Intimate Strangers

Reading some background material for a point of view I’m writing on mobile social software for a workshop on the topic lead me to Hidenori Tomita’s essay “Keitai and the Intimate Stranger.” I turned to it because I was trying to put some intellectual meat on the topic of the inextricable collusion between devices and social action. You know the drill — artifacts have politics, devices have social actions, networks cannot be separated from the socially contingent, historically contexualized activities by which they are imagined, designed, constructed and used.

I was reading the essay as a way to work through some thoughts around the relationship between extant social practices and “new” social practices. I wanted to see if I felt okay taking a position that says that social practices that were “illegible” to people could not effectively become mobile social software services. I’ve been trying to understand proximity-based “meet-up” applications — the one’s like Nokia Sensor, Mobiluck, 6th Sense, BuddyPing, Meetro, Mobido, Streethive, WhoAt, Netomat and Dodgeball. These projects are “socialâ€? in the sense that they mediate face-to-face encounters with friends, friends of a friend or even strangers if the parties are within physical proximity of one another, either through self-identified location, AGPS location derived from location-aware handsets, Bluetooth — sniffing — or other means. The variety of applications that establish intimate contact between strangers for the purposes of dating relationships are especially prominent. There are tons of them as I’ve discovered while doing some background on the topic. The mobile world is absolutely lousy with them.

But, here I have a quandry — it seems speculative to me here in my local context (Los Angeles) and even previous local context (New York City) that people would be willing to digitally “project” information about themselves so that nearby strangers can find out about them and possibly “meet up.” This is entirely a gut instinct based on the sense that people don’t do so “normally”, prior to the introduction of instruments that allow such digital billboarding. And toss in there concerns about sharing one’s identity, privacy, surveillance concerns, etc. — it just seems like this is a bad, bad idea. But, my instincts only count for a tiny bit in this regard.

Tomita gave me some good insights not only on the social practice of meeting someone anonymously using telephone-based networks but, more importantly, how to analytically frame and think through how extant social imaginaries can become part of new technosocial practices. Tomita starts by describing a children’s picture book called Arashi no Yoruni (One Stormy Night) that describes a goat and a wold who find shelter from a storm together in a pitch-black shack. They become friends, not knowing that their relationship is hunter and prey. This “anonymity shield” provides the architecture for anonymous, intimate configurations of social beings. It resonates with an existing imaginary —” having engaging contact with strangers and even foes anonymously. The intimate stranger can only count as — new —? in that the technosocial resources that facilitate the configuration provides the shield of anonymity. From a mobile social software design perspective, the — intimate stranger —? is a technosocial design composed of anonymity networks, the fluidity of social action at a distance that mobility allows, the desire for intimate contact.

Tomita draws a two axes chart — intimacy by anonymity – with four quadrants — stranger, acquaintance, friend/lover and intimate stranger. The intimate stranger is in the high intimacy/high anonymity quadrant in the upper left.

The unique characteristics of communication with intimate strangers can be understood in comparison to eearlier communication patterns. Originally, the telephone was used for conversations with friends or to relay messages. When we talked with people we did not know, it was for business or for making an inquiry to customer service — in short, the purpose was purely instrumental. When traditional telephone communication was positioned on a grid of acquaintance versus stranger and instrumental (servicing as a means to an end) veruss consummate (existing as the end itself), one quadrant remained empty: the one representing stranger and consummate. This quadrant was filled by the new telephone communication between intimate strangers.

Tomita discusses new styles of telephone-based communication that emerged in the late 1980s in Japan callled telekura (telephone clubs) and dengon dial (dial-up telephone messaging.) These services allowed for the anonymous shield — indeed, the Internet itself allowed for this. Moving the anonymity shield into the realm of mobile communications, the intimate stranger is a different, unique kind of social formation because networks that allow for a faceless kind of anonymity are a new vector for mediating social communication. Networks such as the telephone and the Internet allow for a kind of shield that could not arise without the “..anonymity guaranteed by cyberspace.�

..developing intimacy with anonymous others in cyberspace is becoming more commonplace with the widespread adoption of the Internet. Friendly conversations have always taken place between strangers, for instance, between people on vacation or between a bartender and a regular customer, but these are not the same as the communication between intimate strangers being discussed here. Strangers who meet during vacation do not necessarily have a high degree of intimacy, and business considerations come into play in the conversation between a bartender and a customer (Milgram 1977)..The anonymity guaranteed by cyberspace protects us from the hidden dangers of modern society. Cities are also spaces of anonymity, nonetheless, we are always vulnerable to dangers that could be triggered from physical contact with others. On the other hand, the anonymity provided by cyberspace enables us to disappear in an instant and to disengage from online relationships at any time. With a relationship maintained under the protective wing of anonymity, there is a dramatic acceleration of the deepening of intimacy.

Why do I blog this? Because I learned something important about how extant social practices are modulated and mediated by unique technosocial situations and settings. The keitai energizes the field of contact with a different register of usage. It’s still communication, which is a thorough-going social practice, but this notion of contact with anonymity and with a kind of intimacy that is made possible (or at least widespread) via the keitai is unique to the era of mobile social software.


MobileSocialSoftware links
Tomito, H., Keiti and the Intimate Stranger, in Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, M. Ito, M. Matsuda, and D. Okabe, Editors. 2005, MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

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