Photo: Alain Pitton/NurPhoto via Getty Images
For many people, the extended period of quarantine and working from home necessitated by the coronavirus outbreak has turned into a monkey’s paw situation — a theoretical wish come true that has significant downsides. Former office drones now get to sit around in their sweatpants all day, self-manage their time, and save those precious minutes that used to be spent commuting in the car or on public transit for other activities.
One cost of this newfound freedom is that time has folded in on itself and blended together. When your home is your office and your office is your home, the weekdays become inseparable from the weekend. Eight in the morning and eight in the evening run together. Logging off of work means closing one computer and opening another. A popular meme image articulates this dynamic as: “Tired of looking at BAD SCREEN. Can’t wait to get home and look at GOOD SCREEN.” They might be the same screen now.
To break out of this fuzzy stasis a lot of people are being deliberate and aggressive about engaging in afterwork activities that stand in for actually socializing. Musicians and comedians are performing live on Instagram. Cinephiles are syncing up their Netflix sessions and hopping into a chatroom. Happy hours now happen over teleconference apps like Zoom, and the idea that “it’s five o’clock somewhere” has never been more apparent. Game nights, movie nights, book clubs, calls, and group chats that used to happen in person now happen online.
I’ll refer to this recent shift as the Appointment Internet, a way of being online in which you take part in specific activities at specific times, with small groups of friends and family. This dynamic is a break from the way most people used the internet until very recently: flicking around, refreshing feeds, and monitoring continuously updating streams of ephemera. The Appointment Internet is deliberate usage, not an absentminded way of filling time. You don’t need to keep tabs on the Appointment Internet.
This is not actually a new development. The entire internet used to be Appointment Internet. You used to have to go to a desk, sit down, and log in, and do the tasks you set out to do online — checking email, or message boards, or some blogs — and then you logged off. There was a definitive, tactile barrier between when you were online and when you were not. That way of using the internet has been completely obliterated by smartphones, which allow us to carry it with us wherever we go, hanging around us like a cloud of gas.
The smartphone also centralized power among a handful of online platforms. Blogs and individual websites and forums died out. Communities of likeminded users were redefined along a follower/following axis. In communities, everyone was on equal footing, whereas in the follower/following model, everyone became either a performer for thousands or one of those nameless thousands. Everything became part of an algorithmic feed, all of which is personalized and unique between users. It was difficult to find an entirely shared experience, since we were all looking at the internet from slightly different angles.
The Appointment Internet threatens this dynamic by once again partitioning groups of users into small groups. Zoom happy hours, neighborhood Slack servers, Discord channels full of isolated high-school classmates, Facebook groups for niche topics, iMessage group chats. These all carry a different dynamic than posting on Instagram and hoping some portion of followers will see it. On the Appointment Internet, you can be assured that everyone else is seeing the same thing you’re seeing. It’s a more active and engaged use of the internet, and it’s a way to communicate with the couple of dozen people you actually want to talk to, and nobody else.
For the large tech platforms we rely on, the new internet style poses a potential threat. The appeal of centralized platforms, and their power, comes from the sheer scale of their distribution capabilities. Facebook’s News Feed lets the right pieces of viral fodder spread far and wide. Twitter lets people share thoughts and reactions immediately; YouTube offers a no-cost hosting solution for bandwidth-hogging video; Instagram does the same for photos and Stories.
Does a user need the powerful distribution network that these platforms provide when they are primarily using the internet to check in with a few friends and chat for a while? Do users need to go viral when coordinating grocery deliveries for neighbors in need? I don’t think so. All of the vital technical functionality that we now desperately crave in this period of prolonged isolation doesn’t need scale. Users of the Appointment Internet seek out the attention of specific people, instead of the maximum number of people.
To be clear, the Appointment Internet is not a replacement for social-media sites, but it is now running in parallel, reinvigorated by the current crisis and stronger than it’s been in roughly a decade. And the great thing about that, to me, is that it doesn’t need to scale. It doesn’t require algorithmic sorting and distribution; it doesn’t need robust hosting solutions and rock-solid stability. You can set up your own chatroom server and host your own message boards — you can use any number of private video-chat programs. The Appointment Internet only needs functionality, and not any type of network effect — the social network that it relies on are the friends you already have.
When (if?) things return to normal, it’s difficult to say whether everyone will revert to old habits of endless scrolling and posting into the void. But the types of internet usage we’ve seen resurge in this crisis are a testament to what people really want out of their internet in the absence of everything else: a way of maintaining close ties with people and places we actually know.
Around 2008, some members of a video-game forum I used to frequent would host an event self-explanatorily deemed “Shitty Movie Night.” We’d log on to Ventrilo, a voice-chat program for people playing games like Counter-Strike, and talk over a bad movie that someone would livestream illegally.
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