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Socialising online – necessity or the new normal?

Alice Bennett hosts the metaphorical Zoom and we're all invited to the virtual party. But will we make the most of the opportunity?
Turn-of-the-twentieth-century illustration showing a young man and a young woman sitting with their chair backs against a party wall that divides their living space. A laptop and mobile phone have been added to the image.
© CC BY MCAD Library

Life under lockdown has changed the way we socialise…

It is no-longer safe to meet friends and family outside our own households. Events like gigs, concerts, theatre performances and cinema screenings have been cancelled or postponed. Similarly unsafe are exercise classes, park runs, coffee mornings, music lessons book clubs… the lockdown list goes on. But many of these activities have tried to go digital, providing what they can online, both in terms of content and of maintaining social contact for their users. An overview from a BBC technology correspondent gives various examples of digital socialising in lockdown.

So how is this working out?

Unsurprisingly, it’s a bit of a mixture. On the positive side, more people are using social media platforms to connect with friends and family, making use of streamed entertainment and using digital tools to connect with others – for example, platforms that enable people in different locations to watch a film together, to allow a virtual movie night.

More negatively, the shift online has highlighted the digital divide: the gap between those with reliable high speed internet provision and the technology to use digital tools effectively, and those without reliable technology and internet access. The closure of public libraries is a necessary safety precaution, to reduce the spread of the virus and to protect library staff and patrons, but this will have seen some library patrons lose their ability to get onto the internet.

Beyond the literal provision of online access, there is also the gap between those with digital skills and experience and those without. Those unfamiliar with digital tools may be almost as much excluded from the possibilities of socialising online as those with no internet at all. Although there is no direct correlation with age, proportionally more retired and older people lack these digital skills. While many have been able to seize the opportunity to learn during the current crisis, others are still struggling to engage online, as covered in this BBC article.

For the most part, this shift online is an attempt to recreate real world socialising. So are we simply maintaining existing relationships on new platforms or are we making new friends online? In a previous step, we discussed the speed with which we can make new friends online but most of this current switch to digital socialising has been about new settings rather than new social circles. So as more of us start to use online platforms and digital tools to stay connected, will our socialising change? The shared experiences of life in lockdown have certainly encouraged some new socialising: Facebook and WhatsApp groups for communities have flourished, and whilst these have been based on physically geographic communities, they have nonetheless connected people who had not previously interacted. Elsewhere, further connections have sprung up, as those feeling isolated under lockdown seek out other people having similar experiences.

On 30th March 2020, the writer Olivia Gatwood posted a picture of herself on Instagram captioned “Self-portrait of a lady in quarantine”. This prompted women from all over the world to share their own self-isolation self-portraits, now brought together as Girls of isolation. Essentially, strangers are finding common ground and sharing their experiences across digital platforms. Were these people already using social media to connect with others prior to the lockdown? In some regards the online shift will have been less problematic for those already using social media platforms as a primary means of communication with friends, family and community, but it is notable that projects like this, connecting people across digital media, are flourishing, as is the use of hashtags such as #TogetherApart.

It remains to be seen whether those pushed to socialise online do no more than attempt to replicate their real world interactions in a virtual environment, or go on to develop more involved online social practices. But as more people begin to explore the breadth of communication and entertainment possibilities presented by the online world, and more online providers begin to open up content to new audiences, a threshold is being crossed, and an opportunity emerges for all of us to make a lot more new friends…

© University of York (author: Alice Bennett)
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