On a recent Tuesday, at 1 p.m. Eastern Time, I watched my six-year-old daughter Zelda tune into a live webcast to learn how to draw an elephant with about 200,000 other kids around the world. She was rapt. And her elephants are getting quite good.
The host of this 30 minutes exercise is Mo Willems, the author of the kids book Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!. He's not getting paid to do it. He's not asking anyone to buy his work. He just knows there are millions of kids at home when they shouldn't be, with millions and millions of worried and frustrated parents wondering how to keep them happy, healthy, and perhaps above all else, busy.
To see an act so pure — and so connective — reminds me of what the internet promised to be.
I watch the news unfold in realtime on Twitter — all the bad and all the good — cascading down my screens. I connect to my office full of coworkers, now self-isolating at their respective homes, and get to look at their faces thanks to Zoom. We work together in Slack and Trello and Google Docs. People trade memes on Instagram. They share their secrets and fears in WhatsApp chats and iMessage threads. Kids FaceTime their grandparents, and long-distance lovers can talk each other to sleep. Elsewhere, the lonely and the horny find distraction and connection on OnlyFans.
I watch videos of bored Italians faux-DJing in their kitchens. Zelda watches Pete the Cat creator James Dean (yes that’s really his name) read his stories on Instagram. When we're hungry, we order food through Seamless, use one of our Blue Apron boxes, or find a recipe on Epicurious. If we need supplies, Amazon can deliver them (well, a legion of incredible delivery people at multiple levels, but orchestrated by Amazon's gargantuan tech). We stream movies at night on Netflix and Hulu and HBO Go.
But it’s not just the services or the convenience they provide. The internet, and everything that uses its pipes, has truly become our line to the rest of humanity — not in an abstract way. In an actual way.
After lunch, Zelda has a group hang with her friends from school. For about 45 minutes straight they scream, jump on their beds (not allowed, of course), show off their art, and generally act like insane kids. Spontaneous group events have begun to flood my feeds. Some nights, I’m tuning into at-home DJ sessions from Diplo and Questlove — both of whom are interacting with their audience like it’s a group of old friends they invited over for a house party. Last Friday, we had an Input editor’s happy hour where everyone put on fancy clothes (Cheyenne wore a unicorn onesie, for the record) and we all did a show and tell and drank cocktails. Events like Club Quarantine and Stay at Home Fest have given people a virtual meeting space where we don’t exactly recreate what normal life is like, but instead find a bridge to that feeling, that sense-memory.
We spend a lot of time talking about and thinking about how bad the internet is for us. How much it's wrecked our self-esteem, our ability to be private, the way our kids are raised, the way our data is used, the negative effects it has on our political process and our elections. We love our technology, but we're not in love with it. We're usually disappointed by it, scared of it, mad at it.
But thank god for the internet. What the hell would we do right now without the internet? How would so many of us work, stay connected, stay informed, stay entertained? For all of its failings and flops, all of its breeches and blunders, the internet has become the digital town square that we always believed it could and should be. At a time when politicians and many corporations have exhibited the worst instincts, we're seeing some of the best of what humanity has to offer — and we're seeing it because the internet exists.
There is still good, still utility, still humanity present here
Now, I'm not letting Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos off the hook, but we also can't deny that there is still good, still utility, still humanity present here — and it's saving us in huge ways and little ones, too. In the shadow of the coronavirus, the sum of the "good" internet has dwarfed its bad parts. The din of a connected humanity that needs the internet has all but drowned out its worst parts. Oh, they're still there, but it's clear they aren't what the internet is; they're merely the runoff, the waste product.
I was 12 the first time I logged onto whatever was called the internet then. There were no websites to speak of, not really. No ecommerce, no banner ads, no data tracking, no spyware. iPhones hadn’t been invented yet; we called apps “programs”; and I had an EGA monitor on my PC (a whole 16 colors of range). But the first time I telnetted into a chatroom about raves, made new friends in Australia, or downloaded files to load into a music tracker, I felt the same elation that I feel now. This force, propelled by people, connected by copper and light, letting us make new connections. Connections we need now more than ever.
We’re here together, for how long we don’t know. But we’re not alone. Not anymore.
Thank god for the internet.