Vitalities Lab Newsletter 10 Summer 2021

2 February 2021

It is summer in Sydney and we at the Vitalities Lab are back in the office for another new year. After some collective downtime we have hit the ground running, riding the ripple effects of our globally tumultuous 2020 and beginning to make sense of the post-COVID world. One phenomenon that has certainly been on our minds (and bodies) since our last newsletter is the COVID face mask. Since early in the pandemic we have followed the face mask as a health technology and a cultural and political artefact. We wrote about this for The Conversation in October, and in December we submitted the manuscript for our forthcoming monograph with De Gruyter, The Face Mask in COVID Times: A Sociomaterial Analysis, to be published later this year.

In early December, we were delighted to attend our first in-person event since very early last year – Digital Intimacies 6: Connection in Crisis at the University of Technology Sydney, from December 6th to 8th. Kudos to the organisers who pulled off an excellent three-day hybrid symposium plus a number of satellite events. We had a strong Vitalities Lab showing at DI6, presenting our research across a number of papers. On Day 1, Deborah Lupton presented ‘Trust, risk and digital media: Australians’ experiences of the COVID-19 crisis’, Leanne Downing presented ‘The moments you missed: Exploring the digital intimacies of telehealth psychology consults during the COVID crisis’, Marianne Clark presented ‘Crisis and the body: the digital health entanglements of COVID-19’, and Ash Watson presented ‘Being together in crisis: digital co-presence and intimacy during COVID-19’. On Day 2, Clare Southerton presented ‘The affective atmospheres of lockdown TikTok’.

Clare also presented a paper with Giselle Newton, a PhD candidate at the Centre for Social Research in Health at UNSW, at the Cultures of TikTok in the Asia Pacific symposium titled ‘Everyday TikTok Talk: A method for a reflexive encounter with #donorconceived’. The symposium was hosted by Curtin University on December 7.

In December, Marianne Clark with colleagues Holly Thorpe and Julie Brice published Feminist New Materialisms, Sport and Fitness: A Lively Entanglement with Palgrave Macmillan, part of the New Femininities in Digital, Physical and Sporting Cultures book series. This book offers the first critical examination of the contributions of feminist new materialist thought to the study of sport, fitness, and physical culture. 

Ash Watson published another edition of So Fi Zine, featuring creative submissions from authors around the world and a guest editorial by Ruha Benjamin. So Fi Zine is a sociological fiction zine, free to read online at sofizine.com.

Ash also launched her debut novel Into the Sea, in conversation with Shanthi Robertson as part of The Australian Sociological Association’s 2020 conference. You can watch a recording of the launch here, or grab a copy of the book here.

Below we list our recent publications,  presentations, and other activity not mentioned above.

Academic Publications

  • Lupton, D. (2021) Young people’s use of digital health in the Global North: narrative review. Journal of Medical Internet Research, available online at https://www.jmir.org/2021/1/e18286/
  • Watson, A. (2021) Writing sociological fiction. Qualitative Research, online first. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794120985677
  • Lupton, D. and Southerton, C. (2021) The thing-power of the Facebook assemblage: why do users stay on the platform? Journal of Sociology, online first. doi.org/10.1177/1440783321989456
  • Kirby, E., Watson, A., Churchill, B., Robards, B. and LaRochelle, L. (2021) Queering the Map: stories of love, loss and (be)longing within a digital cartographic archive. Media, Culture and Society, online first. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443720986005
  • Lupton, D. (2021) Self-tracking. In Abel, J. et al. (eds), Information: Keywords. Columbia University Press
  • Lupton, D. (2021) Afterword: future methods for digital food studies. In Leer, J. and Krogager, S.G.S. (eds), Research Methods in Digital Food Studies. London: Routledge, pp. 222-227
  • Watson, A. and Lupton, D. (2020) Tactics, affects and agencies in digital privacy narratives: a story completion study. Online Information Review, online first. doi.org/10.1108/OIR-05-2020-0174
  • Watson, A., Lupton, D. and Michael, M. (2020) Enacting intimacy and sociality at a distance in the COVID-19 crisis: the sociomaterialities of home-based communication technologies. Media International Australia, online first. doi: doi.org/10.1177/1329878X20961568
  • Lupton, D. (2020) Caring dataveillance: women’s use of apps to monitor pregnancy and children. In Green, L., Holloway, D., Stevenson, K., Leaver, T. and Haddon, L. (eds), The Routledge Companion to Digital Media and Children. London: Routledge, pp. 393-402
  • Lupton, D. (2020) The sociology of mobile apps. In Rohlinger, D. and Sobieraj, S. (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Sociology and Digital Media. New York: Oxford, online first. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780197510636.013.15
  • Brice, J., Clark, M., & Thorpe, H. (2020). Feminist collaborative becomings: an entangled process of knowing through fitness objects, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, DOI: 10.1080/2159676X.2020.1820560
  • Newman, C., MacGibbon, J., Smith, A. K. J., Broady, T., Lupton, D., Davis, M., Bear, B., Bath, N., Comensoli, D., Cook, T., Duck-Chong, E., Ellard, J., Kim, J., Rule, J., & Holt, M. (2020). Understanding Trust in Digital Health among Communities Affected by BBVs and STIs in Australia. Sydney: UNSW Centre for Social Research in Health. Available at http://doi.org/10.26190/5f6d72f17d2b5
  • Fox, B., Goggin, G., Lupton, D., Regenbrecht, H., Scuffham, P. and Vucetic, B. (2020) The Internet of Things. Report for the Australian Council of Learned Academies. Melbourne: ACOLA. Available at https://acola.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/hs5_internet-of-things_report.pdf
  • Robards, B., Watson, A., Kirby, E., Churchill, B., & LaRochelle, L. (2020). Queering the Map: Physical traces and digital places of queer lives. AoIR Selected Papers of Internet Research, 2020. https://doi.org/10.5210/spir.v2020i0.11319
  • Byron, P., McKee, A., Watson, A., Litsou, K. and Ingham, R. (2020) Reading for realness: porn literacies, digital media and young people. Sexuality & Culture, online first. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-020-09794-6

