Alone Together or Online Together?

On Easter Sunday, Andrea Bocelli sang solo at the Duomo di Milano during his concert, Music for Hope. The concert was streamed live on YouTube to approximately 3.4 million people worldwide. I received notification of the concert via a WhatsApp group message from a friend who noted the time of the concert in Cairo. As the daylight shone in through the window early in the afternoon in New Jersey, I could see my reflection on the computer screen juxtaposed on a lone Bocelli singing “Amazing Grace” in front of the cathedral late in the Italian afternoon. Bocelli’s stirring voice narrated videos of empty streets in London, Paris, and New York City.  At the same time, a friend posted a picture on Facebook captioned, “Guess why I’m half-dressed up again?” It was a virtual wedding. Daily reminders of our impending finitude may be inciting people to get on with big life decisions.

Quarantine has stratified opportunity by privileged access to space—both physical and virtual.

A joke going around social media is that if this pandemic happened two decades ago, the most connected we could be at home was listening to cable news and playing the one game that existed on our pixelated phones. With the myriad of online platforms and broad bandwidth potential, people have the option to bricolage their experiences to mimic in-person interactions rather than to put life on hold indefinitely. I’m reminded of myths and scriptural narratives of instantaneous global transport. It’s not jinn powering this though; it’s man-made technology.

I read Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation in which we are cautioned of the loss of campfire conversation and complete solitude. I’m part of the guilty generation. I’m an older millennial who only remembers her first decade of life uninterrupted by virtual connectivity. By adolescence, I could dial into the internet on my computer and send words back and forth to people halfway across the world. While the uninterrupted human experience could be an experiential loss, the human experience of being online and the expanded possibility it allows could be an experiential gain. Should it be insinuated as morally inferior to physical presence? Especially since we currently can’t afford physical presence?

Quarantine has stratified opportunity by privileged access to space—both physical and virtual. A few optimists would say families can spend more time together and have dinner around the table. This assumes you have the privilege to be with your family, and dinner is guaranteed. As evidenced by the questions in relationship support groups on Facebook, families have had to renegotiate connection. Children of divorced parents need to quarantine with one parent and contend with virtual connection with the other, despite any legally arranged custody agreements. Grandparents see their newborn grandchildren for the first time on screen. Hospitals have limited arrangements for relatives to be present; some hospitals arrange for iPads to give a semblance of connection. Fear, nostalgia, humor, and resilience are apparent themes in online interactions. We’re at war, but there’s no obvious human enemy. The mass graves of unclaimed bodies lost to COVID-19 shown in news stories might one day be commemorated as the unknown soldiers of this war.

Multiple deaths are shared as statistics, but the tragedy is much more heartfelt when stories are shared online by the people experiencing them. While there is no shortage of content analysis of online spaces, it presents an opportunity to reconsider what makes our connections really human. What is this pandemic showing us about connecting as humans when the physical body isn’t a factor? There are so many possibilities when there is a peeling of the categories that define us in the physical realm. What is an authentic relationship? How does kinship manifest on Facebook? How do online support groups affect participants? What affinities do we have to one another online? How are these networked publics exploitable?

These are all broad questions, but maybe the moment begs us to ask more questions first.

Sara O. Ahmed is a doctoral student in anthropology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Cite as: Ahmed, Sara O. 2020. “Alone Together or Online Together?” Anthropology News website, June 11, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1420

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