What we knew then…

XXVII.4 July - August 2020
Page: 38
Digital Citation

On physical and social distancing: Reflections on moving just about everything online amid Covid-19

Mikael Wiberg

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On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the spread of Covid-19 constituted a pandemic. It stated that that the virus was not just a threat to public health but also a crisis that would affect every sector of public life: "All countries must strike a fine balance between protecting health, minimizing economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights" [1].

In response to the pandemic, the WHO recommended physical distancing [2], maintaining a physical distance between people and reducing the number of times people come into close contact with one another. The WHO proposed the term physical distancing rather than social distancing because it is a physical distance that prevents transmission. In addition, the WHO suggested that as people practice physical distancing, they could stay socially connected via technology.

Despite this push for physical distancing, social distancing has become the more common term. But the WHO's other suggestion became a reality: For months, people have been trying to maintain social connectivity via digital technology. And as a result of rapidly moving most of our social relations—work, education, family—online, videoconferencing systems are now being used more than ever.

But what does it mean to move so much of our social contact online? Is an online meeting the same as a face-to-face meeting? Probably not. Is videoconferencing with your friends and family the same as being together physically? Probably not. And what about the term social distancing when we are in fact advised to practice only physical distancing—while maintaining our social connections over the Internet? What are we to make of physical and social distance here? Though the differences between the two may at first glance appear obvious, something more complicated seems to be unfolding during the spread of Covid-19 and the lockdowns that most of us are experiencing.


HCI offers a way to think about the complexities that the two forms of distance provoke. We have more than three decades of research on face-to-face interaction, including research on the difference between face-to-face and online interaction. In addition, there is a whole strand of research in sociology, social psychology, and environmental psychology on the important role of physical closeness—from basic communication elements and the role of physical places, to more complex questions involving being together, belonging to groups, having special bonds, and feeling closeness to others (i.e., connections, belonging, attachment, and coupling). In short, there are multiple reasons why physical closeness is fundamental to us as humans—and maybe also why physical distancing feels so hard to practice for lots of people, for a number of socially rooted reasons. On the other hand, there are also many people who already experience life with physical distance all the time, and those who have no option to physically distance (e.g., due to incarceration). Here, the Covid-19 pandemic might serve as an eye opener to show what this means on a personal and social level.

Still—and amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic we do not really have any alternatives—many of us continue to need to practice physical distancing, even as some cities and states cautiously or not so cautiously roll out reopening plans. So can we say something more specific about why videoconferencing cannot fully replace face-to-face interactions? Do we have any established theories that can help us understand the difference between these two forms of interaction? And more fundamentally, what happens when we remove face-to-face interaction as an available mode of interaction—when we need to abandon face-to-face interaction and move online? In this article, I will reflect on these questions and also pinpoint a few things that we as an HCI research community might need to reflect on as we move forward.

back to top  HCI on the Role of Face-to-Face Interactions

In my own research over the past 20 years, I have been interested in various aspects of "the local." My Ph.D. research in the late 1990s was concerned with collocated groups of people and how to support mobile and collocated users with digital-meeting technologies [3]. After that, I continued to focus on the role of physical places. I looked at architecture, proxemics, and material interactions—all aspects of being together, with each other, and in close relation to materials, things, and places that represent a large part of our everyday lives—at least until recently.

The local has also served as a generative concept for a lot of work in HCI. Face-to-face interaction, or technology support for "same time, same place" interactions, was one of the four basic modes of interaction proposed by Ellis et al. back in 1991 [4] (Figure 1). In fact, HCI has always assumed that face-to-face interaction would be available as a mode of interaction. At the same time, most technologies have been designed to bridge distances (e.g., email, the telephone, the Internet). But what happens when face-to-face interaction is no longer possible? Just a few months ago, that would have been a far-fetched and hypothetical question. But the pandemic suddenly and drastically changed things. Once the most natural and taken-for-granted form of interaction, getting together face to face in physical spaces is now more difficult, and we find ourselves having to follow the WHO's advice of staying in touch via digital technologies.

ins02.gif Figure 1. Interaction time/location matrix by Ellis et al. [4].

