In the current timeline of social distancing, even people who aren't often online have found themselves endlessly tethered to the internet. To them, I say: Welcome. Judging by how quickly my feed replenishes now, Twitter is more active, and judging by the number of inane fights I've read through in the past few days, Facebook is too. Reddit has reported a 20 to 50 percent surge in usage on some subreddits.
As we find ourselves more online—at the moment, less out of desire than out of actual, desperate need—there are upsides in the way we're using the internet to connect. In the past week, I've never seen so many of my friends making videos on Instagram, whether it's while cooking, dancing, doing makeup, or talking about whatever; I opened the app yesterday to an unprecedented number of people I follow doing Instagram Lives at once. People are even blogging again: the Blogger-hosted Indoor Voices is a new platform for posting just about anything and with its submissions open to anyone, and We Are Food Bloggers Now is reminiscent of food blogs before food blogs seemed like a launchpad to book deals.
The careful decision-making so many of us have imposed on our online lives about what's "worth" putting on our feeds and what isn't is wearing away as we move into this era of isolation, the end of which is not in sight. At least one person I follow has written that she's giving up on being "aesthetically pleasing" on Instagram for now. Save for the lightning pace at which our feeds are refreshing, the current moment feels like the days the internet was fun, when we posted just to post—without agendas, attempts to monetize, or any real need for social media clout.
By this, of course, I mean the boom days of Xanga and BlogSpot and LiveJournal, when anyone could make an account and post pretty much anything just for the sake of posting it. Early memes lived on YTMND, without the sense that they'd turn into marketing strategies. People weren't sharing their outfits and photography to become influencers, because those didn't exist yet. A lot of writing, creative and personal, was done without the goal of trying to get paid for it. You just shared it all online, because you felt like you could.
It feels like we're recapturing some of that novelty as people post their work from home outfits and their "quarantine meals" that are decidedly less aesthetic than the food content most of us have gotten used to seeing. On Twitter, my colleague Alex Zaragoza, who recently wrote about hosting virtual karaoke in these trying times, has posted silly videos of her and her friends singing without abandon, and teams at Mashable and One Zero are sharing pictures of themselves in silly hats. Why not?
Recently, I logged onto one of my old LiveJournal accounts, which still exists to both my great embarrassment and my simultaneous fascination with a previous version of my brain. I've been writing in various capacities online, mostly private, since I was around 11, and reading my posts from early high school, my new embarrassment was rooted in just how much I put it all out there.
LiveJournal was the place where I wrote not just about feeling sad, but also about the absolute minutiae of being a teenager, like defending pop-punk bands or describing crushes and the back-and-forth ways I felt about them or recounting in extreme detail the concerts I attended. I don't know who I thought cared about these thoughts, because despite the fact that I had a decent number of friends on LiveJournal, my posts don't appear to have gotten many responses. But I kept doing it just for the sake of doing it. I'm sure that at the time I felt some sense of comparison, like other people got more comments than I did, but clearly, it didn't stop me from posting.
That same logic applied to my internet friends, and we came together through LiveJournal communities, like the gossip and trolling of FBR_Trash. At first, some of those groups started through shared interests like bands or fashion, but with time, we all just posted about anything in a stream of collective online consciousness that transcended the fact that we all lived in different time zones and countries. Now, I sometimes feel sadness for people who didn't engage online in the same way back then, because as superfluous as some of those conversations might have seemed at the time, the friendships I formed brought me: friends in real life; people to talk me through bad times; matching tattoos; and even my first apartment, as decrepit as it was.
I stopped posting on LiveJournal in 2013. By then, Facebook, which added the ability to "Like" in 2009, was popular, and Instagram—which has focused so much on Likes that the company is now experimenting with hiding them—had taken off. Not long after, I got hooked on Twitter, just like most people who write on the internet for a living. The overwhelming sense of being online in the years since then is that posting things online can lead to something bigger. The success of top-tier influencers and Twitter figures with a lot of followers has trickled down into pressure on the rest of us in terms of the type of content we create, how we present it on our feeds, and how we can eventually turn it into a product, service, or brand. It's no surprise, really, that so many of my internet friends from back then have also become writers and editors online, too.
The rise of influencers and the monetization of the digital realm has suggested that the content we create must be productive in a broader sense. Instead of making another Instagram page as a creative side project, for example, people fall into the trap of feeling like it has to be a side hustle, eventually marketed through a pitch deck centered on the amount of "engagement." Even screaming into the void through dumb posts on Twitter is something with an end goal: likes that lead to followers. It is, of course, a bit ironic to be advocating for the return of the DIY internet on a major digital media publication—the rise of which kind of helped spur the loss of old, dumb blogs.
Right now, though, in our coronavirus-induced quarantines, everyone's just looking for something to do and a place to say things for the sake of saying them, hence all the random thoughts on Facebook and the unfiltered videos on Instagram. It feels like we're all a little less focused on how many people are watching and more focused on hoping that anyone is watching at all, just like it used to be.