Social Distancing Can Travel Online

Social Distancing Can Travel Online

So much has been said about how online chats, email and conferencing are filling the void left by social distancing, I thought it would be worth sending a word of caution.

Courtesy Arthur Asa Berger

Communication online is not a real substitute for person-to-person face-to-face communication. It is most often a complement. That is, people generally communicate online with those they communicate with offline. It reinforces face-to-face communication. For example, when you worry that your kids come home from school and spend all their time online with virtual friends, you are probably wrong. They are most likely continuing conversations with kids they talk to at school. So old fears about people being online too much leading to social isolation, are usually overblown. The most connected individuals online tend to be the most connected off-line.  

Another example is from work. In the 1970s, communication engineers pushed teleconferencing and video conferencing as a substitute for travel. It was more efficient and environmentally friendly, so why travel to exchange information. It did not work. Instead of what Jack Nilles and his colleagues* called T3, ‘telecommunication-transportation-tradeoffs’, researchers found telecommunication enhanced travel – you would communicate online with people you were going to meet and then communicate after you meet. Telecommunication was a complement, not a substitute.

Of course, people meet new people online, most obviously through the use of online dating or social media, and this is very significant. It reconfigures who you know, not simply how often you communicate with them.** You can extend networks online with individuals who share your interests, for example. The frequent point is where else would you meet others interested in extreme ironing. However, most online communication is with those you speak to in everyday life and work. 

The combination of roles attributed to online media are powerful in reinforcing and extending social networks. But in the wake of the pandemic and social distancing, what will be the effect on online social networks? Will social media simply fill the void and compensate for the loss of face-to-face communication? Think of how Zoom, used for video communication among distributed groups, has grown from 10 million to 300 million users in a matter of weeks. So maybe, but I have my doubts. 

Depending on how long social distancing continues, I expect that online communication will continue to follow and reinforce offline communication. That is, it will shrink and become far more local. That is what the empirical relationship between on- and off-line communication would tell me. But what about personal experience?

In the short term, I see more of my neighbors, as I clap for the NHS, or walk my dog, or exercise in my neighborhood. And I am more often online with neighbors, such as in a WhatsApp group to ensure that anyone in need of food or other help can get help from a neighbor. Already, my local community has become more important online. 

But online, I can see my overall social network becoming less vibrant. It is proportionately filled more with advertising, political campaign messages, and government alerts, and less by personal messages from friends. Having moved several times during my career, I can watch my online network diminishing with those from the place I’ve left and growing from the place to which I’ve moved. Geography matters in part because it reduces off-line communication. 

Maybe I am wrong. Times and contexts change such that telecommunication might become a substitute rather than a complement to travel, but I don’t see evidence yet. That said, my bottom line is not to be pessimistic, but also not to be complacent about your social networks. 

This may only be a message to myself but think about it. You may well need to be proactive and serious about keeping in touch with friends and family in order to keep your network vital to your life and work. If you let it move with the comings and goings of emails and conference calls, your online life is likely to become less meaningful and vibrant. Social isolation will translate to more online isolation, unless you actively work to ensure this does not happen. You may be communicating more with friends online early in this period of social distancing, but that will pass unless you make a concerted and sustained effort. 

*Nilles, J., Carlson, F. R. , Jr., Gray, P., and Hanneman, G. J. (1976), The Telecommunications Transportation Tradeoff: Options for Tomorrow. New York: John Wiley & Sons. 

**Dutton, W. H. (1999), Society on the Line. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Also, Dutton, W. H. (2005), ‘Continuity or Transformation? Pp. 13-24 in Dutton, W. H., Kahin, B., O’Callaghan, R., and Wyckoff, A. W. (eds), Transforming Enterprise: The Economic and Social Implications of Information Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. 

Courtesy Arthur Asa Berger