After several years of concerning headlines about misinformation, election meddling, filter bubbles, online harassment and more, there are flickers of a more carefree — and weird — internet. At times it felt like a throwback to a more innocent web, when Dancing Baby filled our inboxes, Second Life took on a life of its own and Rickrolling was an ever-lingering threat. And all it took was a devastating pandemic that forced many in the United States and around the world to live their lives almost exclusively online for much of the past year.
But that same reliance on constant screen time has also given way to fun, creative and quirky behaviors online, which are testaments both to our need to feel connected with others and our urgent desire for escapism in a turbulent time.
“It’s a sign of optimism and of the amazing flexibility and resiliency of human beings in terms of keeping ourselves healthy and connected to other people,” said Shira Gabriel, a psychology professor at the University of Buffalo. “This last year has been super depressing and difficult, but it’s also been really inspiring to me seeing what a great job human beings have done to find ways to make the best of this tough situation.”
There is no shortage of colorful examples or online communities. Discord, which has become a popular place to hang out virtually during the pandemic, especially for Gen Z, has a server called “ChilledCow,” where members study, talk or make art while ambient music plays in the background. (It’s racked up more than 470,000 members since its creation last May, and also has a popular YouTube channel.) Another server named “Waffle House” has amassed more than 1,500 members and serves as a way to meet new friends in a virtual cafe setting.
That may leave people craving moments of “mindlessness,” such as joining a virtual space where they can connect around something simple or silly, like making a noise together. “Just sitting together in an online environment and being together without having to think … is a relief,” Ali said.
“We are all just looking for connection and community,” said Gabriel. “If everybody is posting a fun [TikTok] dance or fun idea and you’re able to participate in it too, you’re connecting to all those people and you’re a part of something bigger than yourself.”