The Intimacy Crisis: Sex and Social Media with Katherine Dee
A Substack-only feature
Immersed in our virtual worlds, we’re connected but can’t connect. The internet is a carnival hustler, a gleam in its eye as it lures you into bright lights and endless diversion. It picks your pockets of your deepest values and sells them back to you. You stumble out fleeced and wanting more.
On Rebel Wisdom we’ve explored, through many lenses, how the mad carnival of our online lives contributes to the crisis of the times. We’ve looked at how our information ecology is eroding our ability to make sense and find truth. How a crisis of meaning is leading to new religions forming online, and how social media algorithms fuel our cultural polarisation.
The virtual world is also leading us into an intimacy crisis. Social networks gamify our communication. Apps turn dating into a dopamine hit. A hyperlinked world fragments our sense of self and cuts conversations into chunks. But every crisis elicits a response, and the ever-shifting landscape of how we look for intimacy online is anything but simple.
One of my favourite thinkers looking at these dynamics is Katherine Dee. Dee writes a popular Substack called Default Friend, which I’d describe as high quality, avant-garde internet sociology. It’s wide-ranging; she’s explored how sexual identity and body image forms online, how the seeds of the culture wars began on Tumblr, how online Fandoms create their own tribal identities and more.
It was her work on sex negativity that inspired me to get in touch and ask if she wanted to have a conversation. She argues that “eroded relationships have a lot to do with the fact that most middle and upper middle class people in the West lack any sort of identity, [or] inclusion to a group they believe in,” and argues we’re seeing a resulting backlash to the Tinder culture of casual sex and non-committal relationships.
This backlash against the technology itself is one aspect of what she believes is a much deeper issue. “People do not want to be atomized,” she writes. “They do not want to be neutered. Sex dolls are unsustainable. Nobody wants this dystopia. It will be painted as anti-tech but it is not necessarily ‘about’ tech. THIS IS THE REAL CULTURE WAR.”
Below are the highlights of our conversation, with some edits for clarity. After the conversation, I share some of the rabbit holes it led me down, including C. Thi Nguyen’s work on the gamification of conversation online, Sherry Turkle’s research into empathy, the art of Bo Burnham and more.
Alexander Beiner: Something I’ve wanted to ask you about is the fragmented nature of identity online. The internet lets us play with identity, but often cuts us off from authenticity. Collectively we don’t share a meaningful story around what we’re doing online beyond our own gratification. The promise of the early internet was that it would bring us together, but now it seems like a post-truth hellscape. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.
Katherine Dee: I think people feel like they live in many different stories. There's this idea of the distributed self; Sherry Turkle said in an early paper that every window on your computer is a different expression of your self, which I think is a very interesting way of putting it. But a lack of a static self means your past stories can come back to haunt you. No story is really private. There's a lot of surveillance online. I think the more surveilled we get, the more fluid we want to be in response. So it's not only that we’ve living in multiple stories, but we’re losing the ability to leave stories that are not serving you anymore, or that threaten you in some way.
Alexander Beiner: The idea of fluid identity as an adaptation to surveillance is really interesting. I’m particularly interested at the moment in how, when the imaginal online world meets real life, we often get a rude awakening. I think you've described really well how this applies to dating in particular. It seems dating apps like Tinder act as a kind of bridge between that fluid online identity and the solid ‘hereness’ of being a real person in real life, but that transition isn’t a smooth one. Can you talk a bit more about the differences between identities formed online, compared to say how people related pre-internet?
Katherine Dee: This is just guessing because I've always lived in the model that I'm about to describe. But earlier, you would usually identify as something based on your experience. So, you know, being a lesbian. You might have identified as a lesbian because even if you hadn’t experienced same sex intercourse, you experienced same sex attraction. And eventually signifiers start popping up sort of organically [in the real world], so lesbians could flag to other lesbians who they are and that they want to meet because of their shared experience.