Other Publications

Workshops and Presentations

  • Ash hosted a public online workshop on September 9 on “Social Science Fiction” as part of Social Sciences Week Australia. The workshop was supported by The Sociological Review and the Vitalities Lab, UNSW. The recording is available here.
  • Deborah delivered the keynote for UNSW’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences HDR conference on September 16
  • On October 2, Deborah gave an invited seminar presentation for San Francisco State University
  • Deborah was an invited member of the panel for Bold Thinking – Risky Business: The Politics of Preparing for a Pandemic, hosted by La Trobe University on October 13
  • Deborah gave the keynote address for the Data-Driven Culture Conference at the University of Turku on October 23
  • Ash was invited to speak at a November 5 seminar on autoethnography for the Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher sessions run by The Australian Sociological Association
  • On November 6, Deborah gave an invited seminar presentation for the University of Minnesota
  • Deborah delivered a keynote for the Lockdown: Mental Illness, Wellness and COVID-19 conference, hosted by Curtin University and the University of East London on November 17
  • On November 24, Marianne presented a paper at TASA’s 2020 conference titled ‘How movement comes to matter: Exploring the sensory atmospheres and embodied affects of physical activity during COVID-19’
  • Also on November 24, Deborah was an invited member of a plenary panel on Sociology and COVID-19 at the TASA annual conference
  • Ash was the chair of a plenary titled Sociological Insight for the Now Normal, part of TASA’s 2020 conference, on November 25
  • Deborah gave a keynote at the TASA Social Theory and COVID-19 conference on November 27
  • On November 30 Deborah gave an invited presentation to the Australian Academic of Technology and Engineering on the ACOLA Internet of Things report
  • Marianne gave an invited lecture on December 1 for the University of Toronto titled ‘Introduction to Post Qualitative Research’

Media Appearances

Finally, since our last newsletter, Ash completed her term as Secretary of TASA, Clare became a founding member of the TikTok Cultures Network and Marianne was invited to join the Annals of Leisure Research as an Editorial Board Member.

Animal Crossing Fans: Come and play with us!

Are you an Animal Crossings fan? Meg at the Vitalities Lab is now looking for Animal Crossing players to participate in an in-game interview, to learn more about their experience of playing the game while social distancing in 2020.

Image description: Meg on her island in Halloween dress with her villager, Gigi, who is a purple frog

Here are the details:

My Happy Place: Exploring the use of ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ during ‘Social Distancing’ (Ethics Approval HC200424)

What does the interview involve?

Meg will visit your Animal Crossing island in-game, while talking to you over Zoom or the Nintendo Online app! You can show her all your favourite places, characters and if you like, swap items! It will only take 60 mins and should be lots of fun.

Image description: Meg in Halloween dress and a villager, Pate, who is a blue duck.

Who can participate?

You must be:

  • 18 years or older
  • A fan of Animal Crossing who has played the game this year while social distancing
  • Speak English
  • Be located in Australia, America, Canada or Europe (if you are a university student studying in these countries but are in your home country right now, you’re also welcome!)
Image description: Meg on her island celebrating Halloween with a villager, Soleil, who is an orange hamster.

How can I participate?

Contact Meg at the below email address- questions are also welcome!
Please contact the following person via email to register your interest in taking part in the research:

NameDr. Megan Rose (Chief Investigator)
PositionAssociated Researcher, Vitalities Lab, UNSW
Emailmegan.rose@unsw.edu.au

Is social media like food?

