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Revisiting the Great COVID Social Media Scolding – Vanity Fair

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This article is part of a series, Our Pandemic Year, that marks the anniversary of the first quarantine orders in the U.S. Read them all here.

For a few brief weeks last spring, for once, we didn’t really want to hear from celebrities and influencers. Their work, which depends on connecting with others through relatability and authenticity, was ill-equipped to meet the moment. Presenting oneself doing anything that wasn’t personal suffering or giving gobs of money to a cause felt tone-deaf at the time—and even those acts could sound tone-deaf.  It was a moment for nuance,  and social media is famously not a nuanced place. At the time, I wrote a story about a couple such influencers in the midst of running aground to this effect. Topped with an intense headline— “Is This the End of Influencing as We Knew It?”—it drew the attention of the much-followed Instagram account Diet Prada, and more people found out about it from there.

A year feels way too soon to look back at early COVID in the U.S. It seems like such an arbitrary time marker when in fact, it feels like it’s been 10 years since last March, and also like it was yesterday. For me, looking back means remembering this story, which still looms large in my memory, though most have probably forgotten it. I’ve returned to it many times throughout the pandemic, largely to wince, and I started to dread its anniversary specifically, on top of the generalized dread of this March. Still, maybe, right now, when we’re not quite out of this thing, but starting to conceive of an end, is the best time to take stock of what happened in order to figure out how to move forward. 

First, a recap of what happened then. Naomi Davis, known in her online form as Taza, and Arielle Charnas of Something Navy, are two influencer moms who were living in New York City. Both were part of the fledgling influencer cohort that began their blogs and then grew their followings on Instagram; both also became avatars for questionable pandemic behavior just as the novel coronavirus was starting to rip through the U.S. and New York City in particular.

On March 17, 2020, Charnas told her followers she felt sick, and then took them along with her as she went to get tested for COVID. It seems quaint in retrospect. Now, reliable tests are one of the main tools for fighting the pandemic that we have. But—call it recent-history overload—it’s easy to forget that accessing testing in New York, as well as most of the country, was a difficult, confusing experience and a rare one too. Much like vaccines today, there were criteria for who qualified to get tested, and they were rationed for the most vulnerable populations. A few days prior to Charnas’s post, The New York Times published, “One woman in Harlem who wanted to be tested was told by health care workers not to worry about her coronavirus-like symptoms. In Brooklyn, a woman had to wait to get tested until her mother tested positive for the virus. One doctor at a hospital network has turned away patients who probably had the coronavirus because they did not meet the current testing.”

Though obviously ill, Charnas didn’t appear to qualify for testing. She proceeded to find a doctor who would give her a test, eventually posting the video of her nasal swab. She even tagged him, engaging old influencing best practices in a brave new world. There was a contingent that vocalized frustration with her actions (and many who praised her) after she posted again, noting she tested positive. The point she made in a Notes-app post was one that many have made since: “It is the responsibility of our government office to ensure all Americans can access necessary tests,” she wrote.

Around the same time, Davis posted about how she was packing up her family of seven in an R.V. and driving away from the city, which at the time was the nation’s COVID hotspot. Many of her followers condemned her, as health experts shared fears that Davis and social media personalities like her might “influence” others into carrying the virus across state lines. 

By that time, Charnas, too, was getting out. On March 26, less than two weeks after posting that she had tested positive, she announced on Instagram that she and her family had decamped to the Hamptons, posting a photo of herself looking carefree with arms extended overhead in the air. A thread about Charnas’s entire experience, which described commenters getting “big mad,” went semi-viral on Twitter, which is how I and so many others first encountered her.

If bypassing testing restrictions rankled online commenters, then the optics of driving a couple hours east—or across the country—was way worse: A stay-at-home order was in place for most New Yorkers, and not just those showing symptoms of the disease.