But now online we’re seeing more affinity-based identities. And I think that’s where the real tension is. And it's this question of ‘How do we talk about affinity based identities and how do we make room for it? Do we take them seriously?’ I think this is the big fight right now and I think people don't even realise they're fighting about it. A lot of people think most identities should be experience-based, which causes quite a bit of conflict. But I do kind of want to take it seriously. Like if you have a real affinity toward an identity, well, what do you do with that? You don't want to ignore it, but how do we accommodate that in a way where it doesn't, for example, dilute what it means to be a lesbian?
You know, it's crazy that this is going to be controversial for me to say at all. But just to remove the trans debate at all - I know a lot of cis women who identify as lesbians and they have sex with cis men a lot. I've never known them to experience same sex attraction or be in same sex relationships. Or, if same sex is maybe too loaded of a term, what we would traditionally conceive of as a lesbian relationship. So why are they identifying that way? Well, the cynic would say it's because of attention, right? It makes them special. It makes them different.
A person who wants to look a little bit deeper into that might say, well, maybe there's some sort of affinity towards the lesbian identity, and there's something that needs to be understood there. And I don't I don't think it's as simple as ‘everyone is a special little snowflake’. I think that's a big part of this tension that you describe.
Alexander Beiner: I’m wondering if there might be something very deep and old about this dynamic between an affinity-based identity and experience-based identities. One example that comes up is around religious conversion. I studied Old English as part of my degree, and a lot of the texts were written around the time of the Christian conversion of this part of Europe.
If we go back to the 7th century, missionaries were faced with converting a warrior culture to this new pacifist religion. They weren’t usually focusing on the experiential side of the religion - for example having a direct experience of Christ in your life. The early Christians were trying to get people to have an affinity for the religion based on their existing worldview. For example, one of the biggest sticklers for Germanic tribes was that Jesus let himself be sacrificed. No self-respecting man in a warrior culture would do that. So over time missionaries reframed that as the active choice of a true warrior to create the necessary affinity. And it worked.
So I’m wondering if these two types of identity have always been present. Maybe it's quite a fundamental part of how we go about changing our framing on who we are and how we want to be in the world.
Katherine Dee: I think a good example of this is the Trad debate. Trad is a catch all term used online for people who want a more traditional lifestyle. Typically it doesn't refer to ‘capital T traditionalism’, but for example if a woman identifies as Trad, perhaps she wants to be a stay at home mother, get married early and have as many kids as possible. You know, opt out of the modern world as much as possible. If you look at a lot of the people who identify in this way, there's definitely a contingent that are religious, maybe they're conservative Mormons or they're conservative Christians. This is sort of their version of mommy blogging.
But a lot of them - the ones who get caught in the Twitter discourse - are people who are exhausted by the lifestyle they've already lived. They don't have the requisite experience necessarily, but they still identify this way and they promote these ideas. And then the argument tends to be as well, you don't know what you're talking about because you've never experienced a trad lifestyle.
Well, does the affinity count for anything? I think this is an interesting question. How much does desire count and how much of that affinity is fantasy? Well, a lot of it must be fantasy and projection. But there has to be something valuable in the fact that you're attracted to these ideas and that you're willing to start implementing them in your life or using it as a lens through which you view the world.
Alexander Beiner: One of the reasons I enjoy your work is that it points to a deeper human level of our online lives, a level often overshadowed in the mainstream media narrative that focuses on tech and metaverses and whatnot. As someone who works in tech and is also looking through a more sociological lens, what do you think people most often get wrong in the mainstream about online life?
Katherine Dee: I think the number one thing people don't get, and this is hardly new, so I’m almost embarrassed to put it this way, but it’s that the medium is the message. I think there's a real focus on the content instead of how the content is being consumed. And you can see there's glimmers of getting it right. I often bring up sort of the lowest common denominator, a left-wing criticism of YouTube. The idea that YouTube is radicalising your kids with Ben Shapiro videos or whatever. And it's ridiculous, but they're sort of right. Because if you're immersed in anything, the way you get immersed in it is significant.