Photo by Mockaroon on Unsplash

Clare Southerton

It’s becoming more common to hear about social media ‘fasts’, digital detoxes, as well as media consumption practices understood in terms of digital ‘calories’, nutrition and diets. The language of health, wellness and the diet industry has well and truly spread to how we talk about social media, as well as other technologies like smartphones and video games devices.

The 5:2 Digital Diet, for example, models itself on the popular 5:2 fasting diet, and recommends that we abstain from screens two days a week. Devotees are instructed to ‘delete all email and social media apps from your phone Friday night and reinstall Sunday morning.’ It’s also recommended that you fill your screen-free days with exercise and ‘getting out into nature’, which is ‘proven to help with all sorts of ailments’. It’s clear that there is an emphasis on wellness here that mirrors food-based diets and lifestyle programs.

Ah yes, the relaxing beauty of nature

Notably social media, and technology in general, is often positioned as the evil opposite of nature. Nature is largely framed simplistically as space of retreat and repair, for humans and from humans. This narrative, of course, misses the complex politics surrounding what in fact constitutes ‘natural’ and the ways outdoor spaces are accessible more often to the privileged. Even more hypocritical, this relatively recent ‘return to nature’ neglects the histories of many Indigenous peoples: colonists’ racist actions and dispossession of land were predicated on the supremacist assumption that a connection to nature made Indigenous people less-human.

Beyond detoxing and fasting, others advocate for more ‘nutritionally’ focused approach to digital technologies and social media. We might think about this as akin to a ‘balanced’ diet and focused more on well being, and less on purity and abstinence. However, focusing on the ‘nutrition’ or ‘quality’ of digital content is highly subjective, and fails to challenge the underlying problems with this ‘social media diet’ mentality. This kind of language is reminiscent of the kind of shame and moralism that surrounds ‘unhealthy’ and ‘junk’ foods. The problem that gets left out of conversations about our anxieties around social media use and our anxieties about food — what about pleasure?

On this question, it’s useful to turn to the excellent work of Professor Helen Keane who wrote the highly influential book What’s Wrong With Addiction?. She draws out the entangled relationship between anxieties about pleasure and the popularisation of addiction as a concept. She writes that ‘[d]esire, discipline and pleasure are appropriated into an economy of health and disease’ (p. 18). When we think about social media, we can see exactly what Helen is talking about. The fact that social media is appealing quickly becomes mobilised as proof of its unhealthiness, its need to be managed by medical professionals and its ‘addictive’ qualities.

On Monday night’s episode of ABC’s Q & A, panelists discussed ‘the consequences of our growing dependence on social media’, with some arguing that the addictive nature of social media platforms has now reached crisis point. The negative mental health effects of social media were largely taken for granted, despite existing research on social media’s impact on well being and mental health being far from conclusive. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that social media impacts are both positive and negative (and many studies that reveal more nuanced effects). Beyond the limited framing of wellbeing there is a rich literature exploring digital cultures and communities on various platforms.

The show also participated in much of the same kind of shaming that goes on for those who consume too much of the wrong thing – even if often when it comes to social media consumption the shaming is usually directed at oneself. There are interesting parallels too with other addictive substances – junk food or illicit drugs – whereby the ‘addict’ is painted as morally deficient and lacking ‘willpower’.

‘Popular addiction discourse constructs everyday substances and experiences as potentially dangerous, and sees risk, dysfunction and disorder everywhere.’

Helen Keane, What’s Wrong With Addiction? (p. 27)

So let’s get back to the original question — is social media like food? In many ways I think the comparison is apt but not for the reasons many are suggesting. Like food, social media consumption is embedded in socio-cultural meanings. I don’t think there is anything intrinsically more wholesome about sharing deep inner feelings with a friend compared with smashing a game of Candy Crush. But certainly our shared social norms may identify one practice as connection and another as addiction.

Now after all this typing I guess I’m out of digital calories…better do a run around the block so I can check my email.

Time in the ‘Time of Corona’

Katrine Meldgaard Kjær, Clare Southerton, Marianne Clark, Ash Watson

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread globally, our experiences of it have shifted over time since initial reports of the virus hit the headlines in January. These temporal shifts can be subtle, almost negligible, or more confronting. Yet even when they are more noticeable, it can be hard to orient yourself to how the pandemic felt only weeks earlier. Things feel so slippery in the ‘time of Corona’. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to be ‘felt’ throughout Australia, Katrine (one of the authors of this blog post), was visiting the Vitalities Lab from Denmark and had to return home suddenly — only two weeks into a planned four-week trip. The rest of us, despite living in the same area of Sydney, were also distanced as local movement restrictions set in and we became confined to our homes. Now, six months later, the pandemic continues to unfold locally as well as globally in unpredictable ways. We continue to live with and navigate new waves of infections and changing social restrictions that impact our work and the ways we connect and collaborate with others.  

