New Escapes

“These are dark times, there is no denying.”

The voice rang out and seemed to hit everyone equally.  Who would have thought the Minister of Magic’s words from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 would fit so well amidst the pandemic. This is a Saturday in the new normal, where I find myself sitting online in a room with around a hundred people, watching every Harry Potter film in succession because the most powerful weapon we have as we wait this out is escapism.

As desperate as things seem, through every lens of the media, your neighbors, your family—anyone not living under a rock who can pull you into a conversation—there is an oddly bright refuge, if you know where to look.

For the past 10 to 15 years it feels like the internet has been at an odd standstill. Stuck at the crossroads of everyone screaming their opinions as fact on social media and stuffing as many gifs as possible through the bandwidth. We all know the internet is more than cat pictures and stupid videos, but it seemed that the feeling of the internet as a utility was waning.

Enter the pandemic, a force of sweeping change across all categories, forcing businesses to rethink how to survive, and forcing people to rethink their daily lives. In a similar vein to the Great Recession of 2008, similar behavior patterns around value, escapism, comfort, and fear have all emerged. Some are causing massive supply chain issues, and others are causing a groundswell of online innovation.

Celebrities are stuck at home with their families, musicians and artists can’t hold shows, drag artists and entertainers have no bars to perform at, and most of us are looking for something to break up the panic, fear, and monotony of life-at-home. All these factors and many more have led to a lot of cool things happening online.

Celebrities are creating their own homemade YouTube series and Instagram hangouts. Musicians are playing shows on streaming platforms from their houses—some of which are extremely intimate sessions without the band. Performers and drag artists are moving their club shows online—all of this in a combined effort of both survival and solidarity that shows us new avenues exist if you are willing to accept them. The best part of all this—the audience has come along with them.

The beauty of this is that everyone and anyone who is willing to embrace digital life is creating—and participating—in this Great Adaptation to a digital normal. Families and friends are having online talent shows through video conferencing. There are art contests for kids to share their work around the world online, and fandom hangouts for films and books. All of these and more are finding a new home on the internet. For the first time since the 90s, creativity within the digital space is truly happening, and the internet is changing how and what we feel is an experience and an escape.

Of course, you can’t neglect how the internet is changing how we receive information, services, and assistance during the pandemic, but those pipelines and service portals have moved online out of necessity. Online entertainment is, as we now use in our daily vocabulary, “non-essential,” but communities and individuals feel the need to make it happen regardless.

The need for online distractions and escapism is partially so prominent due to the past 10 to 15 years of marketing and innovation being focused on experiences. Everything was an experience, from going to a gas station that had a burrito bar to seeing a movie in a theater with themed food and props. Our culture devoured escapism and experiences hand in hand—actively being told to get out there and live your life (by investing in branded experiences of course!) And now, we’re being told to stay inside to save lives—to ignore the outside world unless we absolutely must. Our experience-centric culture changed overnight, and we’re having to adapt in the process.

The unique part of this is that brands aren’t leading the charge—they’re too busy in survival mode to focus on a transition to a good digital experience. Our online culture has again been left to its own devices to figure out what we can and cannot get away with online, another thing that hasn’t been prevalent in digital culture in years.

There’s always been a joke around “ask and the internet shall provide” and it seem as if that is becoming a new mantra during the pandemic, as everyone is seeking digital refuge through games, communities, arts, music, and more. This new era of the internet isn’t what the world predicted—the “internet of things”—as much as it is evolving into “the internet of people” where, once again, a lot of cool people are creating some really fun stuff online because they can—not because a brand paid them to, or because a brand got there first.

As we continue to push through changes—which seems to happen hour-to-hour at this point—we’re all looking online for both guidance and enjoyment for a variety of niche needs in our personal lives. That is partially what makes this a bright side to the dark times: life-at-home has birthed a new need online that combines the connectivity we’ve come to know with creativity and passion that we didn’t dare explore digitally, until now. The result has been a game changer across the board, creating united groups that are connected but apart, remotely experiencing things they may never even have had the chance to see in person.

So as I sit here checking off boxes on seeing performers I’d never have access to in real life, watching my favorite bands humbly play in their living rooms, and attending group book clubs and movie nights, I can’t help but wonder how much of this new closeness will stay when all is said and done. Since we’re all currently living in the moment, I offer another quote from this Harry Potter marathon:

“Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”