There’s no way to prove with hard data that anyone got the idea to go elsewhere from Davis, Charnas, or anyone else who picked up and left their homes, but many did the same. Getting out of a city during the pandemic was not a difficult idea to come by on one’s own. As Kyle Chayka reported in The New Yorker in October, Airbnbs grew scarce over the summer. There was a mass exodus to elsewhere, specifically for longer-term “remote work” getaways outside of urban areas, per the company’s own data: Many migrated upstate, up into the Adirondacks. Others chose Vermont’s ski destinations, resort towns in Montana and Colorado, lake country in Maine as well as Portland, and Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. Here’s one dramatic infographic that animated the exodus from the “richest neighborhoods” in New York from May. It couldn’t have been only short-term dalliances elsewhere either; one couldn’t both be on the internet and escape news of the robust housing market and scarce inventory.

I can see now that one beat I didn’t hit hard enough was that Charnas was putting her own face out there because it was her job to always be posting. She became the poster child of people reaching into their pockets to escape the pandemic, even though she and her husband were already sick. She tried to explain that she was following advice from her doctors and the CDC. For terrified people looking for a visible person to project their anxieties on, none of that mattered. 

Recapping all of that brought back visceral memories of that time. My roommates and I were still taking 20 minutes to wipe down all my vegetables every time someone went to the grocery store. It was, remember, the same brief moment when Andrew Cuomo was a source of calm, just because he was taking it seriously on a daily basis while the president contradicted his own health authorities and played down the severity of the virus publicly. It inspired one particularly cursed portmanteau. (No need to repeat it here, but here’s a link for posterity.)

If our heroes were too easy to come by, perhaps our villains were too. I didn’t enjoy the celebrities and influencers offering up their lives to me in March and April 2020, and I wasn’t alone in that feeling. It came across all wrong, appearing boastful yet under the guise of help. Not my life, yet not far away enough to take me out of my life. I was too quick to single out one type of person with one type of job, though, one whose livelihood is largely dependent on posting. Cuomo now looks more like Donald Trump than ever, and we, perhaps, resemble Charnas, Davis, and the rest more than we thought we would.

Davis declined an interview, though she has a book coming out, A Coat of Yellow Paint (subtitle: Moving Through the Noise to Love the Life You Live. She does not address the “noise” of last spring, but she details the work one has to do to live one’s life online and survive.) Charnas took me up on my offer. It’s been a difficult year for her. She had already parted ways with Nordstrom in order to launch Something Navy as a standalone brand with clothing drops and a retail location in New York. She hired a CEO and they made a plan before having to push the launch back twice due to the coronavirus. Something Navy finally opened in July, though. Charnas said that her followers, the core fans who knew what they were opting into when they followed her, have stuck with her.

I wondered how she felt when she saw other people—normal people, famous people, people people—doing what she got publicly flayed for as the pandemic dragged on and the “stay at home” spring gave way to a pandemic response that varied wildly by region. 

“If I were to think too much about that, I would just make myself crazy,” Charnas said. “I was following my doctors’ and my kids’ doctors’ recommendations. They were saying to me that, you know, at this point, it’s okay for you to go straight to your house in the Hamptons, you’re fine to do that. So that’s what I did. You know what I mean? So when I saw other people doing that—of course, if you had that opportunity, anyone would take that for their family.”

Over the summer and onward, just like influencers and celebrities, regular people had begun to live lives of emphatic desperation online. Suddenly, if I saw some woods or a pool or an ocean or a gorgeous view in the background of a photo or a video, it hit with a heavy thud rather than a pang of aspiration that could be easily dismissed like usual. It wasn’t just posts from influencers that kicked off little spirals, it was everyone’s posts—those of friends, family, friends of friends, loose acquaintances, my own. I know this isn’t a unique feeling (and I also know everyone didn’t feel that way). Stella Bugbee, formerly the editor in chief of New York magazine’s The Cut, put it beautifully this past December: “This year, it seemed like no matter who you are, whatever you posted, you had a high chance of getting it wrong in some way, because many of the values we’ve come to expect (and enjoy) on Instagram feel incorrect for this moment: Narcissism, flexing, even the forgivable human cry for validation seem crass in the face of so much social discord.” 