For example, I wanted to cook, and I think I actually became a pretty good cook just by being totally immersed in cooking videos. I mean, just hours and hours a day, just watching cooking videos. Now I make several meals a day and feel really confident in it. I had the same experience with language learning. You can sub in anything you want: immersing yourself in something really impacts you. Your values can change, and of course your interests and your taste. That's also why content moderation is so hard because too much of anything is going to really mess you up.
Alexander Beiner: I’d like to zoom out and look at the medium itself. A lot of people in our space, myself included, use Timothy Morton’s idea of hyperobjects when thinking about something as vast as the internet or climate change. A hyperobject is something so big that you can never grasp the whole, even though aspects of it appear locally. For example an anteater is an aspect of evolution, but you can’t point to it and say ‘that’s is evolution’. Evolution is everywhere. So we can engage with a part of the internet, like one particular group on a social network, but never the whole. With that in mind, I wonder if it’s easier to talk about it in archetypal and mythic terms. So I know this is a tricky question, but if the internet is a god, what kind of god do you think it is? And is it masculine or feminine?
Katherine Dee: I don't think the Internet would be a god. I think it's more like the astral plane. That's sort of my theory. In terms of overall qualities, I’d say maybe feminine, but a dark feminine. It's tough to answer, because it's kind of both, which is why I think maybe it's better to see it as more of a place than an entity. It’s a non-physical place. It's always there. It's always on. You can definitely get sucked into it. When I was learning about the astral realm and astral travel I was always told to keep a string attached to your physical body. And when you're projecting yourself outward, you make sure that string never breaks. I think, you know, that's a very useful metaphor for going online. You don't want that string to break and get lost.
The Tower of Babel
If the collective string grounding us to reality is still intact, it’s down to its last threads. In a recent article by Jonathan Haidt in ‘The Atlantic’, he suggested the most apt myth for the times is the tower of babel. He writes:
“Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three.”
We are fragmented, lost and unable to speak the same language or share the same stories. And if we can’t understand one another or speak from a shared reality, we have no hope of true intimacy.
As I’ve been editing this conversation, I’ve been re-reading Christopher Booker’s epic analysis of storytelling ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ as research for my own book. Booker looks at thousands of books and movies through a Jungian lens to make the argument that stories are our way of expressing a universal human journey. The process of evolving. Characters start out as limited and ego-centric, go through an experience that changes how they see themselves and the world, and eventually identify with the values of the Self rather than the limited ego. They become connected to the wider world, serving a purpose higher than their own selfish needs.
After laying out the archetypal plots, Booker then looks at how postmodernity has twisted our stories around. He calls that chapter ‘The Age of Loki’ and believes that this goes beyond fiction. We no longer know ourselves, and are living in an age where our stories have been stolen by a trickster god and twisted back on themselves so that they no longer help us evolve, but trap us in narcissistic fixation.
I think we do well to see the modern internet as the ultimate expression of the ‘Age of Loki’. The song ‘Welcome to the Internet’ from Bo Burnham’s masterpiece ‘Inside’ captures perfectly the seedy, trickster quality of the internet. It’s something that lures you in, overruns your boundaries, and tricks you with its shiny wares. Sung with the ‘step-right-up’ swagger of a carnival grifter, the song begins:
Welcome to the internet / Have a look around / Anything that brain of yours can think of can be found / We've got mountains of content / Some better, some worse / If none of it's of interest to you, you'd be the first
The Medium and the Message
As Dee pointed out, when it comes to how we behave online, the medium is the message. And so to disentangle ourselves from its grip, maybe we need to face this trickster head on and ask how the way it’s designed is changing us.
Sherry Turkle, who Dee mentioned, has done an enormous amount of research into this question. A clinical psychologist at MIT, she’s spent three decades studying our relationship with technology. The concept Dee referred to about the different windows we have open being different aspects of self can be found in Turkle’s book ‘Alone Together’.
