America Offline

We’ve just lived through the most online period in history. What comes next?

hands holding a smartphone with a swirly pattern
Adam Maida / The Atlantic / Getty

My most intimate relationship of 2020 was with the internet. I did my job online, and talked to my friends online, and streamed hundreds of hours of TV that I’d already seen online, just to fill my empty apartment with human sounds. I used the internet to put scary Instagram filters on my face, and join a mutual-aid Slack group, and reflexively refresh the coronavirus case count in my zip code, and attend my cousin’s wedding, and blog about a parasocial relationship with an online Pilates instructor.

I know I’m not alone in feeling that the internet has become even more vital than it was before the pandemic began, when it was already pretty vital. Adults talked, last year, about discovering TikTok for the first time, and using it to soothe the anxieties instigated by everything else. They also Zoomed and Zoomed and Zoomed, and then discussed “Zoom fatigue,” or “video vertigo,” defined as “a downward spiral that comes from compounding work and leisure in the same space.” Most of the important dating apps added videochat features, or other tools for virtual dating, and celebrated unexpected surges in flirting: March 29, 2020, was Tinder’s first day of 3 billion swipes, setting a record that would be broken 130 more times within the year. Clubhouse, an invite-only app for “social audio,” blew up and inspired Facebook and Twitter to make copycat features; the game-streaming app Twitch and the game-chatter app Discord had huge years too. Netflix got even bigger, food-ordering apps became even more popular, and Uber bought an alcohol-delivery start-up for $1.1 billion. This was the year that the internet saved us from despair, gave us purpose, colonized every open space in our lives, and led us into Facebook groups that destroyed our minds.

Now, as the stress of the pandemic is beginning to recede, our relationship with the internet might be renegotiated. President Joe Biden has promised to deliver so much progress against the coronavirus that by July 4, “Americans will have taken a serious step toward a return to normal.” The word normal seems to describe parties and sporting events and cross-generational hugs—but a step toward these implies a step away from where we’ve lived since last year’s awful spring. Airline travel is already coming back; could airplane mode be next? As vaccination rates tick up, and IRL social life resumes, it’s getting easier to imagine that we’re on the brink of something big: a coordinated withdrawal from swiping and streaming, a new consensus that staying home to watch Netflix is no longer a chill Friday-night plan, but an affront.

Could this be real? Are we about to start the summer of a Great Offlining in America?

A few signs that this movement could be upon us: Netflix reported its worst first quarter in eight years, after seeing historic growth in 2020. Tinder conceded that more than half of its Gen Z users have no intention of using its videochat features ever again. Clubhouse downloads dropped significantly in April, prompting worry that the app was always just “a temporary salve to being stuck inside.”

On The Cut, Safy-Hallan Farah has predicted a post-pandemic future in which our culture prioritizes, among other things, “earnestness,” “communism,” and “being extremely offline.” The writer Luke Winkie forecasts a 10-week period of everyone abandoning the internet, adding that “offline is going to hit like a drug.” Discourse’s Patrick Redford put it best, writing that “the idea of further screen-only interaction with my friends and loved ones after a year overstuffed with them makes me want to toss my phone into the Pacific Ocean.”

For me, the Atlantic Ocean is more convenient, but saying so evokes some déjà vu. I realize that I’ve had this conversation before—as many of us have—and in the not-so-distant past. Rumors of a Great Offlining were in the air in the months before the pandemic started, when the cultural conversation was dominated by talk of what to do about our sick obsession with the internet.

In April 2019, Jenny Odell published How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, a New York Times best seller (and a Barack Obama “Favorite Book”) that outlined the many ways in which commercial social media drives us away from one another and into silos of anxiety. This distraction, she said, “appears to be a life-and-death matter.” Just a few months earlier, the former Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff had released The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, a 700-page New York Times notable book (and Barack Obama “Favorite Book”) that had the receipts to prove that companies such as Google and Facebook were deliberately extracting and monetizing every conceivable aspect of their users’ humanity. Zuboff framed the battle against Big Tech as a global conflict with absolute moral urgency; her work was compared, widely, to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. I do not remember seeing the latter as an exaggeration. I do remember breathlessly live-tweeting as I read Zuboff’s book at a dinner table.

Around the same time, former Silicon Valley technologists started heavily promoting the school of Time Well Spent, reclaiming hours from addictive apps in response to what they called the “digital attention crisis.” Tristan Harris, the ex-Google employee most strongly associated with the movement, hosted discussions of “human downgrading”—a somehow even more depressing term for the ways that social-media use might diminish a person’s basic function. Meanwhile, Apple and Google were rolling out features that would let phone owners monitor—and limit, I guess—their own screen time; rich people were going on “digital-detox retreats”; and the number of “flotation” spas with sensory-deprivation tanks for rent was steadily climbing.

