As the bleak reality of quarantined life sinks in, social media has been awash with a new brand of humble brag from people stuck in the house, and wanting to share.
There are the home bakers, photographing their perfect crusty sourdough loaves. Type-A parents are broadcasting their ambitious homeschooling schedules and whimsical arts and crafts projects. Gym rats are posting frenzied home workouts, executing lunges off coffee tables. The Marie Kondo set is sharing pics of meticulously spring-cleaned homes. From aspirational-living queen Gwyneth Paltrow came an elaborate, pristinely-plated, “10-minute” salad to sustain everyone through their Zoom meetings. And comedian Matt Buechele spoofed the hyper-productive friend in quarantine, the one learning German and mastering the ukulele while writing his opus: “It’s done: King Lear 2!”
As self-isolation orders push people out of the world and into their homes, many have had to reframe their lives, including the narratives they present online. Amid drastic upheaval, many of the ways we used to measure achievement have disappeared overnight: Gone are the work promotions, report cards and killer marathon finish times.
With everyone herded into their homes, bragging rights on social media are changing, becoming notably domestic. While many will insist their stay-at-home bakeoffs and workouts are a bid for connection in uncertain times, as always with social media, these carefully edited posts can leave other people feeling inadequate – especially those who are floundering as this crisis unspools around them.
Toronto blogger Kerry Clare has observed a wide swath of behaviour across her social-media feeds in the past few weeks.
“The people who have the more braggy posts have always been posting like that," Ms. Clare said. "They’re just doing the same thing under pandemic circumstances.”
Lately, the blogger is finding people “putting all their panic” on Facebook and Twitter. But on Instagram, she said, “everyone’s baking bread and photographing crocuses."
“It’s not just me showing me off my bread," Ms. Clare said. "It’s knowing that you’re not alone in your house, that other people are doing the same things.”
Ms. Clare empathizes with stay-at-homers posting vigorous workouts and impeccably organized spice drawers, arguing that they’re salvaging some last shred of normalcy and routine: “We’re looking for things that are familiar that we recognize in a world that’s really different."
The online brag-a-thon is also extending to parenting. With mothers and fathers left to homeschool their children while working remotely, some have relished the task, posting photos of math sheets laid out on the dinner table, while others are falling apart under the stress. In a recent blogpost, Ms. Clare urged parents to go easy on themselves.
“Whether you set up a home school in your basement with desks and a white board, or whether you just let them watch TV all day …you see parents working through their own issues in this,” said Ms. Clare, whose daughters are 6 and 10 years old. “It’s whatever makes you feel like you have some control over these very strange days.”
With nearly all the old “external indicators” of success yanked out from under them, high achievers are being forced to re-group, said Frederick Grouzet, a social psychologist at the University of Victoria who studies values and well-being.
“The structure is completely gone,” said Prof. Grouzet, adding that highly driven people are rapidly changing “the domain of performance” – say, by Instagramming plump banana loaves baked for the neighbours or livestreaming their meditation practice.
Other researchers believe the quarantine posts are less about one-upmanship and more about kinship. Anatoliy Gruzd recently analyzed 30,000 Instagram posts labeled #SocialDistancing. He believes people are sharing their recipes, workouts, nightstand book stacks and Netflix lists as a way to connect.
“They’re sharing their pastimes to create this notion of imagined community, even though we can’t be physically together,” said Prof. Gruzd, director of research at Ryerson University’s Social Media Lab.
But other experts point out there is a stark difference between connecting, which entails two-way exchange, and showing off. For author Brigid Schulte, the current moment could use less bragging and more honest conversation.
“That requires us to be vulnerable, to decide not to perform for other people,” Ms. Schulte said.
Another camp online is in fact sharing quarantine failure more openly. These people admit they’re on day 6 in the same sweatpants, or that they slept in depressed until 4 p.m., or that they avoided the grocery store by excavating a years-old bag of vegetables from the back of the freezer, or that their sourdough bread came out deformed. Ms. Schulte has found this “gives you permission to say, ‘They’re struggling. I’m really struggling too.' ”
For the quarantine Energizer bunnies among us, there are lessons in Ms. Schulte’s 2014 book Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, which examined why North Americans wear busyness like a badge of honour.
“At its heart what we’re all trying to do is figure out, ‘Am I enough?’ ” Ms. Schulte said. “Our horizons are really limited now. Some people in a panic with all that nervous energy are doing starter sourdoughs and building the Taj Mahal with popsicle sticks with their kids. … But people can’t keep that intensity going.”
Ms. Schulte points out that quarantine bragging is "a performance within a certain class” – people struggling to make rent aren’t cheerfully baking and documenting it online. She hopes the global crisis will prompt a serious rethink of priorities.
“When you can’t be productive, how do you show value? Are we going to begin realizing the value of sitting and talking to your neighbour, or having a conversation over Zoom with your 88-year-old mother who’s stuck in her house? Are we going to be able to reset what we value as a society?”