As the coronavirus pillaged immune systems and stay-at-home orders unfurled across the country last March, Americans locked down, logged on and smashed the imaginary barrier between “in real life” and life online.
In the pandemic’s early months, as road traffic plummeted, AT&T internet, cell and voice traffic increased almost 20%. Just breathing on a stranger could kill, so our living rooms became our workplaces, classrooms, churches, movie theaters and trading floors, in some cases literally overnight. Families boosted their broadband to handle multiple video streams at once. Suddenly a lot of people needed more ergonomic kitchen chairs. Dry-cleaning bills disappeared; PC sales exploded.
Netflix helped fill the hours for service workers who got laid off and could manage the $9 monthly basic subscription. For the white-collars who kept their jobs, the workday ended when the Slack alerts did. Weddings moved from the chapel to Zoom, the useful but clunky video conferencing software that taught us how awkward it can be to end a conversation. The grieving, barred from hospital ICUs, watched their loved ones die over iPhones held by FaceTime-wielding nurses and doctors. As life expectancies dropped, many of us doomscrolled timelines full of bad news until we fell asleep.
Real life is everything that happens to you, and over the last year real life happened to many more of us on a screen. Logging on was just the continuation of IRL by other means.
It’s been a time of isolation and of mass action, with the gaps among everyone plugged by 4G networks and inconsistent Wi-Fi. On the left, during the George Floyd protests, many converted their Instagram stories into anti-racism PowerPoints and mobilization plans for street protests against police violence. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) hyped voter registration to almost half a million viewers as she played the buzzy social video game “Among Us” on the streaming service Twitch. Joe Biden’s presidential campaign skipped crowded campaign events in favor of YouTube broadcasts. And got haters for it right up until he won.
Biden HQ on “Animal Crossing,” the right’s revenge after AOC’s genial “Among Us” Twitch stream, a board game called “Propaganda.” Election politics in games.
On the right, the absurd QAnon conspiracy theory became a central force in conservative politics without a physical campaign headquarters; new “drops” from the mystery poster known as “Q” appeared on the message board 8kun, offshoot of the deplatformed 8chan. Social media users widely downloaded new conspiracy theories into their politics like ever-buggier software updates, culminating in the contemplated kidnapping of Michigan’s governor and violent Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol. After interrupting the counting of electoral votes, the madding crowds didn’t seem to know what to do next except livestream their crimes to followers who immediately snitched to the feds. Notorious poster President Trump got banned by the mods on multiple social platforms for trolling democracy’s terms of service.
Elsewhere, helpers beta-tested a new society. Scientists uploaded hundreds of thousands of coronavirus genomes online, while millions of GoFundMe donations digitally patched holes in a tragically analog social safety net. With the virus making live music economically impossible, sales skyrocketed on Bandcamp, the indie music hub favored for sharing larger slices of revenue with artists. A shortage of personal protective equipment was offset by home stitchers selling face masks on Etsy, which claimed more than $740 million in mask sales last year.
It can be tempting to see all this and entertain vivid projections about the future. Belay that thought. In the year 1920, after the great influenza pandemic had come to an end, the Czech writer Karel Čapek introduced the world to “robots,” his term for mechanical workers, an idea that stuck.
Robots “will produce so much corn, so much cloth, so much everything that things will be practically without price,” a character in Čapek’s play “R.U.R.” announces, predicting the future. “There will be no poverty. All work will be done by living machines. Everybody will be free from worry and liberated from the degradation of labor. Everybody will live only to perfect himself.”
If only. The cyber society’s operating system runs on meatspace labor, the “essential workers.” Last year when it would have been useful to have some job-stealing robots around, the kitchens, fields and meatpacking plants were filled by low-paid humans of color doing the working and the dying. With dining areas closed, servant apps like DoorDash made it easier than ever for a steak to appear on the doorstep of an iPhone owner. The kitchens the food came from didn’t get less precarious to work in, if the restaurants stayed open at all.
If it was the worst of times for many workers, it was a bittersweet best of times for many consumers, who saw their free time balloon due to mass layoffs and the end of life-sucking commutes. The media-analysis firm MIDiA Research estimated that users’ time consuming media increased by 12% during the early months of the pandemic — a staggering statistic, given how much time televisions, radios, computers, smartphones and gaming consoles had gobbled up before COVID-19.
The World Health Organization announced the coronavirus outbreak had become a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Since then, the virus has seemingly touched all aspects of life in Southern California and beyond. The Times looks back on a full year of life in a pandemic.
Imagine having an extra 12% of time to do anything, then combine it with ample broadband, unspent vacation budgets and a federal stimulus program that juiced unemployment benefits. Twitch reported in May that viewership of its streams had nearly doubled over the previous six months. Reddit in December said its year-over-year user numbers had increased 44%, and many of those users blitzed Wall Street by hyperinflating GameStop stock on the investment app Robinhood. Discord, the chat service originally developed for gamers, said its monthly active users almost doubled in 2020. Launched last summer, the audio chatting app ClubHouse has piled up over 10 million users on the (correct) premise that a lot of people had hours to just ... talk.
It was a boom year for TikTok, even with President Trump’s ultimately empty threat to ban it in the U.S. Old sea shanties became a global sensation for a few days after a Scottish mailman crooned on the addictive short-form video app about sugar and tea and rum, tempting other users to add their voices. People bought old Fleetwood Mac albums en masse after watching the world’s chillest skateboarder sip Ocean Spray while vibing to “Dreams.”
When it wasn’t the year of the Amazon fulfillment center, it was the year of the sole proprietorship. News coverage has rightly focused on the plight of small-business owners crushed by the pandemic, but lesser noticed has been the explosion of millions of new small-business registrations, a nearly 25% increase over 2019, much of it driven by online-only retailers, such as Etsy and Shopify sellers who don’t have stores or employees. Some prominent media personalities — openly signaling that sometimes it’s annoying to have bosses and co-workers — ditched their legacy publications to launch digital newsletters on Substack with revenues in the six figures. With sets dark and thousands of decent-paying Hollywood production jobs dried up, creators supported by subscription services like Patreon went to work in their apartments, consolidating the crafts of screenwriter, actor, director, lighting technician, audio engineer and editor into a single job. Sometimes that job was selling nudes on OnlyFans. It’s a living, for some.
But there is a season for all things, and with millions more Americans getting vaccinated every day, something like normality looms. Kids will be in classrooms. Bosses will tell workers to get in their cars again and spend hours driving to and from the office, even as work-from-home negotiations increase. Barring a variant-spiked surge, the economy should heat up, and unemployed workers will be back on the job, earning paychecks, not looking at viral dances on their phones. People will want to sit in restaurants and bars again and stare into each others’ faces, doing anything other than scrolling UberEats and deciding what not to watch on Hulu.
Life will claw back all that extra free time by minutes and hours. But the newly supercharged digital world will demand more of our attention than ever, and we’ll continue to expect more of our digital world. IRL may never be quite the same.