Many have just noticed that the digital and the “real world” are not as separable as they may have thought. For large sections of society, this is new. But we already lived in a world where people interact on social media and find relationships on apps like Bumble and Grindr. Online dating has changed dramatically over even the last decade. LGBTQ+ people rely heavily on online worlds to meet each other and build communities – especially important for trans people given the hostile media environment.
Up until recently, these digital worlds were frowned upon by mainstream cishet society. Research frequently appeared in the media claiming that digital life was harmful (correlational research). That has collapsed. It has become the norm for people to work and socialise only online now. People go on Zoom to work and to play.
Rather than thinking in terms of what (implicitly, detrimental) “impact” relying more on digital ways of living has had, let’s ponder how society has developed. What does social connection really mean? What is sexuality like now and how do people cope without physical contact? How many people have chosen to move in together because of lockdown who might not have done otherwise and what is that like? How many covertly use Uber?
With a standard couple-focused and monogamous model, lovers either live together (sex as usual) or apart (break lockdown rules or engage in what used to be called “cyber”). But there are also couples living together who meet other couples and singles online; see Zoom banned virtual orgies. Here’s how sex parties and orgy-seekers are getting around it. This is another way the digital/”real” boundaries merge.
Glitch Feminism by Legacy Russell is a thought-provoking book, written pre-pandemic, on how online and offline worlds are interwoven. The author introduces the term “AFK” – away from keyboard – to work towards “undermining the fetishisation of ‘real life,’ helping us to see that because realities in the digital are echoed offline, and vice versa, our gestures, expressions, actions online can inform and even deepen our offline, or AFK, existence.”
In other words, for some, the heavy reliance on online worlds is new – maybe even surprising in how it works. But there are others for whom this is not at all new – who skipped merrily between IRC and pub. There are already experts out there from whom the dominant digitally-naive majority can learn.
There is another digital divide of sorts, which is most apparent when we enter lockdowns. There are people who must still physically travel to work – supermarket workers, cleaners. There are others who are furloughed, so highly dependent on what the Treasury can offer. There are others who can work as before, their means of income hardly affected, many of whom were already working from home and online.
Finally, another phenomena which has become more apparent in recent months is the variety of closed yet huge online worlds – private Facebook and WhatsApp groups, Telegram channels – where people can support each other, live and even love, but where in some cases conspiracy theories can thrive, such as the bizarre claim that 5G causes Covid. Again these “online” worlds impact life AFK – leading to protests and people refusing to wear masks. But how can we understand these communities? Do any existing theories of AFK society help? What do people get from being in these groups? (See also Escape the echo chamber, by C. Thi Nguyen.)