“Getting intimate” online

By Sharon Cornelissen

Most of our urban public interactions with strangers are not particularly intimate, except perhaps when being pressed way-too-intimately against anonymous bodies in the subway during rush hours. Even then we try to maximize personal space such as through the unspoken rule of maintaining distance when picking seats on transit. We also like to play with our phones, which helps us to avoid catching the eyes of others. This seems to have replaced the role that newspapers once played.


Online we relate to strangers quite differently. Consider the popular blog Humans of New York, which has over 2 million followers on Facebook alone. The blog is a collection of snapshots of urban strangers, accompanied by a short personal story or wisdom shared by the individual portrayed. Below is an example of a picture posted on January 9, 2014:


“What was the saddest moment of your life?”

“When my mother died.”

“What’s your fondest memory of your mother?”

“When I was 13 years old, I had an accident and was in a body cast for 6 months. I couldn’t even sit up. She would come in my room everyday, turn up the radio, and sing in my ear.”

Two days later, the post had already received over 65,000 likes on Facebook and more than 800 comments. Reading through 100 comments, 16 out of 100 commenters said the post made them cry, 19 people addressed the unnamed person in the picture directly (addressing him as ‘dude,’ ‘honey,’ ‘sir’ or ‘my friend’) and 38 mentioned their own mother and shared a fond memory. One user left the following comment:

The worst moment of my life, was also when my beloved mom passed away, just a few short months ago… I’m glad you have strong, wonderful memories of your mother… it’s a sad club, the “No Mom” club, but I truly believe that we are a testament to our mother’s strength and love and I know I will live well in her memory. XOXO to you, sir!

How are our online interactions with strangers different from offline interactions? Why do these commenters seem to identify so readily with this stranger? What is the nature and depth of this form of online intimacy, and on what basis is it established?

While these questions merit more attention, one of the interesting features of HoNY is the eye-contact between viewers and subject. The prolonged eye-contact with the unnamed stranger represents a contrast to everyday urban interactions in which a person’s gaze is usually averted. The connection is established for at most a fleeting moment. In the essay Sociology of the senses: Visual interaction Simmel analyzed the unique significance of eye contact in social interaction. He argued that it establishes a temporary union between humans and represents perfect reciprocity:

By the glance which reveals the other, one discloses himself. By the same act in which the observer seeks to know the observed, he surrenders himself to be understood by the observer. The eye cannot take unless at the same time it gives (Simmel 1921: 358)

HoNY plays with this experience, the sense of mutual disclosure and openness we associate with it: see also viewer’s reactions to Marina Abramovi’s artwork. HoNY enables viewers to see and meet the eyes of strangers, without being seen seeing. The pictures offer viewers a glimpse into urban strangers’ eyes and minds. The frozen-in-time prolonged glance we can sustain with the strangers of HoNY creates a sense of intimacy and exposure: exactly the sense of exposure we seek to avoid or minimize in everyday interactions with strangers in public settings.

So what explains the seeming contradiction between our ease of ‘getting intimate’ online and our everyday avoidance of intimate interactions with strangers offline? The mediated form of eye contact that HoNY facilitates gives us a hunch. In contrast to Simmel’s description of eye contact as perfect reciprocity, the intimacy of HoNY is largely one-way traffic. HoNY offers viewers ready-to-consume intimate moments with anonymous New Yorkers. While viewers leave behind strikingly moving and personal comments, which hints at the intimacy HoNY creates for some, this online way of relating remains transient and anonymous. One could say HoNY facilitates the intimacy of the onlooker and enables a type of online voyeurism into the eyes and minds of strangers.