In April of this year, US unemployment hit a record high, with 14.7 percent of Americans suddenly jobless. Across three months, according to Pew, that rate rose higher than it did during the entire two years of the Great Recession. There were layoffs, furloughs, and hiring freezes, with women and Black men impacted the hardest, including a handful of my own relatives.
In New York City, where I live, there is the belief that your work defines who you are. For many, losing a job meant parting with a piece of their identity. By August, one in three small businesses were shut down for good, and as the summer came to a bizarre close it was hard to tell if the city would ever be the same. Like almost every other town across the country with a flatlining labor force, New York just wasn’t New York. But if what film theorist Jonathan Beller suggests is true, work, in another sense, never actually stopped.
On television and Twitter, across TikTok, the TV of Gen Z, the very act of watching became an occupation. “To look is to labor,” Beller wrote in The Cinematic Mode of Production, suggesting that observation is work, and that in the work of looking there is value. In 2020, that labor consumed us entirely. From dystopian White House press conferences and Verzuz Instagram battles to Tiger King and LeBron James inside the NBA bubble, we watched. Across cable news, we looked on as demonstrators fought for the overdue justice of Black Americans. Like cyborg zombies transfixed by the iridescent suck of our iPhone screens, we couldn't unfasten our eyes, locked in a state of anticipation and unknowing.
Today, our main access points to the people around us, and to the larger world, happen through screens. In the last 10 months, Zoom became the primary spillway for how we reconstructed IRL traditions digitally: birthdays, game nights, weddings, funerals, work meetings, therapy sessions, happy hours, group workouts, dance parties (and even sex parties) took place through a fuzzy rectangular screen. Face-to-face with nowhere to go, watching became the ultimate mode of work.
I resented everything about it.
2020 was about being extremely online, and the pandemic accelerated the slow recalibration that was already permeating our everyday interactions. It demanded that we become part of a digital public.
I couldn’t change what was happening, but I could find a compromise. The year was one of severe separation, of face masks and social distancing and endless hand-washing, and the safest solution was to connect virtually—over FaceTime, via iMessage, in WhatsApp groups and Facebook groups, occasionally by sending voice notes. At first, I mostly refused to participate. I declined FaceTime calls. I ignored more texts than I sent. I retreated from our shared isolation. I objected to all of it. We had turned isolation, a solitary experience, into a communal activity. How could I carve out my own space among this new reality? I decided to reactivate my secret Instagram.
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New York City thrives on touch and contact and closeness. It’s the source of its charm, and what makes the city like no place on earth. It’s why I love it. Before everything changed in March, I was committed to opening up, to connecting in ways I once thought too revealing. I set a challenge to myself. Try new things. Meet new people. Take more risks. But when Covid-19 reached the US, my plans changed overnight. I couldn’t go outside. I couldn’t wander the city after work. I couldn’t go to the gym or meet up with friends to have dinner. I couldn’t go on dates or have casual eye sex with strangers on the street. I couldn’t take the subway uptown to get my haircut. I couldn’t stumble out of my favorite local bar, Bed-Vyne Brew, and into the magic of everything that a Friday night in Brooklyn held like I had done so many times before.
But I could do something. Overtime I adapted to the new restrictions, and felt myself changing alongside them. We live in a period that demands a constant retooling of the self, particularly online where you are only as relevant as your last Instagram post or viral video, and that’s exactly what I did. I committed to keeping my promises, even if the pandemic had altered the shape of them.
Many physical interactions became digital ones. I swapped artful nudes with strangers on hookup apps knowing full well we’d never meet, and recklessly professed my feelings for a crush I’d met on Hinge, who eventually ghosted me three weeks later. If I was going to look—to watch others and be watched—I wanted to have fun with it. The world already felt like it was burning down. I lit my own fires, enlivened by the flame of my fleeting experiences.
