Chaotic communication: COVID-19 is rewriting our cultural rules of connection
- Not only are face-to-face chats more frequent, they’re increasingly unannounced, unplanned and unavoidable. A jarring juxtaposition to our pre-COVID habits. It’s communication chaos.
- While it seems haphazard, each call, chat and interaction is an expansion of community that chips away at our cultural fear of IRL intimacy and democratizes digital communities.
- This migration gives brands a mandate to expand their offerings to bigger, more diverse groups of consumers as they use live-streaming and digital tools to build new communities all over the country.
- The foundational cracks in the influencer veneer have been growing over the past few years, but the COVID crisis provides a magnifying glass that’s amplifying influencer’s social media shortcomings.
- Wholesome, positive –if not strange and mindless– content has become a balm to cure our anxiety, a form of self-care that fills a void and provides a sense of calm that sheet masks and sourdough cannot.
- When we emerge post-COVID, shell-shocked, knowing that catastrophe can hit again at any moment, we’ll still want straightforward talk from brands. Brands need to learn this lesson quickly if they hope to pivot successfully in the ‘new normal.’
Talk to any Millennial or Gen Z’er two months ago, or… text them; they would say there are fewer things more anxiety provoking than actual, in-real-time phone calls. The abruptness; the uncontrollableness; the awkward pauses. But that was the Old World. In the solitude of COVID induced quarantine, a craving for intimacy and personal connection means consumers, once notoriously adverse to spontaneous, face-to-face communications, are now clamoring to hear each other’s voices and see each other’s face.
Verizon fielded over 800M phone calls per day within the first two weeks the country was locked down; the word “Zoom” has become a stand-in to mean any “video chat,” and apps like Houseparty have seen downloads increase 70 fold.
Not only are face-to-face chats more frequent, they’re increasingly unannounced, unplanned and unavoidable. A jarring juxtaposition to our pre-pandemic habits. It’s communication chaos.
Quarantine and the COVID crisis have totally rewritten our cultural rules of communication. But the frantic ways we’re corresponding now will likely shift the way we connect long beyond the end of lockdown.
Shift 1: A quest for intimacy in digital communities
Your bestie going live. Your boss going live. Your bank going live. When we were ordered to stay home, it only took a matter of days for everyone to start broadcasting themselves, most times to seemingly chaotic and confusing ends.
Recently on IG live, comedian Whitney Cummings agreed to talk to anyone in attendance: she wound up chatting with baby squirrels.
I just did an IG live with anyone who asked me to join and I was scared but then the person I picked had baby squirrels and I will now be doing these a LOT pic.twitter.com/MztHwbIkYZ
— Whitney Cummings (@WhitneyCummings) May 2, 2020
The official, verified account of Skittles has, on more than one occasion, stirred up drama in the comments section of Bowen Yang and Julio Torres’ Instagram Live chats.
Club Quarantine— a daily digital Queer dance party that happens every night via Zoom– allows virtual clubgoers to join in with their cams, or just watch from behind a black tile, eliciting both an exhibitionism and vouyerism harking back to the random recklessness of the bygone Chat Roulette era.
But while it seems haphazard, each call, chat and interaction is an expansion of community that chips away at our cultural fear of IRL intimacy and democratizes digital communities.
Club Quarantine is not just a fun party; it’s a way for young queer people all over the world to be exposed to a community they may never have been able to access, or even imagine, before.
As more white collar workers are beginning to wonder not when they’re going to return to the office, but why they would ever return to an office at all, major coastal cities are staring at an exodus of their creative class and a bit of their cultural capital.
This migration gives brands a mandate to expand their offerings to bigger, more diverse groups of consumers as they use live-streaming and digital tools to build new communities all over the country.
Take The Wing, a women’s co-working space founded in New York City with offices in chic urban hubs like San Francisco and London.
When forced to close, they quickly pivoted from Millennial-pink meeting rooms to Zooms, making the interconnectedness of their community and celebrity-speckled programming accessible online for people all over.
Shift 2: Exasperation with asperation
The foundational cracks in the influencer veneer have been growing over the past few years, but the COVID crisis provides a magnifying glass that’s amplifying influencer’s social media shortcomings.