Katrine’s sudden departure was jarring, a moment that marked the beginning of a rapidly shifting timeline. Despite — or perhaps because of  — the uncertainty we all faced, we wanted to keep writing together as a way to maintain the engagement and support we found in each other as four early-career academics. Katrine initiated a collaborative document so we could share our experiences  and reflections as the pandemic unfolded. All four authors wrote into a Google Doc whenever we felt like it, not distinguishing between who wrote what, not following any particular format or timeline, and each writing into the space where the previous writer had finished, regardless of the narrative thread. These contributions varied wildly, oscillating between an ‘up close and personal’ approach documenting our feelings or personal responses to the unfolding news each day as we tried to make sense of new routines, as well as more arms-length approaches to thinking through the social and political complexities of the pandemic.

Now, we realise we’ve been writing this document for more than six months and what we have is a record, of sorts, of our own COVID era(s). Yet, looking at the 9000 word document after two months of writing and sharing the odd Skype call, we recognise that what we have is much more than the chronicling of a series of specific moments, experiences and thoughts from the COVID-19 time. Rather when taken as a whole, the document reveals something about the peculiar, slightly disorienting quality of ‘COVID time’ and our experiences of it.

Others have written about the strangeness of this time and the way our perception of time has changed, with references to things that are ‘in the time of Corona’. Like ‘love in the time of corona’ or ‘trust in the time of COVID19’ or ‘cleaning in the time of coronavirus’ or ‘how to do [insert literally anything here] in the time of COVID’. There are also a growing number of memes and social media posts that point to the unusual and distorted way time seems to unfold right now; somehow both frantically accelerated and painstakingly slow at the same time. It seems we are unsettled by this unfamiliar experience of time, and are searching for ways to express and make sense of the feeling that we are living in a very specific and extraordinary time. But, even this is not quite accurate. We are not so much living in a specific period of time (because we don’t know when this time will end, and even its beginnings were somewhat murky). Rather, the quality of time has changed. Any illusion of time as linear, predictable and quantifiable, has been completely disrupted. Time now seems even more multiple, elastic and unpredictable than ever. 

We often think about time as that which progresses ‘naturally’ forward at a steady pace and is broken up into predictable units (minutes, hours, days) that structure our days and lives, something that is challenged in COVID time. During the COVID-19 pandemic the hours, days, and weeks just feel different than they used to. Schools, workplaces and businesses are re-opening and closing in what feels like a haphazard trajectory. Time is neither linear or predictable nor is it associated with steady progress. Rather time is peculiar, both accelerated and slowed down, bringing both hope and despair as we realise this is far from over.

Moments that disrupt our sense of time as linear are hardly new though. While waiting in a waiting room to hear the outcome of a medical test, for example, the passage of time can seem very different to when we’re spending an enjoyable evening with friends (if we’re ever able to do that again). Indeed, this linear narrative of time has long been critiqued by Indigenous and First Nations scholars who highlight the ways that chronological ‘clock time’ has been imposed as part of violent colonising processes and indigenous ways of marking time were (and continue to be) denigrated as ‘backward’.

Throughout western history, time has also been conceptualised in alternative ways that might help us make sense of our experience of COVID time. French philosopher Henri Bergson, for instance, argued that time should not be understood quantitatively, as units that can be measured — days, hours, minutes — but rather qualitatively as what he called duration. By this Bergson means that understanding time as duration means thinking about  time as a complex layering, a constant process of becoming such that it is not possible to actually capture, divide, or quantify it.

Elizabeth Freeman also imagines time as qualitative and argues that time and norms are closely connected, and that the quantification of time can have normative effects: she calls this “chrononormativity”. She argues that we expect lifespans to play out in predictable, linear (heteronormative) paths as we move through life stages — there is a ‘right time’ to commit to a monogamous relationship, a ‘right time’ to have children, a ‘right time’ to have certain types of careers, and so on. Freeman argues that the idea of the steady, linear progression of doing things at certain times is related to cultural separations between what is considered  ‘normal’ from what is considered ‘deviant’ or ‘different’. 

In COVID times, we see this reconfigured in ideas of the ‘right time’ to go back to work, the ‘right time’ to re-open institutions, the ‘right time’ to react to new outbreaks etc. The deep ties between ideas of time and norms for structuring life are also evident in the stress tied to the ways in which COVID time does not unfold as we ‘normally’ expect time to, with specific dates marking the ‘normal’ rhythm of going (back to), for example, school or work. 

