[Originally posted on Familiar Strangers blog]
Brian mentioned in class that he was thinking about looking at ambient intimacy in his project. His basic idea was that the minutia that gets shared on Facebook creates an effortless, ambient intimacy with people in our networks. For instance, I know that Brian had a sports blog, went to Vegas, etc., only from the fact that he is one of my Facebook friends. I haven’t spoken to him in a year. We then went on to talk about the fact that intimacy is, in fact, based on knowing the minutia of someone’s life. Big details are for acquaintances. Small details are for friends. (Look at it this way: Facebook allows you to post status updates, LinkedIn (the businessperson’s social networking site) doesn’t.)
In any case, I have been thinking about this idea of digital intimacy with respect to notions of relatedness promoted by the mass digitization of bureaucratic records and the development of social media-ish tools for the practice of genealogy. While I don’t think that there is necessarily an “ambient” nature to the intimacy that you form with your ancestor, there is suddenly an abundance of minute details which you can learn about their lives. Finding this amount of detail is predicated wholly on the digitization and searchability of old documents.
I have found this to be particularly the case with my ancestors who lived in Ontario in the 19th century. Both of the major newspapers from that time are digitized and searchable. I have turned up a wide variety of interesting tidbits about my ancestors, particularly those who were either wealthy or prominent. For instance, I learned that one of my great-grandfathers was involved in a ship wreck. He survived, but that story didn’t survive in the oral traditions of our family. From name searches, I have learned that my great-grandmother gave flowers to a Canadian Prime Minister, that my great-great-grandfather had stomach problems and endorsed a stomach tonic, that another relative from Montreal stayed a Toronto hotel ever once in a while (yes, this was recorded in 19th century newspapers)…
It is clear to me that the internet allows us to connect to our families and distant relatives in ways that were impossible before. I have read some (albeit non-scientific) articles which suggest that North Americans in particular are, for the most part, unable to name their great-grandparents. Some of this has to do with the mobility of our population, I’m sure. After all, it is a lot easier to remember your ancestors if you live in their house, own some of their belongings etc. The internet flattens this effect of mobility though — we can now locate and connect to as many of our distant relations as we dare to.
Through the discussion of intimacy, I realized that the internet not only flattens the effect of distance on families, it also flattens (to some extent) the effects of time on families. Information about some areas of the past are just as available to me as information about the present. The Globe and Mail from 1890 is just as searchable to me as the Globe and Mail from 1990. In fact, I have more information from 19th century sources about my relatives than I do from the 20th century sources. The 20th century sources are either protected by privacy laws or, in the case of newspapers, were no longer a repository for local information.
The internet also makes our memories collectively accessible as opposed to individually accessible. While one person in the family may have been the family archivist in the past, this information is being increasingly digitized and posted on the net. The death of the family historian will no longer mean the death of the family histories. These stories will have a longevity previously unknown. It is not hard to imagine, for instance, that my grandchildren will be able to access and read this blog. Their process of family storytelling and research will involve distilling TOO MUCH information as opposed to our current process of putting together the little pieces…