, whose Tumblr is so deeply personal that s/he won’t share it with any acquaintances in real life.
    In your post, you said two things that particularly resonated with me.

    Thing the first:
    People that aren’t familiar or someone regularly interacted with cannot say “this isn’t like you” or “I didn’t know you felt like this,” nor can their opinion of you drastically change because of what you posted, because they don’t know you (yet;) they can only listen or read what you have to say.

    Thing the second:
    “In creating an authentic connection with someone, even if it is temporary, are we achieving intimacy, or are incredibly raw, impersonal personal moments in our one night stands and blog posts less intimate and valuable than the intimate relationships that are developed over time?”

    The nice thing about the secret Tumblr (and this can also go for Livejournal if you live in 2004) is that it gives the candid, confessional space of the diary, while allowing for a sympathetic audience. An exclusively sympathetic audience. The relationships among such groups of people exist only in the context of the topics being discussed, whatever they may be. Not only is there no accountability for what is said, there don’t have to be conversations about one’s day or one’s parents or one’s job (I’m generalizing). Your followers only know one facet of your life, and without having interactions outside of that, they’ll soak up everything you say with acceptance without challenging you to think critically about yourself as a person. So at the risk of sounding like I’m discounting the enormous value of a sympathetic “ear,” I’d have to wonder whether only baring one’s soul in this context does that much good. Maybe there’s such a thing as too much understanding and not enough encouragement to grow. Maybe I’m a hater.

    At the same time, I’m thinking of Cristy Road’s pen pals in “Indestructible” and how much she was bolstered and supported by them, even without having regular interaction in a normal sense of the word. Is this case different because it utilizes snail mail? Or because it’s one-on-one? Or because they didn’t use pseudonyms? Or because they were each looking for a more genuine friendship?

  2. I connect very personally with this post, as I am an avid Tumblr blogger (albeit without much of an audience…) and I think you both make excellent points. I think it’s very important that we address the various types of intimacy that social media sights like Tumblr have, especially where anonymity is the key foundation to interactions. In answering the original post’s question, “does one have to be familiar with the person they are interacting with in order for closeness and intimacy to be achieved?” I provide a different way to look at intimacy and identity on Tumblr. Since people on Tumblr are complete strangers (unless, of course, you happen to follow your friends, which can have it problems, as already mentioned in that sometimes there are things you just don’t want your real life friends to know about, so you post them on anonymous sites like Tumblr), we often find ourselves projecting physical identifies onto these users. Sometimes it might relate to their avatar, sometimes thematically to various posts they make (especially if they are into writing or art—this is much harder to do with users who simply “reblog” posts). But whatever the method we use to base our assignment of identities on, it is crucial that we realize that it is our own personal invention of their identity. So, in this way, our relationship with anonymous users becomes incredibly personal because, in our own heads, we are creating their identities! We have a perverse sort of God power by assigning them these characteristics, not the least of which is often their own gender (!) and in that act we make our own personal investment in these users, and I don’t think it gets much more intimate than that.

    Yes, we don’t actually know these users, but as the response post suggested, we sympathize with them. We care enough about them to read their woes (if it is one of those types of blogs—I realize that there are some blogs that are merely for funny pictures, etc) and maybe even to reply to their posts, to pat them on the back and say “it’s going to be alright” because we have made that investment in their “supposed” identities. The original post is right: the lack of physical presence completely intensifies the need to project our own image onto the user, and I think what would be a more fruitful conversation is why we have the need to do so.

    For example, I follow this one user on Tumblr who, in their About Me, identifies as “gender queer” and requests only they/them pronouns when addressing them, and as far as I can tell, most of their followers comply with this request (of course, they’re not likely to post a Q/A thread if they didn’t, but I digress). You’d think, then, that they would choose a neutral icon for their account, but instead they have chosen a drawing (they are an art major in Baltimore, so art is a prominent part of the blog) of themselves. While it could be argued to be ambiguous in nature, I always assumed looking at it that is was a female, so in my mind I had always pictured the user as more feminine in her identity. A while back, the user started posting a series of “selfies,” or photos (usually from webcams) of themselves, and I was completely surprised by their actual appearance. It wasn’t really that different from the icon, but it was different enough from the image in my head (I’m ashamed, I have failed this class and this blog…) and I felt like I lost my intimacy with this user, whom I have followed for about a year and because they post a lot about their life (and I mean, A LOT), I feel a small connection to them. I honestly felt I had done this huge, horrible disservice with my assignment and I promptly went and buried my head in the sand (figuratively, of course).

    So I suppose I leave this response with a follow up question that I asked earlier: why do we assume to have this intimacy with anonymous users? Why do we feel like we need to assign them an identity? We sort of touched upon the concept of why identities are necessary facets to society earlier in this course, and I haven’t really stopped thinking about it since. Just some food for thought. Peace.

  3. Bear with me as I wrestle with the idea of intimacy. I started this post in one place, and I seem to have ended up somewhere entirely different – not necessarily a bad thing, but I hope it’s not too hard to follow.

