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.

What COVID-19 can remind us of (but that we know from other events)

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Jens Lindberg

I did not plan to write about COVID-19. There have been so many texts at this point on the different trails of destruction the pandemic will leave behind, and how it will change things forever. But then again, looking back in history, writers will probably be right. So, maybe I can at least use COVID-19 as a reminder about how other, less brutal events, work to change the ideas and practices of healthcare?

While out on a walk the other day, I was listening to show ‘The Philosophical Room’ that is airing on Swedish public radio. Being an arena for popular philosophical discussion and debate, they were touching on the subject of COVID-19. More particularly, the two invited philosophers were talking about a conflict of values that the pandemic could pose in Swedish healthcare. The main topic of the discussion was how to prioritise different patients due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

I am the first to admit that my use of COVID-19 as an example is a bit over the top. Having said that, I believe that COVID-19 really is a timely example on how the ideas and practices of healthcare are rearticulated – however often by less dramatic events. In Sweden and other countries, there are policies about what healthcare should be to individuals as well as society as a whole. Swedish healthcare, is guided by three pivotal principles on ethics.

Just like the philosophers on the show described to listeners, these are applied to assure the equality between different groups in society; aged, classed, gendered, etc. More specifically, all individual (Swedish) subjects are given equal value through these principles and thus, all patients have the legal right to get good care. What the guests on the radio show added though, was that due to the potential influx of patients because of COVID-19, what healthcare is and should be to subjects, might have to be renegotiated. Should younger people be cared for on the expense of elders? Or should doctors, based on utilitarian ideas, be saved instead of other groups that in the context of the pandemic, appear to be less important for society?

In the last decades, there has been a general move towards personalisation, individualisation and marketisation in western healthcare. Nordic welfare states like Sweden are no exceptions. However, when listening to the radio show, the forecasts of COVID-19’s effects, we are presented with a different discourse on healthcare. In the shows’ discussion, the philosophical underpinnings of healthcare were moved from an individualistic understanding of health and care, to a more collective approach – making care, health and ultimately death, more of a communal effort.

Photo by Arseny Togulev on Unsplash

This ideological probing is not only evident among professional philosophers on radio shows, but also in media more generally. Both Swedish and Australian news media have regular pieces on how healthcare should be managed in times of COVID-19, often with collective calls to ‘flatten the curve!’ and sometimes with nationalistic under tones.

That phenomena like healthcare are renegotiated is not a new idea. It is a basic theoretical tenet in social constructivist ontologies that cultural phenomena are continually rearticulated, but also that the social is inherently political. What healthcare ‘is’, and correspondingly, how it is enacted in policy, organisations, among professionals and patients, varies depending on ideological, historical and material conditions. What COVID-19 can help remind us, and what I hope will help make my use of the pandemic as an example seem more sensible, is the constructed and ideological character of healthcare.

More importantly though, given the potential consequences for elders and non-doctors, the pandemic could also help restate what we know from other ideological turns, like personalisation, individualisation and marketisation – that they tend to have very tangible effects for everyday users. So while COVID-19 might change things forever, it is still important to peruse less dramatic renegotiations, and explore how they affect different groups in healthcare.

Jens Lindberg is a Research Fellow at the Department of Social Work, Umeå University, Sweden. His research interests are welfare organisations, sexual violence and digitalisation. He is a visiting researcher at the Vitalities Lab. However, due to the massive bush fires in south east Australia followed by the global outbreak of COVID-19, his research visit has turned into a year of self-isolation.

Vitalities Lab Newsletter Number 8

Tuesday 19 May, 2020

Like many people around the world, all of us in the Vitalities Lab have been adjusting to the ever-changing ‘new normal’. We’re all currently working from home using a range of tools to keep in touch and connected during this time of isolation (you can read about our digital workspace.) Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, it has impacted so many aspects of daily life.

Vitalities Lab Postdocs document working from home (left Marianne, top right Ash, bottom right Clare)

As social scientists, lab members have started thinking about some of these impacts and writing about them on our blog. We’ve been thinking about the popularity of home fitness and the emphasis governing bodies continue to place on physical exercise during the pandemic; the role social networking apps like TikTok may play in sharing information about COVID-19; as well as the ways digital technologies and data analytics have been used to monitor people’s movements under what we could call ‘digital quarantine’. We also documented our own COVID-19 experiences using a visual diary.

