Europe has locked down and shut down. Like most of you, I have been confined to my apartment for the last few days. I’ve pondered this strange new reality coronavirus has forcefully flung upon us; one in which toilet roll is rarer than Donald Trump admitting he has no idea what he’s doing. Over this time it has become apparent: we’ve all been washing our hands wrong, racism is still a pertinent issue, and everyone should have listened to Bill Gates’ Ted Talk. But one particular aspect will be looked back on as a generation defining moment: our relationship with the digital world in the midst of a crisis.
We’ve always used technology to connect with one another. The luxury of smart phones, laptops and tablets at our fingertips has allowed us to contact the 4.5 billion Internet users anywhere in the world in a number of creative ways. One of the most iconic being the humble meme, which has emerged in recent years as a noticeable coping method for this generation. 10 years ago people were arguing over how to pronounce the word, but now everyone and their gran is sending them to the family WhatsApp. They will be looked back on as a time capsule for how we deal with major, life changing events. And, let’s be honest, the meme game has been strong since corona perniciously took over our lives. We’ve been treated to the wittiness and weirdness of mankind when kept isolated for weeks and it’s a fascinating reveal into our modus operandi.
The key to a successful meme is the recurring gag, my current favourite being the replacement of money with toilet paper, which then becomes a reference all of us can enjoy. The meme expresses solidarity, a ‘we’re in this together’ mentality, and for the first time, on a completely global scale, it’s created a universal inside joke. One that traverses borders, facilitates conversation and creates a big community.
Additionally, these memes call out people’s selfish acts. In this case, the hoarders stockpiling unnecessary amounts of toilet roll, but in a humorous way that still keeps morale up. This is arguably a more effective way of forcing people to rethink their actions. It’s a move away from the typical technique of posting public shaming videos and is an unequivocally more popular trend right now. Post covid-19, we may find that our lust for vitriolic online shaming starts to diminish in favour of a gentler call-out culture that utilises humour instead. In a society that uses the Internet for keeping itself in check, this will be a constructive development. The often-fatal consequences of online shaming are beginning to be brought to the public’s attention, in part thanks to journalist Jon Ronson, and if a positive alternative proves to be successful, then the despotic online mob may be left behind in the 2010’s.
Memes offer light relief thrown in amongst the apocalyptic images burning our social media feed, but are we in danger of reacting too ironically and not taking enough serious action? Are we detracting from the real problems? Laughing over Tik-Tok videos or tut-tutting at footage of shoppers grappling over groceries, like some kind of neo-liberal ‘survival of the fittest’ competition, doesn’t actually help us pay the bills. Fortunately, our online pragmatism percolates down to the physical world too.
Activists have responded to concerns over the survival of pubs, clubs and other cultural venues. Not everyone is trusting of government plans to roll out funding and support. In Berlin, where clubbing is the heartbeat of the city; bringing in an estimated 1.5 billion euros a year; there’s questions over how venues will manage to survive the coming months. Many balance precariously on the edge of extinction even in the best of times. If they can’t make it through this period then tens of thousands of musicians, artists, workers and performers will suffer.
But Berliners, not giving up so easily, have created the United We Stream initiative to support this vital industry. Effectively a virtual club that live-streams DJ sets from the city’s most beloved venues, bringing the clubbing experience to the safety of your corona-free apartment. A donation page with the goal of raising €1 million ensures the clubs and their workers get through this period. Clubbers have turned to organising ‘nights out’ with friends by all tuning into the live-stream together and video-chatting. It’s another development in virtual community; an amalgamation of the digital and physical, wherein community and connection is still kept alive.
Mental wellbeing has also been a serious concern. In a society that places high value on friends and socialising, the sudden departure from physical, social interaction is incredibly jarring. In response to this, people have turned to sites like Reddit to tell the world how the coronavirus is affecting them. In Russia, art agency Shishki Collective opened the Stay The Fuck Home Bar, a slickly designed chat room for the 2020’s under the guise of being a ‘virtual bar’. Users are encouraged to have a drink at home instead of going out, and video-chat with strangers from across the world. It’s a digital platform particularly targeting Gen Z’s and Millenials to talk about how the coronavirus is affecting their jobs, family, studies etc., briefly alleviating stress and worries and relating to strangers going through the same frustrations. Just remember to bring your own booze and snacks.
Of course, United We Stream and Stay The Fuck Home Bar can’t compete with their physical world counterparts, but it does offer a semblance of normality and fills the void of loneliness and boredom many are experiencing. It’s the most uniquely human approach to the digital world we’ve experienced. Constricted from our daily lives we are managing to replicate the everyday with the help of some virtual creativity. If anything this quarantine period has proven how much we rely on communication and humour.
We are at a pivotal moment in our relationship with the virtual world. This pandemic has caused a total upheaval from the physical world. We have all been forced to move our lives online: from doing the shopping to socialising with friends and now even schooling. It’s not yet a replacement for real human connection as we still feel isolated and face difficulties solely communicating online. However, widespread Internet access, faster speeds and everyone owning smart devices means we have built a real online community that would have been impossible in a pandemic 10 years ago. Presented with a challenge like never before, the Internet has unified for a change. People are posting advice on how to exercise at home, or setting Instagram challenges to pass the time. We are finding new ways of communicating with each other. However, will this community spirit carry on after the pandemic is over and the rebuilding begins?
I am doubtful it will last much long after quarantine ends and the economic depression starts raising questions and finger pointing begins. But it was a good peak into what the Internet can achieve when human connection is not possible. And at least we will be ready for the next pandemic.
Meanwhile, stay smart, stay safe and don’t dismay at the lunatics buying out all the toilet roll. Marvel instead at how we have come together and created imaginative ways of supporting each other. Sharing funny memes or heart-warming videos of quarantined German and Italian citizens singing together on balconies gives a sense of us being together. That, at least, is a very real feeling worth holding on to.