In recent years, HCI has been even more clear about the importance of being together and the critical questions that need to be addressed, as we increasingly acknowledge this as a fundamental part of being human. Our field has also explored issues of being separated, isolated, and apart, and the extent to which we can design technologies that support loneliness and togetherness. If being together is fundamental to us as humans, then we also need to examine questions concerning how we are coming together. We see this in recent HCI research on the role of our bodies, on gender, and on inequalities. Being together is a very complex matter, and these questions also illustrate the richness and complexity of our social relations. If we cannot be physically together, then it is not merely a matter of lacking communication tools—it's a fundamental dimension of our societies, from the small-scale context of individual relations to large-scale matters of humans coming together to form groups, communities, and cities.

So what does this imply as we are trying to move just about everything online? Could it be that physical distancing also prevents us from being together? In the next section, I turn to media richness theory (MRT) to attempt to shed some light on why videoconferencing probably cannot fully take the place of face-to-face interactions.

back to top  Physical Distancing Also Implies Social Distancing

So why is it the case that people still refer to social distancing when it's actually about physical distancing? And why do we have this boom in videoconferencing? Why haven't emails, messages, and phone calls satisfied us?

Well, if we turn to media richness theory, we might see a pattern. In short, media richness theory (MRT) states that all communication media vary in their ability to enable users to communicate, which, in turn, depends on a medium's richness. Further, MRT places all communication media on a continuous scale based on their ability to support communication, from simple information exchange to more complex forms of communication (e.g., negotiations, body language, emotions) [5]. For example, a simple message could be communicated in a short email, whereas a more complex message would be better supported via face-to-face interaction.

If MRT is correct, it makes sense that people feel socially distant from each other even though they might still stay in contact via videoconferencing systems. No matter which technology we use to mediate our interactions, it cannot compensate for the richest form of interaction. Further, MRT might explain the current videoconferencing boom, and why we have shifted not only from face-to-face interactions to online meetings, but also toward the increased use of videoconferencing technologies—the second-best alternative to face-to-face meetings.

While we try to use video to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interactions, we are probably also experiencing the difference between these two modes of interaction. It's hard to feel close to others over video, as it's harder to communicate body language, gestures, and emotions. Further, it makes our everyday interactions bounded to particular sessions, and with that comes the risk of breaking the continuous flow of informal, spontaneous, and everyday encounters—the glue that keeps us together. When we practice physical distancing, we can no longer just bump into each other or maintain a shared common ground as we spontaneously meet. Instead, we need to actively seek and establish interactions—typically through planning and invitations— for a meeting, or just to hang out for a while. Physical distancing means that interactions more than ever demand an active decision to seek contact with others. Many of us might struggle to maintain the everyday connections we have from seeing each other in workplaces and around the neighborhood, or from just seeing familiar strangers at the bus stop.

In short, physical distancing also implies social distancing, even if we try to compensate for some parts of it through the use of digital technologies.

back to top  So What Can Be Done?

The classic saying is "You can run but you can't hide." At the current moment, it is actually the other way around. We can practice physical distancing; we can go into self-quarantine; and some countries even practice complete lockdowns. That is, we are trying to keep ourselves separated, to hide from the virus, and to make it more difficult for the virus to spread. But we cannot run. In some countries we cannot even take a walk in the park, and in most countries there are traveling restrictions implemented in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. In short, we need to stay put and hide—maybe for a long time.

But there are things we can do. In fact, people are already doing a lot, both from their homes and over the Internet. We see lots of creative examples online of how people try to do meaningful, and even funny things, while staying at home.

