In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Digital Intimacies

  • Introduction
  • Genealogy of the Concept
  • Early Digital Intimacies
  • Community and Social Media
  • Platforms of Connection
  • Digital Sexuality
  • Intimacies of Love and Hate
  • Algorithms, AI, and Robotic Interconnections
  • Videogames and Intimacy
  • Methodologies for Digital Intimacies

Communication Digital Intimacies
Nathan Rambukkana, Keer Wang
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0250


To speak of “digital intimacies” is to acknowledge two premises, both foundational to communication studies. The first is that media of communication not only significantly affect the content of communication, but also are themselves meaningful. The second is that media of communication become articulated to the processes they interact with. Applying the first premise here posits that digital intimacies have a character of their own, due to their digital nature and its corollaries: coding, technologies (both ephemeral at the software layer, and concretized or embodied), platforms, design, networks, algorithms, etc. The digital in this figuring encompasses everything from programming to software communities, from individual to world-spanning networks, from microprocessors to robots. And every aspect of this digital nature leaves traces and transformed intimacies in its wake. Applying the second premise posits that digital intimacies have become, in addition to a particular subtype of intimacy, also a particular subtype of communication, and one that needs to be studied in its own right. Conjoining the concepts, thus, means that while the digital has transformed practices of intimacy, intimacies have equally infected the digital, guiding and inflecting its growth and spread at a fundamental level. Intimacy can mean many things (and the specific Genealogy of the Concept of “digital intimacies” is broken down in the following section), but for the purposes of a general gloss, intimacy can be taken to mean closeness, proximity, interconnectedness, connection. Digital intimacies can mean phenomena as narrow as fandom subreddits and as broad as international news publics. It means both the digital mediation of intimate matters such as sexuality and kinship, as well as topics one might not consider intimacies per se, but are nonetheless about kinds of interconnectedness, such as thinking through the costs/benefits of online voting platforms for democracy, or the surveillance issues inherent to using smart passports for border control. It is simultaneously broad and narrow, expansive and focused. It has interests in the past, present, and possible futures—even in fictions, and the new configurations and contortions that intimacies can be imagined into in (among others) science and speculative fictions. The study of digital intimacies, separately and—increasingly, radically—together, both opens up an exciting vein for new scholarship and creates opportunities to revisit older work that can be reclaimed and considered as part of this frame. An emergent field, it is significant to—in addition to communication studies—many other fields including cultural studies, sexuality studies, women’s and gender studies, Internet studies, game studies, platform studies, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and political science. Note: While a small number of the works and chapters in this bibliography address digital intimacies outside the Global North/West, this (in conjunction with a paucity of sources not originally in English) should be seen as a limitation of the bibliography as currently constituted and an area for future expansion of this entry.

Genealogy of the Concept

Digital intimacies is both an emerging field in itself and one that has transverse traces cutting through the established literature on digital cultures. It is therefore difficult to pin down and even more difficult to taxonomize, as its intercut and intersectional nature defies easy categorization. The categories in this bibliography are artificial and incomplete, and only serve as one way to sift out the content. To take one example, while Odzer 1997 and Rheingold 2000 are in Early Digital Intimacies because of their notable place in the earlier literature, they are also foundational texts that could equally belong, variously, in Community and Social Media, Platforms of Connection, Videogames and Intimacy, and Digital Sexuality. As a concept, “digital intimacies” under this terminological organization draws primarily on critical intimacy studies as formulated by, most notably, Lauren Berlant (for example in the collection Berlant 2000), but is also influenced by ideas coming from diverse other fields. For example, Bersani and Phillips 2010 tackles intimacy via philosophy and psychoanalysis, and Andreassen, et al. 2017 traces the concept through not only the theoretical lineage from Berlant, but also a parallel social science lineage which “investigates intimacy historically by examining the way in which relationships associated with intimacy have evolved, developing from traditional intimacies carried out in proximity to local communities and families to modern or late modern intimacies, characterised by relationships of choice” (p. 55)—a thread exemplified by works such as Chambers 2013. Critical intimacy studies builds on the work of queer theory—deconstructing public/private binaries, addressing intimate normativities, being overtly political—but expands it, moving beyond sexuality studies to take in, as Berlant 2000 (p. 4) discusses, all the “kinds of connections that impact on people, and on which they depend for living.” Following its lead, digital intimacies expands on and extends critical intimacy studies by narrowing in on the connection between this exploded and inclusive notion of intimacy and digital culture. Early overlapping conceptualizations such as McGlotten 2014 engaging with “virtual intimacies” (with an earlier chapter by the same author in O’Riordan and Phillips 2007) and Chambers 2013 discussing “online”/“mediated intimacies” paved the way for considering this as a field in itself. More recently, work such as Rambukkana 2015 and Miguel 2018 has actively mobilized “digital intimacies” as a concept, with Andreassen, et al. 2017 and Dobson, et al. 2018 appearing as the first collections devoted to the topic under that name.