During this time of significant disruption to academic work, there has also been a lot of amazing collaboration. Deborah created a ‘Doing Fieldwork in a Pandemic’ – a crowdsourced resource which has received worldwide use (recently translated into French!) and compiles creative ideas about how to do qualitative research in physically distanced ways. In addition, Deborah also compiled some COVID-related open-access resources for social researchers.

Despite the pandemic, things are busy at the Lab and we’re working on lots of different projects – many now adapted for the new COVID world we’re living in. A list of our current projects is below:

Vitalities Lab members proudly displaying our lab branded keep cups in happier pre-COVID times
  • ‘Australians’ Experiences of the COVID-19 Crisis: A Social Research Study’ (Deborah Lupton and Sophie Lewis)
  • Special section of Health Sociology Review on Sociology and COVID-19 (edited by Deborah Lupton)
  • The Coronavirus Crisis: Social Perspectives – an edited book by Deborah Lupton with Karen Willis to be published by Routledge
  • ‘Living with Personal Data: Australians’ Experiences and Practices’ (Deborah Lupton, Ash Watson and Mike Michael) – one new focus of this project is people’s experiences of using digital devices in the home under lockdown conditions
  • ‘Reading Zines: A Cultural Sociological Study’ (Ash Watson and Andy Bennett) – including changes in creative practices and community during COVID-19
  • ‘Mapping Queer Histories, Designing Queer Community: A Sociological Study of Queering the Map’ (Ash Watson, Emma Kirby, Brady Robards, Brendan Churchill, Lucas LaRochelle)
  • Entangled Sporting Bodies: A Lively Introduction to Feminist New Materialisms: a book in progress by Marianne with Holly Thorpe and Julie Brice from University of Waikato
  • ‘Movement and Meaning during COVID-19: Australians’ Experiences of Physical Activity and Uses of Space and Place during the COVID Crisis’. (Marianne Clark)
  • ‘Lipsyncing for our Lives?: TikTok, Health and (Mis)information during the COVID-19 Pandemic’ (Clare Southerton)
  • ‘Digital Parenting and the Deployment and Disruption of Shame Online’ (Marianne Clark, Clare Southerton and Vicki Harman)
  • ‘Time in the Time of Corona’ – a collaborative writing project (Ash Waston, Marianne Clark, Clare Southerton and Katrine Melgaard Kjær)

New academic publications

Deborah’s new book with Zeena Feldman

Other publications

Watson, A. (2020) Moths. Baby Teeth Journal. [Poetry]


Associate Professor Caroline Lenette (left) and Natalie Nesvaderani (right) at the Decolonizing Visual Methods workshop

In February Ash co-ran an invited workshop ‘Affect, Knowledge and Embodiment: A Critical Feminist Arts/Research Workshop’ at the University of Melbourne with Dr Laura Rodriguez Castro and Samantha Trayhurn – you can read more about this workshop on our blog.

The Lab was also fortunate enough to host a workshop from a visiting PhD student Natalie Nesvaderani from Cornell University on ‘Decolonizing Visual Methods with Displaced and Refugee Youth’ on 9th March. You can read more about Natalie’s work here.

On 10th March Marianne and Clare ran a movement-based workshop at UNSW called ‘Moving Data Workshop: Exploring the Sensory Dimensions of Research Practice’, involving creative and physical activities.

Our Moving Data Workshop at the Vitalities Lab, UNSW, pre-COVID

On the 1st April Deborah was an invited speaker for a webinar for QSR International on the topic of ‘Conducting Qualitative Fieldwork During COVID-19’ (slides available online).

Ash was a panellist in a HDR seminar focusing on online interviews and focus groups, which was hosted online by the Centre for Social Research in Health and Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW on April 22.

Deborah was also the speaker for a webinar on ‘More-than-Human Methods and Theories for COVID Worlds’ at Griffith University’s Centre for Social and Cultural Research.

