May 20, 2016
More and more human communication is mediated by technical devices. This is not only true of mass communication. Many forms of interpersonal communication are also long-distance communication. Still, many sociologists are used to treating face-to-face interaction as their chief model. Distance communication is often seen as categorically different from communication in physical presence. This article traces this tradition and questions its relevance under present-day conditions. For a long time, distance communication was studied under the influence of a “restriction hypothesis”. It was seen as less rich, less authentic, and less efficient than face-to-face interaction. Similarly, nowadays there are claims that interaction analyses cannot play any role in studying the field of computer-mediated communication. Alternatively, a concept of “virtual contingency” is supposed to capture the alleged anonymity of distance communication and to do away with traditional understandings of “communication” and “person”. This article argues, however, that, in general, differences between distance and face-to-face communication are less significant than usually presupposed. It is not imperative to restrict the meaning of interaction to face-to-face communication. The importance of specific communicative contexts has to be considered. Empirical restrictions of face-to-face communication, on the one hand, and the variety and richness of distance communication, on the other hand, tend to be overlooked too easily.