Quarantine Brain: How ‘the Internet Became More Internet’ in 2020

Photo by cottonbro / Pexels

I spent most of December buried in this year’s editors’ picks, working with the team to compile our Best of 2020 lists. As you can imagine, most of that reading was heavy, emotional, and mentally exhausting. The first essay I read after wrapping up my final list on investigative reporting was Alexandra Tanner’s hilarious deep-dive into the bizarre world of Mormon mommy bloggers on Instagram which, somehow and strangely, was a breath of fresh air. But what is fresh air in 2020, in a year of masks and poorly ventilated spaces and smoky skies and air filters?

While lighter than most anything I’d read in weeks, Tanner’s Jewish Currents essay on mad Mommy bloggers is still dark, yet it encapsulates 2020 in one entertaining dose, just like E. Alex Jung‘s Vulture piece on quarantine culture, published earlier this month. For those of us who have had the privilege of isolating and staying home with Wi-Fi, we’ve been online all the time: “hotboxing off bad weed,” writes Jung, “our brains smoothed into little pearls.” At first, there were attempts to return to normal, Jung explains, but in the end, nothing has made sense. Driven by a new and exciting generation of content creators on TikTok and the spirit of the Dadaists, the most memorable moments of the year were the most spontaneous, and the most resonant art “channeled the hive mind of the internet”: created, shaped, and owned by everyone and no one.

It was TikTok, the app Cooper made her name on, that became the most fertile storytelling medium of the pandemic — accomplishing what Quibi could not, which was to create bite-size entertainment people actually watched. In place of top-down decision-making, a more horizontal body — collaborative in an accidental and serendipitous way — appeared.

Formally, the Dadaists embraced chaos and nonsense. They favored collage and montage, whether through photography, typography, or sculpture; the collision of dissonant ideas and images was a way to jolt viewers out of their stupor. A common refrain was “Everybody can Dada.” In many ways, the internet has allowed for a realization of Dada without a centralized authority (which is so Dada). Just as it emerged from the bowels of World War I (and the 1918 influenza pandemic), you could see glimmers of a similarly absurdist sensibility reflecting the times — a Gen-Z/millennial cusp brand of disillusionment and anger. The coronavirus is the accelerant thrown on a fire that has long been burning: a for-profit news media, the erosion of our public institutions, a two-party political system made up of a white-supremacist death cult and corporate nostalgists.

Read the essay