During the 1918-19 Spanish influenza pandemic, there was little visual documentation in the press, expensive printing technologies hindering the ability to publish photographs widely in newspapers. There were exceptions, with publications such as the Sydney Mail and The Queenslander featuring pictorial spreads. Nevertheless, the photographic record of this period was largely unseen by the public.
In 2020, the news media is saturated with visuals, both still and moving images, but these mediated views of the pandemic are unidirectional, the media showing us what the pandemic looks like. It's an external view, and one removed from the experiences of many in isolation.
This is where social media platforms have provided an important opportunity for citizens in lockdown to come together and form virtual communities where they can share their experiences through pictures.
One such virtual community is the Facebook group "View from my window", which was started on 23 March by Barbara Duriau, a Belgian graphic designer based in Amsterdam. Her intention was to connect people in lockdown around the world. An avid traveller, Duriau hoped that in sharing images, people would become virtual travellers and be inspired to visit foreign lands once the pandemic subsided.
Duriau’s page hit a nerve. Within a month, the group’s members had swelled to 1.8 million, and by 20 May that number stood at more than 2.3 million. Duriau was overwhelmed by the response, and so enlisted friends and family to administer and moderate posts.
The page now has 26 administrators and 13 moderators.
Each member is permitted to post a single photograph that depicts a view from their window during lockdown. To date there have been more than two million submissions, with a backlog of thousands, many of which may never be published. This is in part due to the sheer volume of submissions, but also a quirk of Facebook’s algorithms.
A rich pictorial tapestry
The posts combine to create a rich tapestry of pictures, as well as testimony with many featuring musings that share a little of the life of the person posting. They also demonstrate the reciprocal nature of these virtual communities.
It's also a way to build “trust and solidarity”. On "View from my window", reciprocity is experienced by liking, sharing and commenting. It's also found in the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the person posting and other members of the group.
These actions and reactions are also representative of a generalised exchange that's not predicated on immediate benefit, but on an understanding that, in due course, others will contribute in ways that benefit us.
This peer-to-peer means of communication is a fundamental feature of social media networks. While benefits may not be articulated in terms of tangible values, the breadth, depth and volume of positive engagement on this Facebook page suggests many participants feel rewarded.
As to the type of engagement experienced on the page, this post below from Paris on 25 April is a case in point. In addition to sharing the photo of her living room overlooking the historic Place de l’Hôtel de Ville in Paris, a stunning scene in itself, Elektra wrote about her “pianist husband giving a concert for the pigeons social distancing in the square”.
In a demonstration of the reciprocal nature of these virtual communities, viewers commented on the picture, and also on Elektra’s words. She shared links to her husband Julian Gargiulo’s YouTube channel, where one could view him playing in the living room in Paris, or see his performance at Carnegie Hall. This peek into the lives of this Parisian couple sparked virtual conversations between Elektra, who posted the picture, her husband, his sister who's an author in Singapore, and thousands of strangers from around the world.
Mirroring the multidirectional conversations we conduct in the physical world, dialogue ranged wide, directed by comments that broke off to become independent threads. There were discussions about the desire to return to Paris, tales of plans postponed, hopes of a Parisian wedding, and recounts of sitting in that very square; Julian’s cancelled tour of the US, his travels to Australia, and the hope of future concerts; and a shared love of music with some pausing to watch the video links before returning to add to their comments.
While benefits may not be articulated in terms of tangible values, the breadth, depth and volume of positive engagement on this Facebook page suggests many participants feel rewarded.
There was also the discovery of commonalties such as a post from a woman in Baltimore that prompted Julian to reveal he had studied at the conservatory there.
Reading these exchanges from isolation in my apartment in Melbourne, suddenly seclusion felt much less of a barrier to connecting with others who obviously felt the same as I did. The post garnered 58,000 likes, 7000 comments and 459 shares, the image the catalyst to bring people together.
Comments on other posts show that this virtual community is indeed global. Consider the photo below posted by Irene, an Italian radiologist, on 15 April of Saint-Christophe, Western Alps, Italy.
About 60% of the 345 comments included the person’s location – “Hello/greetings from …”
The US represented the majority of comments (60%), 16% were from Europe, 5% from Australia and New Zealand combined, and 4% each from the UK and Canada. The remaining 11% comprised comments from the Middle East, Africa, India and South America. The post also received more than 5000 likes, yet it may have reached many more. Participants on social media are often passive. That is, they don't actively share, like or comment, but this doesn't mean they're not engaging.
Recognising the ephemeral nature of social media, and wanting to keep the community together post-lockdown, on 15 May Duriau launched a Kickstarter campaign, Life After Facebook.
Duriau says: “Giving the group a second life was an obvious way to keep those bonds, and a testimony of our lockdown that we lived ‘together’.” Her intention is to raise funds to mount a travelling exhibition, publish a book, and build a website that will stand as a public archive.
The Kickstarter campaign has now finished. It raised more than A$220,000, showing there's appetite to continue the community beyond cyberspace. This desire to engage on and offline highlights the need for more research into the concept of reciprocity on social media networks. Gaining greater insights into the value of these interactions will aid in understanding the broader consequences of these virtual communities to society.
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