On Friday, in the middle of my fifth consecutive workday spent utterly alone, I snapped. A crowded subway train seemed like a far-off fantasy, an office full of slumped shoulders like a scene I would never witness again. The world was 410 square feet, and I would have paid money to look up close at a face other than my own.
Instead of sobbing into my elbow, I picked up my phone and watched an Instagram Story of a college acquaintance’s girlfriend, sitting on his bed, taking a videoconference call with her co-workers. She looked happy, even though her boyfriend’s bedroom looked like every boyfriend’s bedroom—IKEA comforter, IKEA desk, IKEA lamp. It was totally boring, and I loved it.
That was just the first one. I watched little clips of friends and strangers lying on couches and spraying down surfaces. A former co-worker was recording a podcast from inside her coat closet, while a woman who attends the same weekly karaoke night as my old roommate was singing “Germ Free Adolescents” in her bathroom. I looked at slippers and pepper grinders and bottles of lotion, and it was as soothing as sucking my thumb—which I’m not actually doing, for public-health reasons.
It was an extremely mundane glimpse into the new reality for many Americans. In the past week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made a series of recommendations for social distancing, the primary tactic for slowing the spread of the coronavirus currently threatening to overwhelm the American health-care system. Everyone who can stay home has been asked to do so as much as possible. Bars, restaurants, schools, libraries, community centers, and movie theaters in some cities and states are closed by order of the government, under threat of arrest. The people with the types of jobs that permit them to work from home indefinitely are discouraged from clogging public transit. Even in open air, we’re supposed to stand at least six feet away from one another.
Still, we are getting closer in weird ways. The other day, while I ate lunch, I kept replaying a video of a friend softening butter in her palm. Without a steady stream of brunch photos, beach-vacation selfies, and horribly loud concert footage in which the singer is not even recognizable, platforms such as Instagram and Facebook have mutated into hyper-intimate scrapbooks of days spent cooped up inside. For workplaces that have gone online, videoconferencing software is giving co-workers who have never been in one another’s houses a look at the greasy hair and scattered coffee cups of “work from home.”
“It’s great to see everyone’s bookshelves,” my boss said in greeting during a remote all-hands meeting last week. The comment recalled, to me, the journalist and developer Paul Ford’s 2014 essay about “the American room,” in which he describes the cookie-cutter environment made famous as the backdrop of hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos. (“The curtains are drawn. Some light comes through, casting a small glow on the top left of the air conditioner. It’s daytime. The wall is an undecorated slab of beige.”) The most common type of American room may have some framed photos or personality furniture, but mostly it reminds us that millions of people live in spaces that are indistinguishable from one another—apartments and tract houses built from cheap and widely distributed blueprints.
It’s not just Americans broadcasting their living spaces to the world in the hopes of finding digital company. In the midst of a pandemic, kids with smartphones and wireless access and unlimited free time are showing us what a room looks like globally. American teenagers are watching TikTok videos from countries that are two or three weeks ahead of the United States in quarantine measures, peering into the life they will soon be living.
Social-media platforms are notorious for their prodigious ability to spread bad information during a crisis, but that doesn’t change the fact that people log on to them to satisfy sharp cravings for intimacy. At the moment, we’re putting them to important use. In a 2014 paper about Instagram, which found that faces tend to get far more likes than other types of photos, researchers at Georgia Tech wrote, “Even as babies, humans love to look at faces; infants, barely minutes old, turn toward faces, sensing that they are important.” A recent study from the University of Granada in Spain found that participants’ heart rates increased when they looked at photos of faces—more so for photos of “loved” faces than for those of unknown ones, but always some. In Italy, people are leaning out of windows to look at one another.
On Twitter, people are posting wilder and wilder “outfit of the day” photos, implying that we can dress for the world without leaving the house. Friends are ritualizing FaceTime and sending calendar invitations to videoconferencing happy hours, during which they might appear in bathrobes or sitting next to spouses. Platforms are adapting to increased demand. Last week, the chat platform Discord announced that it would raise the limit for group video streams from 10 people to 50.
“Now is not the time to worry about if you are posting too much on Instagram Stories and if they are cringe,” my friend Rebecca Jennings tweeted yesterday morning. “It is time to try out a Bit. It is time to Post with abandon.” Jennings is right: There are no stakes for content anymore. Everyone is inside, and there will be no travel influencers or fashion brats or even pop stars jumping up and down onstage for the foreseeable future. (There will be, however, this video of a pop star jumping up and down her kitchen steps.)
“Instagram posts are usually carefully curated, more than life is. We want a nice narrative story,” Julia Deeb-Swihart, a doctoral student at Georgia Tech who has studied the motivations behind posting photos of oneself, told me. “People typically take selfies when there’s something going on; it’s kind of proof that you’ve done something.” But now the Instagram playing field is as level as it will ever be. All we have to show is our faces, which are the things people want to look at now anyway. There will still be cool girls, probably, but they will have less to lord over us, because we won’t have to fantasize about whom they get to party with (no one) or how they spend their time (sitting). It is no longer taboo for things to be banal. There is no such thing as FOMO when we are all missing out on absolutely everything.
Social distancing will change not just the setting of our Instagrams and TikToks, but also what we do in them. According to Deeb-Swihart, “The posts will be different now. This is me at home. Here’s this weird thing I figured out.” Selfies might get funnier, because bored designers will surely upload bizarre augmented-reality filters. There will be a lot more videos of regular people explaining how to cook things or how to do a choreographed dance or how to play some strange regional card game.
I will watch them all, even if I have no interest in learning these skills. “The video format lends itself better to easing loneliness,” Deeb-Swihart said. “You can hear the person talk. It feels more social. My grandmother will leave the TV on in the background because then it will feel like there are people in the house. That’s a common trick.” For me, a video of my sister describing the zits she’s getting from the face mask she has to wear to work is even more effective.
In her 2004 book, Hope in the Dark, the writer Rebecca Solnit recounts that Americans’ earliest collective action in response to 9/11 “was to give blood, a kind of secular communion in which people offered up the life of their bodies for strangers.” While crowding together in donation centers is not the kind of response America needs right now, Solnit’s subsequent questions still apply: “What makes people heroic and what makes them feel members of a community?” One answer, even though it sounds silly, is posting. You have a moral responsibility to post. I want to see you, even if I didn’t really think so before.
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