In the early days of the pandemic, back when it seemed to many of us that the lockdown was a temporary blip on our collective horizons, our social lives seemed cheerfully immune to any kind of pause. Conversations, catch-ups and get-togethers simply migrated to video-calling apps, and many of us reported inboxes awash with invites — birthday ‘surprises’ that were perhaps not all that surprising given the circumstances; family reunions; check-ins with friends in different time zones. Once peripheral, WhatsApp groups became spaces to renew connections, and perfunctory exchanges of messages began to run deeper.
Virtual night-clubs and voice-note antakshari
We’ve heard stories of alumni groups coming alive with performances from musically inclined ex-students, some of whom are ‘jamming’ across continents; and of kitty party members inventively using voice notes to play antakshari. World-famous DJs are spinning tracks from their kitchens and basements, and Bloomberg reported that people are queuing up to pay real money for virtual parties complete with celebrities, dress codes and bouncers.
Socialising has accelerated to a point where websites like The Cut are publishing guides on coping with ‘Zoom hangovers,’ and the New York Times is discussing how introverts might re-establish boundaries and get some quiet time in the process.
As we spend more time relying on digitally-enabled substitutes for experiences we once enjoyed in real life, we’re increasingly affected by things that we might not even know we’re missing — micro-expressions (the subtlest of facial cues); exchanges uninterrupted by data lags; tactility — the particular sound of a particular voice, the feeling of friends making space into a too-small room over the course of an evening, the smells of each other’s coffees. It’s almost as if technology, in fulfilling its promise to collapse distance and time, is unintentionally reminding us that we’re not just social beings but physical ones as well.
Our inherent physicality is not an inconvenience that is easily overcome with the right bandwidth and data connection — it is what makes us human. And our attempts to digitally demystify our interactions, to reduce them to a matter of simple logistics, only reinforces their magic and mystery.
What the algorithms didn’t predict
Nowhere is this mystery and unpredictability more apparent than in how contemporary dating culture has responded to Covid-19. There has been consensus (and hand-wringing) for some time now about the fact that dating has gone downhill. Tinder’s early growth and success spawned a thousand think-pieces, most notably a 2015 Vanity Fair story that blamed the brand for causing a ‘dating apocalypse.’
Dramatic though that might sound, Tinder at the time seemed to simultaneously argue for and personify the death of romance, of charm and resilience, of trial and error.
Given the right variables (i.e. boredom, drunkenness, an outsize sense of entitlement, curiosity), millennials seemed to thrive on the consumerisation of dating, rapidly swiping left and right, even if the price of commoditising others was to be commoditised in turn. It was a shift that made speed-dating seem quaint, that erased even the pretence of connection as a prerequisite to physical intimacy, and that eventually spawned competitors who tried to tilt the (im)balance and give users (women, in particular) a greater sense of security and control.
Social distancing begets ‘slow dating’
Which is why it is both absurd and interesting to see that dating, quickened to cartoonish speeds by apps and the internet, is slowing down in response to social distancing norms. Strangers still use apps to find one another, but now, they’re setting up Zoom calls where they break bread, talk over glasses of wine, and end the encounter with the promise of….more conversation (Tinder reported in April that conversations on its app are running 28 per cent longer).
Zoom dates aren’t for everyone — they can be awkward, with one influencer making the most of this potential for comedy by going on Instagram Live blind-dates with men picked out by her fans and followers. But equally, people have written in to tell us about exchanging long texts and emails for the first time in a while, about feeling less self-conscious, and about resonating with the vulnerability that the lockdown has triggered in many of us.
It is impossible to predict whether this is a change that will last, or one that will be looked back on as an odd quirk in an odd time — a romantic anachronism born of modernity encountering limits to mobility.
Actually finding the neighbours next door
Being brought to a standstill, literally, has also compelled us to make connections of the more prosaic kind. It is the first time in a long time that many Indian yuppies, accustomed to working long hours, moving around the country and spending time with like-minded friends, are establishing old-school ties of neighbourliness. Balconies and terraces across the world have become performance spaces, with residents coming together to exercise, dance, sing and unwind with people with whom they had previously exchanged the briefest of hullos.
In many Indian housing societies, neighbours are volunteering to cook for each other, to run errands for the elderly, to organise groceries in bulk. Apartment blocks have become tightly-knit social units, with new rituals emerging in response to an unlikely co-dependency. The ‘building’ has become a sanctuary, a bulwark against the outside world and its dangers.
Us versus others
But for every story of residents banding together to help out former acquaintances (now friends), there are stories of the collective stigmatisation of potential Covid-19 patients. It’s part of a larger and more disturbing pattern of ‘othering,’ the legacy of our caste system and religious divides. As some relationships are renewed and new ones form, our instinct to associate the risk of ‘infection’ with those who are different, however one chooses to define this difference — class, faith, food preferences — runs deep.
The novel coronavirus is not an equaliser or leveller, but it is certainly a speaker of certain truths. Indians have a unique ability to experience the past as being as alive as the future — due in no small part to our ability to be selectively modern and conservative. Our anxieties might make us soften, slow down and expand, but our fears are also looming. New intimacies might unfold, technologies will power minor social miracles, we will give generously to our chosen communities. But in the absence of a conscious reckoning, the old truths will also continue to ring true.
This essay is part of a larger project called COVID Chronicles, the DDB Mudra Group’s exploration of changes in consumer behaviour and culture during the pandemic. Led by Toru Jhaveri (VP & Head of Strategy – DDB Mudra West) and curated by a team of strategists (Aditya, Ellina, Nandan &Somdatta), COVID Chronicles draws on a mix of proprietary tools and is updated every week. Follow @ddbearshot on Instagram to get our updates.