Social media chain posts are the surprise joy of coronavirus lockdown

In addition to taking up baking and Zoom Pilates and gardening, the third of the world’s population now living under quarantine is also doing quite a bit of posting. Contrary to what you might expect with so many “Instagram-worthy” cafes and overhanging rocks currently closed, it turns out there is plenty of content you can make in your living room.

Since the start of the outbreak, people have participated in “toilet paper challenges,” huffed their way through “pushup challenges,” and whisked together “whipped coffee challenges” to be beautifully photographed, then consumed. Under normal circumstances, being “tagged” by a friend to participate in any of these might have landed somewhere between being mildly irritating and outright spam. But since the coronavirus outbreak, staying in touch through memes and viral activities isn’t just less annoying than it used to be, it’s starting to feel like a whole new form of essential communication.

Before there were viral social media challenges, though, there were viral email chains. While most seem transparently sketchy now, the early days of the internet were full of forwarded letters telling you “Bill Gates will give you $245,” or that your help was needed to “Save Jessica Mydeck.” These chains were different than actual scams — they never sought financial information — and functioned more as practical jokes that insisted on being forwarded to your entire contact book for a variety of transparently fake reasons (if you didn’t, you wouldn’t get the money; you’d kill Jessica; you’d die in seven days). Today, junky challenges have evolved for social media; they’re still harmless, still frequently intended to make a fool of the participants, and still aim to be spread to as many other people as possible. But the twist is that the “victims” are in on the game — challenges have become more about attention-seeking, performance, and boosting your own brand (or, in the case of those of us who are more begrudging, obligation). After all, is making yourself a three-ingredient coffee really a “challenge,” or just another chance to show off?

But viral challenges are transforming once again. With the exception of some malicious COVID-19 email chains (copypasta throwbacks that feed off readers’ fears), there has been a surge of viral activities aimed to keep you entertained, amused, and in touch with your virtual community. “With more people staying inside and likely getting bored, Instagram has seen an increase in challenges,” The Independent reports. No longer are you participating out of regular vanity or boredom either; you’re participating because there is quite literally nothing else to do. And hey, everyone else is doing it too.

The quarantine challenges are, naturally, geared toward things you might find yourself with newfound time to actually pull off, like choreographing a family dance to “Blinding Lights,” or bouncing a roll of toilet paper on a tennis racket, or posting photos of your cat (although, okay, were probably doing that unprompted anyway). It seems like regardless of the platform, everyone is offering their own contributions to these viral “tag-your-friends”-style activities: drawing oranges in Instagram Story chains, ordering friends to do 10 pushups, sharing how your attempt at “the Coffee” turned out on TikTok.

The entire impetus behind the challenges has changed, too. What once had you tagging five people in your contact list out of obligation to play along has morphed into a kind of digital tap on the shoulder, or a quarantine-safe version of Facebook’s old “poke” feature — I’m thinking about you, you’re on my mind, are you doing okay, can you draw a panda? And while it might have been a nuisance before, something I’d have considered well-intentioned spam, it now seems like a new, vital form of social interaction — to the point that when I’m not tagged in, I feel bad. As Gen has poignantly observed, “FOMO is still real, even when everyone is missing out on things together.”

Plus, while “reaching out” can feel daunting during a crisis — it’s hard enough figuring out how to address emails to strangers right now — tagging friends in meaningless posts is a form of acknowledgment that doesn’t require small talk about “how weird it is now.” Everyone’s collective dread makes it exhausting to think about following up with every college acquaintance or high school swimming mate, or childhood friend you’ve grown apart from, although you still like their posts and watch their videos. Keeping in touch over social media, in memes and with zero-stakes challenges, is a way of granting that we’re going through this terrible thing together, but we don’t need to stop and talk about it.

It bears noting though, that since this is the internet, there is still an excruciatingly dumb and bad version of this too. The original “Coronavirus Challenge” involved a small number of social media pranksters on TikTok licking public toilet bowls, apparently to nauseate their followers and flaunt their own perceived invincibility. “Larz,” one such participant, later posted footage of himself apparently in the hospital, with the 21-year-old claiming that he had tested positive for coronavirus.

It’s fair to say, then, that viral challenges aren’t fundamentally any less obnoxious now than they were before. What’s changed, perhaps, is those of us on the receiving end. The “tag-a-friend” scrooges are softening. We who once would have sneered at people making the same fad coffee on TikTok are less concerned now about who’s being performative, who’s following the herd, who’s thirsting for likes.

Because, sheesh, we’re all lonely. I just want someone to watch my Instagram Stories, too.

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