Credit Social Technologies with Keeping Us Hanging on During Quarantine

They’ve kept us connected to one another, granted us public spaces to share and grieve, allowed those of us lucky enough to be able the ability to work from home – and then, when all else failed, helped us dance it out.

social technologies
Illustration by Jon Wilcox

The meek may be in line to inherit the earth, but the machines too are vying for the top spot. No need to waste time debating if or when man will merge with technology; it’s already happened. That phone in your pocket: your external hard drive, no? 

Black Mirror-esque unease about what this means for the future of humanity aside, during this crisis, technology has been more friend than foe. Countrywide stay-at-home orders have banished millions of Americans to their residences with not much more than technology to keep us connected.

Unemployment numbers have reached records highs over the past few months, and they’d no doubt be higher if some of us weren’t able to use tech to work remotely. Mandates are being cautiously relaxed, but as we’ll be forced to prioritize necessity over excess across the board, the work-from-home trend is likely to continue well passed a flattened curve. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 25%-30% of the workforce will be working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.

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And when we aren’t working, social media, much like before, has been our diary, our distraction, our medicine, our entertainment, our soapbox, our space for civil unrest. One wonders if the rally around Ahmaud Arbery happens without social media, or better still, whether the young Georgia jogger’s killers get arrested if Arbery hadn’t been tragically gunned down right as we were heading into a months-long lockdown, free to rage unrestrained by time.

One of our first opportunities to witness the effects of this new – and no big deal? – coronavirus came by way of tweets and posts from those quarantined aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan. We sympathized with their claustrophobia, applauded their good humor and waited anxiously to see what the world would do next.

For business

Probably you’d used Zoom for virtual meetings or webinars here and there before, but the video chat platform quickly became the unofficial quarantine sponsor. “Zoom meeting” has been wedged into our COVID-era vernacular alongside “social distancing” and “…for at least 20 seconds.” And for us white-collar workers, it’s become a crucial part of our day-to-day doings. Daily users surged from 10 million in December to 200 million in March to 300 million by April, according to CNET

It wasn’t long before a problem emerged, though. Zoom meetings were being crashed – or “Zoom bombed” – by uninvited intruders, who’d sometimes just annoy and at other times spew racist, anti-Semitic or otherwise hateful rhetoric, or share porn or disturbing images of children being abused. Some of the issues stemmed from the fact that folks were absentmindedly sharing their meeting links on social media, which allowed anyone with Command + C capabilities to join.

But there are other privacy concerns, too. Zoom is alleged to have been transferring data from its users without their consent to Facebook, which, among other chinks, resulted in at least four class-action lawsuits and caused entities like Google and New York’s Department of Education to ban its use. 

In response, the Zoom team rolled out added security protections that included data-sharing opt-out options – and default meeting controls like an auto-generated password required to access meetings and a “waiting room” setting which allows the meeting host to act as a nightclub bouncer, granting entry only to those on the list. And in early May, Zoom bought secure messaging and file-sharing service Keybase to further enhance its security and privacy capabilities, reports CNET.

Detroit’s largest employer, Quicken Loans, uses Zoom only intermittently for some trainings. Vice President of Talent Development KimArie Yowell says, “We work very closely with our information security team in terms of making sure our trainers understand how to leverage Zoom properly.”

Chief Amazement Officer Mike Malloy adds that the Quicken team almost exclusively uses Microsoft Teams for virtual meetings, and because Teams is set up to work directly with its internal systems, “It’s a secure solution.” One that, Yowell says, “definitely helps with just increasing engagement in this virtual space and feeling more connected even though we’re physically disconnected.”

Quicken started to enact work-from-home protocols for its employees in early March, before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer handed down the first stay-at-home order on March 23. Of Quicken’s approximately 18,000 employees – or 24,000 if you include the family of companies – 98% have been working from home, with 400 or so still coming into the office regularly. When things started turning bad, leadership worked quickly to create a virtual setup for their employees “in hours and days, not week or months,” says Malloy.

Plenty of the team already had laptops and some remote capability, but they organized a tech drive-thru downtown off Fort Street and another near one of their warehouses where employees were able to drive up and get monitors, laptops, headsets and “whatever it would take for them to be able to work effectively from home,” Malloy adds.

A health screening chat bot was also built for this pandemic, specifically, by Quicken’s IT team. The employees still coming onsite get a text at 12:01 a.m. each night before that takes them through a series of questions and answers related to COVID-19 symptoms or possible exposure to the virus, all meant to gauge whether it’s safe for them to come into the facility. If they answer yes to any of the questions, consistent with the governor’s stay-at-home order, then their badge is disabled, and leaders reach out to make sure they’re getting the care they need.

The savviest of brands have used this crisis as an opportunity to figure out how best to harness the power of social media and other social technologies to turn lemons into capital. Think the Versus Everybody brand’s “Everybody vs. COVID-19” T-shirts, hoodies and masks. They pushed the merch on their Instagram, Twitter and Facebook pages as early as March, just as we were fearing the worst, hoping for the best and gearing up for a fight.