    I think the idea of intimacy is an interesting one, especially in light of the discussion happening here. The internet and the rise of social media and anonymous blogs like Tumblr have definitely changed the meaning of intimacy, creating so many new paths to intimacy simply by dropping the stricture that physical reality be an intrinsic part of intimate relations.
    Leandra mentioned intimacy as being rhizomatic – it can grow from anything, anywhere, in any direction – and I think this potential for constant flux is something relatively new to the concept of intimacy. Not that relationships in the real world are frozen and static, but that real life allows a bigger space for questioning the motivations of fluidity and change. One of the key pieces of this anonymous internet intimacy is, as Leandra said, our ability “to define what intimacy can mean with each person we choose to become intimate with.” I think this is incredibly powerful, giving us so much more freedom as we choose exactly how to be intimate on a case by case basis in anonymity, fine tuning the details for each interaction. Afterthought: How much is intimacy a performance?
    We have the means to create an “exclusively sympathetic” community audience as David said. A community with no real expectations of us and to which we need have no accountability. I was going to argue that this could still be intimacy, but writing the words down makes such a community feel empty and hollow, lacking any true connection. I do think there can be a bond there of some sort, but I’m beginning to wonder if maybe a critical engagement on some level must be necessary to achieve intimacy? Exclusive sympathy just seems so superficial, and the creation of such a space so self-serving and almost narcissistic. I can see that space being helpful in some ways, as a space that is more your own (but also more public) than anything else, where the audience is there for you specifically. The problem I have with this is what if you become too immersed in this sympathy and, as David was saying, are never challenged to think critically about yourself as a person and grow as a result? Can we become handicapped by the power we have with this impersonal intimacy, to the point where we no longer find value in critically engaging? What happens when we manipulate intimacy to the point of losing all meaning?
    I’m realizing more and more how unsure I am of what intimacy really means. It’s hard to redefine something that seemed so concrete. Perhaps this is why we feel the need to assign an identity to the anonymous strangers of Tumblr? I’m not sure if this is what you were getting at, Hayley, but I’m guessing I’m not the only one balking at such an intense level of relationality with a complete stranger. I definitely get the need for sharing such utterly personal things with someone you aren’t as intimate with, but I think there needs to be some basic familiarity at least (maybe that’s just me). In other words, the anonymity of the interaction is appealing, but also frightening. Projecting an identity of our own invention onto the stranger could be a way of artificially creating this sense of familiarity, and thus partially relieve the fear of the unknown, justifying the exposure of personal truths to a stranger.

  4. I liked your post on Tumblr’s intimacy because it highlights the uniqueness of the internet as a space “not space”, in a way. The power of Tumblr is that it gives the author the ability to communicate with, “transparency and anonymity, which often cannot exist in spheres outside of cyberspace.” I feel like Richard Rodriguez (like most) had no idea how much the internet would be a part of our intimate lives, however his statement, “There are things that are so personal that they can only be said to someone who is not close” reminds me of the site PostSecret. With Tumblr the user produces a collage of photos, text, videos, etc. but has no control over her/his initial audience. Through interests, quantified on Tumblr as “tags”, the Tumblr audience is mostly positive and predicated on choice. By allowing “following” any number of interests and identities can cross paths for the better or worst. Although one must choose to follow another blog on Tumblr, there are always going to be trolls or honestly mean, bigoted people. For example, I once followed a blog with a user name and title of, “Misandronist”. I thought of the title like most titles on Tumblr: over the top and eye-catching. Most blog titles on Tumblr try to draw attention either through brute vulgarity or clever wordplay involving something or someone famous so as to up their chances of appear in a “tag” search. “Misandronist” however, turned out to be a person who honestly hated men: I discovered this fact after one of “Misandronist”’s followers commented on a particularly hateful post, suggesting that being angry at men may only deepen the strife dividing sexes, to which “Misandronist” responded: “Wow, you really think men care about you or anyone else. lol”. I stopped following “Misandronist” after that and think back to her ideologies and their importance in a conversation about intimacy that Rodriguez invites.
    The anonymity of the internet is not something to be trifled with. Without any means of persecution, or really any form of consequences, people who “troll” on line are given the creative license to say what ever they please, guilt free. I enjoy the idea of having a space completely liberated from any specific school of thought but also have seen the hatred and violence it can inspire. Cyber-bullying is an invasive crime, one that does not stop at the schoolyard, but also follows the victim home and is a constant threat to his/her wellbeing. The lack of physical boundaries on the internet is a powerful weapon on both sides: free from form but unrecognizable, a place where the only definitive identity is your own and the one you imagine for the faceless millions sharing this space with you. Rodriguez has hit on a interesting idea with the concept of thoughts so intimate they must be told to strangers. By having no reference point, both subjectively and socially, a person online can operate without fear of being judge for their actions. However, when the subject can portray themselves as a stranger, the content of a “personal statement” can become hateful. Racism, sexism, classism and other forms of bigotry have found their home online by making it possible for folks with socially regressive ideologies to find each other over wide physical expanses and join forces. In cyberspace the public expression of ideological opinion has been mapped on to the private anonymous identity of the user. The effect of this new discursive space obscures personal responsibility from hateful utterances. The lynch mob mentality, without normative social restrictions, has found resurgence in an environment that also effectively liberates the individuals from these personal boundaries.

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