She wrote this months after the spring, months after a summer that many spent reevaluating their relationship to the country’s baked-in injustices. More horrible villains than our original ones, more exacting in their privilege, had become impossible to ignore. The whole world watched a police officer squeeze the life out of George Floyd on film. Officers entered the home of a young woman, Breonna Taylor, and shot her fatally. So many stories like these followed, and meanwhile the state, and in many cases, relatives or friends, revealed their indifference or particular talent in defensive equivocating. It’s still crushing.  

Even the storyline that Davis and Charnas initially epitomized kept on going until it reached impossible heights. There was Kim Kardashian, for example, and her wild choice to share her  enormous, expensive destination birthday party on an island with her hundreds of thousands of followers. There were so, so many parties. “We all got tested and social distanced, of course” became some kind of incantation meant to will judgment away.

Back in spring 2020, some outlets that published stories on their actions suggested that Charnas and Davis weren’t the main problem. The problem was much larger; it was systemic, an old story, one you already know. The government was failing to take care of the people who hired them to do so, and in the absence of leadership from elected officials and health advisers people were making their own decisions. Into that void, anger got directed at those who had the gall to post. 

“At the end of the day, my intention was just to share what we were going through, just like always. And going forward, I’ve been more careful about what I post. I definitely think twice now,” Charnas told me. “I’m trying to be more sensitive [to what’s] going on around me and in the world before I do share anything.”

As time went on, it became clear that being an absolutist about COVID precautions was unsustainable at best. At worst, it made people afraid to do certain things—like go to the beach or find a better place to live—that eased mental health burdens and made “safer,” more nuanced risk-taking possible. Of course this was hard to see back then. When I first wrote about Charnas last April, I was desperate to know what to do and how to feel about every little thing. More than anything else, I remember guilt. Guilt for health, guilt for home. Guilt for having a job that persisted under the circumstances. Guilt for struggling sometimes to do the one thing I have to do for my job—just write. That’s it!—and hoping that I wasn’t getting it all wrong. There was so much guilt, and that doesn’t translate well online either. Every post on social that didn’t transmit guilt felt unrelatable and tone-deaf, and if it did manage to hit that incredibly difficult tone, it was too overwhelming. I didn’t want to relate any more.

Influencing, the Job, isn’t over, as both Charnas and Davis are a living testament to. The concept of people sharing their lives with followers and, in the process, selling them stuff will likely always be economically viable, in its many iterations, whatever those may be.  I do stand by the essence of the piece. Generally speaking, the days of influencers posting straight lifestyle content without a thought to the politics of the moment are over for now—some will obviously and openly not care about it, but that, too, has become a choice. The protests this summer and onward only deepened that feeling. In the meantime, we’ll still follow the story lines that those living lives half online provide for us because influencers, like most celebrities and public figures, are our avatars. They help us work out how we feel by putting their choices out there. They allow us to judge them, so that we can judge ourselves, so that we can know how we want to live.

More Stories From Our Pandemic Year

— Revisiting the Great COVID Social Media Scold
— How Tom Hanks Became the Avatar of Our Pandemic Year
— Andrew Cuomo Got His Coronavirus-Celebrity Wish
— For Every Stage of the Pandemic, There Has Been a Celebrity Getting in Trouble for Partying
— After the Year of No Bras, Things Are Looking Up

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Are You Missing Life’s Moments Because of Social Media?

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Recently my wife and I watched the movie Before Sunrise [1995], starring Ethan Hawke as Jesse and Julie Delpy as Celine. While travelling on a Eurail train from Budapest, Jesse, an American, sees Celine, who’s French. It’s Jesse’s last day in Europe before returning to the US. Jesse strikes up a conversation with Celine, and they disembark in Vienna to spend the night wandering Austria’s capital city.

 

Summary: Before Sunrise is a back-and-forth conversation between a romantic [Celine] and a cynic [Jesse].

 

During the closing credits, I turned to my wife and said, “That wouldn’t have happened today. Jessie and Celine would have been staring at their respective smartphone throughout the train ride, which in 2021 would have free Wi-Fi, not noticing the passing scenery, their fellow passengers or each other, let alone start a conservation.”

 

How much of real life are we trading to participate in the digital world?

 

I have this problem; actually, it’s more of an addiction I need to keep in check constantly. I suffer from FOMO [Fear of Missing Out].