In one of the vignettes she shares, a man explains to Turkle that the multiple windows open on his computer are like multiple different lives, but that his least favourite window is real life. The book relates many more vignettes like this, and they all point to the early seeds of what Mary Harrington calls Luxury Gnosticism of the Western elites, the idea that we’re increasingly retreating into disembodied worlds defined by narrative games and abstract theories to avoid the pain of reality. This is a dynamic I explored in my conversation with N.S Lyons, whose concept of the clash between Virtuals and Physicals in the culture wars maps against this.
In ‘Alone Together’, Turkle discusses how a desire for a ‘friction free emotional life’ held by many tech designers has led to apps and social networks that actively help us avoid real intimacy or empathy. Another vignette in the book involves Turkle observing a group of technologists getting excited over a new app that will alert you if someone you don’t want to talk to is nearby, so you can avoid an uncomfortable conversation.
For Turkle, our tech is eroding the relational skills we need to have rich, authentic conversations. And it starts young. Some of Turkle’s earlier research involved looking at how children interacted with the Furby.
Furbies were a small furry robot sold in the 1990’s as a companion for children. The promise was that the Furby would be your friend, learn words and speak with you in its limited vocabulary. Turkle uses this example to point out how the relationship a child (or an adult) has with a machine can skew how they relate to people, and this research took place long before the iPads that our toddlers now play with.
The issue she points to is that machines can pretend to engage with you and be your friend. But they can’t really. They can’t engage a child in imaginative play, or challenge them, or help them learn how to regulate their emotions in the way interacting with other children will. Alexa isn’t truly there for you.
A useful frame here is the idea that we can have relationships with objects, I/It relationships, or relationships with living things that talk back or engage with us, known as I/Thou relationships. Our devices lead us to confuse the two. Turkle relates how sometimes when a Furby broke, a child would hold a funeral for it and refuse to buy another. It’s natural for children (or adults) to imbue objects or technology with an animistic personality. However, the problem is when we don’t realise we’re doing it and an ‘it’ starts to take the place of a ‘you’.
This is the relationship many of us have with our phones. The ‘It’ becomes a false ‘Thou’, drawing our attention away from the real people in our lives, all the while promising to connect us to a responsive world where we can find or express anything we like. In reality, it leaves us stuck in this same lonely confusion as a child cradling a broken toy.
The Gamification of Discourse
There is another quality to the internet that contributes to our dislocation. And it takes us right back to its trickster nature. It’s about how it constrains the ways in which we can communicate, all the while promising to be a place where we can find or express anything we like. The chorus of ‘Welcome to the Internet’ captures this dark promise beautifully.
Could I interest you in everything? / All of the time? / A little bit of everything / All of the time / Apathy's a tragedy / And boredom is a crime / Anything and everything/ All of the time
In some ways, the internet allows us to be free from the regular constraints that govern social life, relationships and self-identity. But it’s also full of shit. Because much of it does, in fact, have some very specific, carefully-designed constraints.
To see why this matters, we can turn to the philosophy of games and how it applies to social media. In his book Games: Agency as Art , C. Thi Nguyen argues that each art form captures some aspect of our human experience. Painting is the art of sight. Music, the art of sound. Games, he argues, are the art form we use to experience different types of agency.
They do this by creating clear goals and constraints in which we can exercise agency in a particular way. Games tell us what to care about, what goals to pursue, and constrain our agency toward meeting those goals. Nguyen suggests we enjoy them so much partly because life is so complex, and full of such unclear demands on our agency, that games give us a kind of relief.
Where Nguyen’s work is especially on point is in his application of this theory to social media. He points out that social platforms work by gamifying our communication. In his paper How Twitter Gamifies Communication, he writes:
“Twitter shapes our goals for discourse by making conversation something like a game. Twitter scores our conversation. And it does so, not in terms of our own particular and rich purposes for communication, but in terms of its own pre-loaded, painfully thin metrics: Likes, Retweets, and Follower counts.”
