Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Mediated Memory

Remembering life using social media during pandemic times

Taylor Annabell

Like many in the CMCI academic community, my research has adapted and responded to the unfolding social environment brought about by Covid-19. In fact, entering lockdown in the UK on the 23rd March 2020 was the midway point for me in my fieldwork interviews. My PhD looks at how memory is entangled in how sharing occurs on social media platforms and why these connective spaces are valued by young women. Along with interviewing young women, I also engaged in ethnographic observations of their social media activities for a period of six months. As such, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the way that some of the young women have chosen to document and share about living through times of pandemic and lockdown. In particular, it has been insightful to trace continuities and change in the practices, posts and stories of the eight young women who I interviewed prior to lockdown. In this blog post, I offer some early thoughts on how my participants are sharing ‘memories’ from pre-Covid-19.

Previously shared stories and posts resurface algorithmically through the memory product, On This Day, on Facebook and Instagram. The platform seeks to determine and then select meaningful “memories” for the user to reflect on and (hopefully) share. Although there is a tendency in digital memory studies literature for this feature to be accepted somewhat at face value (Brandtzaeg & Lüders, 2018; Drakopoulou, 2017; Holloway & Green, 2017; Hoskins, 2016; Schoenebeck et al., 2016), it has been critiqued for asserting on behalf of users what their ‘memories’ are (Smit & Prey, 2019). The lack of control over seeing these prompts, especially when associated with painful experiences, has also seen On This Day receiving negative publicity. I would counter it problematically also assuming that digital traces are memories when following Pickering and Keightley’s (2015) work on other media memory texts they function as vehicles for remembering. Of course, individuals can also choose to scroll back through their own profiles and archives to view old digital traces and may then decide to share these further either broadly to all their friends or followers, or to specific individuals or groups.

Prior to lockdown and social restrictions, the practice of sharing throwbacks (posts that are shared with the intention to look back and remember an event, moment or time period that took place in the past) was often framed as a way to express and re-experience joy and happiness or be a contemporary celebratory ‘gift’ with birthday posts. I want to suggest that there has been an increase in the sharing of throwbacks and re-engagement with digital traces in the past during this time. This is exemplified by Ellen who in a follow-up interview comments “I probably would be more likely whilst in lockdown to share or reshare things on On This Day than I would normally, because there’s no alternative. There’s not like a- I’m not doing anything here now. So it’s quite nice to be reflective and sort of like, it feels like it’s a reminder that things might be, things have been happen in different. So that’s quite nice to see. That’s what’s happening a year ago and in a year’s time that could be happening again.” The contrast painted between now and then is echoed by other participants. Ellen considers sharing what happened On This Day a year ago is due to the relative lack of activity in the present that could be posted about. However, she also suggests recalling these memories is an act of hope for the future, which differs from other responses to viewing these traces of the past.

Participants often use throwbacks and memory product function as well as uploading photos pre-pandemic to express a sense of loss. Sharing may be tinged with sadness and longing for what was: the normality of the past and in particular, spending time with friends. Chloe describes looking at On This Day as “it’s been horrible. It’s been nice to have memories and a bit of an escapism and like remember good times, but it’s also been like oh my gosh like I haven’t seen that person in so long. Don’t know when I’m going to see them again.”

Similarly, this entanglement of happiness of memories and sadness over the loss of future memories connected to an algorithmic resurfacing of the past is alluded to by Ava: “I was this time last year in Switzerland with my family. And a On This Day came up. And I was meant to be there with my best friend this week last week and I was kind of like, oh, that sucks and so slightly when they come up you kind of remember- yeah, in a way you’re like all like I’m missing out on this and like, like I’m cooped up inside. But last year, I was out doing fun things.”

