Intimacy issues

It's hard to be a good citizen when the line between public and private space is blurred

"Anil is currently writing an article for the New Statesman." So reads my Twitter status at this moment. With a click of a mouse, I add this to my activity feed, and all the contacts in my friends network receive my updated status. Some will see it in their web browsers; others may get the message on their mobile phone or PDA.

Twitter is one of several online social networks promoting this form of "lifestream" - a continually updated list of activities, moods, actions and events, broadcast to groups of friends and acquaintances. Everything from relationship break-ups to party invitations, web bookmarks to music listening habits are strung out on a timeline viewable by anyone in your network. It's part of a trend in technology that's ushering in a new form of intimacy that I think is best described as "ambient intimacy". The term refers to an unprecedented level of connectedness among people, as well as a blurring of private and public space.

Technology has a history of moving the goalposts when it comes to private space. In the early Eighties, the Walkman and the mobile phone fundamentally altered our relationship to our immediate environment: first, by driving home the breakdown of the family unit and our disengagement from urban sprawl; and second, by wiping out the notion of geographical isolation. Today, if our email usage patterns are any indicator, we're happy to spend more time than ever emoting to screens as opposed to faces.

It's often blamed as a catalyst for social alienation, but new technology actually renders us instantly reachable. Digital information surrounds us at work, at school, in the home and in public spaces, giving us the impression that we're suspended in the stuff (we quite literally are, if you take radio, mobile phone and wifi traffic into consideration). Public and private realms intertwine as networks of people gorge on the information they themselves create during the average day: photos of the food you ate, the clothes you bought, links to the video you watched, lists of the books you're reading, the mood you're in, and so on.

It's important for our digital identities that we disentangle all this information to form a coherent notion of private space. Everywhere we look online we see public and private blurred, from Facebook newsfeeds to forums and chat rooms. The end result is a generation confused about the roles of the public and private realms; a generation that risks sinking into self-absorption and narcissism. These tools have the potential greatly to enhance (and even reinvent) our social lives, but without a healthy notion of what is private and what is public, our capacity to identify ourselves as active participants in a tangible society will suffer.

Anil Bawa Cavia designs social software for

Becky Hogge is away

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Why Boris and London deserve each other