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Back to the future: How the pandemic is changing our relationship to the internet

One of the oddities of the global pandemic is that we are all experiencing it at once, collectively and also entirely by ourselves. The past few months have been unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before, all the roles that we usually play in our lives — professional/persona, online/offline all came home to quarantine with us only to get mashed up into each other and all that is left is this new version of ourselves, trying to operate in this new rhythm. We are all collectively learning how to be ourselves while being apart from each other.

We can see a new culture emerging — one that is born out of this truly global experience, spontaneously and creatively, trying to deal with the fear, cope with the restrictions on normal life, and most of all get through the tedious isolation of quarantine.

In a recent interview The New Yorker Agustin Fuentes, an evolutionary anthropologist talks about how important connection is to humanity and how we will find ways to maintain it even amidst the most stringent of quarantines. He says “One of the amazing things about the human species—once harmless critters not much more than monkeys running around—is that, over time, we have become very creative. We’ve adapted to survive. That’s what people will rely on now—coming up with incredibly imaginative ways to find connections even when they’re not in the same physical space together.”

We are now expressing this deep-rooted need for connection through screens of all sizes and shapes. In these early days of the pandemic, our creativity centered around simple forms of relief and release — live streams, videos, group chats have all been extended to wider communities and we are letting people that were normally excluded from our algorithmically enforced bubble of like-mindedness. Our screens and social feeds suddenly feel so much more social.

And even when we’re not creating for the screen, as in the case of the impromptu musicians on Italian balconies, or the Chinese nurses performing Karaoke, we’re still using a screen to amplify this human connection made at the local level to a like-minded global audience that’s also seeking the same.

An unintended consequence, though, in this era of bitter partisanship, online trolling, and echo chambers that are bringing everyone online, has somehow made the internet nice again. It’s like we’ve turned the clock back to a simpler and more earnest time, when the novelty of being online and connecting with anyone still filled us with a sense of boundless excitement and optimism.

It takes me back to my childhood in the mid 1990s as I sat in front of the family computer humming along to the screech of the dial-up modem ready to experience the world at a rate of 64 kilobits per second.

Before social media made everyone discoverable and before smartphones made everyone accessible all of the time, going online back then was still a valuable use of time to seek community, it was a conscious choice you made to connect. Now that everyone is apart and together in their apartness, it feels as if the barriers between us online are coming down.

Perhaps I am romanticising to a degree and viewing the past through rose tinted reflections of my CRT monitor but the early internet was markedly different to what we have now. There was a sense of possibility, random acts of generosity with sharing knowledge, a gathering of one giant community of perfect strangers. There were bad-actors back then too of course, but it was the exception rather than the rule. Access was also not cheap, forcing people to spend their time more carefully, as you had to invest a not-insignificant amount of money to endlessly scroll and troll. For the large part it was a positive, generous experience filled with curious types all collectively exploring and building a new world.

I can see that again now in the renewed acceptance of virtual relationships. Before the cynicism and weariness kicked in, we used to take the internet’s promise of serendipity more seriously and you spoke to more strangers than people we already knew. Now casually hanging out with random strangers is cool again. There’s book clubs, Netflix watch parties, and even community cookbooks where people are sharing cobbled together home recipes. People in China are hosting Tik-Tok raves, DJ D-Nice’s Club Quarantine is going off and the hottest club in the world right now is on Zoom where you can hang out with Charli XCX. Even Pen pals are a thing again and the etiquette of showing emotion on email is being redefined. Even something as unremarkable as Google Sheets is a place worth hanging out on.

Certainly one of the most memorable Saturday nights that I’ve had through this period has been at the Better Living Festival 2020 where over the course of two days, 34 New Zealand artists performed via their phone cameras on Melted Icecream and featured everyone from Lawrence Arabia, Emily Edrosa, and Marlon Williams.

The impromptu and hurried arrival of all of these social interactions has meant that there is also a sense or rawness and fun. Things feel less filtered, less touched-up, and more relatable. Instagram has lost the gloss and many a hashtag has been retired. We’re seeing cluttered living rooms, busy kitchen family tables, and home kitchens. The internet is again full of people that look like you and I, and they live in places that look like yours and mine – few things are polished and filtered beyond recognition.

This is not an impassioned call to arms to return to the 1990s. Our connected devices and access to constant cheap broadband has improved nearly every aspect of our lives. Yes, there is now more room for disagreement on the internet and in normal times the divisions have never felt deeper, but in times of adversity our connected technologies have time and again reinforced social cohesion. We are more resilient now and able to maintain a sense of normalcy to support each other because of these innovations of the past 30 years. The internet of 2020 has allowed us to remain who we are through this period.

What this pandemic has fundamentally changed is not the internet itself but our relationship to it. What was once a window to the novelty of a new virtual world 30 years ago is now our lifeline to feeling connected with the real world around us.

It is unclear what the lasting effect of this will be but one thing is for certain, in times of trouble, we turn to each other.

Ajay Murthy is a senior strategist at Saatchi & Saatchi

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