Sadly, during this time Chloe also experienced the loss of two loved ones including her nan. The day after she passed away, she shares six stories, which span temporally from a baby photo to “the last time I ever held her hand”, which is time-stamped.  12 days later she shares a post containing five images, which she explains during a follow up interview was the day of the virtual service. Again, throwbacks are part of how she chooses to share about this loss and remember her life. The selection of the images reinforce Abidin’s (2018) observations on digital eulogy photos in her ethnographic research on how young people experience grief and loss through networked technology. These posts showed the deceased “preferably looking their best, or encapsulating a particularly flattering or happy moment in their time together” (p. 169). They also all include the participant, often along with other family members, and so are centred on this relationship between her and her nan. Although her mourning is central, a sense of collective grief is communicated through the selection of image as well as use first-person plural pronouns, exemplified through part of her post caption “we said an official goodbye to one of the best today”. This official goodbye took place during the conditions of lockdown and tight restrictions around funerals including social distancing measures and only immediate family members allowed to attend. Gibbs et al. (2015) concluded that #funeral posts were used to mark the experience of the funeral in the moment, extending the social ritual from those who were present to those who were not. Despite a lack of physical gathering, Chloe extends the experience of mourning virtually through participation in new social rituals related to funerals.

Coleman (2018) argues that the present temporality of social media is “concerned with ‘the now’, and that is stretched and condensed in various ways”. This is developed further in her examination of how individuals manage, experience and produce ‘the now’ (Coleman, 2020). ‘The now’ as its happening or as the immediate, ongoing or unfolding of the present. For these young women ‘the now’ is marked by absence, which is communicated, publicly seen rather than privately expressed. Of course, all digital memory work is performed in the present and so the present circumstances and understanding of the self will always influence the process of remembering. It is from the vantage point of lockdown and social restrictions that past digital traces are viewed from and so any memories sparked by them will be shaped by this ‘new normal’.

Mediated Memory, Memory & Heritage, Representation

Emotionally Demanding Research in Lockdown

Lauren Cantillon

One definition of ‘emotionally demanding research’ is ‘research that demands a tremendous amount of mental, emotional, or physical energy and potentially affects or depletes the researcher’s health or well-being’ (Kumar and Cavallaro, 2017, p.648). There is an ever-growing literature on how to protect the mental wellbeing of a researcher or research team when working on emotionally demanding projects, but how may we take this knowledge and apply it in the lockdown conditions that many of us now find ourselves in? From speaking to colleagues, the isolation and general disruption of recent months has added a fresh layer of difficulty to already tough projects. By being upfront and honest about my own experiences I hope to encourage more public conversation(s) about how to work through what can sometimes be debilitating emotions and feelings. I also want to highlight a seemingly common gap in Arts & Humanities graduate/researcher training that no amount of resilience workshops can hope to fill.

After over a year of reading and listening to women remember sexual violence during the Holocaust, by March 2020 I thought I had figured out (on the whole) how to manage my own emotions in relation to my material. Then a global pandemic happened, and you know the rest. I write this from a privileged position; neither myself, my partner, or any family members have (knowingly) had the virus. The one friend who did catch it early on has fully recovered and is back at work. While I am facing a level of financial precarity in the long-term, many of my part-time jobs were already done remotely. I have no dependents (human or animal), but I do have access to a shared garden – as a Zone 3 Londoner in a one-bed flat I have never appreciated this outdoor space more.

The blurring of my home and my research project has always been something I worked hard to avoid; I worked from spaces on campus or treated myself to a few hours in a coffee shop. Now – my desk in the living room, no door to shut it behind – my project has spilled into domestic space, on many occasions dominating the home I share with my partner. Previously, keeping some form of separation enabled me to switch-off from thinking about research, but the lockdown has made it inescapable, relentless even in the space that is supposed to be where I rest.

With the closure of campus buildings also came the removal of the day-to-day support of my fellow CMCI PGR cohort. While we have somewhat migrated onto digital platforms (WhatsApp voice notes, Zoom/Skype/Teams video chats, and department efforts like CMC-Hi) it is not the same. It sounds ungrateful, but digital media does not, for me, allow for the spontaneity or intimacy of an in-person conversation. Recently I undertook some oral history training, during which the instructor discussed the importance of being able to pass on what you have heard after listening to traumatic memories (the idea being that the pain associated with the original story should be lessened with sharing). Coffees, meeting for lunch, agreeing to write in the company for a few hours have always been a vital outlet for talking about my research and listening to colleagues’ work in return. Without these opportunities at present, this has put pressure on my partner who, while never-endingly patient, supportive and a kind human being, is not equipped to take on what would normally be several peoples’ worth of offloading.

