Anonymous Intimacy Online

Here’s a great passage from Shane Hipps’ Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith that talks about the usually unnoticed drawbacks of our increasingly virtual relationships:

The Internet has a natural bias toward exhibitionism and thus the erosion of real intimacy. There is nothing exclusive about it, yet it creates, paradoxically, a kind of illusion of of intimacy with people we’ve never met in person. This is the phenomenon of anonymous intimacy—the feeling of a relationship, but one that hasn’t been, and likely never will be, face to face…

This anonymous intimacy has a strange effect. It provides just enough connection to keep us from pursuing real intimacy. In a virtual community, our contacts involve very little real risk and demand even less of us personally. Vulnerability is optional. A community that promises freedom from rejection and makes authentic emotional investment optional can be extremely appealing, remarkably efficient, and a lot more convenient.

Virtual community is infinitely more virtual than it is communal. It’s a bit like cotton candy: It goes down easy and satiates our immediate hunger, but it doesn’t provide much in the way of sustainable nutrition. Not only that, but our appetite is spoiled. We no longer feel the need to participate in authentic community. Authentic community involves high degrees of intimacy, permanence, and proximity. While relative intimacy can be gained in virtual settings, the experiences of permanence and proximity have all but vanished.

I’m not morally opposed to cotton candy or virtual community. However, I am concerned that virtual community is slowly becoming our preferred way of relating. I don’t think the results will be any better than if we started eating spun sugar for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Shane Hipps, Flickering Pixels (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 113-4.

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