Spare a thought for the travel influencers, whose whole raison d’être has just been spiked by coronavirus. Instagram personality Sarah Gallo, for example, has had her current itinerary cancelled and is quarantined in a cabin on a remote Norwegian island. She may be thrilled by the views, but the struggle (reports the NYT) is real:
”It’s kind of the perfect place to be quarantined,” Ms. Gallo said. “We have the most spectacular views, and we’re not around anybody. But at the end of the day, we’re still quarantined. We don’t know how we’re going to get home.”
It is difficult to think of an occupation that more perfectly encapsulates the 21st-century media fusion of marketing, simulacrum and self-promotion than the travel influencer, carefully staging aspirational spontaneity on Instagram to sell global hypermobility as a consumer product. Half a century ago, Guy Debord saw it coming. In The Society of the Spectacle, he argued that in a fragmented and mass-mediated world, simulation and reality are increasingly inseparable.
“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail,” he wrote: “life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.”
In a discussion of celebrities, long before social media was even invented, Debord could have been describing Gallo’s The “Five Foot Traveller” blog, writing that “As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specialisations that they actually live.”
That is, we invest emotionally in these public figures and their simulated lives to compensate for the increasing atomisation of our own existence. No wonder, then, that social media is often accused of making us more lonely, more narcissistic and more anti-social.
But if Debord is right, this Babel of socially-mediated self-performance is not the cause of our alienation but its consequence — or, at least, the two are inseparable. Would a different society produce a different public discourse? We may be about to find out, as the coronavirus pandemic rips through global economic systems and, piece by piece, the elements we think of as ‘society’ — offices, public spaces, theatres, supply chains, travel and tourism — are shut.
And with the coming cornavirus lockdown, our attenuated social networks built on personal affinity rather than geography seem as brittle as the crumbling global supply chains. I had lunch with one of my oldest friends on Sunday near my small town in the shires, then waved her off back to London afterwards with a feeling of unreality, wondering when — or even if — I would next see her.
So as everything we recognise as “normal life” grinds to a halt around us, has our hyper-real, hyper-mediated public discourse shifted away from clickbait spectacle to engage with the strange new realities?
On the surface, not so much. The Very Online mass punch-up of politics as entertainment, populated by the commentators Graeme Archer recently described as “blue-tick conspiracists” and the engaged-but-inactive spectators Eitan Hersh calls “political hobbyists”, has embraced coronavirus mainly as the latest vehicle for pushing whatever it is they usually push.
The peddlers of conspiracy theories are now, naturally, peddling coronavirus-flavoured conspiracy theories. The same FBPE-ers who not long ago fantasised about Brexit-voting pensioners dying off are now accusing Boris Johnson of wanting to ‘cull’ the elderly to save on social care fees. Meanwhile, Owen Jones calls for his supporters to mobilise around five demands – and also for suggestions as to what those five demands should be.
As the crisis escalated last week, the increasingly frenzied culture-war weaponisation of this deadly and disruptive virus struck me first as tin-eared, then baffling, and finally monstrous. What do people think they are doing, scrabbling for points in another round of biff-bam-pow when, as Graeme Archer put it, a virus is trying to kill us all?
Then on Saturday it hit me: the armchair epidemiologists, #boristhebutcher hashtaggers and all-round political tinfoil-hatters back-seat-driving national policy are doing it because they think that is what ‘helping’ looks like. In an ever more fragmented society, the only remaining space where mass action even feels possible is social media.
Contributing to the like-and-share spectacle of social media gives us an illusory closeness to national decision-making, and a sense of contributing to matters of state. So as the systems that underpin our society of spectacle fall away one by one, millions flock to help in the only way the spectacle has to offer: “the debate”. But while Sir Patrick Valance’s decisions are now very high stakes, I have nothing useful to add to them. Debating his decisions on that front, or offering my own alternative policies, was doing little save to heighten my sense of helplessness.
When I realised that, I got off Twitter and talked to my next-door neighbour instead. She told me she had deleted social media from her phone: it was just making her anxious. We agreed on the need to do something concrete and local instead, and decided for us that meant contacting everyone on our street and offering to support anyone needing to isolate.
We made a leaflet, and then my neighbour and I and our children posted them on Sunday. At the time of writing, 48 hours since we posted the leaflets, we have heard from around half of the households on the street. We get a few more messages every hour or so. Everyone is keen to pitch in. We have a WhatsApp group, which is strikingly calm compared to the pandemonium on social media. Updates so far have been on practical matters, such as help with dog walking or where to buy infant formula. It feels grounded, sane and – importantly – human-scale. It has saved my sanity.
Similar groups are now forming all over the country, as people realise that to cope in this strange new reality we need less performative outrage and more practical offline action. Cheeringly, a growing chorus of voices is challenging those still stuck on politics-as-performance. Ever more of us are opting to “stop being angry and scared on Twitter and do something more useful”, as Centre for Policy Studies director Robert Colvile put it.
The internet is the locus for a culture of performative outrage that feels increasingly ill-suited to a time of national crisis. But it also has phenomenal power to connect people in practical ways, to do things in real life. We are seeing social media increasingly used in service of local networks, rather than replacing them.
Rightly so. As normal life comes to a standstill, meaningful action does not look like shouting at the government, who are making balance of probabilities decisions in good faith, with a rapidly evolving situation and enormously high stakes. It looks like supporting people near us, in our families, apartment blocks or streets.
And, this is taking place, quietly, beneath the surface. Though we are being told to stay physically apart, connections are being formed. Local groups are beginning to coalesce into larger-scale hub-and-spoke networks, and organisers are sharing ideas and best practice via groups such as Covid-19 Mutual Aid or the list hosted by the anarchist website Freedom News.
My prediction is that this will be significant. Our nation has had its civil society capacity reduced by both the right and left, in the name of (respectively) market and state, and this outbreak of new, mutualistic networks could have a powerful effect well beyond the coronavirus crisis.
Its emergence will raise many new questions. What is the right scale for a peer-organised support group? I would give someone who I know lives on my street a tenner to pick up my shopping, but someone from the next street over? Perhaps not. How can volunteer capacity support state systems without being exploited (as happened under Cameron) as a cheap replacement? What is the appropriate scale for safeguarding regulations to kick in? These and more are questions we will do well to consider in coming weeks.
But we should take the time to do so, because these green shoots of civil society regrowth that are beginning to appear may become increasingly valuable. The 21st century will be an era of confronting limits, whether of economic growth or natural resources, and we are likely to find ourselves needing to learn once again how — or when, or in what manner — to trust our neighbours.
The hologram is flickering. We are catching glimpses of a different society beneath the spectacle, one that is more place-bound, more mutualistic and more viscerally focused on everyday survival. Growing numbers are turning away from the spectacle and seeking to refocus the power of the internet on enabling real, meaningful offline networks. We should nurture those networks, because we are likely to need them during a difficult and trying time.