Close Reading

The subtext of an image feed is warmth

The cold, drafty basement apartment I lived in had oppressively low ceilings that were punctuated with pot lights that radiated warmth. When they and all the other lights went out on a frigid January night in the late 2000s, plunging large swaths of Toronto and my home into a chilly darkness, I felt temporarily dislodged. Alone. So I picked up my iPhone.

If its dim blue glow was initially just a source of light, it quickly became more. On Twitter, chatter of being without power on a night it was 16 Celsius below zero quickly accelerated, gradually coalescing around the then-new hashtag #darkto, for “dark Toronto.”

I then lived and still now live a too-solitary life. Most of my time in that basement apartment was spent by myself. In those early years of Twitter, though, a collective experience like a large power outage elicited a sense of community, virtual lines of flight fanning out from my subterranean home connecting me to myriad others. There were shared cries of surprise and worry, calls to meet at bars, offers of help from those who still had electricity — or at least a stash of booze and some candles. Connections formed with strangers, and friendships solidified under the pressure of a minor emergency we all knew would soon pass. Stories of faux hardship emerged. It was a rare moment of connection.

Twitter is still deeply textual. The platform in general is, however, now the furthest thing from intimate

It was this sense of an ethereal sociality that writer Clive Thompson had in mind when he coined the term ambient intimacy. The basic unit of Twitter is the timeline, and is best understood as a thing in motion, the movement itself the contextual ground for how the platform works. When, as it tended to more in its early days, Twitter leans to the personal and the anecdotal, it conjures an ambient constellation of the social, an imagined collection of people sitting in a virtual room.

That early intimacy was notably textual, particularly before smartphone cameras became not just ubiquitous but good. The unending stream of words carried with it that imprecise yet expansive evocativeness of text. Sounds, textures, and smells had to be imagined, so in that space between the event and its representation, it was easy to project oneself, place oneself into an imaginary social context, tracing lines between you and a community bound together in a shared reprieve from loneliness.

Twitter is still deeply textual. The platform in general is, however, now the furthest thing from intimate. It is of course in part the tenor of the times. The breezy repression of the world’s horror has become impossible even in the wealthiest, most protected corners of the world, and with America’s orange-skinned id himself now a prominent force on Twitter, there is no escape. One’s timeline is no longer the place for delicate observations about sunlight filtering through trees on your walk home. Twitter is about the insistent now, and right now, its tone and tenor is often insistently awful.

If this changed atmosphere is a function of history, however, it is also perhaps because Twitter is a social sphere that is, in many ways, historically unprecedented. Even though Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp have far larger userbases, Twitter is unique in that its tens of millions are all mostly on the same shared network. The edges around each user’s experience on Twitter are vastly more porous, only partly limited by who one follows. A random tweet can scatter off in a sudden storm of thousands of retweets, just as tweets from far flung places and subcultures can find their way into one’s own stream. Virality is always around the corner, making the public scale of Twitter forever loom like an ominous cloud. What is ambient now is not intimacy but a dull roar, punctuated by moments of horror and light, cacophony and reprieve. On that roiling space filled with tens of millions of us jostling for attention, that platform on which every word is overdetermined, there can be no public intimacy left in language.

The digital era has, as writer Rex Sorgatz once put it, collapsed the line between communication and publishing. We chatter privately in public, and if Twitter was the place where texting merged with short-form broadcasting to form something new, our hierarchy of the visual has now produced an analogous visual hybrid of the tweet: the story on Instagram and Snapchat. These are the new ambient intimacy. In stories, users are openly intimate, stitching footage of our lives into each others’ days, strange amalgams of photography, video, pastiche, and hand-drawn art collapsing into an aesthetic mishmash of social connective tissue. The ephemeral material of the social is now found in these stories, the narrativization of self now mapped out in 10 or 15-second snippets of video pasted together into a serialized person.

Flipping through a feed where images flow from one into the other feels like switching through cameras in a hotel, seated in a security room you weren’t really supposed to have access to

There is little point in attempting to catalogue the billions of minutes of content that people put into stories. Much of it is of a particular sort, though: minutiae of the day, food and drink, time at the gym or on public transit, wry visual jokes. Like tweets, stories are also a solitary unit, but one that only makes sense in terms of a broader feed. In the aggregate, they form a constellational arrangement of the social, a kind of horizon peppered with a vague awareness of what the people we follow are up to. Flipping through them, especially on Instagram where they flow from one into the other, feels a bit like switching through cameras in a hotel, seated in a security room you weren’t really supposed to have access to.

