The word intimacy was first used in the English dictionary in 1632. Since then the word has gone through its own tumultuous journey. Over centuries, its meaning has evolved and branched out acquiring newer dimensions.
“Intimacy has traditionally been fixed in the realm of the private and the personal and viewed as physical contact within a sexual discourse, often characterized by romantic or passionate love” (Chambers 41).
However, with time, as academia began to acknowledge other kinds of relationships and forms of socialization, they began to explore new forms of intimacy as well. Within these new ways of understanding what intimacy means, ‘mediated intimacy’ also took ground. It refers to forms of intimacy that “are mediated – in that they require a medium through which intimate relations can be established between the subject and the other” (Attwood, Hakim and Winch 249).
Over the last decade, the relevance of social media has grown in most of our lives. We are connecting with friends, family and colleagues in diverse ways through different platforms. “While sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Friendster are reshaping the landscape of business, culture and research, these sites are also forging new ways of being intimate and ‘doing intimacy’ (Chambers 3). Moreover, with the increase in the number of platforms, access to smartphones and internet; social media has definitely made inroads in India. Currently, more than 70% of the population is active on social media in India. Thus, socializing and connecting through digital platforms is a part of many people’s routine in India.
One of the biggest impacts of Covid-19 has been how drastically it altered our lifestyles. Many countries had to declare a state of lockdown which constrained people’s movement. India too observed a lockdown from mid-march which was high in severity as it completely restricted people from moving out of their house except for essential/emergency needs. Even our most mundane forms of socialization such as at work, school, college, public spaces etc.just stopped. We were no longer going out for movies, shopping, dining with our families/friends etc. There was a sudden halt at all the diverse forms of interactions that earlier formed our routine.
Thus, from being one of the many ways through which Indian’s (most) connected and socialized with people; digital, became their only means to do so. What one can safely assume here is that this sudden shift dramatically impacted people’s lifestyle. People began to experiment with new digital platforms, use the old platforms in diverse ways and increased the intensity of usage to try and cope with this new emerging reality.
In the following blog I share and analyse an autoethnographic experience that showcases how digitally mediated intimacies manifest.
- Netflix Party (also called Teleparty now) is an extension of Netflix that can be downloaded for free by anyone across the globe.
- It allows people to virtually watch a movie with anyone by connecting and merging their screens.
- A chat box pops open on the side of the movie screen.
- The movie/series runs simultaneously on all screens and if anyone will pause/stop/rewind/forward on one screen, it automatically does the same on every other screen connected.
Recounting the auto-ethnographic Experience:
(Picture credits: Wurood Najim)
Around three months back, a friend from the US mentioned a Netflix feature called the ‘Netflix Party’ (also called as Teleparty now). This feature would allow us to watch a movie virtually together. We are a group of four friends based in different parts of the world. Two in the US, one in Singapore and I am located in India. Hence, it was going to be three different time zones. We were all quite enthusiastic to try this out and formed a WhatsApp group exclusively to plan this. The process to download the extension was hassle-free and barely took a minute. We were all excited and started recommending different movies to watch together. Since, we are all based in different parts of the world we had to find a movie that would be available in all these regions. We quickly decided on Julie and Julia, even though we had all seen it! Somehow we were more eager to experience this virtual movie night and not so concerned about the movie we would watch together. We decided to try it out on a Friday as it seemed like a fun Friday night experience to have. Since all of us are in different time zones, we decided to watch it at 9:15 pm India time, which would be 11:45 pm in Singapore and 11:45 am in Michigan (USA).
On the night (and morning) of the movie, I created a link for everyone else to join the ‘Netflix party’. I felt a weird kind of excitement. We weren’t very sure of what to expect but as we all joined the chat box and were looking at the same screen, we did suddenly feel a sense of enthusiasm at the prospect of being able to enjoy a movie together. We chatted quite excitedly for 10-15 minutes on the Netflix chat box before starting the movie and kept chatting throughout the movie as well! There was an obvious excitement that all of us felt at being able to experience something of this sorts even when we were in different geographies and time zones.
In the next few paragraphs, I decode my experience.
1. The ‘ordinariness’ of the experience
(Picture credits: Wurood Najim)
Sitting and enjoying movies whether at home or in the theatre is an extremely familiar experience to most of us. It is a routine experience; not in a way that we partake in it every day, but often enough that we have done it a number of times to know our emotional response towards it. Thus, the experience of virtually watching a movie wasn’t an altogether new experience. Rather, I think what added to my excitement here, is how mundane an activity this is.
Netflix Party was providing an opportunity to experience a regular physical occasion of a movie night through a digital medium. Further, I think our current lifestyle also contributed to my enthusiasm. In the last few months, across the globe people have been deprived of their most regular social experiences. Many of us have had an opportunity to reflect upon our privileges and how we took most aspects of our lifestyle for granted. I argue that our absolute deprivation of even the most mundane activities is making us feel a sense of heightened pleasure at experiencing any form of social connection, even when it is purely virtual.
If Covid-19 had never happened and our lives wouldn’t have changed so drastically, I wonder if any of us would have either had the time to engage in such an activity or even had the inclination of wanting to have such an experience.
2. Creating an experience
Synchronous communication demands that people set aside a particular time from their routine to connect with each other. For instance, when we call someone, it requires that both the parties have to be free to carry out the conversation at that particular moment. However, with the growing number of social media platforms, asynchronous communication has become a common and acceptable way to communicate (especially with the millennials). One of the benefits of this kind of communication is that it allows us to engage with someone as per our convenience. For instance, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook messenger etc. provide us an option to respond to messages at our will rather than on a predetermined time. Such platforms fit well into our hectic and fast paced lifestyles. Moreover, it is widely acknowledged that asynchronous communication allows people to manage a wider range of relationships.