  • Andreassen, Rikke, Michael Nebeling Petersen, Katherine Harrison, and Tobias Raun, eds. 2017. Mediated intimacies: Connectivities, relationalities and proximities. New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315208589

    This anthology investigates different forms of mediated intimacy such as online dating sites, online communities, expression of grief on digital platforms, and the mediation of reproductive technologies with a view to exploring how intimate connections and practices are shaping new media and vice versa. Alongside Dobson, et al. 2018, one of the first collections to directly address the concept of “digital intimacies.” The introduction is especially useful for situating intimacy theory broadly.

  • Berlant, Lauren Gail. 2000. Intimacy. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A republication and extension of the Berlant-edited 1998 Intimacy Special Issue of Critical Inquiry (24.2) that can be seen as the origin of critical intimacy studies, this collection theorizes intimacy in an expanded way, taking on not only sexuality and kinship, but things such as fandoms, therapy relationships, music appreciation, and the politics of citizenship. Of particular note is the introduction “Intimacy: A Special Issue.”

  • Bersani, Leo, and Adam Phillips. 2010. Intimacies. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A philosophical dialogue about human intimacies from a psychoanalytic perspective.

  • Chambers, Deborah. 2013. Social media and personal relationships: Online intimacies and networked friendship. Palgrave Macmillan Studies in Family and Intimate Life. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Focusing on the conjunction of mediated intimacy and friendship, this book is an in-depth study of the transformative role of social media and digital connection on human intimacies. In addition to the central theme of friendship, additional chapters touch on self-presentation, family relationships, and virtual community.

  • Dobson, Amy Shields, Brady Robards, and Nicholas Carah, eds. 2018. Digital intimate publics and social media. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Comprehensive analysis of digital intimacy with chapters across a range of topics relevant to this annotated bibliography. Its three major categories of “Shaping Intimacy,” “Public Bodies,” and “Negotiating Intimacy” organize chapters on issues such as digital intimate publics and labor, posthumous selfies, heteroflexible webcamming, gender-diverse social media storytelling, and hook-up apps. Alongside Andreassen, et al. 2017, one of the first collections to directly address the concept of “digital intimacies.”

  • McGlotten, Shaka. 2014. Virtual intimacies: Media, affect, and queer sociality. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

    Building on his chapter in O’Riordan and Phillips 2007, McGlotten contributes to queer and feminist understandings of “connection, belonging, or love,” theorizing the parallel formation of “virtual intimacies.” Focusing on how gay men navigate virtually mediated intimacies such as online sex publics, World of Warcraft intimacies, and DIY porn, McGlotten shows how the sometimes-ephemeral intimacies of online spaces are rooted in an immanence that makes “the virtual” not the opposite of “the actual” but rather an interacting and real force.

  • Miguel, Cristina. 2018. Personal relationships and intimacy in the age of social media. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Drawing from a study of three social media platforms (Badoo, Couchsurfing, and Facebook), Miguel investigates how digital and networked intimacy actually operates in practice. Unpacking forms of intimacy such as meeting and self-disclosure, as well as theorizing around topics such as the political economy of networked intimacies and platforms, this book is an important work for assessing the state of digital intimacies broadly.

  • Odzer, Cleo. 1997. Virtual spaces: Sex and the cyber citizen. New York: Berkley.

    Discussed in more detail in Early Digital Intimacies, this book was, similar to Rheingold 2000 for the concept of online community, important for establishing that digital sexuality was both real and material.

  • O’Riordan, Kate, and David J. Phillips, eds. 2007. Queer online: Media technology and sexuality. New York: Peter Lang.

    Discussed in more detail in Early Digital Intimacies, of note here is the early development of McGlotten’s concept of “virtual intimacies” in his chapter “Virtual Intimacies: Love, Addiction, and Identity @ The Matrix,” which is a cognate concept to “digital intimacies” covering overlapping but differently figured theoretical ground.

  • Rambukkana, Nathan. 2015. Hashtag publics: The power and politics of discursive networks. New York: Peter Lang.

    In the introduction to this collection, “Hashtags as Technosocial Events,” Rambukkana discusses how hashtags can be enablers of digital intimacy, as they are virtual objects with the ability to help form and instantiate networks and publics.

  • Rheingold, Howard. 2000. The virtual community: Homesteading on the electronic frontier. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    An early work whose most important contribution to digital intimacies as a field is the sheer notion that online communities were real communities, that online connections were real connections, and that online commitments were real commitments. Their digital embodiment and location might alter the character of those kinds of intimacy; nevertheless Rheingold argued it did not negate their reality as intimacies (albeit using different language).

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