The flood of status The symbol content in Instagram Stories has run dry. No one is going out and doing something cool right now, and if so, they should be put to shame. In addition to sharing happy hour screenshots in video chat and quarantine dinner preparations, our piece-by-piece biographies have stalled. Strangely enough, what remains has long felt more social than social networks.
We do it live without source material. Coronavirus has fulfilled our desire to share the recent past. The dreary days that are inside me blur into each other. The near future is so uncertain that there are hardly any impulses to make plans. Why should you plan an event or look forward to a trip to break your heart when local accommodation orders are extended? We are firmly anchored in the present.
What is social media when there is nothing to brag about? Many of us discover that it is much more fun. We had made social media a sport, but stared at the scoreboard all the time instead of accepting the joy of the game.
Fortunately, Zoom doesn't have any like counts .
There is nothing left. This freed us from external validation, which too often regulates our decision making. It is no longer about what it looks like, but how it feels. Does it bring me to peace, does it make me laugh or does it relieve loneliness? Do it then. There is no FOMO anymore because there is nothing to be missed if you stay at home to read, take a bath or play board games. You do you
As a social animal, it feels most natural to connect. Not asynchronous through feeds from what we just did. But through simultaneous coexistence. Professional corporate technology for agenda-driven video calls has been undermined for meandering, motiveless togetherness. We do what many of us did in basements and parking lots in our childhood: just hanging out.
Just take a look at Houseparty, a group video chat app where teenagers chill aimlessly with every face on the screen at the same time. In Italy, which has been tragically locked since the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the country, houseparty wasn't even among the 1500 best apps a month ago. Today it is number 1 in social apps and number 2 in apps by zoom, topping the charts in tons of countries.
Houseparty topped all charts on Monday when Sensor Tower theinformationsuperhighway said the app's download rate was 323 times higher than the February average. As of yesterday it was number 1 in Portugal (plus 371X) and Spain (plus 592X) as well as in Peru, Argentina, Chile, Austria, Belgium and Great Britain, although I was not in the table a week earlier. Apptopia tells me that Houseparty saw 25 downloads in Spain on March 1st and 40,000 downloads yesterday.
A year ago, Houseparty was almost dead and at No. 245 on the US charts before it was taken over by Fortnite maker Epic in June. Our sudden need for a direct connection has brought it back to life.
Apps for direct connectivity are on the rise around the world. Google Hangouts rules in Sweden. Discord when chatting while playing is number 1 in France. Slack Clone Microsoft Teams is king in the Netherlands. After leafing through Netflix, all we have to do is talk to each other.
Undivided from geography
If we're all stuck at home, it doesn't matter where that home is. We were released from the borders where friends are within a 20-minute drive or an hour-long train. Just like the students say they all go to Zoom University, since all school classes are online, we all now live in Zoom Town. All commutes have been reduced to the time it takes to generate an invitation URL.
Nestled in San Francisco, even friends in Berkeley Bay felt far away. But this week I had hours of video calls to my favorite people who usually feel unreachable in Chicago and New York. I spent time with babies I hadn't met in person. And I stayed in closer contact with my parents on the other coast, which is more important and urgent than ever.
Typically, our time is occupied by acquaintances. The employees who share our office. The friends who happen to live in the neighborhood. But now we're building a virtual family of our choice. The calculation has shifted from the one who is comfortable or who invites us to the most exciting place to the one who gives us the feeling of being the most human.
Even celebrities participate. Instead of flawless portraits and eye-catching music videos, they appear raw on Facebook and Instagram Live and with shitty lighting. John Legend played the piano for 100,000 people while his wife Chrissy Teigen sat on the screen in a towel and looked salty as if she had heard "All Of Me" far too often. It's more authentic than anything you see on TV.
And without the traditional norms of who we are and shouldn't call, there is an opportunity to get in touch with those who were important to us in another moment of our lives. The old college roommate, the high school buddy, the mentor who gave you the shot. If we have emotional capacity in these difficult times, there is good to do. Who do you know who is single, lives alone or lives in a city without a dense support network?
Restoring these connections not only reveals valuable memories that we may have forgotten, but could also help keep someone healthy. For those who rely on work and leisure for social interaction, shelter-in-place is essentially solitary confinement. A mental health crisis is at risk if we don't check in in isolation.
The crisis language of the memes
However, it can be difficult to find the energy to use these connections. We are all concerned about the health effects of the virus and the financial impact of the response. I definitely slept a few mornings to make the days shorter. When all small talks cause our fears to be warmed up again, sometimes you have nothing to say.
Fortunately, we don't have to say anything to communicate. We can share memes instead.
The Internet's response to COVID-19 was an international outbreak of gallows humor. From group chats to Instagram Joke accounts on Reddit threads on Facebook Groups like the quarter-million member "Zoom Memes For Quaranteens" join us to survive the crisis.
A nervous laugh is better than no laugh. Memes allow us to transform our creeping fear and madness into something marginally productive. We can accept an anonymous voice that redistributes what some unspecified others have done without the vulnerability of self-attribution. We can deal with creating memes ourselves and kill the time under house arrest, hoping to make a smile for our generation. And when the feeds and stories are empty, consuming memes offers a new medium of solidarity. We're all in this hell landscape together, so we can just as well make fun of it.
The mental immune system of the Internet has entered a gear during the outbreak. Instead of wallowing in captivity, we've developed digital antibodies that evolve to fight loneliness. We spice up video chats with board games like code names. Unique livestreams have developed into online music festivals to bring the sounds of New Orleans or Berlin to the world. Trolls and jokes also find ways to get their Lulz, zoom bombing webinars. And after half a decade of Techlash, industry leaders are introducing peer-to-peer social security networks and helping small businesses survive until we can be personal again.
Instead of looking for experiences that we can share, we are reinventing them from scratch with the only thing that remains in quarantine: ourselves. When the waves of infection are over, I hope that this swelling of creativity and togetherness at the moment remains strong. The best part of the internet doesn't show up, but rather.