Elsewhere, he’s argued that Twitter both promises and then crushes any hope of intimacy through its very design. This applies to most social networks, and it’s part of a wider phenomenon he calls Value Capture. He explains that “Value capture occurs when 1) Our natural values are rich, subtle, and hard-to-express. 2) We are placed in a social or institutional setting which presents simplified, typically quantified, versions of our values back to ourselves. 3) The simplified versions take over in our motivation and deliberation.”
Value capture and the gamification of communication doesn’t just happen online. Many social situations could be seen as games to some degree. Institutions or companies we work for regularly hijack our deeper values and force us to play by their rules. An academic who’s told ‘publish or perish’ or a policewoman who’s given a stop and search quota soon realises this.
When we feel constrained by someone else’s values, we yearn to be free. So it is no surprise that an increasing number of people are expressing a desire to free themselves from the carnival of online life. To leave behind its sordid, predatory influence, and instead choose their own constraints as we’re seeing in the Trad phenomenon.
Real life is defined by constraints. Seeking out constraints on our agency may be wired into us at the deepest level, and the reason why the ‘Sex Negativity’ trend that Dee is pointing to is ascendent right now.
The latest cognitive science argues that how we think and feel is enacted, meaning its inseparable from what we choose to do in the world, and always in a reciprocal relationship with our environment. Any environment is defined as much by what it doesn’t allow us to do as by the opportunities it affords us.
A good example is saving money. Doing so may constrain your options in the city you live in right now but open up more options for you in the long term. Likewise, if you spend all of your money this week, you may have a week full of possibilities, but in the long-term you might be eating canned beans and not going to any restaurants for a while.
What are known as ‘enabling constraints’ can help us to zoom in to what is truly relevant to us, giving us direction in a sea of information. Dave Snowden has suggested they’re key to sensemaking and innovation. But we don’t need the kind of constraints that force us to change our values in order to increase a social network or a corporation’s bottom line. A mountain might constrain your movement, but it doesn’t have an agenda. It doesn’t ask you to sacrifice your most deeply held values in exchange for climbing it.
I think Dee, Turkle and Nguyen are all pointing to something of incredible importance: constraints on our agency are deeply linked to meaning in life. Trying to build a ‘friction-free emotional life’ is pathological, because friction is part of what gives us meaning and purpose. The difficulty, the challenge, the vulnerability of intimacy might be scary, but it makes us feel human.
I started considering how this links to the intimacy crisis after a recent conversation with John Vervaeke. He mentioned that enabling constraints are necessary to bring us into a state of flow, that place where we’re deeply in tune with reality, melding into an ‘I/thou’ relationship with the world.
He also pointed out that this state is often hijacked. For example, gambling machines (which inspired the design of many of our social networks) will elicit a flow state but fleece you in the process. He then suggested something I’d never though of: flow should to be connected to virtue. A state to be entered into not as just another experience, but to bring us into an authentic and meaningful connection to our deepest values.
Thinking about this, I remembered a series of conversations I had in the spring with a lovely man in his mid-eighties. A pastor and a retired professor of English, he’s been married for more than sixty years. Looking out over a valley in the Algarve, I asked what the secret was to a long marriage. He chuckled.
“Don’t get divorced.”
I’ve thought about that answer a lot over the last few months. Having been with my wife for 12 years, I’ve often reflected on the deep and grounding power of intimacy that forms through a shared commitment to constraint. Whether or not this means monogamy leads to more happiness and meaning than other forms of relationships I have no idea. But there is something ineffable about the joy of consciously-chosen constraint, something that we may be yearning for on a collective level. Dee’s final comments in our conversation touched on exactly this.
“I think that this fragmented way of being isn't isn't good for people. And I think it leads to a lot of emptiness. A lot of what people do online that seems malicious or misguided, is a product of searching for something. This is increasingly rare, but for people who have like lots of casual sex off Tinder, it's often just a proxy for social experience or connection. People join all these different online communities for the same reason. They catfish for that reason. I think people want smaller, more contained lives where the what they actually are doing is very predictable and contained, but they have some sort of transcendent purpose. I think that's kind of the optimal way of being.”