It’s practically considered a truism that real-life social interaction is preferable to online communication. Even the most positive articles on social media usually end with an exhortation to get out and meet people in physical space. I’d like to challenge this assumption, and argue that social media–whether that be phone calls, texting, Discord, or any other tool–has distinct benefits, particularly for the disabled.
With the pandemic, most of us have experienced something of what it’s like to simply be unable to socialize in person. Even before COVID-19, the world has always been full of various diseases, and there have always been people particularly vulnerable to them. Others have mobility issues–and while here in the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act has been extremely valuable, the amount of truly accessible spaces is discouragingly low. For others, going out is simply too tiring to do often. These are only some of the possibilities, and to dangle the idea of in-person interaction in front of people who can’t get out like it’s somehow inherently better seems cruel.
Getting out also costs money, which is a complicated subject for many of us, especially those that are disabled. Without going into details on a subject that deserves fuller treatment, I will simply note that disabled people often have additional needs (mobility aids, labor-saving goods and services, medical devices, etc.), that disabled people may not be able to work without accommodations or at all, and that at least in the US, disability benefits are disgracefully low. Most public spaces require payment for use; they are also often outdoors and thus not available in all weather. Libraries may be a better option, if your library has spaces for socialization as well as for study, but this is only a limited option. Transportation costs money, from bus fares to gas money, and even if people have access to public transport there are often many additional complications for the disabled.
Communication may be more difficult in person as well. Most public spaces are on the noisy side, creating difficulties for those who are hard of hearing or have auditory processing issues. Even if friends know and accommodate a person’s specific communication needs, others such as bus drivers and baristas will not know them and their needs.
Your Random Family
There is additionally sometimes an assumption that in-person relationships are as likely to be compatible as online relationships. When you limit your friendships to those around you, you essentially are picking from a randomized selection of people with no guarantee that they’ll share your values, tastes, and interests. There really is no reason that you should particularly get along with the people you happen to be related to or to live near, other than familiarity. And, well . . . it’s also a truism that familiarity breed contempt, after all. I do not mean that we shouldn’t try to be friends with those around us and related to us, but sometimes that just isn’t possible.
On the other hand, online friends may also be more different from us than those physically around us. Especially for those in rural areas, the people nearby are likely to share demographic characteristics and have been raised in similar circumstances. As another example, students generally spend most of their time with those their own age.
It may seem like a paradox to praise online communication because it allows us to communicate with those both similar and different to us, but I don’t think there’s a true contradiction. It is good for us to have friends whose personalities we get along with, who seem naturally designed for us to get along with, and also to have friends that differ from us in outer things, who can broaden our minds.
The Benefits of Online Communication
While online communication can be notoriously negative and hateful, in-person communication can certainly be hateful as well, with the added disadvantage of being physically vulnerable to the enraged people. I believe that online communication can be just as kind and caring as any in-person communication, and even have the advantage in some cases. In non-instant communication, there’s the opportunity to step back and cool off before continuing a debate, which isn’t available in person. Tools like blocking can allow you to ignore and deplatform those who are hateful or simply annoying.
I have anxiety, and one of the ways it manifests is in social relationships. For me, online relationships relieve some of the pressure that in-person relationships bring. I have time to think, to choose my words, and to speak up, rather than trying to find opportunities to speak in a fast-paced conversation and second-guessing myself so much that I rarely speak.
I do also have a soft spot for emoji reactions. Sometimes I don’t feel up to writing a whole response, and sometimes a full response only detracts from the original message. With an emoji or two, you can let someone know that you read and thought about them, without speaking over a venting post or emotional sharing. Sometimes a heart or a hug feels more thoughtful than struggling for words.
All in all, it seems to me that rather than bemoaning the lack of in-person communication, people should be working to ensure that everyone can go out safely and accessibly. And if your online life is unsatisfying, perhaps that is the people or topics you’re following, rather than the inherent nature of online communication. Above all, be thankful for the tools that have opened up so many opportunities, particularly to the disabled.