Media appearances

  • Deborah was quoted in a Sydney Morning Herald article on COVID-19 apps, 21 April 2020.
  • Oprah Magazine quoted Deborah in an article on femtech in the May issue 2020.

The Vitalities Lab is led by SHARP Professor Deborah Lupton, Centre for Social Research in Health and Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney. Team members are Dr Ashleigh Watson, Dr Clare Southerton and Dr Marianne Clark. Further details here

Our Digital Workspace

Over the past few weeks, the Vitalities Lab has gone digital. Working from home due to the COVID-19 lockdown, we’ve slid (not without friction) into new workweek routines — progressing existing research projects, commencing new data collection, and collaborating in our analysis and writing.

Like many are doing with family, friends, and colleagues, we video-call twice per week to update each other on our projects, brainstorm new developments and problem solve hurdles. We’re primarily engaged in research across topics of people’s understandings of personal data and technology use, health information sharing on viral digital platforms like TikTok, and current barriers and facilitators of physical activity and movement. To keep existing projects running and kick our new ones off, we’ve shifted our data collection online, for instance conducting ethnographic interviews via ‘digital home tours’ and doing ‘lively’ observation of fast-moving digital platforms.

Clare’s home office with co-workers

Our Faculty is using Microsoft Teams, to keep people up to date with quickly-changing information and service accessibility. As a Lab, we’re also using Slack, to keep in touch more regularly and informally — sharing articles, tweets, memes and videos that capture our attention throughout the day; checking in with each other and how we’re ‘really’ coping; and, perhaps most fruitfully, working together via simultaneous writing sessions.

Ash’s makeshift work desk

We three postdocs (Ash, Clare and Marianne) do a number of pomodoros throughout the week, typically when we’re writing: we chat about what we’re working on and what we’re trying to achieve; we start the timer together and work on our separate tasks until the timer beeps; and we check in again afterwards, sharing in our progress and — more importantly — our roadblocks and dead-ends. Rinse and repeat.

With another colleague from the IT University of Copenhagen, Katrine Meldgaard Kjær — who recently visited the Vitalities Lab in Sydney, but had to return home early due to the pandemic — we have also been collaborating on some writing in a shared Google Doc. Together we’re free-writing through our current experiences, feelings, challenges and wants as COVID-19 unfolds — anything that strikes us, and feels good to write down. Our writing blurs together in this document. We don’t label our entries or have a set plan for when and what to write. It’s morphing into a collective/collaborative/cathartic/creative piece that documents our changing experiences of this time.

Marianne’s work from home set up

Between the twinned discourses of productivity and pushback dominating academic Twitter at this time, it’s obvious how such panopticonic technology disciplines us to continue to produce despite the circumstances. Aware of this, we are trying to make use of these technologies in ways that resist the ‘and punish’ part of this Foucauldian setup.

Even though we’re usually focused on separate tasks, these have relatively quickly helped us (re)establish the sense of being part of a team that we’re used to, working in a shared office space or just being on campus around other people. And this feels especially valuable as ECRs, as we’re translating the skills of being a student or junior staffer in a cohort to learning on the job greater independence as researchers, and the value of work community.

We really want to stress that, for us, the value of these things is much more than how they facilitate ~productivity~ (the keyword of choice for many of these digital workplace tools). What they help us cultivate is co-presence: in Clare’s choice words, sometimes it’s accountability but sometimes it’s just not being someone working alone on their couch in their pjs. These are small things that, on reflection, would have made a lot of difference to the isolating and adrift stretches of being a PhD student and early ECR — they’re certainly helping us through now.


Reflecting on Our Zeal for Fitness in Times of Covid-19

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Marianne Clark

While perhaps not as essential as pasta or toilet paper, fitness gear such as skipping ropes and yoga mats are flying off store shelves during the Covid-19 crisis. A recent personal search led to countless niche online-fitness stores before finally locating a moderately-priced skipping rope available for purchase. It had a few more bells and whistles than I needed, but I clicked ‘purchase’ in a panic before it disappeared from my cart. This phenomenon is a result of current social distancing guidelines that are prompting both committed fitness enthusiasts and those  looking to work off pent-up energy to find new ways, and spaces, in which to move. While this can seem like a relatively trivial concern in the face of a pandemic, social response to the altered and restricted opportunities for exercise is fascinating to observe. Indeed, physical activity is an enduring mainstay of popular and public health discourse and its physical and mental health benefits are well established. Fitness is also the darling of social media platforms where the latest Pilates/Barre/HITT workouts are often celebrated alongside images of buff bodies. However, these conversations don’t always capture the multiple meanings bodily movement can hold for people and often overlook the complex social and economic conditions that enable or constrain participation.