Lockdown was established at an unfortunate time for my project, colliding with my realisation that about 40% of the women who form my data were sexually assaulted underage. I (naively) did not anticipate this aspect to my project when setting out and am finding the literature relating to child sex abuse the most draining and upsetting thing to work through while isolated away from my normal support systems. With one newly arrived book, I can only manage 3-4 pages at a time, and in the days that follow I have experienced disturbed sleep, loss of focus, and a lack of motivation to re-engage with the material, which ultimately makes me feel like I am not being productive enough.

Luckily, I am supported by a supervisory team who fully appreciate the emotionally demanding nature of my research project and that the current pandemic conditions have only added to this. Maintaining a healthy mental wellbeing specific to working with memories of sexual violence and associated themes has been a priority from the earliest days of my project, but as I have noted above, these unforeseen conditions of lockdown have brought new challenges. Writing this blog has been an opportunity to re-examine the literature around safeguarding the emotional wellbeing of the researcher during emotionally demanding research. Not all the advice translates in our current world, but I was heartened to see parallels with my own organic attempts at self-care.

I try to avoid programmes that depict sexual violence (Williamson et al., 2020), a lesson learnt from watching three episodes of Mindhunter and becoming a sobbing wreck on the sofa. One day I will watch Unbelievable but now is not that time. Fresh air and exercise (Kumar and Cavallaro, 2017; Rager, 2005; Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020; Williamson et al., 2020), as well as spacing interviews apart to avoid an intense working period (Coddington, 2017; Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020), are also common coping strategies. With encouragement from my supervisors, I am trying to harness my emotions to power my research and analysis work. I am not always successful (I find anger and frustration much more galvanising than fear) but it is an interesting way to navigate the personal emotions heightened by the lockdown. Kumar (2017) describes something similar, in that her advisor encouraged her to value her emotional responses as part of the research process.

At an institutional level there is little (at KCL) specific to emotionally demanding research in lockdown, however generic guidance on ‘looking after yourself’, procrastination, and worry, rumination and insomnia may provide some support. The Doctoral College have put together an online mental health ‘toolkit’ available via KEATS, but it too is a generic offer for PGRs across the college. As there was a gap for training around emotionally demanding research for Arts & Humanities Faculty PGRs prior to lockdown it is little surprise that a gap remains today. Fellow CMCI PhD researcher Linda Clayworth and I have designed a workshop series to try and begin the conversation at KCL. Other groups at Sheffield, Edinburgh and Exeter are also working to raise awareness around the need for more training and support.

Navigating emotionally demanding research in lockdown is not easy, but it is less difficult if faced with others. I am not the first to say (write) this, but from my own experiences of feeling isolated and from talking to other people in similar positions I think it needs repeating – louder and louder until we are heard by our institutions, the friends and family who want to support and help us, and each other, researcher to researcher.

Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Cultures of Creativity, Digital Culture, Mediated Memory, Representation

Lockdown Fashion: An exploration of dressing at home in 2020

Yana Reynolds

As a fashion sociologist, I have always been fascinated by everyday sartorial behaviours as a mechanism that allows to ‘articulate the relationship between a particular body and its lived milieu, the space occupied by bodies and constituted by bodily actions’, as fashion theorist Jennifer Craik put it. But what happens to dress in a world where the ‘lived milieu’ is drastically altered and where ‘bodily actions’ are no longer the familiar, repetitive rituals they had always been? In other words, what happens to our sartorial practices during quarantine? And what can it tell us about emerging forms of sociality in an era of social distancing; about how we negotiate the boundaries between private and public when they are no longer explicitly configured in space? To find out, my friend Lorraine (Lori) Smith and I started a project called Lockdown Fashion (which is probably a misnomer – more on it below) where we ask people to reflect on how the quarantine has affected the way they dress.

