Social Distance versus
Physicality and sociality are not the same thing. This lesson of the early 1990s cyberspace era is something we are relearning now. As we distance ourselves physically, we find ourselves reaching out. All over the world, people are finding digital modes** to regain the social moments that in a pre-coronavirus world, enveloped us seamlessly and invisibly as we moved through our physical everyday lives. I’ve spent more time socializing with people in the past week than in the past year. Being suddenly cut off does that to a person. It reveals the importance of connectivity through its sharp absence, and to regain the possibility of being with, we reach out to let others know, in subtle or obvious ways, “I am here!”
The urge for social presencing during a time of social distancing highlights the idea that ‘presence’ in any meaningful sense is determined more by participation than proximity, a point made early on by Josh Meyrowitz (in his book No Sense of Place, 1986).
I sit in a remote corner of Denmark, working with my colleagues in Germany, Finland, and Norway. They could be from anywhere, but today’s ‘ambient connection’ salon was spontaneous, so it’s composed of people in my timezone. I hear the sound of fingers clicking on keyboards. Occasionally, a sniffle, a clink of a teacup against a saucer, a shifting body, a sigh.
All this is made possible by the key salient feature of the internet to enable (nearly) instantaneous transmission of digital information between people, regardless of geolocation.
In 2005, the well regarded symbolic interactionist Dennis Waskul wrote that when we experience a sense of presence and connection through digital media, it really means that “places are transmitted” (55), a phrase that for me emphasizes something quite different than the idea that information is being transmitted .
As Waskul continues, “the dislocating and disembodying characteristics of the medium necessarily force a reconstitution of self and society. To state it bluntly, places, bodies, and selves are unavoidably translated into the conventions of the medium—they are not ‘there’ otherwise; in these environments, they must be made to exist” (55).
This can play out in more or less remarkable ways.
In the 1990s, this dis/re/location and dis/re/embodiment was remarkable, since it was a novel experience to be sitting in one’s pajamas while attending a meeting halfway around the world, or to go to someone’s text-based ‘living room’ for a virtual happy hour. These extraordinary online experiences seemed to require a unique name like ‘Cyberspace.’ And the opposite, meeting physically, was sometimes called a ‘flesh meet’ or IRL (In Real Life).
Of course, the experience is different now. We are less likely in 2020 to adopt radically different identities than what is presented by our physicality, since we’re living in an era where people use their own names and present their actual visual self (sometimes filtered or augmented). I take this social presencing completely for granted.
As I sit with others in my Zoom meeting space, their faces appear in their own small windows, laid out like a gallery exhibition on my screen. When the connection goes bad, their images might freeze or pixelate. If talking, their voices might be distorted. These technological disruptions are almost invisible because they have become normalized in the everyday use of digital media for interaction.
We simply no longer recognize these glitches as a shockingly clear sign of the fact that what is being transmitted is not the actual image or voice but a digital representation. Whatever is seen and heard by my camera and microphone is translated immediately into bits of data– 0s or 1s that are encoded, somehow packaged and sent as electrical impulses through the internet to my colleagues’ machines. There, these pulses are decoded and translated back into the bits that create a simulacra of my face and voice.
All our interaction is made possible through this digital transformation and transmission. There’s more to it than that, of course, but for most of us, it doesn’t really matter how it works since we only experience the end result, where the verisimilitude is ‘good enough’. We don’t remark on the fact that we are experientially present in situations that bring geographies crashing together, or that our selves are distributed, engaged in multiple, distinctive situations simultaneously.
This moment of social distancing is a powerful one: reminding us of the importance of place and simultaneously, the importance of connection, connectivity, social presence. And the recognition that social proximity is not the same as physical proximity. It never was.
*This piece draws on an argument I made in a previous work, The Dramaturgy of Digital Identity, appearing in The Dramaturgy of Social Life, edited by Charles Edgley (Ashgate Press, 2013 (Routledge link to the book)).
**This is not universally true and there’s a ton of privilege of this statement that I want to acknowledge here.
Meyrowitz, Joshua. 1986. No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Waskul, Dennis. 2005. “Ekstasis and the Internet: Liminality and Computer-mediated Communication”. New Media & Society. 7(1), 47-63.