Social media has played a pivotal role throughout this pandemic, but it shouldn’t become the norm once it’s over

There is something innocent about imagining a young Mark Zuckerberg sitting cross-legged on the floor of his dorm, twisting the sinews of the heart of social-networking together. 

But what started as a platform to connect people back in 2004 has radically evolved since. So much so that we now have a social media platform designated to any creative idea that anyone has ever had, the latest one being the explosion of TikTok. 

All these platforms invite self-expression, be it through short, snappy dance videos or intricately-crafted mood boards on Pinterest. But over the years, one thing became clear: by drawing consumers into the infinite realm of the internet, social media platforms have successfully lured people away from in-person modes of interaction. 

Some researchers have argued that this phenomenon has caused human communication to regress. You know, the new social norm that we have to share our meals with not just the people we’re having them with, but our phones as well. A couple of months ago, I would have agreed.  

But in the last week and a half, all the push-up, see-a-dog, share-a-dog or embarrassing photo challenges on Instagram have stirred a new-found appreciation within me for the existence of all these social platforms. They made me realize that deep down, social media still has the potential of fulfilling the role that Zuckerberg naively hoped Facebook would: establishing human connection. 

It’s surreal to think the world could have come together through the exponential growth of a couple of photo challenges, where users tagged their friends to post their own baby pictures. But it did, and it created a domino effect where people who haven’t spoken in years began DMing each other about the well-being of their family members.  

The coronavirus pandemic has deprived us of our sense of community by forcing everyone out of theirs and into the confines of their homes. But the recent surge in social media usage goes to prove that these very platforms have kept our society glued together during this social crisis. Facebook reported on Tuesday that total messaging has increased by more than 50 percent over the last month, and voice and video calling has more than doubled. 

“The usage growth from COVID-19 is unprecedented across the industry, and we are experiencing new records in usage almost every day,” the statement said. 

So what has ignited this, other than our heightened awareness for the frailty of  human life? It’s the fact that the privilege of being in another person’s presence has been taken away from us, and it took a pandemic for us to begin appreciating something that we had, but now don’t. It’s like the cliche saying, “You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

Today, people don’t just go on their social media to “get away from it all.” They go there to FaceTime a loved one in order to not have to eat in solitude. They tune into Instagram live feeds to workout with thousands of others at the same time and be reassured that they’re not in this alone. They go there to reply to their friends ‘reactions,’ and ask if they’re doing okay — even if it’s on the other side of the globe. 

It’s beautiful and humbling to see that in a time of crisis, social media has the aptitude of uniting people despite all the things it has been criticized for in the past. It has done so in a way that is reminiscent of a childhood innocence, when what lay beyond the perimeter of the playground was not of our concern. 

It’s sad to see that this infant joy has emerged from the unshakeable experience of human mortality. But it leaves us with a moral awakening that should guide us in what life and human communication should look like in the wake of this pandemic. However, this euphoric bubble of interconnectedness via social media should not become the new norm. 

It’s up to us whether or not we will let this be a step back, or a step forward.