Therefore, as COVID continues to unfold in unpredictable and nonlinear ways, we are forced to confront our limited understanding and vocabulary of time. The pandemic is indeed not unfolding in a linear way. Instead, it is filled with openings, closings, going back and forths. Embracing alternative ways of thinking about time and normality may be helpful tools as we attempt to make sense of ‘Corona time’ and for alleviating the stress associated with the disruption of ‘normal’ time as we usually know it. 

Vitalities Lab Newsletter 9 Spring 2020

10 September 2020

Spring has arrived in the southern hemisphere and we in the Vitalities Lab are welcoming the warmer weather as we continue to adjust to our work from home routines and re-imagine our research projects during the COVID pandemic. As we all work to navigate these challenging conditions, we are particularly excited to share one of our new initiatives, the ‘Breaking Methods’ YouTube Webinar Series. These slide-based webinars showcase some of the innovative social research methods we’ve adapted, designed, and engaged with and explain how we’re analysing the material these methods generate.

In these webinars we explore everything from storyboards and mapping methods, digital photo diaries and zine creation, to methods braiding and the use of TikTok and YouTube content as qualitative data. The series is designed to be accessible to students and researchers alike and we hope it offers some fresh ideas about how to keep research projects going in a time of much uncertainty.

A collection of handmade masks

We also continue to think through the various impacts of COVID-19 on professional, personal, and physical lives and to share these reflections on our blog. Lab members have explored  the ‘myth of the digital shift’ as we transition to working and conducting research online as well as the embodied experiences and social meanings of mask-wearing during the pandemic.  Guest posts by visiting scholars offer thoughtful insights into the ways COVID can help us recognize the constructed and political dimensions of healthcare and explore how the concept of kawai (cuteness) is used within the video game Animal Crossing to enable experiences of connection and caring in stressful times

Beyond the Vitaities Lab blog, lab members have also contributed further afield with Clare Southerton writing about how public shaming in the context of COVID-19 can harm public health efforts in The Conversation.  In the same outlet, Deborah synthesised recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics to provide a useful snapshot of how the pandemic is impacting our everyday lives. 

In the meantime, we continue to work on our various social research projects (highlighted in our previous newsletter) and to engage in research activity and dialogue with colleagues in Australia and around the globe. A summary of recent publications,  presentations, and other activity not mentioned above is provided below. 

Academic Publications

  • Baker S, Buttigieg B, Cantillon Z, Pavlidis A, Rodriguez Castro L and Watson A (2020) Getting Students to ‘Do’ Introductory Sociology: Analysis of a blended and flipped interactive workshop. Journal of Sociology. Published OnlineFirst 8 July 2020 [Authorship order is alphabetical]. 
  • Clark, M. (2020). Signs, beaches, and bodies in pandemic times: A visual essay. Media International Australia, online first. https://doi.org/10.1177/1329878X20949980
  • Lupton, D. (2020) Thinking with care about personal data profiling: a more-than-human approach. International Journal of Communication, 14, 3165-3183, available online at https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/13540 
  • Lupton, D. and Watson, A. (2020) Towards a more-than-human digital data studies: developing research-creation methods. Qualitative Research, online first. doi:org/10.1177/1468794120939235 
  • Lupton, D. (2020) ‘Not the real me’: social imaginaries of personal data profiling. Cultural Sociology, online first. doi.org/10.1177/1749975520939779 
  • Lupton, D. (2020) A more-than-human approach to bioethics: the example of digital health. Bioethics, online first. doi: 10.1111/bioe.12798 
  • Lupton, D. (2020) Special section on ‘Sociology and the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic’. Health Sociology Review, 29(2), 111-112. 
  • Lupton, D. (2020) Digital media and health. In Merkin, D. (ed.), Sage International Encyclopedia of Mass Media and Society. Online. Available at https://sk.sagepub.com/reference/the-sage-encyclopedia-of-mass-media-and-society/i5623.xml 
  • Rich, E., Lewis, S., Lupton, D. and Miah, A. (2020) Digital Health Generation? Young People’s Use of ‘Healthy Lifestyle’ Technologies. Bath: University of Bath, UK. Available at Available at https://www.digitalhealthgeneration.net/final-report
  • Rasmussen, M.L, Southerton, C., Fela, G.. Marshall, D., Rasmussen, M.L, Cover, R., and Aggleton, P. (2020) ‘Playing recognition politics: queer theoretical reflections on LGBTQ youth social policy in Australia in the 1980s and 1990s’ Archives of Sexual Behavior, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01751-6 

Other Publications

  • Watson, A. So Fi Zine edition #7. Published August 21, 2020. 
  • Watson, A. Into the Sea, Leiden: Brill. [Novel] Published June 4, 2020

Workshops and Presentations

In June, Marianne gave a keynote lecture to graduate students at the IT University of Copenhagen enrolled in a special course called ‘Research Interrupted’. Marianne’s talk, ‘The pandemic pivot: Re-imagining relationality and physicality in unfolding and uncertain research contexts’ addressed strategies for adapting social research during pandemic conditions.

