Stocking the Social Pantry: A Recipe for Getting from Social Distancing to Distant Socializing

By Dr. Nicole Ellison (University of Michigan) & Dr. Jeffrey Hancock (Stanford University)

Recent directives to “stay home” have been extended for another month, and possibly longer. For those of us privileged enough to be safe at home, this means a continuation of “social distancing,” which we both agree is a terrible term because we know that people can still be social while physically apart. A better term is “physical distancing.” But while we stay physically apart we should still engage in “distant socializing” through technologies like social media and videoconferencing.

Online socializing can be a life-saver because social isolation can be devastating for our physical and mental health. Think about social connections as important resources, and — just like you want to have food and medicine on hand — you need to stock your “social pantry.” Luckily, there are a lot of ingredients available, from text messaging to online house parties to streaming music concerts to help us stay close socially while being physically apart.

But using these technologies in our new social world comes with challenges. Many of us struggle today with too much togetherness on one hand and not enough on the other. As communication researchers, our recipe for managing this strange new daily diet of physical isolation and online connectedness is informed by decades of research on this topic:

  1. Little messages matter. It’s easy to dismiss brief messages like texts as superficial, but letting people know that you’re thinking of them is important for sustaining relationships. Whether it’s a simple note to say “Hi!” or sharing a funny cat video, these little gestures matter when we are physically isolated from one another. So resist simply consuming media — make an effort to produce messages. Take this time to connect with people you haven’t talked to in a while, especially if they are older or socially isolated.
  2. Time works differently online — plan for it. Early researchers thought that online communication was worse than face-to-face because they didn’t account for how much longer it takes to do things when we have to type things out instead of speaking. The good news is humans can adapt to almost any communication medium, it just takes longer. In text-based communication it takes about 4–5 times longer to get a task done compared to face-to-face, and audio and video takes about 2 times longer. Give yourself extra time — especially if you or others are unfamiliar with digital tools.
  3. Beware of context collapse. “Context Collapse” happens when technology flattens “contexts” such as home and work, which can be disconcerting if you aren’t expecting it. For instance, video conferences may feature interruptions from kids or images from your home in the background. You may want to check how you’ll appear on screen before sharing video and make liberal use of the “mute” button, but also know that some context collapse is inevitable, and it’s OK. We should all be gentle with each other in these circumstances.
  4. Create multiple spaces in one place. “Shelter in place” means there’s no unique spaces for “work,” “home” or “coffeeshop,” and no commute to help us transition from one to the other. Early telecommuters used tricks like wearing a certain hat when working to signal “Don’t interrupt me” to housemates. One telecommuter even installed a new door to his home office so that he would have to step outside and then enter it! Find ways to signal to yourself and others that you are in “work mode” even though you’re still at home.
  5. Eat, drink and be merry — online. One of the most important social things humans do is to break bread with one another — sharing food and drink can foster connection, trust, and positive emotions. Since we have to be separated, arrange a time to enjoy a drink, a coffee, or a meal with friends, family, or colleagues over video.
  6. Cultivate weak ties. Find new online groups that are devoted to your unique situation and interests, whether it’s being a hockey player, a single parent, or a cancer survivor. Yes, these people will start out as strangers. But these “weak ties” can be extraordinarily useful sources of information, and sharing experiences can be particularly nourishing in a time of crisis. Consider Facebook Groups, reddit groups (called subreddits), or neighborhood platforms like NextDoor.
  7. Reach out, especially to older folks. Older populations are especially vulnerable because they may already be more isolated and less comfortable with newer social technologies. Taking time to help them set up or purchase new hardware or software and becoming comfortable with it — and then checking in on them regularly — is an important shared task many of us can do. Screen sharing may make technical support from afar less painful.

This period of distant socializing is likely to last for months and it will challenge us in many ways. By using technologies to connect with others remotely, our social pantry can be much better stocked than past generations who faced similar crises. We have a chance to use these digital tools in the way early technology innovators hoped they would be used: to create connections, share important information, and nurture the social relationships that we need now more than ever.

Authors:

Nicole B. Ellison is the Karl E. Weick Collegiate Professor of Information at the University of Michigan and a fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (2019–2020). She studies social uses of online technologies.

Jeffrey T. Hancock is the Norman and Harry Chair of Communication at Stanford University and the Founding Director of the Stanford Social Media Lab and has studied well-being, emotions deception and trust online.

Written by

Nicole B. Ellison is the Karl E. Weick Collegiate Professor of Information in the School of Information at the University of Michigan.

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