Why does it suddenly feel like 1999 on the internet?
Every few days, tens of thousands of people on Instagram join a virtual dance party hosted by DJ D-Nice. The blowout live-stream events, branded under the name Club Quarantine, have attracted celebrities from all corners of the internet, including Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Mark Zuckerberg. Some nights the crowd pushes past 150,000 viewers, and for a few hours, teens dance to the same music as the wealthiest people on the planet.
There’s a feeling of déjà vu about the whole phenomenon: the democracy of it, the gathering of one giant community. It’s the same feeling that nags you as you trade baking tips with strangers (the number one Google search term) or re-create Chatroulette on Google Hangouts. Now that everyone is apart and together in their apartness, it feels as if the barriers between us online are coming down.
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Is it a mirage, or has something really changed? It’s not surprising that our online behavior would look somewhat different. The coronavirus has drastically altered the course of our lives, sequestering us within our homes and making every interaction we normally would find human—happy hour, hugs and kisses, even voting or scratching an itch on our face—potentially deadly overnight. One might not have expected, though, that in an era of bitter partisanship and trolling, bringing everyone online has somehow made the internet nice again.
It’s like turning the clock back to a more earnest time on the web, when the novelty of having a voice or being able to connect with anyone still filled us with a sense of boundless opportunity and optimism. It harkens back to the late 1990s and early 2000s—before social media, before smartphones—when going online was still a valuable use of time to seek community.
You see it in the renewed willingness of people to form virtual relationships. Before social media soured us and made us aloof and dismissive, we used to take the internet’s promise of serendipitous connection more seriously. Now casually hanging out with randos (virtually, of course) is cool again. People are joining video calls with people they’ve never met for everything from happy hours to book clubs to late-night flirting. They’re sharing in collective moments of creativity on Google Sheets, looking for new pandemic pen pals, and sending softer, less pointed emails.
You see it in the rekindling of old relationships. Before sentimentality was replaced by an annual Facebook friends spring cleaning, it was a treat to keep in touch with middle school classmates and rediscover primary school teachers. Now we’re back to cherishing faraway old friends; after all, there’s no longer much difference between hanging out with them and those closer to home. People are going analog, too: sending postcards, leaving voicemail messages for family, putting together care packages.
The internet also used to be a place where you could learn about anything—that is, until the information overload became overwhelming. Now cabin fever and boredom have led people back to the internet to learn again, crowdsourcing the best sourdough recipe, mastering new languages, or picking up any number of other useless or handy skills.
Even Millennial-dominated apps have become more fun, less filtered, like the days before Photoshop and AI-powered touch-ups made us more vain about our digital appearance. The glossiness that pervaded Instagram the past few years has crumbled. Now there’s a delightful rawness to virtual yoga sessions done in cluttered living rooms, Martha Stewart and Ina Garten sharing their culinary tips from unflattering angles, even celebrities chiding their mother-in-law for being too loud.
Of course, our memories could just be misplaced, romanticized nostalgia. Bad actors existed on the early web just as they do now, says Andrew Sullivan, the CEO of the nonprofit Internet Society, but “people were more careful about the way they talked than they are now.” Dial-up made it expensive to scroll endlessly through message boards, forcing people to spend their time online more carefully. It also confined access to people with education, money, and know-how, making the internet much smaller.
All these factors are certainly among the reasons online interactions at least appeared more peaceful. By juxtaposition, they also make the modern internet feel a whole lot louder. But while innovations like browsers and the explosion of bandwidth increased room for discourse and disagreement, they also expanded accessibility and have made our lives far more resilient to disruption. Without these updates, in other words, we would be far more isolated in our social distancing now. “The internet allows us to maintain a sense of normalcy and support one another and come together,” says Sullivan. In essence, it has provided a way for us to remain human.
When this is all over, will the internet be a kinder, gentler place?
Leah Lievrouw, a professor at UCLA who’s studied social change and the internet, says that what’s emerging is an unprecedented sense of community. “We’re seeing that we don’t have to be physically present to mobilize,” she says. “It’s not that the physical infrastructure is doing this. It’s what we do with that technology.”
So maybe this is what the pandemic has changed: not the internet itself but our relationship to it. Now that it’s our lifeline to feeling connected with the world, we’re reevaluating our virtual relationships and communities.
Sullivan says there’s no way to predict what will happen next. But the internet of the past month shows us the possibilities for the internet of tomorrow. “We’ve seen that the dystopic stories aren’t coming true,” he says. “When humans are in trouble, they’re turning to one another.”
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