In relation to the move from face-to-face to online interactions, there are also a number of additional things we can do. If we cannot meet in person at the current moment, we can increase the frequency of our interactions. Not only do interactions depend on the richness of the media, but also on how well we know each other. If we increase the frequency of our interactions, we can still share our everyday experiences with each other. While this might at first be seen as a strictly pandemic-related recommendation, it is also crucial as we move beyond the pandemic. For people who are old, sick, or disabled, or for those who have friends and relatives who live far away, an increase in the frequency of interactions can mean the world.

There are also things technology designers can do. We can improve the technology. We can design better systems with better functions, and better video and audio quality. We can also make these tools lightweight, to make it easier to connect and have spontaneous interactions. In fact, HCI has a whole strand of research on how to design for lightweight interactions.

And we can explore modes of interactions beyond being there. Aside from approaches to mimic or compensate for face-to-face interactions, we can follow the suggestions made by Jim Hollan and Scott Stornetta [6] to explore the things we can do online that might actually be more difficult to do in a face-to-face setting. In short, to think beyond face-to-face interactions as the raw model for online interactions, and instead explore interactions "beyond being there." A good example here is documented in Barry Brown's article in this issue (page 16), where he describes how parts of this year's CHI conference were held online, how it was arranged across different media channels, and how it was fundamentally organized as an online event rather than a poor copy of a face-to-face conference. In fact, it was a good example of how we can reimagine a conference as a socially well-established practice amid the pandemic we're all facing.

back to top  What Can HCI Learn From This?

Well, probably that we cannot take anything for granted—not even face-to-face as a mode of interaction. Over the past 30 years, we have relied on in-person meetings both in our professions and as a raw model for the development of other modes of interaction. This might have prevented us from really exploring alternatives, and that put us in a vulnerable position when we suddenly had to move everything online.

Another lesson we can learn is that we should probably not use one mode of interaction as a raw model for another mode of interaction. This is an implication for designers as well as for HCI researchers. Instead of developing technologies that at best mimic face-to-face interactions, technologies should provide functionality "beyond being there." And for HCI researchers, this means that it is less interesting to compare different modes of interaction and more interesting to explore what the whole palette of different modes of interaction means for us in terms of being together. This is also an important path for HCI to take after the pandemic—to learn more about what we can do for people who will continue to struggle with physical and social distance even when the recommendations for physical distancing are removed.

Further, and though we have developed lots of methods for how to carefully introduce new technologies in social settings, we also need more knowledge on rapid technology-deployment processes (as the current situation has so drastically and brutally shown) and more knowledge on how this is changing practices and our everyday lives.

Finally, and maybe the most important takeaway from this reflection: Interactions matter. Amid the ravaging pandemic we do not need only food and a place to hide away—we also need each other. Physical distancing might be what many of us need to practice at the current moment, but the fact that people refer to this as social distancing stresses how we cannot make a living if we lack ways of being together. As we move online, we need to make sure that we establish social practices that not only compensate for what we are missing but also add new forms of connectedness. We're in this together.

back to top  References

1. https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19---11-march-2020

2. Harris, M. et al. COVID-19. World Health Organization. Mar. 25, 2020.

3. Wiberg, M. In between mobile meetings: Exploring seamless ongoing interaction support for mobile CSCW. Ph.D. thesis, Umeå University, Sweden, 2001.

4. Ellis, C.A., Gibbs, S.J., and Rein, G.L. Groupware: Some issues and experiences. Communications of the ACM 34, 1 (1991), 39–58.

5. Daft, R.L. and Lengel, R.H. Information richness: a new approach to managerial behavior and organizational design. Research in Organizational Behavior 6 (1984), 191–233.

6. Hollan, J. and Stornetta, S. Beyond being there. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 1992, 119–125; https://doi.org/10.1145/142750.142769

back to top  Author

Mikael Wiberg is a full professor in informatics at Umeå University, Sweden. Wiberg's main work is within the areas of interactivity, mobility, materiality, and architecture. He is a co-editor-in-chief of ACM Interactions, and his most recently published book is The Materiality of Interaction: Notes on the Materials of Interaction Design (MIT Press, 2018]. [email protected]

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