Brand strategist and digital marketing master Erin Winters has recorded a spike in her own business as companies and entrepreneurs consider what they can do to stave off death by asphyxiation. Always optimal, Winter says, is to puff up your online presence. She says social media has become, even more than before, a hotbed for creative marketing conception, with brands desperately wondering, Winters says, “How can I pandemic-proof my business by maximizing the use of my social media?”

She says, “Tell your story. That’s the best way to cultivate those connections with your social community. That’s the big part that a lot of people miss with social media is that it’s supposed to be social. It’s supposed to be fun and engaging. There’re tons of strategies and tips and tricks I can tell and teach, and all of that – which I do on my YouTube channel and through my different platforms – but the biggest thing and the bottom line is just telling your story and being transparent about where you are in this season.”

For leisure

Social media has certainly been up front and center during this crisis. Winter says. “This has caused people to really appreciate the fact that we even have a medium like this to still stay connected. Even though we can’t physically be together, (we’re) gathering, doing ‘lives.’ Without social media, I would be very curious to know how people would be coping with this, because it has, in a big way, been an outlet for a lot of people.”

On March 21 around 3 p.m., DJ D-Nice kicked off a nine-hour quarantine party dubbed “Home School” on his Instagram Live. The celebrity DJ – whose given name is Derrick Jones (seems he was fated to mix) – spun our favorites spanning R&B to hip-hop to rock. Jones’ ongoing “Club Quarantine” has seen, at any given time, upwards of 150,000 people drop in and jam out, including Janet Jackson, Drake, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Jennifer Lopez and Mark Zuckerberg.

The congregation of celebrity guests was impressive, but more so was that it still felt like a Black block party that reminded of the power of music and dance to drag us through the worst of times – and of the power of social media. Cut to the “Verzuz” battles started by producer phenoms Timbaland and Swizz Beatz, also on Instagram Live, that pitted our cultural icons against each other for a friendly but fired battle of the beats. Babyface and Teddy Riley, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu, Nelly and Ludacris, 112 and Jagged Edge, among others, went head-to-head, each clash attracting hundreds of thousands of viewers.

“It’s pretty much our main form of human connection,” Winters says of social media. “And so people are really figuring out creative ways to maximize the use of their social media.” Not only to post a cute selfie – those are still a thing, as they should be – people, she says, are also using their platform “to say something, to really promote who I am, why I’m doing this and what inspires me, and how I can help my community at large.”

When we aren’t arguing over whether Jilly from Philly’s catalogue can outshine Queen Badu’s, we’ve given a new literal meaning to Netflix and chill. According to Bloomberg, admissions to movie theaters in the U.S. and Canada fell 5.8% in 2017, the lowest levels since 1992. Ticket sales rose in 2018, but then fell again, and this pandemic might just be the nail in the movie house’s coffin. Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime have taken a lot of the blame for why we don’t go to the movies like we used to.

Movie theaters have been among the nonessential businesses forced to close over the last few months, kicking an already-struggling industry when it’s down. Variety reports that, in the first half of March, the companies that control North America’s five largest movie theater chains lost more than half their market value. AMC Entertainment, for one, suffered a 58% stock price plummet.

Midwest-based Emagine Theatres has a statement on its website dated March 16 that reads, in part: “When we open our doors again, you can rest assured that our theatres will have been thoroughly deep cleaned and disinfected with recommended sanitizing products meeting CDC guidelines.” Requests for up-to-date comment were not returned before this issue went to press.

Universal released Trolls World Tour simultaneously on-demand and in theaters on April 10. It was so successful that Universal said that it may change its model to include both theatrical releases and video-on-demand even after the pandemic, causing a tiff between them and AMC, with president and CEO Adam Aron saying AMC theaters would ban Universal pictures if they pulled that move, Variety also reports.

So far, the big boys are still slated for theatrical release. Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan is scheduled for July, and No Time to Die, the latest James Bond film starring Black British actresses Lashanda Lynch and Naomie Harris alongside Daniel Craig, is due the day before Thanksgiving. It’s anyone’s guess how different the moviegoing experience will look, or if we’d even want to go back to the theater – we had one foot out the door and on our couches before all this.

Back at Quicken Loans, it’s not all buttoned up. They’re using technology to have some fun, too. They’ve held virtual Jeopardy games, an NBA 2K tournament, virtual happy hours and, when we speak, a euchre tournament is on the horizon.

There’s no word on when the employees working from home will start to trickle back in, because, even after the stay-at-home orders have been lifted (June 12 per the latest from Lansing), the recommendation is that office workers who can work from home continue to do so until further notice.

But they say they’ll be ready for them whenever the time comes. Because of the few hundred employees still coming into the office, they’ve already got parameters in place for social distancing, sanitization, face coverings and the like. As far as the technology is concerned, talent development VP Yowell is confident that some of these new systems and rules of engagement will remain post-crisis.

She says, “This has truly been an exercise in learning ability, when you think about how we’ve been adapting and shifting and getting through all of the ambiguity as an organization. I’m extremely excited in this time of where we’re headed as we really rethink about our organization and leverage the lessons learned going through this crisis.” Chief amazement officer Malloy adds, “That’s where we are. As those orders change, we’ll be adjusting and changing.”  

Paris Giles is BLAC Detroit’s senior editor. @parisgiles_

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