Coronavirus has forced us to spend our lives online — and it shows | Joel Golby

Can’t stop scrolling? I’m seeing social media gangs rising up: the shouters, the mega sharers and those who just say ‘Italy’

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  • I don’t know if you’ve been online lately – I mean what, truly, else is there to do? I’ve read books and I’ve cooked lentils and I have watched all of the good movies of 2019, and Knives Out as well. For a while yesterday I sat on a windowsill and quietly “drew things”. I moved all the furniture around and had an impromptu indoor badminton game, which is what I imagine cults do in the hours before they drink the Kool-Aid.

    Now I find myself, like a moth drawn irresistibly to a flame, scrolling endlessly through Twitter, then Instagram, then Twitter again, one more time to Instagram then maybe a quick dash to Facebook, all the while thinking: “Huh, everyone else is bored, too.” If you have been online lately you will notice something, and that is coronavirus has infected our culture, and the discourse is mutating around us, and the language and intensity of discussion will be permanently disfigured by this once-in-a-lifetime event.

    Essentially: coronavirus has ruined communication forever, and, intellectually, Britain will never return to a time before it. We are two weeks in.

    This has something to do with the government, it has to be said. While I’m quite enjoying the “At 5pm every day we just hold a press conference and make up, but do not truly enforce, a new sort of quarantine” bit – it’s not exactly conducive to a calm, rational and informed society, and as a result various types of people are going completely off the deep end.

    There are the panic buyers, of course: the ones littering Tesco Extra car parks with snaking queues, inches away from each other because, no matter how desperate things get, the unique British anxiety that someone will misinterpret a small gap in the queue as being the start of a new queue, and take your place will never go away. There are the “This doesn’t apply to mes” – healthy young people playing Frisbee in open spaces. And then the CEOs, who for whatever reason are still keeping, like, WH Smith open, because, until the government explicitly forbids it, it will always try to sell you two books for the price of one and an up-sold chocolate orange.

    Most of us realise we need to be inside to stop the spread of coronavirus and flatten the curve. But secretly, a lot of us suspect it’s broadly someone else’s problem.

    Online we are forming into groups, too, which I suppose will inform the eventual gangs that break out once society buckles under its own weight. Again this feeds back to the lack of succinct guidelines from on high about how we should all be behaving – this country delights in the taste of boot, and without a lick of the government leather we are adrift and rudderless. Anyway here’s everyone on Twitter:

    People who are mad at other people being outside

    Members of the public on Primrose Hill, London
    Members of the public on Primrose Hill, London Photograph: Ollie Millington/Getty Images

    I went outside for a walk yesterday because it is currently legal to do so and if I didn’t, I’d end up doing something unutterably bizarre like, I don’t know, fingerpainting. This was fine until I got home, and saw viral tweets where people – who were outside at the time – were taking photos of other people, also being outside, and writing captions along the lines of: “I can’t believe these IDIOTS are outside.” Because there is no official lockdown, yet, and the closest thing to official guidelines we have is “very strongly worded advice”. There’s this whole grey area where it’s technically completely fine to go outside, but it’s also completely fine to lambast people for being outside.

    Just saying ‘Italy’ a lot

    I roughly understand that Italy is being used as the worst-case scenario model for what the UK – in its “Dominic Cummings reckons we can out-think the virus” crisis management – will be like in 10 days’ time. But equally just saying “Italy” a lot, unless you’re an expert, is not really doing anything. I don’t know what that means. I don’t have an intimate enough knowledge of Italy’s infrastructure and health service. When did everyone get so clued up on Italy? Why wasn’t I involved in this?

    Public health megasharers

    At the start of this crisis I thought I knew pretty well how to wash my hands, but now my routine is up to 15 minutes per wash and only getting longer. Every day I am informed by a new widely shared handwashing video that I’ve been forgetting a bit: that I now need to surpass the wrist and go up to the elbow or something, that I need to lather myself with Pears up to the neck.

    On Friday it was the handwashing video of two latex gloves slowly covering themselves in oil. Saturday was the gif diagram of “the person who chose not to go to the BBQ”, and how they didn’t share their virus with 56,000 people. Again, this comes down to not enough messaging from the people in charge: if TV adverts were running that told us in explicit terms how to wash our hands and how much to stay indoors, we’d be less inclined to disseminate our own unverified Wikipedia page level public health messages. Until then, a series of viral gifs are technically registered as my doctor.

    People who have never read King Lear encouraging you to write King Lear

    Quarantine is particularly bad for millennials, because it taps in to a specific anxiety they have about wasting time in the face of an economy that has been crumbling throughout their adult life, and this constant underlying pang that, if you’re sat at home relaxing instead of actively teaching yourself Spanish or starting an Etsy to sell your art, you’re not really doing anything, and you’ll get overtaken and eventually killed by other, more active young people. This was typified by a viral tweet at the start of the crisis alleging that Shakespeare used quarantine to write King Lear, which made everyone who is in any way creative feel that, if they don’t leave this lockdown with at least one masterpiece, they’ve wasted the one chance they had to do it. Once life goes back to normal, it’s holding down three jobs and trying to do a distance-learning master’s while swiping relentlessly on Tinder again. No chance to write King Lear in all of that. Here is the reality: if you were going to write King Lear, you would have written King Lear. Get over King Lear.

    I think through all of this it’s clear that quarantine is an ultimate unknown, and we are reacting to the vagaries of it by telling each other off for not doing it properly, a relic from the old society we had, when we were allowed to go outside. My prediction is this sort of tone-policing will drop off shortly, when the actual impact of coronavirus proper starts to take hold and quarantine becomes less a weird series of days with the taste and flavour of a wasted bank holiday, and instead becomes a new normal that we have all adjusted sharply to.

    Crises are meant to bring out the best of us, but right now I’m looking at the chaotic queues outside Aldi across the road and scanning a social media full of people screaming at photos of parks and wondering if that’s true. It’s going to be a very long summer of adjustment. I’m going to keep my head down and get on with my fingerpainting.

    • Joel Golby is the author of Brilliant, Brilliant, Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant


    Joel Golby

    The GuardianTramp

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