 

You’ve probably heard of FOMO. Odds are you suffer from it to a degree. FOMO is that uneasy feeling you get when you feel other people might be having a good time without you, or worst, living a better life than you. FOMO is why social media participation is as high as it is. FOMO is why you perpetually refresh your social media feeds, so you don’t feel left out—so that you can compare your life. FOMO is what makes social media the dopamine machine it is.

 

FOMO has become an issue, especially for those under 40. More and more people choose to scroll mindlessly through their social media feeds regardless of whether they’re commuting on public transit, having dinner in a restaurant, or at a sports event. Saying “yes” to the digital world and “no” to real life is now common.

 

Your soulmate could be sitting a few seats over on the bus (or Eurail train), or at the diner counter, or in the doctor’s waiting room. However, you’re checking your social media to see if Bob’s vacationing in Aruba with Scarlett or if Farid got the new job and may now be making more money than you. Likely, your potential soulmate is probably doing the same.

 

Look around. Everyone is looking down at the screen in their hand, not up at each other.

 

We all know Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, et al. [even LinkedIn] doesn’t provide a very well-rounded picture of people’s lives. Most of what people post is cherry-picked to elicit self-affirming responses, such as likes, thumbs-up and hand-clapping emojis, retweets, shares, and those coveted comments of “Congratulations!”, “Way to go!”, “You’re awesome!”, “Looking good!”

 

The Internet, especially its social media aspect, equates to “Look at me!”

 

Sometimes I wonder, if bragging and showing off were banned on social media sites, how much would posts decrease?

 

“Stop paying so much attention to how others around you are doing” was easy advice to follow pre-Internet (the late 90s). Back in the day, it would be only through the grapevine you were a part of that you found out if Bob was in Aruba with Scarlett and that be without pictures. Evidence of how others are doing, strangers included, is pervasive because undeniably, most of us care about status. In 2021 how people are doing is in the palm of our hands, so we tend to give more time to the device we’re holding at the cost of neglecting the real-life happenings within our immediate surroundings.

 

Social media has made us a restless, anxious bunch underappreciating the present moment. With lockdown restrictions lifting and more social activities taking place, people will be hunkering down on their smartphones more than before to see what others are doing. They’ll see the BBQ they weren’t invited to or people they consider to be friends having a few laughs on the local pub’s patio or camping or at the beach without them. Loneliness, questioning self-worth, depression will be the result.

 

Trading engaging with those around you to feed your FOMO angst is what we’ve come down to. In my opinion, Guildwood is the GTA’s most walkable neighbourhood. You can choose to take walks around Guildwood, getting exercise, meeting people or stay addicted to the FOMO distress social media is causing you.

 

Instead of catching up with an old friend or colleague in person over lunch, coffee, or a walk in Guild Park & Gardens, people prefer to text or message each other on social media platforms eliminating face-to-face interactions. Instead of trying to reconnect with old friends verbally, people would rather sit at home with their technology devices and learn what their friends are up to through social media platforms, thus the start of a slippery slope towards anti-social behaviour.

 

Social media’s irony is it has made us much less social. How Jesse and Celine meet [you’ll have to see the movie] and the resulting in-depth conversation they have as they gradually open up to each other, thus beginning a postmodern romance wouldn’t have happened today. They’d be too preoccupied with their smartphones feeding their FOMO addiction to notice each other.

 

Social media will always nudge you to give it attention, but that doesn’t mean you have to oblige. Take it from me; there’s more to be had in enjoying life’s moments outside of social media.

______________________­­­­­­­___________________________________________

Nick Kossovan is the Customer Service Professionals Network’s Director of Social Media (Executive Board Member). You can reach Nick at nick.kossovan@gmail.com and him on Instagram and Twitter @NKossovan.

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Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck pictured kissing as ‘Bennifer’ returns

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Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck have been pictured exchanging passionate kisses, apparently confirming weeks of fevered rumors that they have rekindled a romance that dominated celebrity media almost 20 years ago.

