How Social Media Saved the World

It cannot be understated that we are living through a history-making difficult time. Hundreds of thousands of people are falling victim to a global pandemic and everyone is else either staying home or acting brazenly stupid. It shouldn't be surprising, though, that one of the upshots of all of this is that there has been a rise in meme-making.

First defined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 as a cultural idea that takes on a life of its own and is passed down through generations much the same way that genes are, the word "meme" has itself taken on a life of its own to define pictures made and passed around on the Internet that often lampoon various aspects of life. I don't think I've seen any new memes in the past few days that weren't about the COVID-19 epidemic. But this isn't the first time a global catastrophe has been made fun of in what could be described as a "childish" fashion. In fact, one of the memes I've seen compared the uptick in Coronavirus memes to the cheerful songs children used to sing during the Black Plague about sickness and death. The difference between then and now is that during the Black Plague no one thought it would be a good idea to self-quarantine themselves, therefore, all those pithy, upbeat songs were passed around organically. (To be clear, quarantine measures were taken, yes, but not to the extent that everyone stayed inside their homes.) Today, we have a handle on how infectious disease works. We know we have to stay indoors. So, if it weren't for the Internet, these memes would be as dead as the Black Plague victims. And social media is at the center of it all.

It's difficult to imagine any kind of iteration of the Internet without social media either springing up out of it organically or being the entire point of it. We are social beings by nature and we will find a way to communicate. Even before what we would consider "social media" sites, there were chat rooms and IMs: still social media by the strictest definition. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that most people today get their news from the Internet; that most people, when asked how they're handling the Coronavirus, will site something they saw online. As people are being forced to take days off from work, they have nothing to do but scroll through Facebook. When they go looking for toilet paper and find empty shelves, they post pictures of it on Instagram. When they think of a pithy thing to say about a politician who either helped or hindered Coronavirus efforts, they tweet it on Twitter.

More than ever, this is the time when businesses need to examine and boost their social media presence. They need to find some way to stay online and communicating with their community even if their doors are shut to the public for the time being. This is not just to inform them of when you'll be open again or whether or not you're doing delivery or roadside pickup. Staying online while you're shut down helps people know that there's at least someone out there who's with them. There's someone who can relate to what they're going through and it's not just their friends and family, it's the people down the street, the small business owners, the volunteers, it's everyone in the world. Staying online makes the whole world feel like one single community during this time where no one gets to see anyone except online.

And that's how the world is going to be saved through this. By people stepping up and saying "I'm here, too. You're not alone." And this will be the first pandemic in human history where such communication is possible.

One more thought: About 100 years ago, 50 million people died from what was called the Spanish Flu. It was called that because we were also in the middle of The Great War, or World War I, and while most countries that contracted the disease had serious propaganda and censorship efforts keeping the reported death toll way down, Spain, being neutral in the fight, was completely honest about how the flu was affecting them. Therefore, it looked like Spain was the only one taking a serious toll from it. Therefore, it was the "Spanish" Flu. In reality, Spain was one of the least-hard-hit countries with the U.S. being among the top. The moral here: don't let propaganda and misnomers distract you from how serious you should be taking this and whether there is anyone to blame. We're all in this together, and blame won't help.