However, in the given scenario, I argue that synchronicity as an affordance plays a significant role in shaping my experience. Here, synchronicity is achieved through two ways. First, Netflix synchronized our screens. Watching Netflix is generally either an individual or a shared physical experience; where we are physically present with the people we are watching it with. Second, as our screens synced together, a chat box had popped open on the right hand side. It provided an opportunity for all of us to connect with each other. We spent 15-20 minutes just chatting on this before starting the movie.
I wish to highlight that it wasn’t that we weren’t already talking on WhatsApp or were in need of a new medium. We are already connected on WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook. We regularly exchange messages, meme’s, pictures etc. But here, the chat box became an affordance that provided an opportunity to experience a sense of virtual intimacy. The platform provided a medium to express myself as we watched the movie. We were writing comments; sharing our observations, laughing together on a funny scene or expressing our anger on a certain character’s behaviour. The chat box provided a means to put out our thoughts as we experienced them in real time. I detail this further in the next subsection.
Here, I elaborate on how this and the previous affordance shape my experience. Being able to simultaneously watch and express ourselves, allowed us to carve our own personalized virtual space within the larger world of Netflix. It was very similar to what many of the social media networks such as Facebook and Instagram allow us to do. Within the large world of Facebook, we all form our own mini-worlds where through its many affordances, we connect and socialize with people. Deborah Chambers (166) refers to such networked spaces as “personal communities or ‘micro-social worlds’ (Pahl and Spencer 2004). She highlights that these are “organized by networked technologies around media audiences, texts, emotional exchanges and the sharing of cultural artefacts such as family photos, video clips, jokes and homilies” (Chambers 166).
Such affordances provide an opportunity to shape an experience that would be personal to just the members. For instance, in the real world, when we visit a movie theatre or a live performance, the behaviour of the people (such as the hoots, whistles, cheering etc.) creates an experience which is personal to everyone who is there in the same time and space with them. These affordances allow for a similar experience to emerge in the virtual. It becomes something much more than just a random experience. What I mean by this is that, through these two affordances we are able to create a personalized ‘shared’ moment which is meaningful. Though, I wouldn’t go as far as to also claim that it takes a meaning similar to a ‘real’ experience (not because the ‘virtual’ is any less than the ‘real’ but only because this is not something I discussed with my friends).
3. Remote togetherness
(Picture credits: Wurood Najim)
Let’s look at three examples:
- The movie starts with a scene set in Paris. All three of my friends had travelled to Paris together and it immediately brought back numerous memories for them. On the chat, they enthusiastically shared a little about their trip and how they would really like to go back sometime.
- We were constantly expressing and sharing our opinions on the characters and situations: For instance, during a funny scene, we would sometimes just type a ‘hahaha’ to express our emotions to which everyone would react as well. At a certain point, we didn’t really like the male lead’s reaction and quickly displayed our discontent by typing in the chat box.
- As we watched the first 30 minutes, one of my friends had to go get a glass of water. So, she paused the movie, which automatically paused our screens as well. She resumed the movie after 5 minutes, which made me realize that she had had some water.
In each of these instances, I was able to experience a sense of closeness with my friends. These moments allowed me to experience a new kind of intimacy. However, the intimacy was not just a simple result of the interactions but arose from a far more complex web of interconnected processes that were taking place simultaneously as we watched the movie.
With every experience, I started to detach from my physical surroundings and feel more connected to this virtual experience. Since these affordances demand constant attention and engagement, I began to feel a sense of disengagement from my physical surroundings. Thus, transporting me into an imagined space of shared connectedness. What I mean by this, is, that the space is just an imagined construction where I am able to experience this movie as a ‘shared experience’ with my friends. It allows me to experience a shared moment of togetherness that emerged in the virtual and could only be lived and experienced in the virtual.
Such a shared experience emerges as Netflix Party is able to create a sense of ‘shared time’. Despite being in different physical locations, we are able to control each other’s physical experiences. As the movie was paused by one friend; who went to take water, it paused for the rest of us as well. In this manner, we were all drawn into this moment as we had to wait for our friend to have some water.
Watching a movie can often become a passive experience. However, the chat box demands constant attention as the pace of the conversations was so fast. Almost on every scene, someone was reacting or sharing an opinion leaving me with no time to engage with my physical surroundings. Looking away from the screen even for a minute would mean losing out on someone’s reaction. Thus, the chat box pulled us in and required us to be extremely attentive.
The on-going pandemic has drastically impacted almost all aspects of our lives. As already highlighted in the beginning, a major impact has been on the way through which we socialize, interact and engage with the people around us. Digital mediums have become a more integral part of our socialization process as they became our only source to connect with friends, family, colleagues etc. I believe that such utilization has also impacted our expectations from the digital mediums. It has opened us up to experiment and be more accepting of what the digital experiences have to offer.
Have you experienced a ‘Netflix party’ yet?
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Attwood, Feona, et al. “Mediated Intimacies: Bodies, Technologies and Relationships.” Indian Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 26, no. 3, Routledge, May 2017, pp. 249–53.
Chambers, Deborah. “Networked Intimacy: Algorithmic Friendship and Scalable Sociality.” European Journal of Disorders of Communication: The Journal of the College of Speech and Language Therapists, London, vol. 32, no. 1, SAGE Publications Ltd, Feb. 2017, pp. 26–36.
Chambers, Deborah. Social Media and Personal Relationships: Online Intimacies and Networked Friendship. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2013.
About the author
Rupali Kapoor works as the Research Officer for the Consumer Culture Lab at IIM Udaipur. She is trained in social and cultural anthropology from UCL. She is interested in decoding our everyday interactions with spaces, objects and fellow beings.