The project has only been running for two weeks. We did not intend for it to be an academic study for now, so I haven’t really been analysing the data. However, even without ‘proper’ coding, I cannot help spotting patterns and fascinating clusters of topics emerge from the responses we have received so far.

It seems that a lot of people (unlike myself!) have not stopped thinking of what they wear. Quite the contrary, clothes have suddenly become more important. As one of our respondents, costume designer Clodagh Deegan put it, ‘Sometimes I will be dressed, as in wearing clothes, but mostly I am dressed. Dressing up in lockdown makes clothes acquire new gravitas.

As our, usually expansive, life-spaces have contracted to the perimeters of our homes (and, if we are lucky, gardens), clothes, it would appear, have been taking up their roles and becoming life-spaces themselves. They separate work time from leisure time and delineate the public from the private: leaving home to go to the office, leaving work to go to a bar with friends, and leaving the bar now happen through changes of outfits. ‘I have to be dressed with a coffee to begin my day’; ‘Putting on make-up… helps keep the mental separation between work and home time’; ‘I make a point to dress in my work outfits for work hours even if nobody else sees them (most of the calls with colleagues are with cameras off)’ were common reflections. This, along with a proximity to the wardrobe that is never more than a couple of rooms away, prompts some of our respondents to change multiple times a day: one participant, Hannah, cited changing her outfits three times during one Zoom call with friends!

Another theme that emerges from responses is the agentic quality of dress. Clothes, our participants appear to suggest, can do things to us, altering our ways of being in the world.

‘If I were to wear more relaxed clothing, my feeling (worry) is that I might, over time, become less inclined to focus’, confessed Benjamin from Manchester Metropolitan University who wears smart outfits around the house. Other people cited clothes giving them ‘a sense of carry on’, a feeling of being ‘put together’, and a comforting ‘structure and neatness’.

Clothes can mold us, and they can also remind us who we are. Our interviews suggest that one of the most important roles clothing plays in quarantine is what CMCI’s Dr Paul Sweetman has called, in his eponymous article, ‘anchoring the self’; articulating personal narratives and enabling a certain ontological security. As Rosie from London College of Fashion put it poignantly, ‘[one day] I put on my pearl ring and a silver bangle I always wear (both gifts from people I love) and I suddenly realised I felt like myself, like the clothes located me and returned me to myself somehow. It was simple and immediate and restorative’.

What is particularly interesting about responses is that they rarely frame clothing as a tool for ‘presentation of the self’, in sociologist Erving Goffman’s terms; instead, what is foregrounded is wearers’ affective ties with their garments. Although the lockdown ‘is like a prolonged period of being “backstage”’, as per Alanna’s reflections, clothes carry a great deal of significance even when no one can see the wearer except perhaps their cat. And for some of our interviewees, lowered visibility during lockdown offers a chance to try out items that they would not wear in everyday life because they are too revealing, too small, too ‘loud’ or too uncomfortable, such as high heels, tight-fitting dresses or clothes that no longer fit; in other words, items that give them pleasure but are at odds with their desired public selves.

Ultimately, these strengthened affective ties with clothing might, hopefully, promote a more meaningful and slower consumption pattern once the quarantine is over, enhancing the emotional durability of our relationships with clothes. ‘It has made me appreciate the “worth” of garments more, in terms of them being of good quality and well-made’, noted  Benjamin, while Elizabeth from Central Saint Martins cites a newly found focus on re-wear and re-use of garments she already owns and loves, ‘rather than casting a flighty gaze on new curiosities’, and Jenna from Regent’s University pointed out that ‘the significance of making and taking care of clothes has been heightened’ for her in lockdown.

So far, our selection of respondents has been heavily skewed towards academics studying fashion, simply because these were the people in our immediate networks who were willing to respond. We are, however, looking for more participants from all walks of life as we want to capture a whole range of experiences and clothing behaviours. The title of our project, on reflection, is not entirely successful: what we are interested in is dress, not fashion. Whether you are dressing up or down, we want to know: all clothes stories are good stories. Anyone can take part, under their own name or anonymously; please select five questions from the list, and email us your answers along with a brief bio if you want us to include one, or anonymously if you don’t.