Has Coronavirus helped us remember what the internet is really for?

Just over a week ago I was in my office at the BBC building at MediaCity in Salford. I was in the traditional end-of-project panic, trying to finish the series of radio documentaries I’ve been making for the BBC World Service. These programmes explore how digital technology and the online world has changed the ways the religious practice their faith – how mobile apps help the busy worship alone, and virtual reality church lets the remote or disabled worship with others. You can hear all four here. When I started, three months ago, this seemed like an interesting, if niche subject. Now it looks like amazing prescience. But even as I as was finishing them, the coronavirus was only hovering on my horizon of things to worry about. Most people were already working from home but there was talk of it being more strictly enforced.

Now, everything has changed.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that life as we know it has stopped for the foreseeable future. For the hundreds of families across the UK and Ireland who have already lost people to the virus, and can’t even mourn their passing properly, it will never be the same again.  The rest of us are facing varying stages of disruption. We can’t go where we want whenever we want to; we can’t buy whatever we want when we want to. Many people have no work, and therefore no income. Yet for the thousands working for the NHS or the police, this is a time of crazy hours and dreadful stress. Others are trying to work from home, involving complicated online acrobatics and child-bribing techniques. Millions of vulnerable people are literally imprisoned, some alone and terrified, some with no escape from poisonous relationships.

But as our ability to connect physically has diminished, our virtual connectivity has expanded to fill the gap – and in so many positive ways. I know there are still those excluded from the online world, and those, like the hundreds in rural Ireland, North and South, who have unreliable connections. But for the millions who spent most of their day online, I want to highlight what has changed.

Last night I tentatively stepped outside my front door, to #clapforourcarers. This campaign, to show our appreciation for the NHS workers struggling to keep the pandemic at bay, was started online by yoga teacher Annemarie Plas. I was determined to do it because my sister is a GP in London, but like many others, I wasn’t sure how many people would follow the call. But even in the quiet suburban street where I live, in a small town in the northwest of England, you could hear the claps and the cheers. In pools of light, on doorsteps down the street, I saw people I’ve never seen before, joining the applause. I felt like waving – and crying.

I’ve found it hard not to feel out of step recently, watching as people with millions of social media followers, but few apparent skills, who represent no one but themselves, and who aren’t improving our lives in any discernible way, have been elevated to the superstar status. I’ve become fed up hearing myself bleat: “What about nurses and doctors, teachers and police officers?” Even before this pandemic, I’ve wanted to celebrate the millions of NHS staff battling to continue to provide a service, while successive governments ignore or undermine their work, or in the case of the Assembly, relinquish all responsibility for years on end.  The fact that this catastrophe has reminded us how brave and important heath service staff are, and an online campaign brought people across these islands together in a public display of appreciation, for me, is cause for celebration.

As public and physical gatherings have been banned, we’ve looked to the online space to help and the results have been spectacularly inventive. Northern Ireland’s own Imagine Festival found itself having to reimagine the immediate future in the digital sphere and has risen admirably to the challenge. In the Netherlands, members of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, who are self-isolating, all played Beethoven online together, with amazing results.

YouTube video

closer to home, the Hatfield House on the Ormeau Road is determined to keep the Belfast party spirit alive, live streaming gigs and offering free deliveries of food and drink:

And how lovely has it been to open your social media feeds and find people posting help and advice, or funny videos of dogs and cats, or asking for virtual hugs and being showered with online love, instead of hate.

Those original pioneers of the internet, and then the world wide web, wanted to help communities connect, to freely share information, to help us connect and share. When this is all over, can we try to remember that?

Photo by geralt is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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