For the perpetually lonely, this intimacy carries a particular significance. Ambient intimacy can only be ambient when it straddles a once-clearer line between private and public, the compulsion to watch arising out of the very act of blurring the division between the two. And in the collapse of the boundary, the everyday, visual dimension of the story can act as a kind of proxy for a lack of daily intimacy. There are, after all, plain, important differences between our experience of the social in public and private: between people at the office and in their pyjamas, between being in a coffee shop and in the cozy, homely feel of an apartment. What might better characterize loneliness than an alienation from intimacy, an exclusion from ordinary closeness, the ebb and flow of emotional states once kept more hidden? A feed of intimacy is a way of stitching oneself into the reassuring daily substrate of life, the rituals and practices that form the base of what then turns into the performance of the public self. Text has its benefits, but it is not quite the same as hearing the imprecise undulations of someone’s voice, or seeing the pleasing creases that line their face.

To call this feed of the everyday a substitute can conjure to mind the same tired debates about a hierarchy of realness, a now ubiquitous discussion in which digital is always somehow lower on an ontological scale, a kind of unsatisfying fake of an ever-receding real. But perhaps the actual ambivalence of visual ambient intimacy is better understood through the lens of the lonely. It is the lonely who understand that the ephemeral sociality of the story can at times evoke genuine connection across physical distance, and at others stand in for a material intimacy. We can get swept along in our own currents of avoidance and deferral, and the glowing window in our pockets that can so often augment the social or produce new arenas of interaction can also provide enough bursts of affect to stand in as a reasonable but unsatisfying facsimile of what we might actually want. The story is sometimes a thing in itself, enough on its own, and sometimes a representation: an outline, an absence — a thing that promises just enough to remind one of what one is lacking.

Digital platforms are a canvas for desire. Into those spaces we project our hope for connection, attention, safety, confrontation, vice, sex. This, more than anything, is the universal characteristic of digital sociality — not questions of epistemology or relations of capital or even surveillance, but underpinning them all, something simpler: hope.

When intimacy is a thing to be as much seen as felt, one must, if not contort oneself, at least turn one’s life to the camera

Ambient intimacy does this to us. In persistently living in the minutiae of each others’ lives, we have produced a horizon of both recognition and aspiration, visions of lives that are at times just like ours, and at others just how we would like ours to be. Desire is thus ever present on our social networks, becoming the engine of our posting, and we suture ourselves into each other using libidinal thread made of pixels.

In transitioning ambient intimacy from one mode to the other, it turns out that our desires are more ambient in text and more intimate when visual. Even among the rather ordinary set of people I follow on Instagram, there is an undercurrent of the erotic more immediate and obvious than on places like Twitter. An ambient sense of social desire is something else when it is visual; we aim to be seen, and are thus asked to be seen in certain ways. And if the camera asks you to be seen, it also offers a chance to determine how you are seen and by whom, this new insistence on the scopophilic turned back against the viewer. I have watched people I know who long seemed to avoid being looked at settle into a new idea of who they are: The ego, once pinched, releases and expands from the center to the skin, a kind of warm fluid of confidence, a body now radiating a newly-minted sense of self-possession. A watchful eye once avoided is reclaimed, welcomed, relished — and so of course, the connective tissue of our communication came to include the image of the body.

There is a tension in this, though. It is hard to separate visual culture from economies of various sorts, from systems of circulation and exchange. The demand to place yourself into the swirl of images comes with certain rules. These are the boundaries of our particular modal shift. One can, for example, embrace body acceptance, can challenge regimes of corporeal domination, but it helps to do so symmetrically, in fashionable clothing, against well-lit backgrounds, engaging in the logic of the rectangular image, augmenting one form of desire with another. When intimacy is a thing to be as much seen as felt, one must, if not contort oneself, at least turn one’s life to the camera. The lens is like a supportive mother believing she is simply doing the right thing: “Be who you are, dear, but at least make yourself presentable.”

Yet there is warmth in the feed of images, too: a steady cavalcade of tiny, precious detail, a gentle flood of affection for both others and ourselves. For the lonely, sitting by themselves in quiet rooms and apartments, it represents an emergent social field, a kind of extra-bodily space in which one communes. The modal shift of ambient intimacy from text to the image is itself a minor analog of the broader one, from mass media to the network, from the body to its holographic pairing. There is in it surveillance and self-surveillance, the insistent saturation of capital down to our most private core. In its most ideal state, the collection of stories on otherwise faceless platforms is like an auditorium of holograms, a community of bodily projections. In those rare moments, one does not find oneself simply alone in the dark and cold, barely lit by a glowing phone. Instead, if only for a fraction of time, it is a field of light made full by incandescent strands of connection, staving off a colourless abyss, an intimate ambience that is — temporarily at least — just enough.

Navneet Alang is a technology and culture writer based in Toronto. His writing has most recently appeared in the Atlantic, New Republic, BuzzFeed, and the Globe and Mail.