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Understanding ‘ambient intimacy’ on twitter

Leisa Reichelt introduced the term ‘ambient intimacy’ in one her blog posts, saying it “is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible.”

It can also be defined as a feeling of closeness one develops over a period of time by following other users’ updates on social media. And, before we get into the study and its results, let’s go through some definitions to set a platform for a better understanding of the research.

Ambient intimacy and ambient awareness

Reading other’s’ statuses and posts gives us a peek into their world — a sense of empowerment. This is especially true while following celebrities on Twitter. It helps us understanding the person beyond the popular image, their finitude and the limitations, giving a sense of making them look more approachable and ‘human’, so to speak.

The study notes, “by regularly reading a person’s status updates, individuals are able to get acquainted with the daily routine of one another and might even build [imaginary] close relationships with someone they have never met in person.”

We also tend to conceptualize others based on their regular updates on Twitter. So ambient awareness is defined as the “as a cognitive process, the knowledge of others’ activities created through constant and regular reception and/or interaction through social media.”

When this leads to an emotional attachment, it becomes ambient intimacy.

That brings us to the next two important concepts — electronic propinquity and parasocial relationships.

Electronic propinquity and parasocial relationships

Propinquity means nearness and also less physical distance between two entities. Emerging technologies have made it easier to pass information, and is not affected by distance or time. Virtual interactions can happen between any physical distance.  Electronic propinquity is a subjective perception that allows people to hold a conversation over virtual network, believing that “he or she is functionally, if not physically, is close to someone else.”

A parasocial relationship is one which is one-sided and developed over a period of time when communication is asymmetric. There need not be two-way ‘following’ on Twitter, and that many argue leads to “long-term one-sided illusionary intimacy.”

Now, back to the study.

The necessary conditions to develop ambient intimacy

  • Ambient intimacy is likely happen when the target person’s tweets are perceived as more ‘entertaining and informative’.
  • It also found that ambient awareness is a necessary, but not sufficient, precondition for ambient intimacy.

  • Another important discovery was that, “ambient intimacy can develop quickly and is determined more by frequent exposure than by exposure over long periods of time.”

  • The results also showed that initiating interactions was positively associated with developing ambient intimacy. And, surprisingly, receiving it from the target was not a determining factor.

  • It also showed that developing ambient intimacy is different from interpersonal relationships, where communication is necessarily both ways.

  • The perceived entertainment value was found to be the most substantial predictor of ambient intimacy.
  • It found the “development of ambient intimacy resembles more the phenomenon of one-sided parasocial relationships, in which the interaction from the persona is not as important.”


  1. Ambient intimacy on Twitter by Ruoyun Lin , Ana Levordashka, Sonja Utz, published in Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace

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