How social distancing is changing the role of social media

Collective attention is turning to online social platforms to keep us connected and entertained

The past few weeks have seen major changes in people’s lives and routines across the globe. With many of us self-isolating to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, our collective attention is turning to online social platforms in an unprecedented way.

Innovation in content creation and on the platforms themselves are unfolding at a dizzying pace. With more content comes more competition to reach communities, ideally while prioritising meaning and entertainment. Here is how we’ve noticed behaviour changing on social platforms.

Going live

If you’re a regular Instagram user, you’ve probably noticed a spike in notifications for Instagram Live streams, and their associated icons pulsing at the top of your feed. You’re definitely not alone. As people are staying inside, more creators are using the live platform than ever before to reach and communicate more personally with their followers.

With live discussions in comments, options to stream with other users and the top-of-feed delivery, this method of communication is quickly becoming people’s platform of choice for engaging with their followers. The best thing about livestreaming is that there is relatively little barrier to entry, such as minimum follower count or verification: anyone with an Instagram account can go live. With options for multiple users to join forces to livestream, this method is effectively providing an exchange of audiences, and getting multiple communities to come together to support the users they are following.

Cross-generational content on TikTok

TikTok’s low-level production values and simple in-app editing makes it accessible for most people with a smartphone, but up until recently its main user base has been Gen Z, the most tech-native generation to date. With many families at home together throughout the past few weeks, there’s been a rise in multi-generational TikTok content, with Gen Z getting their parents, grandparents and siblings involved. With short-form video challenges made by parents for parents growing in popularity, and parents getting involved in viral dances, social media is being used as a tool to bring generations together during their quarantine.

Communication apps

The rise in video communication methods is extremely useful for both community-building and support, but they can also be fun and innovative ways of staying in touch with those close to you.

Both the Nextdoor and Houseparty apps have seen an increase in users since self-isolation started, with people eager to retain their connections with people as normally and effectively as possible. The video hangout app Houseparty, a somewhat more casual version of Zoom, had two milllion downloads last week, compared with 130,000 a month ago. In terms of community resilience, Nextdoor has become a powerful platform in helping people support each other and organise within their neighbourhoods. The app’s engagement has risen by up to 80%, with a surge in users taking to the platform to assist with tasks like pharmacy pick-ups and grocery shopping for neighbours who are most at risk.

Facebook has also experienced a 70% uptick in video calls on their messenger platform, demonstrating how a video call has become a preferred option for many as it can be more personal than a phone call.


Features available on the Houseparty video conferencing app

Innovative entertainers

The entertainment industries have been significantly impacted by self-isolation restrictions, with musicians, dancers and celebrities among the masses turning to social media to maintain continuous content and connection with their fans and followers. As noted, many are using Instagram Live to hold Q&As with their followers, or performing live sets from their living rooms, effectively involving their audiences in their content creation. Music artists who have had to postpone or cancel shows are holding virtual tours, in some cases with each ‘tour date’ being a livestream on a different platform, typically across Facebook, TikTok and Instagram.

In the world of TV, Ellen was seen moving from her TV platform to IGTV, creating a series where she calls different A-list celebrities from her contacts, creating an innovative social media version of the classic TV segment.


The Global Citizen and World Health Organisation initiative #TogetherAtHome consists of a series of concert programming interspersed with news and facts about the COVID-19 virus. The hashtag trend is being used by those with influence to build safe spaces for communities to access both entertainment and information. Priyanka Chopra’s collaboration with World Health Organization doctors on a #TogetherAtHome Instagram Live stream demonstrated the power of influence. Alongside medical professionals, she debunked myths about the virus and gave viewers a rundown of the proper means of limiting its spread, such as effective hand-washing etiquette, to over 45,000 people. Highlights were uploaded to IGTV for longevity.

Social media platforms are increasingly being used to fuel creativity, build communites and support mental health during this challenging time, and we’re seeing affirmation of values like unity and transparency across content. It’s expected that online creators will continue to become more inventive and frequent with what is shared, although the competition to be visible is at an all-time high. With each platform so saturated with content, it’s crucial that the spread of uplifting and fact-checked material is at the forefront, in order to continue to have a positive impact on communities.

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Abigail Robson

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published on

02 April 2020


Communications Experience

Related Topics

Consumer behaviour COVID-19 Industry insight

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