Deprived for months of actual contact with our friends and family, and in an atmosphere of generalised panic and apocalypse, we took to sending them photos of what we were having for supper.
Even by previous standards of social-media-facilitated exhibitionism this seemed like something new. People who had never done that sort of thing before were doing it. Some sort of barrier came down and now that it’s down it may well stay down.
But it’s a funny kind of showing, what we do on Facebook, Instagram and wherever else.
We show, but we also hide.
That is, we show only what we want to show, and the nature of the medium makes it easy for us to do this. (Although, of course, it sometimes happens that we inadvertently show more than we wanted to…)
What we like about it, I think, is the amount of control we have over the image we present to the world. We feel that we can create an image of ourselves, one that we would like the world to see.
Without even realising it, we start to think like PR people, media manipulators, admen.
Whether this is particularly good for our souls I don’t know.
It’s hard to deny, however, that there is something fundamentally extrovert about it – the feeling in particular that existence is social existence.
That we don’t exist unless we are seen.
And so there’s a heightened desire, imprisoned at home, to declare that we still in fact exist – even if only by posting our incoherent thoughts on some random topic or a picture of our newly painted kitchen.
Look at me! I’m still here!
But there was also, at least for a while, an unusual sort of seriousness to our interactions. Normal gossip felt wrong and there wasn’t any gossip anyway, because the usual social friction, the mingling of people, that produces gossip was basically absent. So we talked about other things, about how the future had become so uncertain that it was impossible to plan more than a few days ahead, about the way governments were giving themselves unprecedented powers (would they give them back?), about fear, about anxiety, about boredom, about loneliness, about death.
In short, we had the kind of conversations, the kind of interactions, that opened us up to each other perhaps just slightly more than normal. That, I think, was the significant “showing”.
And then that spilled over into a sort of mass emoting. In Britain, for instance, the repeated nationwide rounds of applause for the National Health Service – Clap for Carers. In other places, the spontaneous balcony performances – some of them, inevitably, “going viral” on the internet, ending up on the news, becoming a specific phenomenon, a “thing”, generating momentary celebrities, encouraging enormous numbers of imitators, until the novelty wore off and we wanted something else.
What’s left, perhaps, is a sense that we all went through something together, all of us, a sense of shared experience that is actually quite rare in our fragmented world.