Every now and again, some pundit or other decides we’re all way too absorbed in our electronic worlds, and declares that we’re sad, antisocial little creatures who need to pull the plug. We’ve lost touch with the real world, they insist, and only by stepping away from our circuit boards will we reclaim our true connections with the people and places around us.
I do understand much of the impulse behind this. I think there are some genuine reasons why people should choose meatspace interaction when they have the option. Experiencing the world and other people in their corporeal forms has benefits that can’t be matched by electronic means. Virtual hugs, while lovely, just aren’t quite the same as real ones, and virtual worlds, while extensive and fascinating, just don’t compare to the experience of being out and seeing real trees, rivers and critters. It’s also important to keep up established, enjoyable in-person relationships with friends and family, and if you’re finding you’d rather spend time online than hang out with your partner and/or kids, you probably have a much bigger problem that needs addressing.
However, there’s something about these vaguely Luddite admonishments that’s always rubbed me the wrong way. Some of it is, of course, that Luddite issue: people who abhor technology for its own sake annoy me to no end. (Indeed, I’ve always wondered why these folks seem to think there’s nothing wrong with writing long letters to far-flung friends, or losing oneself in the fictional world of a book, if doing the same via electronic means is such a bad thing. Is it just a fetish for paper and ink or something?) Some of it is also the arrogance: some people feel that they’re entitled to talk to anyone they want, and get upset when some stranger or other is more fascinated by her phone than by the obnoxious twit at the bus stop trying to chat her up. Seriously, folks: no one is obligated to talk to you just because you happen to be sharing breathing space at the moment. Back off.
The biggest problem with this scolding, however, is that so much of it comes from people operating from the privilege of being able to get out and about in meatspace, and talk to strangers, with little or no risk or limitations. It’s all well and good to tell people they need to step away from the keyboard when one’s own immediate environment is safe, and full of those who might be potential friends. But what if one’s meatspace world isn’t so welcoming, for one reason or another? What, then?
There are, of course, people who naturally have challenges with in-person socialization, even among friends (phobias, ASDs, introversion, etc.), but beyond those issues, there are still millions more of us for whom this isn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world. What if you’re a queer person in a conservative community? What if you have a disability that makes navigating the physical world a challenge? What if you don’t easily speak the primary language in your community? What if your neighborhood is unsafe to wander around in? What if transportation is expensive or otherwise limited for you? What if you’re working long hours or have pressing in-home responsibilities that mean you can’t afford the time or energy sink of getting out and meeting people in person?
In the early days of online communication, many of those drawn to it were seeking community they just couldn’t seem to find in other ways. Most of these folks were, of course, the geeks who pioneered these technologies in the first place, but it wasn’t long before people in other small, often-marginalized groups started joining in. The infant incarnations of AOL (and similar services), Usenet and IRC had a very strong GLBT contingent, for instance, as well as folks who were pagan, atheist or otherwise not part of the dominant religion of their local communities. People who had rare or obscure interests or hobbies also could, for the first time, easily find others with whom to share their passions.
Granted that access to the tech in the early days was expensive and hard to get in far-flung or poor communities, so it wasn’t quite the boon for people with those limitations, but by the time we entered the 21st century, the vast majority of first-world folks did have some sort of access to online communities. And for those who had always felt isolated or marginalized in their physical communities, that opened up a whole new world. For some, it was their first chance at building real, honest friendships with people who were inclined to like them as they are.
Of course, those of us who spend a great deal of time online have many of the same needs for physical, human contact and breathing fresh air as anyone else. But in order for us to meet people with whom we can have those experiences, many of us have to do an enormous amount of social filtering. We can’t just go to the grocery store and strike up a conversation with someone in line and expect that they might someday become a good friend. When your various quirks, limitations or interests make you one in thousands, that means you have to paw through thousands of people to find others like you. Doing that in meatspace is frustrating, time-consuming and sometimes even dangerous. Doing it online? Instantaneous and virtually risk-free, as long as you’re practicing basic internet safety protocol (as everyone should.)
The online social world can have its pitfalls, of course–racism, sexism, harassment, etc., are quite rampant here as well as in the larger world. But it’s considerably easier to avoid any real damage from those who would do us harm when they’re not actually close enough to throw a punch. It’s also considerably easier to rally up a bunch of allies to help fight back against the bigots and bullies. A gay man who gets violent threats online can quickly drum up a righteous army that’ll have his back. A gay man getting those threats in an isolated community? Not so much.
Meatspace socializing with strangers is the province of people who can do so easily. It’s a benefit of the privileges of not being in a group that people might hate, or of not being limited by communication or mobility barriers. It’s a benefit for people who have the time, money and other resources necessary to devote to an extensive social life outside of one’s home. It is a benefit for people who already feel safe in their communities. Telling someone without those advantages that they should step away from the keyboard and go talk to strangers is let-them-eat-cake advice.
Those of us who enjoy socializing online aren’t like pampered suburbanites hiding from the rabble in a gated community. On the contrary, we’re often people who are trying to protect ourselves from the oppression generated by such creeps. Few of us would argue that we’re not interested in having in-person friendships. It’s just that it’s so much harder for us to find genuine friends in meatspace than online. If your choice is between burning weeks or even months to find a few people you can get along with, or spending an hour online to find a dozen, it’s not even a contest. And hey, there’s always the chance that one of those people you meet might even be in your own zip code!
There is, of course, something to be said for remembering to be physically present in your environment, and to sometimes stop and smell the roses–literally, in fact (assuming you don’t have allergies!) There is immense joy and satisfaction to be had in getting your hands on something and experiencing it from a physical perspective–cooking, gardening, crafting, etc. No video game or social network in the world can replace the feeling of being enfolded in the arms of someone who loves you. But when such experiences are rare or come with pitfalls–said allergies, for instance–finding alternate means to experience the world and other people is crucial. No-one who needs those alternatives should feel guilty about that need, nor should they feel pressured to give it up by someone who doesn’t understand exactly how difficult it can be to do it the other way. One size has never fit all, and that goes for how we choose to experience life. Using gadgets and networks to navigate the world isn’t inherently a bad thing, and if people are satisfied with that, and not hurting anyone, then why not let them do so? Consider those gadgets as assistance devices for people who have communication or mobility issues. Because for many of us, that’s exactly what they are.