In August , Deborah shared an overview of early findings from her project examining Australians’ experiences of COVID in a seminar hosted by the Centre for Health and Social Research (19 August 2020). She also gave the Wellness + Society plenary address at Sorbonne University, Paris in September titled ‘ COVID life narratives: a sociomaterial approach’ (4 September 2020).

Ash, Marianne and Deborah participated in the “Living In, With and Beyond the ‘Smart Home’” symposium hosted by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making in September. Marianne shared her paper co-authored with Deborah titled, ‘This is where I come to breathe’: The unexpected affects and affordances of exercising at home. Ash presented, ‘From workplaces to smart/home work spaces: Insights into the affective and requisitional presence of domestic digital technologies during COVID-19’ a paper co-authored with Deborah and Mike Michaels from the University of Exeter, UK.

Ash has also been busy with her involvement in TASA and sharing her passion for sociological fiction and zine making through the following events.

  • Sociological Fiction. Anthropology and Sociology Seminar Series, University of Western Australia. 28 August, 2020. 
  • Zines for Data Justice. Ida B. Wells Data Justice Lab, Princeton University. 31 July, 2020  
  • TASA Rapid Peer Support Session. The Australian Sociological Association. 4 June, 2020.

Media Appearances

  • Deborah was quoted in a Sydney Morning Herald article on Australians’ experiences of COVID-19, 31 May 2020
  • Deborah was also quoted in an ABC News Online article on wellness influencers and conspiracy theories, 16 June 2020
  • An article in news.com.au featured Deborah’s research on Australians’ experiences of COVID-19 in August
  • Clare Southerton was interviewed for SBS Radio for a piece titled, ‘Why are COVID-19 infections surging among young people?’ 6 August 2020 

COVID-19 and the myth of the digital ‘shift’

Photo by Allie on Unsplash

Clare Southerton

After the COVID-19 pandemic had changed the way many researchers live and work, I started to see a lot of questions and discussion on social media within the academic community about taking research ‘online’ because it could no longer be conducted face-to-face. This is a bit curious because we’re having these conversations on social media platforms, using smartphones and computers, connected via the internet. I have a feeling we’ve missed the whole ‘taking this online’ moment…

But I understand what people are talking about – there are lots of researchers who want to do research using digital tools or research on digital communities, now that they can’t do ‘traditional’ research IRL. COVID-19 restrictions have completely upended academic life as we know it, leaving researchers scrambling to find alternative ways to do research.

And I also understand the frustration of internet scholars who have spent years developing digital methods and theorising digital sociality only to have the platforms and technologies we’ve long invested ourselves in become a hasty stand-in to replace face-to-face methods. This can present the digital as a kind of ‘next best thing’ for physically co-present interactions and neglects the complex conditions of these communities that exist in their own right. There’s also a long history of digital interactions being unfavourably compared with face-to-face interaction, and digital social researchers have often attempted to interrogate the assumption that in-person interactions are more ‘real’.

Um yes Dad, it is hard. It’s a real job.

Perhaps we’re all a little extra sensitive because we’ve also spent years trying to convince more traditionally minded scholars (and also our parents) that our research is legitimate. I’m sure every internet scholar has had a senior colleague make us feel our research was silly. It’s been a long struggle for social media scholars to have their work taken seriously, when the more readily touchable, tangible and ‘observable’ so-called “real” world is problematically positioned as a more legitimate source of knowledge.

All this said, I don’t believe we as digital social researchers should be gatekeepers at this time. Digital methods are a complex and ever changing field. We ourselves are always learning and getting it wrong, disagreeing with each other and figuring out how to we can be better scholars. What makes digital methods so exciting is that things change so quickly, new platforms emerge and old platforms disappear – new methods have to be created and changed and adapted to keep up. There have already been some great efforts made to help each other in this space. Deborah Lupton’s crowdsourced Google Doc – Doing fieldwork in a pandemic is a rich resource that provides a fantastic place to start with so many great recommended readings from researchers who are familiar with different digital methods. At the Vitalities Lab we’ve also been making our Breaking Methods Webinar Series on YouTube and hopefully these are helpful for anyone interested in experimental and digital methods. We all have to learn to work together and help each other, especially at times like this where research is under pressure from all sides.

The Unfamiliar Intimacy of the Face Mask During COVID-19

Marianne Clark and Clare Southerton

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds in devastating and unpredictable ways, the use of face masks (mandated and suggested) as a means to reduce the spread of the virus has gained attention in popular, media and political discourse, evoking (often heated) debates around how effective and necessary they are, and whether mask mandates infringe on civil liberties and rights.