The place I did the majority of looking this year was Instagram. Two years ago I created a secret account in an effort to live a healthier lifestyle. I obsessively followed trainers, fitness experts, and nutritionists. As I wrote in 2018, there was a seduction and benefit in doing so; mostly the secret account “was less about escape, or even self-awareness. It was pure utility: I wanted to get better at something.” And over time I did. Eventually, as these workouts became routine, I found myself relying on the finsta less and less. At some point in 2019, I disabled it. But when the pandemic hit, I reactivated the account. I told myself it was the one place I could live privately among our extremely, increasingly online public. If I was going to be plugged in nonstop, I was going to do it my way.
For me, the allure of the secret account was simple and undemanding. George Floyd was dead at the hands of police. Covid cases were on the rise and hospitals were overwhelmed with patients. Republicans went about attacking the presidential election process. In November, when three family members died within a month of each other, I again felt paralyzed by the immensity of it all. Everything felt big and immovable. Even my own body. I spent afternoons and evenings sideways on my couch, scrolling and liking and sending DMs. Instagram was life in miniature. This I could control. This was my escape.
Instagram doesn’t offer the hypnotic rush of TikTok or the personalized intimacy of OnlyFans—what I consider the two most culture-shaping platforms of 2020—but it is, like all the best social media apparatuses, ultimately what you make it. The original utility for my page was no longer a concern and I widened my interests considerably. I followed influencers, parody accounts, random strangers, and a handful of internet crushes, greedy to feel something new, to feel anything other than dread. Before long, my following count more than doubled in size, ballooning to over 465 people.
There wasn’t an exact science to it. I still wasn’t interested in following celebrities or friends, they were already part of my online public life in other ways. Neither was I searching for anonymity. I didn’t totally wall myself off. My page is locked but I let people in (37, as of this posting, with more than 100 pending requests). I wanted something else. Something I couldn’t initially name. I delighted in the things I once hated about Instagram—how fake it felt, how manicured everything was, how utopic the user experience seemed. I craved these details. I looked and scrolled and watched obsessively. I devoured without hesitation.
Part of the fantasy of my secret account was about tapping into this other side of who I thought I wanted to be, this possibly superior self. I wanted to know who he was. Could he exist in the real world and not just on Instagram? That was the hope for the personal challenge I set at the top of the year—who would emerge on the other end of this journey? I wanted to find out.
Being on Instagram became pure self-indulgence, an unspoken hedonism. It was about what others could provide for me, which is why I never posted to my account (the few images already uploaded were from when I originally created it in 2018). I was flagrantly selfish in that regard. I wasn’t always aware of what I wanted, or specifically who could provide it, but when I came across it, I knew.
In late July, when I stumbled on the account of satirist Ronald McDonkey, and his freaky celebrity photoshop mash-ups, I gorged on the eccentricity of his page. Weeks later, when a loose acquaintance, who I met years ago through a close friend, began posting thirst traps out of what I can assume was pure boredom of being inside all the time—I DM’d a stream of heart-eye emoji without revealing myself. With spoonfuls of jealously, I watched as others traveled to Tulum and Las Vegas and Miami, determined to not let the pandemic ruin their year. I knew it wasn't safe and still I wanted to vacation with them, imagining myself on a beach somewhere, reading a book and blanketed by the afternoon sun. I responded to the stories of strangers, surprised when they responded in return. I realized we were all looking for painless connections in a year that had caused so much pain.
I found something beyond comfort. I found pleasure in the friction of these disparate worlds: the one I mapped out on Instagram versus the real one, where Covid deaths were surpassing 250,000 and my mom was still out of work. I liked this new, more self-indulgent self. He wasn’t as worried by what was happening beyond his iPhone screen—he couldn’t be. It wasn’t denial or delusion. It was his only shot at survival.
This year, during the times I found myself adrift, my secret Instagram became a lifeline. I was reminded how even the smallest, mindless pleasures can be a saving grace. Especially now, especially today. With all the devastation and suffering around us, the right to certain satisfactions, to even minor indulgences, can at times feel wrong. As if they shouldn't be ours. But, in fact, the opposite is true. We have to hold on however we can. We have to find pleasure in the work of looking, wherever that is.