The internet is full of content that can make us laugh, freak us out and fill us with hope for the human race. But it’s more than just trolls and lols. If you know what to look for, memes, tweets and everything in between can serve as an early warning system for cultural and behavioural shifts.

This is more true now than ever. In recent weeks, the global pandemic has wreaked havoc on people, society and the economy. The world is changing in significant ways and social platforms are playing a leading role in this shift, with more than a quarter of the global population currently in quarantine.

This week, we’re exploring some of the digital behaviours that are emerging in this unique and unprecedented cultural context, including niche Zoom parties, the perfect quarantine hobbies, and viral Voice Notes on WhatsApp.

@clubquarantine is a Zoom party for the queer community
Being in quarantine doesn’t mean you can’t still party. China was the first market in which digital clubs began to appear – as the first to go into lockdown – with online ‘festivals’ taking place on platforms like Bilibili, which is a video platform similar to YouTube. Now, while China begins to loosen the reins on its enforced self-isolation, more than a quarter of the global population is now thought to be on lockdown, and many are following these parties’ leads.

In recent weeks, there’s been a fair amount of coverage of the unlikely popularity of Zoom parties among Gen Z, with US college students and British cosmopolitans alike using the platform for digital gatherings. But by far one of the most interesting is Canadian offering Club Quarantine – a party run by the queer community, for the queer community, that brings an experience reminiscent of German nightclub Berghain into the digital realm. Flyers for its daily DJ line-ups look like this:

A post shared by CLUB Q 🦠 (@clubquarantine) on Mar 25, 2020 at 9:18am PDT

Launched by four friends who work in and around the music industry, Club Q is – among other things – an arbiter for an aspect of public life that’s been put on hold: engaging with people beyond our inner circles. And in this context, the fact that it's for queer communities is especially notable, because it emphasises the importance of the social collective, and the safe spaces that they can provide. 

From drag queens doing one-off performances on IG Live, to photographer Joshua Kissi hosting interviews with young black creatives on his new handle Hour Stories, like-minded communities are using Live content to connect with each other, finding solidarity and stability in uncertain times. “When people come online, they feel free," says co-founder DJ Casey MQ. "You see everyone going off, we're live, we're together, we're having this moment. It’s a reminder that you're not alone in this moment.” During this chaotic and anxiety-inducing time, brands should be taking these communities’ lead, facilitating value-based connection and togetherness.

TL;DR: With feelings of isolation spiking, people are taking comfort in connecting with like-minded communities online.

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Baking sourdough has become the ultimate quarantine hobby
For many who’ve been put on lockdown, routines have been thrown out of whack, forcing us to reassess how we want to fill our days. This tweet looks to highlight a few of the prevailing stereotypes:

It’s not surprising that multiple of the 12 ‘quarantine personalities’ outlined involve new hobbies. A 2013 NASA experiment into the psychological implications of isolation (in that case, to see what living on Mars would be like) found that participants coped with unprecedented removal from others through taking on projects and being creative. 

But of all the hobbies listed, none have been taken up with such delight quite like the baking of sourdough. From Twitter threads outlining in detail how to bake it to competitions in which chefs are promising winning followers free sourdough starters, this particular hobby has become a pillar around which social communities can rally. Some of the reasons for this include:

  • As implied above, people have got loads of spare time on their hands to pick up a new hobby
  • People are carb-loading and comfort eating out of anxiety – in the US, sales of crisps (or ‘chips’, if you’re American!) are up 30% on last year, while sales of pretzels are up 47%.
  • There’s a simple nostalgia attached to baking, which feels as comforting in a time of crisis.

In this moment, a swathe of people have the free time to take up new projects which simultaneously provide distraction and comfort. And they’re looking to social platforms for the tools and expertise to make it happen.

TL;DR: People are picking up new hobbies and evolving them through social platforms.

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Voice Notes on WhatsApp are making fun of misinformation 
A couple of weeks back, a voice note went viral on WhatsApp, in which a bloke with a London accent warned that the military would be policing a nationwide lockdown. That particular rumour never came to fruition. And while many users frantically forwarded it to friends and family, others remained cynical.

It didn’t take long for many to realise that this probably wasn’t real, and so some started to make their own voice notes that poked fun at the format with which misinformation spreads. "The army don't have enough people to be able to monitor all the streets and the supermarkets, so they've gone up to Mars to see if there's Martians there," says one. "Failing that, they're gonna go to the zoos and get the animals … so you're gonna have… tigers are taking over Tescos, and I think the bears are doing Aldi and Lidl. So, yeah, it's a crazy time out there."

One discusses – at length – how the Ministry of Defence is building a massive lasagne in Wembley Stadium, while another informs us that the French authorities are cooking a giant stick of garlic bread (to go with the lasagna, obviously). These voice notes got so much coverage that the Football Association publicly confirmed that, in fact, they would not be making a giant lasagna.

The coverage of the meme has been cautious. WhatsApp has a long and murky relationship with the spread of fake news, and its role in the coronavirus outbreak has been no different, with numerous pieces of health advice that conflict with medical authorities having spread through the platform. Not to mention the fact that the blurring of misinformation and entertainment has sinister undertones in itself.

But this use of voice notes can’t be overlooked in terms of understanding how people engage with content in digital spaces, either. It offers an insight into the potential power of voice in dark social communications – especially at a time when many of us are isolated and craving intimacy. One recent study found that voice technology can almost double emotional engagement. With this in mind, these memes are arguably providing an audio experience that can help the recipient feel more connected to the content, and make sense of their emotions in these uncertain times. 

TL;DR: People are finding new ways to express themselves and connect in the digital space, and in this context, voice content is especially resonant.