Recently in NSW, as we watch with empathetic anxiety as our Victorian neighbours head into unprecedented social lock down conditions, mask use is being more strongly recommended than ever with both the NSW Premier and the Prime Minister posting pictures and messages to social media, strongly urging Australians to don masks in public spaces. 

Indeed, the face mask gives us a lot to think about. From a public health perspective, it is said to offer protection to others by limiting the distance and spread of droplets expelled through exhalation, speech, sneezing and coughing. Much has been written and debated about this, but, it has long been agreed upon that wearing a mask protects others, and recently evidence is mounting to suggest it protects the wearer as well.

Though the thrust of these debates largely focuses on whether masks do or do not ‘work’, there are also social, political and bodily dimensions of mask wearing (or not wearing) that merit attention. Over time, and in some situations, it may become an ordinary thing to wear a mask. Nevertheless the practice of wearing a mask requires some getting used to. It changes our bodily habits, takes on different meanings, and evokes physical and emotional responses from both those who choose (or are required to) wear a mask and those who choose not to. 

Photo by Marianne Clark

The pushback against wearing masks is complicated. It can be connected to people feeling their individual freedoms are being infringed upon. The backlash against mandatory masks by so-called ‘anti-maskers’ has been severe, with one woman who refused to wear a mask in Melbourne this week assaulting a police officer who questioned her. This phenomenon has a long history in other public health initiatives like the introduction of seatbelts and restrictions on substances, which over time have become normalised. 

Masks can also be experienced as physically uncomfortable, and not only for people with pre-existing conditions that may be impacted by the mask. Masks are worn very close to the body and given that they obscure part of the face, they alter our speech and expression and change the way we breathe. Ordinary social interaction, which often involves a lot of facial cues, must be renegotiated. 

Wearing a mask also draws our attention to bodies and breath in new ways. The experience of wearing a mask can be confronting as we are suddenly up close and personal with bodily functions and performances that we don’t usually feel or see or even notice. We suddenly feel our breath materialize as condensation on our skin, we can smell it as we speak, working to project our voice through layers of fabric. The practice of breathing itself becomes more explicitly noticed and felt. At the same time, as we wear masks to contain aerosols and droplets expelled by our breath, we are reminded of the capacities of breath to move through space in unpredictable ways, to reach and touch and potentially harm others, to spread an unseen virus. Suddenly breath is equated with risk and we become preoccupied with how far it can travel, how long it lingers, how might this change when we are indoors and outdoors? When walking or running? 

Photo by Raquel García on Unsplash

Masks mitigate this risk to varying degrees, depending on their design, material make-up, and context and style of usage.  In order to understand how to best protect ourselves from the virus, we may find ourselves reading  scientific information more abundantly and carefully, taking care to understand the details about breath and the properties of certain fibres of fabric that offer the best protection. Yet we filter this information through our embodied and lived experiences.

Thinking about breath and face masks in this context highlights the messiness and leakiness of social exchanges in new ways. We are connected with one another more deeply and intricately than we often imagine, even those we don’t know and who we do not visibly touch. COVID-19 has underlined how our bodily actions and movements, even everyday ones, can directly impact others in ways we may not have previously imagined. Our breath is capable of touching (and impacting )others, even though it is unfelt and unseen, senses we usually rely on as indicators and proof of the ‘real’. By thinking about breath and face masks in these conditions, the collective aspects of our social lives are illuminated in new ways.

  Photo by Bára Buri on Unsplash

Science and Technology scholar Jon Agar argues that there is an ‘inner ring’ of technologies that we hold close to our bodies, such as clothing, shoes and glasses. More recently, this inner ring has also come to include things like smartphones and wearable devices like Fitbits or smart watches. These objects become ‘domesticated’ over long periods of time and they become intimately connected with our bodies. We no longer constantly feel our clothing against our skin or our smartphone in our pocket, instead these sensations become part of our everyday sense of our bodies.

Face masks and their (contested) emergence during the pandemic offer us an opportunity to think about our intimacy with objects, given that their integration into our intimate ‘inner circle’ has been abrupt, and largely imposed. Yesterday, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian suggested we keep masks in cars and our pockets, places very familiar and deeply integrated with our daily embodied lives. Masks suddenly ‘live’ alongside other objects like smartphones that have established themselves as essential over years rather than days. 

For now, as recommendations for mask use become stronger in NSW and other places in Australia each day, some people are shopping online for aesthetically appealing masks, some are stashing surgical masks in their cars, pockets, and purses, some are engaging in new DIY projects, creating and sewing masks for themselves and others and distributing them for free to assist those unable to afford or access masks.