Paparazzi photos printed in the New York Post on Monday showed the two actors kissing while enjoying a meal with members of Lopez’s family at Malibu’s posh Nobu sushi restaurant west of Los Angeles on Sunday.

Representatives for Lopez, 51, declined to comment on Monday, while Affleck’s publicists did not return a request for comment.

Lopez and “Argo” director Affleck, dubbed “Bennifer,” became the most talked about couple in the celebrity world in the early 2000s in a romance marked by his-and-her luxury cars and a large 6.1-carat pink diamond engagement ring. They abruptly called off their wedding in 2003 and split up a few months later.

The pair have been pictured together several times in Los Angels and Miami in recent weeks, after Lopez and her former baseball player fiance Alex Rodriguez called off their engagement in mid-April after four years together. Monday’s photos were the first in which Lopez and Affleck were seen kissing this time around.

Celebrity outlet E! News quoted an unidentified source last week as saying Lopez was planning to move from Miami to Los Angeles to spend more time with Affleck, 48, and was looking for schools for her 13-year-old twins Max and Emme.

Max and Emme, along with the singer’s sister Lydia, were also photographed walking into the restaurant in Malibu on Sunday.

Lopez married Latin singer Marc Anthony, her third husband, just five months after her 2004 split with Affleck. Affleck went on to marry, and later was divorced from, actress Jennifer Garner.

 

(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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TikTok debuts new voice after Canadian actor sues

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TikTok

After noticing a new female voice narrating the videos on the popular video-sharing social networking service, users of TikTok were baffled as to why. It actually turns out that the Canadian actress behind the old voice filed a lawsuit against the platform for copyright violation as her voice was apparently being used without her permission.

Bev Standing, a voice actor based in Ontario, is taking China-based ByteDance to court. TikTok’s parent company has since replaced her voice with a new one, with Standing reportedly finding out over email after a tip-off from a journalist. On the matter, Standing said: “They replaced me with another voice. I am so overwhelmed by this whole thing. I’m stumbling for words because I just don’t know what to say.”

TikTok is said to be considering a settlement for Standing outside of the courts, but nobody knows whether or not this is true. According to legal experts, the fact TikTok now has a new voice on the popular social media app suggests they acknowledge Standing’s case and potentially understand that she may have suffered as a result of the company’s actions.

Thanks to the emergence of the powerful smartphone devices of today, alongside taking high-quality images for Instagram, getting lost down YouTube wormholes, and accessing popular slots like Purple Hot, people are turning to relatively new platforms like TikTok. The service has 689 million monthly active users worldwide and is one of the most downloaded apps in Apple’s iOS App Store. This latest news could harm the platforms future, although many of its younger users potentially aren’t aware that this type of scenario is unfolding.

For Bev Standing, the ordeal is a testing one. She wasn’t informed of the voice change, there is no mention of it in TikTok’s newsroom online, and the development is news to her lawyer also.

 

This all comes after her case was filed in a New York State court in early May after the voice actor noticed a computer-generated version of her voice had been seen and listened to around the world since 2020. Speculation is rife as to how TikTok managed to obtain the recordings but Standing believes the company acquired them from a project she took part in for the Chinese government in 2018.

(Image via https://twitter.com/VoiceOverXtra)

The Institute of Acoustics in China reportedly promised her that all of the material she would be recording would be used solely for translation, but they eventually fell into the hands of TikTok and have since been altered and then exposed to a global audience.

According to Pina D’Agostino, an associate professor with Osgoode Hall Law School at York University and an expert in copyright law, the fact that the hugely popular social media platform has now changed Standing’s voice could result in a positive outcome for the distraught voice actor. She said: “It’s a positive step in the way that they are mitigating their damages. And when you’re mitigating, you’re acknowledging that we did something wrong, and you’re trying to make things better.”

When assessing social media etiquette and how both companies and users should act, this type of news can only do more harm than good. Not only does it make the company look bad, but it could have an effect on revenues and, ultimately, TikTok’s reputation.

With a clear desire to move on and put this whole process behind her, Bev Standing is eager for the case to be resolved and get back to the daily work she loves and has been doing for a large part of her life. TikTok has until July 7 to respond to her claim.

 

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