Life

The New Rules of Social Media in the Age of Social Distancing

Social media has become a way to show that you're staying inside, and checking up on others.
April 8, 2020, 7:52pm
Social distancing social media
The author enjoying some government sanctioned excercise

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

We have now reached the stage where posting an outdoors selfie is one of the most incendiary things you can do on social media. Is this your garden you're sunbathing in? If you're in the park, are you—I can scarcely believe my eyes—sitting down? Why would you do that to our NHS? Why would you spit directly in the faces of care-workers like this!? You are the virus!!!

Depending on when exactly you copped on to how serious this all was, we're now about three to four weeks into the weirdest time in our lives. Everything bar nothing is different now, including how social media reflects our new reality. Before, Instagram feeds—or Facebook, if you're old and/or weird—were a rich tapestry of house parties, unwatchable videos from gigs, cute dates, The Pub.

Now, the landscape is unrecognizable. Zoom call mosaics. The one photogenic corner of people's apartments. Pets, so many pets. Bread, of course; banana bread, preferably, but anything made of flour and photographed on a cooling rack will serve. Meanwhile, parents are fighting on the meme front, delivering decade-old material into WhatsApp groups across the country at a rate all the more frightening when you remember they're doing it all with one index finger.

While we were all finding the time to sink a sad number of hours into social media before the pandemic, we can now really get into it. I'm talking every post, every 20-part story of a Pinterest craft project, idly checking in on anybody within two degrees of separation from you at any point over the last 15 years. Most people have brains like scrambled egg at the moment and can focus for about as long as they can hold their breath, but scrolling? Scrolling is always possible. Old rules are out the window: no content is too mundane anymore. I am actively yearning for pictures of other people's lunches, a listless cat, a pint-glass selfie on the sofa. What was boring is now comforting to a degree that would have seemed ridiculous two months ago.

But one new element of social media posting has been particularly noticeable: the disclaimers. If you're going to post a picture from your brief trips into the outside world, and God knows there's nothing else to do, it now seems to have to come with some kind of label to show that we're following the rules. "On my government-sanctioned walk," or "taking my hour of exercise", or even "at the beach—nobody else there!" Or you could use the location tag; "Quarantine" is a useful town in South Carolina these days. If you want to do a throwback post from happier times, it had better be clearly labelled as happier times. Sticking a date on it, or the ever-popular and consistently awful "take me back" works here.

At first, people were doing it at least supposedly to encourage people to stay at home when we were only being strenuously, severely "advised" to do so. But now that it's the rules, the "stay at home" tag on Instagram has gone the way of people posting reminders to their politically active friends to register to vote every day for a fortnight. We've all got the message loud and clear.

There are, for once, all-too real stakes of not presenting your life in the right way online. We've always been a nation of snitches, only too eager to answer the call to rat on our neighbors. Mutual aid WhatsApp groups all over the land are thick with curtain twitchers posting zoomed-in pictures accompanied by messages like "just seen next door come back from shops with what looks like non-essential hammock—please confirm??"

It's even possible that the actual police might take it upon themselves to comment on your posts. Neil Kinnock's son Stephen posted a picture of himself on Twitter the other day, delivering a birthday cake to his dad for a "socially distanced celebration”" which the South Wales Police replied to, urging him to "comply with @GOVUK restrictions". It seems that no amount of caution here is too much. I saw a TikTok of a beach full of people in bikinis on an evidently blistering hot summer's day in Guernsey, under which someone had commented "this had better be from before isolation!!!!!!"

I don't think we're all actively worrying about the police knocking down our doors over an insufficiently labelled Instagram story, and of course the references to social distancing are also partly a way of feeling like we're all in something together, especially at a time when, physically, we can't be. It's an easy way to confirm that we're alright, that we're getting on with it as best we can, without the bluntness of just posting a selfie every day captioned "still not gravely ill!"

But assuring our followers that our activities at the moment are socially responsible speaks to an anxiety that was always part of social media, and is now simply more visible: the anxiety of being judged. There's more to play for now than someone thinking your "Friyay cocktails" post is a bit basic. Social media is very easily turned into a panopticon, and that feeling intensifies when we're all watching each other for the same thing.

I suspect that all the posting of the "socially distanced" also expresses a darker anxiety about what might be coming. Filling up feeds with trees and flower beds in the fear that, soon, not even this will be possible. Our worlds, and what you can responsibly post about them, may become even narrower any day now.

Follow Imogen West-Knights on Twitter.