The age of social (media) distancing

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This time last year, if someone had said the phrase ‘social distancing’ to you, you would probably have turned your nose up at them. But earlier this year when the world was hurled into lockdown, this pairing of words invaded our everyday conversations and became the talk of the (soon-to-be locked down) town. ‘Social distancing’ (also called ’physical distancing’) means keeping a safe space between yourself and other people outside of your home.

Now, working at a social agency and as a social strategist, this quite unique and grating term struck a chord with me. As everyone was told to stay indoors, limit physical activity and effectively do the bare minimum, the human temptation to try and mediate those lost relationships came through the most obvious alternative there is: technology – and, more specifically, social media.

Since the start of the lockdown in March, Instagram and TikTok have reported a 25% increase in user engagement month-on-month. The knee jerk reaction to this rise is, yes, there obviously lies the importance of staying connected to others during this isolation period. It is a chance for creativity and entertainment – and, let’s be frank, it’s the easiest way to fill your time as we all await the next burningupdate from Boris.

But Covid aside, the addictive nature of technology isn’t exactly groundbreaking news. Throw into the mix this time of uncertainty and there are some really poignant questions to consider. Such as: Will people eventually start to slowly distance themselves from areas of social media? Has this already begun to happen in some practices? And how does this global shakeup affect the way brands and advertisers need to behave? Is there a new world order to align with online as well as off? The short answer is yes. Yes,there is.

Ubiquity and avoidance

Let’s face it, social media is everywhere; in our pockets, on our screens and in advertising. The total number of people on social media currently stands at3.8 billion people – more than the world’s total population was in 1971! It is estimated that the average person will spend over half a decade of their lives staring at their phone screens (just let that sink in). Despite this neck-hair raising statistic, social media has become a vital news source in the last 10 years as well as a place of debate and discussion. With the news changing at such a fast pace, social media is a great way to stay in the loop – but it can also be a barrage of information. It can be incredibly hard to look away and turn off sometimes, and this in turn can be anxiety inducing. During these strange times, this is the last thing you need on your plate.

In the first two weeks weeks of lockdown, Twitter reported that 13% of all the UK’s tweets mentioned Covid or centred around Covid-related hashtags or conversations. Like the next person, the novelty of corona small talk was beginning to wear thin on me and something needed to change. I chose to mute the terms ‘Covid’, ‘Covid-19’, ‘corona’ and ‘corona virus’ on Twitter.

I also turned off push notifications from the news app on my phone so my morning didn’t start off with a Covid-themed alarm clock. The only updates I would be getting would be if I consciously sat down and watched the news – a rare occurrence in my flat.

The phrase ‘digital detox’means the conscious decision to focus less attention online. It can mean deleting Facebook or cleaning up your ‘following’ list on Instagram. Before lockdown, 21% of people who had deleted social media did it to benefit their mental health. Now, more than ever, the social landscape is a very delicate place to speak out in. People are even more sceptical of what they’re seeing online and how this feeds into the wider quarantine frame of mind. For brands (and people) to really speak to their audience on a human level, the conversation needs to be self-aware and considered. If not, it falls flat. It’s as simple as ’if you don’t have anything good to say, just don’t say anything at all’.

As we hurtle towards the third month of lockdown, there’s no doubt the vast majority of people’s screen time is stuck at a painful level of ‘Oh God, I wish I hadn’t looked at that’. But hopefully, the lens of what is deemed ‘meaningful content’ is a bit clearer in light of things. Following the right people on social for the right reasons rings truer than ever. It’s a time to be good to yourself in the real and virtual world, to give yourself grace that things will get better, and it’s not all doom and gloom and sad-verts. I actually found myself watching Justin Bieber’s Instagram live at 3am the other morning as he spoke with his fans about their time in quarantine (it was a slow Saturday night, OK?), and I for one know that this feels more human than brands optimising their social ads for 9x16 to tell ‘real life’ stories in a Zoom-esque fashion .

It’s all about context and care in these baffling times, and making sure that weak messages don’t make bad situations worse. The world may be upside down, but the need to be as clear and transparent as possible is more paramount than ever. ‘Social distancing’ will become a thing of the past (hopefully sooner rather than later), but real, conscious communication online is something we should all take away from this year, and carry well into the future.

Tom Jarvis is the founder and managing director of Wilderness.

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