When the crisis hit, Influencers and celebrities were among the first to draw our ire for using their privilege to improve their situations: fleeing from (highly infectious) cities to (highly staffed) second homes, and broadcasting (off-tune) singalongs after just a few days of being confined to their sprawling estates.
The highly-filtered, everything-is-perfect image that is the hallmark of influencer and celebrity marketing has never been less appropriate than it is now.
In a global crisis, consumers are rejecting content that screams aspiration and are instead looking for ways to share in and mitigate our collective exasperation. So what’s to fill this anti-influencer void? More unpolished, even unhinged, content.
Sixty-four year old character actor Leslie Jordan has seen his following balloon from 80k to 4.2 million thanks to a stream of monologues showcasing the absurd mundanity of lockdown: ironing for fun, baton twirling for exercise, watching porn while eating cereal.
But we’re the stars, too. From live baking and hair-coloring tutorials, to yoga flows in cluttered bedrooms, to organized weekly Zoom sessions, we’re all content creators and each other’s Influencers, now more than ever.
“Coming to you live” from the physical and emotional messiness of quarantine is recalibrating our relationship with reality, causing us to eschew unreasonable expectations and embrace “doing the best we can do” as the new form of “living our best life.”
Heiniken’s recent spot montages the relatable pain points of our endless digital gatherings and nods to the fact that quarantine life isn’t great, but we’re all trying to make it through.
Shift 3: Optimism is self-care
Optimism was already growing as a countertrend to the vitriol on the internet, but today, it’s flourishing.
During the pandemic, against a backdrop of endless doomsday news, we’re clamoring for more optimism. The sarcasm and troll-like tone that was once the hallmark of the internet is being replaced by content that uplifts.
For a moment this week, “Duck Pool Party,” a stream of ducks playing in a pool, was the most viewed Reddit livestream. Even notoriously snarky brands like Wendy’s have shifted their Twitter strategy, at least temporarily, to encourage camaraderie through games, activities and shared stories.
Wholesome, positive –if not strange and mindless– content has become a balm to cure our anxiety, a form of self-care that fills a void and provides a sense of calm that sheet masks and sourdough cannot.
Shift 4: Fascinated with facts
In March, consumers were letting out a collective sigh of exhaustion as their inboxes filled with branded emails detailing how we were all “in this together.”
But against the background of a pandemic, these vague platitudes have a counter-effect, reminding us all just how much these companies haven’t been there for us in the past: what little cooperation we received from airlines and car companies before, and what little practical application they have in this stripped back version of reality.
Instead, we want to hear the straightforward truth.
Unlikely figures like Dr. Fauci and New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo have emerged as the leading men of the pandemic (and even more bizarrely, sex symbols), and Cuomo’s curt, distinctively Dad-toned Powerpoint slides have found a cult-following of their own.
Frito Lay’s COVID-spot “It’s About People” has won praise for saying what they were doing to help employees, instead of selling chips.
But the most trustworthy brand voice comes from a most unlikely player: Steak Umms.
The frozen meat company has emerged as a “voice of truth” thanks to their straight-forward, no-nonsense tweets that are at times, radical, at least for a corporate brand.
Their willingness to tweet bold opinions– and not mild platitudes–earned them double their pre-COVID audience, and the admiration of the internet.
When we emerge post-crisis, shell-shocked, knowing that catastrophe can hit again at any moment, we’ll still want straightforward talk from brands.
Brands need to learn this lesson quickly if they hope to pivot successfully in the ‘new normal.’
Megan Routh is a cultural anthropologist, writer and strategist at Open Mind Strategy whose expertise lies in translating cultural insights and trends into actionable strategies for Fortune 100 companies including: PepsiCo, Calvin Klein, JP Morgan Chase, Mondelez, Target and the United States Postal Service. With a decade of experience conducting research, moderating workshops and cultivating trend and cultural intelligence across countries in North America, South America, Europe and Asia, Megan has helped clients uncover emerging directions in culture, business and consumer behavior to develop strategies and innovate products, services, and experiences.
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