Over time they become more familiar and consequently perhaps more comfortable.  Through trial and error we find masks that work for our lives; nose wire prevents glasses fogging up, patterned fabric makes us feel better about wearing them, some fabrics and elastics are softer than others, some are better suited to smaller or larger faces. Though their entrance into our lives was abrupt, the slower processes by which we come to know and become comfortable with the objects that are most intimately close with our bodies are beginning to emerge in our developing relationship with face masks.

Friendship by Design: Kawaii Villagers in Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Megan Rose

Why has Animal Crossing: New Horizons been so popular during COVID-19 lockdown, and are the cute characters featured in the game so popular? My research at the Vitalities Lab explores this question with an ethnographic study of online Animal Crossing fandom communities and interviews with players. As a specialist in kawaii (cuteness), I’m interested in finding out how users relate to characters in game, their islands and each other through Animal Crossings’ kawaii design and interface. Emerging research has sought to capture the affective qualities of digital media, in particular its capacity to evoke feelings, experiences and decrease and increase capacities to act. In this blog post, we will be thinking about the kawaii characters that populate the world of Animal Crossing.

An image from Megan's Animal Crossing game, showing her character (left) and a villager who is a dog (right) among peach trees
An image from Megan’s Animal Crossing game, showing her character (left) and a villager (right) among peach trees

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a game released for the Nintendo Switch in March 2020 when many regions across the world, such as Australia, America, Canada and Europe began to practice social distancing in response to COVID-19. The game, made in Japan (released in-country under the title Doubutsu no Mori), is designed to be kawaii in order construct a safe and playful environment for users. Players befriend and form relationships with kawaii animal ‘villagers’ who populate the game space known as an ‘island’. You may have seen in the news reports of people having weddings, meetings and dates in-game. While this has provided a fun way to connect in stressful times, I’m interested in the way in which players relate to their digital animal friends who inhabit the island.

To enhance their experience of their island, players are encouraged to bond with the local villagers. A selection of 10 villagers move in from a random selection of almost 400 unique characters. While some players don’t mind who moves in, others actively seek to curate who lives on their island through purchasing characters via amiibo trading cards, visiting friends islands where their preferred villager lives and harassing ones they find “ugly” until they move out. Typically, the more kawaii a villager the more they are sought after by players.

There’s something “magic” about the way the animal villagers pull you into a suspension of disbelief. The villagers are friendly, missing you when you don’t log in to see how they are. They go about their daily lives shopping, watering your plants, exercising and more. In other words, the villagers are designed to elicit care giving behaviours by following the same design principles as virtual pets including realistic motion, interactivity, autonomy, promotion of subjective reality and personal attachment. By following codes and algorithmic parameters, these furry little friends illustrate what Pettman (2009) has described as ‘love as technology’. Can love be created and maintained through design? The playful nature of human and more-than-human relationships in the Animal Crossing points to the potential for digital technologies to augment the subjectivities of digital objects.

An image from Megan's Animal Crossing game, showing a villager who is an eagle (left) and her character (right) sitting together at night
An image from Megan’s Animal Crossing game, showing a villager (left) and her character (right) sitting together at night

The kawaii design of these characters is also significant in shaping the way players relate to them. Studies in Japan and overseas have found that we are drawn to kawaii objects as something playful, something we can empathise with and sometimes needing our attention and care. Kawaii objects are also a way for adults to express creativity as a form of self-care. Other famous kawaii characters, such as Rilakkuma and Hello Kitty have been identified as valuable to adults as a means of finding comfort during instability and as a means of expressing care. We still don’t understand everything about kawaii objects and why they elicit these responses in us, and so Animal Crossing is a great opportunity to think about this.

But of course there are other appealing aspects of the game, including the customisation and curation of your personal island, the peaceful activities and pastimes you can carry out like fishing and gardening, and the ability to play with other online. I’ll be talking about these in later blogs!

Dr Megan Rose is an associated researcher at the Vitalities Lab, an adjunct associate lecturer in Sociology and Anthropology, Social Research and Policy at UNSW Sydney and a researcher at ANROWS.  You can follow her Animal Crossing research via her Twitter and the Vitalities Lab blog.

New Vitalities Lab webinar series on innovative methods

The Vitalities Lab has launched a new webinar series involving short-form presentations (slides plus voice-over). These webinars are designed to be clear explanations about using innovative methods and analysing the materials generated. They can be used in undergraduate and postgraduate methods teaching or by any interested researcher.

The ‘Breaking Methods’ series can be found on YouTube here. The first four videos explain how to go about using story completion, map making, storyboards and TikTok content for social research.

You can subscribe to the channel to receive updates as we upload new webinars across a range of exciting methods.