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Internet in times of Corona: party as if it was 1999?

Every few days tens of thousands of Instagram users meet at a virtual dance party hosted by DJ D-Nice. The extremely popular live streams under the motto Club Quarantine have already attracted celebrities from all corners of the Internet, including Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Mark Zuckerberg. Sometimes there were up to 150,000 participants. For a few hours, teenagers danced to the same music as some of the richest people in the world.

For some, this phenomenon – the democratic thing about it, the gathering of a huge community – evokes a feeling of déjà vu. The same feeling creeps up if you suddenly exchange back tips with strangers (currently the most important search term for Google in the USA) or start a new chat roulette on Google Hangouts. Everyone is alone now, and everyone is alone, and it feels like the barriers between us are disappearing on the Internet.

Is this an illusion or has something really changed? It was foreseeable that our online behavior would not remain exactly the same. The corona virus has changed our lives drastically. We are locked up at home, and any otherwise normal interaction – happy hours, hugs, kisses, dialing yourself or scratching an itchy face – is suddenly considered potentially fatal. Still, in an age of bitter trench warfare and heavy troll provocation, you might not have expected the Internet to be beautiful again if everything moved there.

It’s like turning the clock back to a time when the web was even more serious. At that time, the novelty of having a voice and being able to contact everyone worldwide gave us a feeling of endless opportunities and optimism. That was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before social media and smartphones. Back then, going on the Internet still meant using time wisely to seek community.

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More from Technology Review

You can see that in the resurgence of people’s willingness to build virtual relationships. Before we were spoiled and distanced from social media and disrespectful, we took the internet promise of happy-chance encounters much more seriously. It’s cool again today to hang out with random acquaintances (online, of course). People participate in video conferences with others they have never seen before; there are events from book clubs to happy hours to night flirting. Collective moments of creativity are shared on Google Sheets, you search for new pandemic penpals and send smoother, less clear emails.

You can also see it reviving old relationships. Before replacing sentimentality with an annual tidying up of Facebook friends, it was a pleasure to keep in touch with comrades from high school or to discover old primary school teachers. Today we think again of our old friends who are far away. Because on the Internet it makes no difference whether you meet them or neighbors. And the analogue is also being rediscovered: we send postcards, leave answering machine messages for the family and send emergency packages.

Of course, these memories could be romanticized. Bad guys have also been around on the early web, says Andrew Sullivan, CEO of the nonprofit Internet Society. But back then, “people were more careful about how they communicate online.” Dial-up connections made it expensive to search endlessly long forums, so that time was invested more specifically on the Internet. In addition, initially only people with enough education, money and knowledge had access to it, so there were far fewer users.

Will the internet still be a nicer and more pleasant place when the current crisis is over? Leah Lievrouw, who is a professor at the University of California in Los Angeles and deals with social change and the Internet, is currently seeing an unprecedented sense of community. “We notice that we don’t have to be physically present to mobilize,” she says. And that is not because of the physical infrastructure, but because of how we are now using the technology.



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