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Searching for the Pandemic’s Silver Lining? Look Online.

How the coronavirus has renewed our confidence in social media and one another

Article written by: Emmanuelle Vaast

Artwork by: Kittichai Boonpong EyeEm via Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic and the requirements of physical distancing that have ensued to combat it have created a sense of crisis that transcends most boundaries, including those of geography, social status, and ethnicity.

While the imposed trauma is immense, the sharing of personal pandemic experiences online has been encouraging. During this time, people around the world are rediscovering the brighter side of social media as these technologies take on renewed relevance and importance.

Spotlighting unsung heroes

These are undeniably difficult times, especially for those who are the most vulnerable in society. The have-nots are now struggling even more to get by, while the haves continue to have much less to worry about.

This pandemic has given us so much more appreciation for the heroes working in healthcare and essential services. They save lives and keep societies functioning. We can also be grateful for the numerous volunteers who bring food and medication to people who cannot manage on their own. The elderly, the immuno-compromised, those with a disability, and their caretakers are going through incredibly difficult times. It is heartening to know that people are mobilizing to provide help.

A connector and mobilizer

Social media can amplify personal triumphs or acts of kindness and can have a powerful effect on individuals. Research has shown how these technologies offer affordances, or “action potentials,” that enable people to engage in new forms of collective organizing.

For instance, my coauthors and I studied how online mobilization ebbed and flowed during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010. The role of social media in political uprisings such as the Arab Spring has also been investigated.

Yet, questions remain regarding what these new, social media-based forms of collective engagement can actually accomplish. Some have decried “armchair activists,” those who think they are working actively toward an important cause—even if they do nothing more than like a few posts or relay a few messages, all from the comfort of their couches. One of the ironies of our current situation is that staying on one’s couch is now a courageous, effortful choice.

In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, we are again seeing what social media can accomplish.

With the rise of misinformation, disinformation, trolling, and tracking, we had almost forgotten the positive sharing potential of social media and online resources. We are currently discovering that potential anew and making the most of it.

Re-experiencing the positive potential of a technology may not make all users more responsible. It would be naive to forget all the conflicting processes and outcomes associated with the rise of social media. Yet, it would also be overly cynical to ignore the good that has emerged from it in the context of the pandemic.

Finding strength online

For instance, among non-essential workers who are at home and practicing physical distancing, one may be particularly appreciative of the openness with which many have shared their struggles and small successes on platforms like Twitter or Facebook, revealing a sense of togetherness.

It is also inspiring to see people share their own versions of resilience. These can make us see the colour-coded schedules on Pinterest in a different way. Sure, they might be twee, but they also reflect meaningful coping mechanisms and can be useful resources for many.

They bring a sense of solidarity to people who otherwise might not have much in common.A similar argument can be made about all the variations of sourdough bread that have recently surfaced online. They may be unnecessary—yet they keep us connected. They bring a sense of solidarity to people who otherwise might not have much in common. Beyond differences in individual situations, many of us struggle with isolation or an overabundance of idle time. Some have found comfort  in turning to ancestral recipes, sharing the results online.

I am even grateful for the topical (very soon to be worn-out) pandemic humour—especially the innumerable jokes about our elastic sense of time.

New ways of learning and doing business

More significantly, we may not always enjoy video-conferencing and probably miss direct interactions with people—but technologies have provided many ways of maintaining connections. New ways of working and learning have also burgeoned. The technologies were already in place, but our world’s current challenge provided the push needed to use them in a somewhat better way.

Technology has also fostered the creativity of small business owners. There is still much uncertainty for them, however their resourcefulness has been inspiring. You have not lived until you have tried zoom yoga and fitness classes, 8,000-people Instagram dance parties, or live crochet tutorials for the utterly uncoordinated.

Along the way, they are redefining what it means to be together online.Entrepreneurs have found new ways of delivering goods and services while respecting physical distancing rules. Along the way, they are redefining what it means to be together online. From live DJ battles to online hackathons, new forms of organizing and sharing have emerged and found relevance in these uncertain times.

I have also had many more genuine interactions with students online than during more traditional office hours in the past.

Regardless of if or when we ever go back to traditional in-class teaching or adopt hybrid instruction models, my teaching will have been impacted long-term. I have developed an even greater appreciation for students and the sacrifices they make as they progress in their learning.

People who have created pedagogical resources and put them online freely also deserve a shout-out. These range from university classes to extracurricular activities with a social edge for younger kids. Online resources have multiplied since physical distancing measures were implemented.

Beyond formal curricula, online tools offer many other occasions for learning. For instance, my daughter has developed storytelling abilities and her voice as a writer thanks to online word processing. She has gained undeniable design skills by using multiple apps and she collaborates virtually with children from around the world. These new practices, which have little to do with her fifth-grade curriculum, give her a new set of skills that she thoroughly enjoys.

And as much as I try to restrain my son’s participation in online video games, I admit that they keep him close to many friends he can no longer see in person. They have also made him somewhat of a leader in his “squads,” ably coordinating and directing work.

Online resources and social media do not repair structural inequities and should not be expected to replace institutional support. Yet, they are a clear testament to resilience, innovation, and community. When all is said and done and we return to some semblance of what used to be a regular life, I hope we will keep this energy going. Consider me rewired.

Emmanuelle Vaast
Professor, Information Systems

Article written by: Emmanuelle Vaast

Artwork by: Kittichai Boonpong EyeEm via Getty Images

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