Sometimes a cultural trend builds so gradually it is already firmly in place by the time you notice it. A subtle shift in atmosphere can creep up; sometimes you realise you’ve been subconsciously responding to it before you were fully aware of its existence.
Recently I’ve noticed that before posting a tweet I would typically classify as boring or banal – about something I found useful, or a silly complaint about my life – I stop, and realise I’m bracing myself for a particular kind of backlash.
Over the past few months, seemingly uncontroversial posts on Twitter, Instagram and TikToks have generated viral controversy: a joke about hating dishwashers; an observation of the increasing cost of Ubers; a post about not liking cardigans. You might reasonably expect such posts to be met with tepid agreement or, at worst, a facetious rebuttal. Instead, they have attracted overwhelming criticism. The central critique is that a vulnerable community (overworked mothers or gig economy drivers or women in general) or serious issue (the ongoing pandemic) has been wrongly overlooked by the post. Even jokes about this new online tendency have yielded a similar type of reproach.
A pious, moralistic tone has been growing more popular on the internet for some time. But this social tic has been exacerbated by the pandemic. It’s a cliché to point out how much our digital habits have changed in the past two years: as we’ve spent too much time online, our social skills have degraded and we too quickly forget that real people exist behind the profiles we attack. The strict rules of the pandemic fooled us into believing everything was black and white in a period of unprecedented grey areas. As a result, we stopped acting appropriately on the internet.
The pandemic is far from over (as many of the people behind these superior comments will remind you). But for most people in the UK, our lives are dramatically different on a practical level than they were during the winter lockdown of 2020-21. We’re spending significantly less time indoors, less time on our own, and our personal safety is much higher than it was before mass vaccination. Boosters are being rolled out and there are far fewer deaths relative to case numbers compared with January and February. Many people are leading close to normal lives and (in most cases) spending a lot less time online.
And yet, these holier-than-though interventions persist. Though this type of rebuke is often related to the pandemic specifically – suggesting every pandemic concern, from long Covid to unvaccinated rates and death numbers, must be accounted for when discussing any topic affected by Covid-19 – it has grown to encompass almost any topic at all. It has made social media almost unusable – or at least unusable in the way it was used pre-2020: for jokes, for unseriousness, for the harmless exaggeration of minutiae in the name of fun. It forces users to caveat themselves and walk on eggshells lest they seem too lax, too selfish or too inconsiderate of every possible life experience.
For most people, this will merely result in the internet being less pleasurable to use. But it also makes already polarised social media platforms even more divided. This aggressively moralising tone rejects nuance and pushes people into black and white thinking. It’s the kind of approach that turns those with mild Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy into full-blown anti-vaxxers. Ironically, there is a lack of compassion: for those who may have read the wrong thing, for those who are yearning for a normal life, for those who, sometimes, just wanted to make a dumb joke on the internet.
As Covid-19 case numbers rise, it feels inevitable that pandemic interventions will only get worse as winter arrives. But the past few months have shown us that the social media discourse brought in by the pandemic is here to stay. Now, social media invites constant scrutiny, and insists on impossible standards no one could ever be expected to meet. Posting online just isn’t fun anymore.