Online innovation is no substitute for face-to-face interaction

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The coronavirus outbreak has had a number of predictable effects: Isolation; the closure of restaurants, shops and cultural centres; a massive spike in online activity and the use of web-calling platforms such as Zoom; and the beginning of what looks like a difficult period of economic downturn. But one unexpected result of the virus has been a shift in attitudes towards the importance of face-to-face contact. Opposition has arisen in the past two months between those who can’t wait for lockdown to end and those who wouldn’t mind if it continued forever.

A ubiquitous meme towards the start of lockdown expressed the sentiment, common among office workers, that the virus has exposed just how little we need those endless face-to-face meetings that upper management seems to crave so dearly. A raft of social media content celebrating the work-from-bed, shirt-tie-and-no-trousers approach to Zoom meetings has pointed out that in many ways, the new normal is quite a bit more comfortable than a stiff boardroom meeting. Meanwhile, many businesses and institutions, such as cinemas and art galleries, are moving online to cover some of the financial losses they will sustain from a lack of business.

These moves towards online self-sufficiency are heartening. It’s inspiring to see evidence of innovation and courage in the face of such a momentous challenge to our way of life. Consumers who are stuck at home, especially those on furlough, are eager to fill up their days with something that might replace the feeling of meeting a friend for drinks or going on a date to the cinema. And although in many cases profit margins are significantly slimmer online, it is still a useful plaster for the current period.

In some cases, though, the online format has raised questions about the necessity of face-to-face contact. The hugely popular photoblog Humans of New York, which since 2010 has documented the life stories of people met by creator Brandon Ross on the street, has always had a history of rapidly innovating to increase its fanbase. From 2012 Ross began gathering stories from other cities and countries, starting with a trip to Iran. 20 countries and a web series later, his submissions come from web interviews with strangers who tell unusual stories, accompanied by photos – usually of their childhood selves alongside loving departed relatives. On 17th April, Ross posted on Facebook: “I was initially worried about doing these interviews remotely. I thought that without the context of the street, the stories might lose their sense of immediacy and randomness. But the experiment has been quite a success. These remote interviews have been a real joy for me […] I’m looking forward to exploring this process even more.”

Humans of New York is a page that, surely more than most, relies on the surprise and joy of random face-to-face interactions. The most recent HONY stories have been charming, unexpected and often beautiful. But there’s something a little samey about them. A woman connects with her father after her mother’s death. A mother reconnects with her long-lost sons on her deathbed. A woman discovers that her husband knew her now-dead mother when they were kids. Each story is a perfectly inspirational account, a teary-eyed and heartfelt moment of melancholic love. Compared to the street interviews – which were as simple as a child saying they liked ice-cream and as tough as a man describing his crack addiction – there is a distinct lack of range.

We should be grateful to the creatives and companies that are providing us with entertainment during lockdown. There’s no requirement for businesses or blogs to change their format to suit online requirements (although economic pressures make it seem prudent at the least). But it would be a mistake to forget the beauty of in-person experiences. A perfectly-curated selection of online amusement is no substitute for a meaningful interaction in a shop, café or museum. When lockdown’s over, life doesn’t have to remain digital.

Malin Hay

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