From the endless (and rather numbing) scroll to the return of the "appointment internet". The social media and our ways of using them have changed during lockdown. Spoiler: there’s no turning back

* Francesco Oggiano is a journalist, writer and author of the newsletter Digital Journalism

We also had some fun: we organized cyber-aperitifs, virtual concerts, yoga sessions, digital serenades. Forced by the lack of travel, photo opportunities and intriguing selfies, we even ended up sharing our boredom on social networks. And left a digital evidence that the first great change to our virtual presence during lockdown: the suspension of the patina of perfection that inevitably obsessed us with our pre-Covid newsfeed.

The big brains of Silicon Valley did two things. First, they celebrated the results of the first quarter of 2020: YouTube +33% in sales, Spotify +22%, LinkedIn +21%; Facebook reported +10% growth of users, Twitter +24%. Second, they got to work, to adapt to the changes in progress imposed by new habits.

Zoom and Rooms

Let’s take video calls, the true stars of this shelter-in-place phase. With Zoom we organized TV shows (like Saturday Night Live), disco nights with DJs (where all the revelers danced in their own rooms), weddings (legalized in America), and even “breakups” of long-term relationships (“being Zumped” is a new term that means “dumped on Zoom”). The revelation platform of this period went from 10 to 200 million users per day, and on the stock exchange it reached a value similar to that of the first six airlines added together. Security measures had to be taken to handle the traffic.

Trying to regain ground in the field of video calls, Mark Zuckerberg launched three new features, one for each of the Menlo Park social vehicles. On Facebook he created Messenger Rooms, a new service that permits video calls involving up to fifty people. On  Whatsapp  the four-person limit for single video calls is being eliminated. Three months ago it seemed like a great achievement, and now we see it as an unbearable limit.

A world of broadcasters (and co-watchers)

On Instagram, the social network that has gained in worldwide importance even in relation to Facebook, Zuckerberg has tried to boost two formats that have become more indispensable with the pandemic: live videos and IGTV.

The broadcasts – those things that have started to fill the upper tabs of our screens from 6 PM every evening – are now visible on your desktop. Thanks to the new  Co-Watching function, we can now share the view of videos and photos of other users. Partly for gossip purposes, but above all to introduce little ploys of direction in video calls (let’s face it… after 10 minutes it gets boring to look at a split screen with two people talking).

IGTV broadcasts, for videos over a minute in length, are the new frontier of the social networks, which are setting out to challenge YouTube, at least for the mobile market.

Zuckerberg has tried to fill the double gap of Instagram TV with respect to YouTube: organization of content (in playlists, for example) and the possibility of inserting ad campaigns  (with the classic adverts at the start of each video, for example). Hence the possibility of organizing videos in series on one’s own channel (like YouTube playlists). Instagram has begun to contact its top creators to test the advertising on their IGTV videos, again (it seems) based on the YouTube model.

Credibility is the number one value

But our need for socializing to bridge distance is joined by the need for credibility, to compensate for the confusion. So another effect of the coronavirus has been to make us “return” to the most reliable sources of information.

In America The New York Times reported that the only sources that had no growth were precisely those of the most biased and extremist sites, such as Infowars and Breitbart. The paper came up with a provocative headline: “Facebook is more trustworthy than the President,” at least when it comes to the virus.

All the social networks have formed partnerships with healthcare institutions to avoid the spread of unreliable or totally fake news. You’ve probably noticed those pop-ups on Instagram referring you to the WHO, or the signals on Facebook, with the launch of the Coronavirus Information Center.

Social media companies are delivering reliable information in the coronavirus crisis,” the Times continued. “Why can’t they do that all the time?” A question that will come back to haunt us, since the race for the White House is already under way.

The return of the Appointment Internet

Perhaps what has changed in social media and our way of experiencing them can be summed up in two words:  Appointment Internet. Which stands for: “a way of staying online in which you take part in specific activities at specific times, with small groups of friends or family members.” It feels like a return.

In its early years, the Internet was one enormous web of appointments. We had dates on forums and publications at fixed hours on blogs. Then blogs were replaced by platforms and communities by influencers. The simultaneous communication “between groups” has been replaced by the asymmetrical and non-simultaneous communication from one (the opinion leader, the masthead, the influencer) to many (the audience that constantly scrolls, each person on his or her own feed). It was impossible to find an entire experience shared by multiple people, given the fact that each of them had only a single point of view.

Sharing experiences with people we know

With the lockdown, we have returned to group experiences on the Internet, with happy hours on Zoom, groups of neighbors on Slack, gatherings of shared interest on Facebook.

While in the past we posted something and hoped some of our followers would see it on their feeds (maybe 20 hours later), with the web appointment we know we are seeing the same thing together with all the others.

It is an alternative way of using the web, as opposed to the constant leaping from YouTube videos to other things, and the endless scrolling: it is the sharing of an experience. Exactly what, in the end, we have all been doing, around the world, closed inside our homes over the last two months.


Cover photo: Victor Moriyama, the Copan building by Oscar Niemeyer in São Paulo, Brazil on March 18, 2020, during the lockdown. The photo was published onThe New York Times and was part of 100 Fotografi per Bergamo charity to support of the intensive care unit of the Papa Giovanni XXII Hospital in Bergamo during the Covid pandemic.