What Social Distancing Means to One Non-Social Media User
Angela Wren Wall
When I started hearing daily use of the term “social distancing,” I became unsettled.
I don’t use social media and only just acquired internet to work from home during the COVID-19 crisis. I have used the same flip phone for 15 years; my brief dabbling with Facebook spanned one week. Even though Twitter (I’m told) is a gamechanger providing instantaneous worldwide dissemination of information, and Instagram can make my pets internet stars overnight, I have not yet been tempted to join the social media fold. I’m no technophobe, either. For 10 years at UC Irvine, I worked in IT, a dedicated technophile.
“Social distancing” may strictly refer to preserving a six-foot safe distance between people to curb the spread of COVID-19, but I now realize that – long before COVID-19 hit the scene – I started forming the belief that society had already begun practicing social distancing, i.e. preferring online contact vs. being physically together. Defining that now compels me to unravel exactly what this means to me.
Take Facebook (the only social medium that I have used), which was a big deal, maybe because it was novel technology, or reminiscent of actual college facebooks, or merely another way to be in the “know.” Rediscovering long-lost friends jived with me; however, gradually I learned from Facebook users that they posted mostly for folks in their immediate circles. I get it. It’s one-stop shopping: sharing photos, inspirations, the latest good news with multiple friends at once, commiserating about the latest political drama – or doing whatever it is people do on social media (like I really know) – but I prefer to decide what I share, when I share it, and with whom I share it. So I was bewildered when anyone lauded, in particular, Facebook’s one-size-fits-all way of “connecting”. I did not get that. What I share with my closest friends – whether mundane or profound – does not find its way on to any social medium. And I like to share different things with different folks. I see now how these notions of “social distancing” and “connecting” are somehow intertwined (at least in my mind).
I cannot erase the unrest that I felt during that week when I made my handful of Facebook posts, because while prepping those posts I was really longing for something that wasn’t there – the real face of a real person to be with me, to talk to me. Revealing that personal detail here, I now know why I stopped posting on Facebook. For me, attempting to be “social” from a distance in a public arena like Facebook was nothing near the experience of what I call connecting. If anything, for me, typing away on my computer alone underscored my isolation.
This COVID-19 situation resurrected these thoughts after I heard some Facebook users speak of how hard it has been not to physically see people, and that they anticipated inevitably feeling isolated while homebound. I was thinking seasoned social media users were the most likely to be coping better with the absence of physical contact – and I admit I may be projecting that these same users would be conditioned not to notice any difference between connecting online and in-person. What I notice is that people have spoken of a sense of loss while experiencing almost exclusive online contact.
My observations may be born of judgment, but I’m actually heartened that others do notice a difference between online and face-to-face contact. I miss (among many things) my friends’ eyes shining and smiling, a fleeting touch on my arm – and sometimes, getting wrapped in a big hug. In my opinion, online technologies are best suited for practical communication, and as such – emergencies excepted – they will never substitute for the experience I have when I’m with a friend face-to-face.
It has been my privilege to come to terms with “social distancing” (and “connecting”) as it reminds me that often I take for granted those daily gifts that genuinely nourish and sustain me. I look forward to seeing my peeps again, and when that day comes, I will savor every minute.