Digital media empowers the development of intimacy

By JIANG QIAOLEI, ZHANG YADI / 06-27-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Friendships and romantic relationships formed via dating apps are common forms of digital intimacy. Photo: TUCHONG

Intimacy, as an integral part of human emotional life, encompasses emotional connections and shared experiences. It plays an important role in mental and physical health as well as personal well-being. In traditional societies, intimacy has primarily emerged through face-to-face communication, physical contact, and shared experiences. Today, digital media plays an increasingly important role in everyday life, opening up new possibilities for establishing and maintaining intimate relationships.

Social media and instant messaging tools make it more convenient for people to communicate over long distances. Emerging technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and chatbots offer more immersive digital experiences. Digital media can be used to not only maintain existing intimate relationships but also develop new types of intimacy that even extend beyond interpersonal relationships. Digital intimacy, namely intimacy based on digital media, gradually becomes a new social phenomenon.

Theoretical perspective

The theory of affordances, a key theoretical foundation for digital intimacy, was proposed by American psychologist James J. Gibson to explain the actions that organisms or agents may take or the behavioral potentials they possess within a physical environment. The theory of media affordances emphasizes the interactive relationship between media and users, suggesting that the characteristics of media and user willingness jointly affect media usage and its effects.

The affordances of digital media are reflected in the following aspects. Firstly, the spatiotemporal mobility of digital media allows for establishing and maintaining intimate relationships across different physical locations and points in time. Secondly, digital media is highly interactive, enabling real-time information exchange and emotional expression. Thirdly, as digital media provides more flexible channels of communication, users can manage different relationships through various social media platforms, which to some extent changes their understanding and expectations of intimate relationships.

Digital intimacy primarily involves maintaining existing interpersonal relationships or forming new ones via online platforms. Online interactions between fans and idols represent a special type of digital intimacy. It enhances fans’ identification with and loyalty to their idols, while also increasing the visibility and influence of idols. Friendships and romantic relationships formed via dating apps constitute another form of digital intimacy. While this type of digital intimacy contains an element of risk, it provides diversified options for interpersonal interaction.


Digital intimacy possesses several unique characteristics. First, it liberates relationships from strict constraints imposed by traditional social structures and authority systems, allowing individuals to autonomously choose companions and build intimate connections based on shared interests, values, and emotional experiences. Second, it fosters a relatively equal status between the parties involved. Third, digital intimacy incorporates diverse elements of emotional expression, such as text, emojis, voice messages, and videos.

With rapid advances in digital technology, digital media has gradually begun to exhibit characteristics of communicative subjects. This shift transcends the traditional human-centered communication model and offers a new perspective for exploring diverse forms of intimacy. The Computers are Social Actors (CASA) paradigm and the media equation theory serve as theoretical support for this phenomenon.

The CASA paradigm treats computers not merely as tools or media, but as social actors capable of profoundly affecting social interactions. Deep social exchanges blur the boundaries between humans and computers. According to the media equation theory, with the widespread use and intelligent development of media technology, people increasingly regard computers as interaction partners and seek emotional and informational support from them.

Users not only access convenient services by means of smart products such as voice assistants and chatbots, but also establish emotional connections with them to some extent. These products are capable of understanding and responding to human prompts, while also displaying certain emotional reactions and personalized characteristics. This engenders a degree of user reliance and trust, thus forming a special form of digital intimacy.

Research prospects

Meanwhile, digital intimacy faces numerous challenges. How can we ensure the authenticity and sustainability of digital intimacy? How can we define the boundaries between digital intimacy and traditional interpersonal relationships? Future research on digital intimacy can unfold in several directions. 

First, further research is needed to explore the influence of different forms of digital intimacy on human psychology and social behavior. For instance, researchers can focus on how digital intimacy affects self-identity, social skills, and social capital, as well as reliance on and trust in AI products. Second, investigating the differences and similarities between digital intimacy in different cultural and social contexts will contribute to the understanding of the universality and particularity of digital intimacy. Additionally, focusing on the applications and effects of digital intimacy within specific demographic groups can facilitate the provision of tailored services and support.

Jiang Qiaolei (associate professor) and Zhang Yadi are from the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University.