Facebook, Sharing and Intimacy

Many years ago, I counselled an anxious young woman who felt that the magic was going out of her marriage. Her husband used to say the sweetest things to her in intimate moments but didn’t any more. His extraordinary emotional vulnerability at the moment he proposed marriage had brought a tear to her eye, as it had to her mother’s, her friends, her mother’s friends, her friends’ friends and all the other people she told about it. Once showered with compliments about how lucky she was to have such a romantic husband, she was now disappointed that he never seemed to whisper the sweet nothings that had once got her so many “you lucky girl!” plaudits from her social network.

I raised the obvious question:

“Does your husband know that you tell everyone about all the intimate things he says to you?”

“Oh yes, why at Thanksgiving dinner last year my mother repeated the story about how he cried on our first anniversary because he was so happy. Everyone laughed because it was so sweet.”

I said “Hmmmm….” (which is what many of us headshrinkers do when we are thinking “Jesus Tapdancing Christ”).

But then I recovered from shock and said something like “If you want your husband to say things to you that are special, that he would only say to his beloved wife, why don’t you treat them as if they were special, instead of something worthy of general consumption? If he realizes he’s always effectively talking to a big audience, he’s probably not going to be as vulnerable and intimate as he would be if he knew he were just talking to you.”

I think of that woman when I read about all the Facebook users who have a gazillion friends. Specifically, I wonder what happens to specialness and quality of friendship when what you would normally share only with one or two people becomes something you share with a larger number. At some point do people feel less like they have a true relationship with someone and more like they are one of hundreds on a mailing list, akin to recipients of a mass-printed annual holiday letter? I recognize that technically, you can set different levels of intimacy in Facebook, but I also recognize that many people don’t bother to do so. Over time, will you lose interest in the Facebook sharings of dear friends once you understand they are sharing the same things at the same time with people they may barely know?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

11 thoughts on “Facebook, Sharing and Intimacy”

  1. Of course, you know you probably completely ruined the whole thing for the wife in your story. I mean, what’s the point of sweet intimacy if she can’t use it to extract all that “lucky girl” validation she so obviously desperately needed from her friends and family?

    A desperate need for validation probably explains a lot of the facebook phenomenon as well.

    1. Freeman: I wish I knew whether you were correct, it was a short-term consultation. I suspect it depends on whether once she saw the connection between her over-sharing and the increase in her husband’s reticence, that getting him back to his old behaviour was worth more to her than the attention she got from oversharing.

  2. A theme which runs through the writings of Kierkegaard (though he never quite distills it this way)is that the strength of a conviction is inversely proportional to its publicity. Your tale of the oversharing wife is a surprising parable of this principle in practical action.

  3. Well that may be a problem for the kids who have a clue about how to use facebook. My problem is that (so far today) my facebook friends (some of whom I actually know) have written updates ib Finnish, Potuguese and Hungarian. I’m glad to have so many friends (although I honestly don’t know whwn or how it happened) but I wish I could read what they write.

    Not as bad as the time I accidentally invited everyone who had ever gmailed me to join facebook. For a month I had colleagues telling me “tanks but *I* have too much work to do to spend time on facebook.

    1. That is one problem that Facebook seem to be aiming to solve. Many of my family are Dutch, and (at least on the desktop site) little ‘translate’ buttons are appearing next to their simpler utterances. Pressing it provides a crude but serviceable translation. Hopefully they’ll get to the slightly more tricky Finno-Ugric languages eventually!

  4. Oh, sorry. About what you surmised above: the value of shared intimacies goes way down when it turns out they’re shared with non-intimates. I’m vastly over-generalizing. See any of her books, which are well indexed; she treats extensively of the topic “new technology, etiquette and” throughout her works. Indeed, it is her specialty.

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