Lockdown One Year On: How Social Media Kept Us Together While Lockdown Tore Us Apart
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When Keiko Neutz - a mother of eight and grandmother to 38 grandchildren and great grandchildren - was diagnosed with Covid-19, her granddaughter Lacy Taylor installed Houseparty on a laptop and gave it to staff at Norton Brownsboro Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky.
It meant the whole family could dip in and out of the 'house' to keep her company, and it meant they were all able to be by her side virtually during her final hours. It wasn't how they wanted to say goodbye, but it was immeasurably preferable to not saying goodbye at all.
One of the cruellest realities of this pandemic has been that so many families have been unable to be at the side of their infected loved ones, many of whom have passed away alone. But thanks to social media and video calling, some people have at least been able to say a final farewell.
Just over a hundred years on from the Spanish Flu pandemic, social media has proven to be a vital weapon in humankind's arsenal. Phone calls help us to catch up with people from afar, but social media platforms have enabled us to keep hold of a sense of community, camaraderie and fun. Whether you've challenged a mate at toilet roll keepy-uppies on Twitter, played Chips and Guac on Houseparty, or spent endless hours teaching people how to unmute themselves on Zoom, social media has played a vital role in keeping you as positive as possible during the darkest of times.
"Social interaction is a source of identity, norms, beliefs, validation, emotional support, and more," said John Drury, professor of social psychology at University of Sussex.
"To go without these things that make us human is psychologically impoverishing."
Professor Drury explained: "It's [social media] been essential. A substantial body of research on computer-mediated communication shows that online interaction with our valued groups can be just as social as in-person group interaction. We can be just as social when physically dispersed than when physically together.
"When online with our valued groups, our group identities become salient. And given the right platform, others can provide the norms, beliefs, validation, and emotional support we need."
Of course, social media is not perfect, and the past year more than ever has laid bare the importance of tackling disinformation around the virus, vaccines and everything in between. The scale of the problem is reflected by the fact that Facebook and Instagram removed more than 12 million pieces of Covid-related misinformation between March and October last year.
But it is hard to imagine how resolutely millions of people would have adhered to restrictions that so severely curtailed our usual liberties, without the interaction afforded through social media.
Its vital importance has been reflected by a massive increase in usage. Zoom, much like lockdown, was just a strange and mysterious concept this time last year. Now it's common parlance - reflected by the fact in 2020, the communications technology company recorded a year total revenue of $2,651.4 million (£1,902.9 million), up 326 percent year-over-year. Customers with more than 10 employees in the last financial quarter increased by 470 percent compared to the same quarter the previous year, reflecting Zoom's centrality in a dramatic global shift to virtual workplaces.
Eric S. Yuan, founder and chief executive of Zoom, described the year with another familiar word which saw its usage skyrocket in 2020 - 'unprecedented'.
Meanwhile, voice and video calling on Messenger and WhatsApp more than doubled at the start of the pandemic, operating at the same level as at New Year's Eve - usually the busiest time for the platforms. Every day, 150 million video calls are made and 200 million videos are sent on Messenger.
And in a 30-day period last March and April, as we began our first - but sadly not last - lockdown, a staggering 50 million people signed up to Houseparty
What's more, while the prevalence of disinformation on social media cannot be underestimated in terms of both volume and impact, it is important to acknowledge how powerful these platforms can be as educational tools - when used with the right intentions. Facebook, for example, directed people in the UK to coronavirus information on official government and NHS websites through in-feed notifications and 'Covid-19' searches on more than 10 million occasions.
Crucially, platforms such as TikTok are able to engage young audiences in a way that traditional media often cannot. This has allowed doctors and other 'educators' across the globe to amass huge followings, to whom they can dispense key tips and safety messages in bitesize form.
"When I first started sharing content on TikTok I never imagined I would be where I am now, or that there would be such an appetite for my videos; it just goes to show how important health and wellbeing really is to this generation and what a significant role education and entertainment has played this year," said Dr Emeka, who has more than 225,000 followers on the site.
"I also recently partnered with the British Red Cross, which is using TikTok to teach first aid; it's amazing what you can pick up in 15 seconds and potentially change or even save someone's life.
"As well as keeping us all entertained, I think a lot of people have found a sense of community and real connection on TikTok. For me it has been a way to connect and reassure my audience during a really uncertain time."
Dr Emeka is not alone in feeling this way. As well as an increase in its usage and importance, how we use social media has changed for many people.
While previously it may have been used for the odd scroll to see what our mates are up to, over the past year it has been instrumental in creating a sense of unity. People have depended on their social feeds to remind themselves they're not alone, to keep fit when they're not allowed out, and to remind themselves that there is still a world beyond their four walls.
Sure, it's been a dreadful year, but it would have been so much worse without the countless viral trends that have provided a priceless light-hearted distraction: sourdough, sea shanties, disastrous haircuts, national PE lessons, house Olympics, DIY bars. We've really had to get creative.
And thanks to social media, many people have found something in lockdown far more valuable than any misshapen loaf of bread or ill-advised mohawk. Like Beth McGill, who met her now-boyfriend Jordan Yamoah Amissah, virtually and serendipitously.
Jordan was passing sometime on Houseparty at the start of the pandemic when Beth joined the call, thanks to a mutual connection. They hit it off, but soon realised that there was a problem - Beth was in Scotland and Jordan was in Germany. However, fast-forward to the present day, and they're still going strong - thanks to lockdown-permitting visits and countless video calls.
Beth said: "I just knew right away we clicked from the get go. I'm so happy he came into my life, it was perfect timing.
"The pandemic has had so many negatives to it, but for me I gained a huge positive out of it and that was him."
In a year of darkness and loss, their relationship is just one of countless examples of social media facilitating the creation of something positive and hopeful. Now they're planning a future together, post-pandemic.
How it started vs how it's going :heart: pic.twitter.com/8mkOpdtmh7
- beth mcgill (@bethmcgillx) October 9, 2020
Beth said: "Our future plans will definitely be to live with each other full time whenever that may be. Hopefully this year we can make some holiday plans, Covid depending, and experience things together we have not yet had chance to.
"I feel it's been difficult for couples during Covid, but we have managed to get through it together and can't wait to make memories together."