Just two years ago, we thought we were more online than we could possibly stand. Then the pandemic hit, and we realized we were wrong.

Animal Crossing parties! FaceTime lunches! TikTok prom! We knew that our relationship to the internet was changing in early 2020, and we knew that we were more dependent on it than ever, but we approached the shift with a positive attitude. It was easy to embrace any means possible of tempering a new, acute loneliness. It was also easy to fret over what this meant. In a stressed-out piece for The Atlantic last April, titled “No, the Internet Is Not Good Again,” I suggested that explosive growth for already-too-big Big Tech might not be so great, and that content-moderation failures would only get much worse. In reporting that piece, I spoke with Sarah T. Roberts, a professor of information studies at UCLA and a frequent critic of Facebook. A small set of private companies had assumed control of a major proportion of human activities, she told me. “Reliance upon these systems has only deepened. And in that deepening, there’s an opportunity to note where they actually fail us.”

Roberts’s comment was a warning, but also a suggestion that online life could get better. She was right: We have been looking more closely at what we want out of the internet. Organizers of mutual-aid groups, for example, realized the limitations of using productivity software and social media for long-term community building, and started talking about alternatives. Awareness of misinformation and conspiracy thinking as destructive forces grew, and the big platforms were compelled to acknowledge them at a level they had previously resisted. Many big websites and large online communities were pushed to confront the issue of hate speech. People also moved into more intimate spaces online—a resurgence of blogging, digital art, zines, simulations, and insulated, creative places where “the internet” was not just shorthand for a handful of giant companies. The New York–based School for Poetic Computation hosted a 10-week course that taught students how to code “small and personal software for affirming one another across physical distance.” Kelly Pendergrast, a co-founder of the environment and technology research group Antistatic, recently told me about an elaborate virtual conference she’d attended that traced the history of the computer mouse. “I’ve been surprised how rich and interesting my life has still felt,” she said, reflecting on the past 14 months. “Despite being on my computer all the time, which I thought would be my nightmare.”

It’s possible that the nightmare of being too online lifted only temporarily, while we were trapped at our computers, and that the tech backlash might resume its prior course once life returns to “normal.” But I can’t help feeling as though the pandemic has forced us to confront—and overcome—some of the fears that animated the urge to drown our phones in 2019. “The pandemic accelerated how much you can do online,” Maya Georgieva, the director of the XReality Center at the New School, told me recently. Virtual academic gatherings or social events in Second Life didn’t make anybody less human, they just made human interaction more accessible and the day’s demands more manageable.

I am so tired of looking at this computer, but I also feel a level of comfort about the internet that I didn’t have before. The difference is that I’ve learned what being online can do for me, and what it can’t. Before the pandemic, my relationship with the internet was defined by compulsion—checking Twitter every time I opened a new tab on my computer, toggling to a burner account to look at my ex-boyfriend’s Instagram Story whenever I had an extra glass of wine. Now I see the internet as a utility, an essential service, but one I use only for specific purposes. If the internet has turned into my gym and my conference room and a concert hall, that means it no longer is a dungeon.

Two years ago, I was deleting and undeleting my Instagram account, begging every expert I could find to tell me exactly how to live healthily with the internet in my pocket. In 2021, to do the same would seem a little silly. Netflix’s subscriber growth may be slowing, and Tinder videochats may soon fall out of favor, but it’s hard to imagine that a Great Offlining is really in the cards. Instead, we could be heading for a Great Rebalancing, where we reconfigure how we do our work and how we organize our time on the internet. We’ve grown more aware of how we rely on one another—online as well as off—and of the tools we have or could build for responding to a crisis. The biggest tech companies’ accrual of power remains one of the most serious problems of my lifetime, but I no longer talk about the internet itself as if it were an external and malignant force, now that I’ve lived in such intimate contact with it for so long.

I’m sure I’ll change my mind about everything I’ve just said, but sometimes you just need to time-stamp the moment. Going back through my essays from 2019, I was struck by how easily I had misremembered what the cultural conversation was about back then. Jenny Odell never argued that people should go offline completely. Rather, she told me that deleting your apps or throwing your phone in the ocean would represent a failure to recognize that “we actually really need something like social media.” The desire to go online is human, and “there’s nothing wrong with that part.” We just have to keep reminding ourselves why we’re doing it.