Currently, outdoor exercise remains a permissible activity in New South Wales as long as social distancing guidelines are complied with. In fact, governing bodies and expert voices emphasise  the importance of remaining active for both our physical and mental health and provide tips on keeping active even in times of pandemic. However, usual options for participation are limited. Currently in Australia community centres and fitness facilities, which often act as important social spaces, are closed. So are many public parks and outdoor gyms. Incidental activity we may usually accrue from walking or cycling to work, the bus stop or to the local shops has also been dramatically decreased.

As a result, our relationships with movement, bodies (our own and those of others) and space and place are changing. In some cases, this is prompting creative new engagements with space and the outdoors. Anecdotal conversations with colleagues, friends, and family suggest both avid exercisers and ‘newbies’ alike are seeking and creating new opportunities to move. For some this entails makeshift gyms in garages and backyards if they are fortunate enough to have them. Others have dusted off  bikes with oil-parched chains and taken to zooming around traffic-calmed streets. Others pace their neighbourhood streets or brave the occasional run, veering around others’ bodies in new choreographies of space. For many, these movement opportunities are important ways to break up the day and provide a form of emotional and physical reprieve from the omni-present worries of these times.

The author repurposes her less-than-glamorous garage to create an improvised workout space.

Zumba, Zoom and The Virtual Fitness Wave

Perhaps unsurprisingly, digital spaces have also emerged as imperative for those looking to replace their favourite bootcamp class or simply looking for distraction. A cacophony of online offerings have taken over the interwebs,  ranging from beginner dance classes, a plethora of yoga and Pilates classes offered by well-intended individual instructors and boutique studios, and sleekly-produced boot camp classes offered by industry heavy hitters such as Les Mills.  And it’s not just adults being targeted, online phenomomon Joe Wicks has been making waves in the UK with his high-energy and fun-loving approach to physical activity for kids who find themselves unable to run off steam in the school yard or Phys. Ed. class, with parents often joining in. Additionally, digital platforms such as Zoom are providing a lifeline for people like professional dancers and athletes, for whom maintaining physical conditioning is key to their livelihood.

There is much to applaud in these efforts. The lack of paywalls on many virtual fitness classes means people who may not otherwise have access due to the prohibitive costs of gym memberships have one barrier removed.  Online offerings may also provide an outlet for those with fitness expertise and instruction skills to contribute to a community of sorts. Taking part in ‘new’ forms of movement might facilitate enjoyable physical experiences and allow people to notice new bodily capacities and expressions — perhaps those parents jumping around with Joe Wicks or creating TikTok dances with their kids will be pleasantly surprised by how good it feels to exert.

However, the influx of online resources also presents questions about who these resources do and do not benefit.  Additionally, while the vast array of online options can be helpful for those already familiar with a yoga mat and with a penchant for burpees, they can also feel a little overwhelming. Many of us are working from home right now and the energetic demands of caring for family members, maintaining some semblance of normalcy in daily routines, and trying to remain productive and emotionally well in such precarious times means we don’t always have the time or energy to exercise. Nor do we necessarily need something to add to our ‘to do’ list.  Furthermore, not everyone wants to tune into online boot camps: some may take greater solace in artistic endeavours, gardening or video games if they have the time and means to do so.  

Importantly, our movement experiences and opportunities are always shaped by factors such as where we live, our financial resources and circumstance, work, parenting and care obligations, and our bodily abilities and capacities to name a few. These varying conditions are what create health inequities and mean it is always easier for some people to be active — and therefore to access the associated physical and mental health benefits — than others. Such issues of equity come into greater focus in the conditions of Covid-19. For example, many Australians do not have reliable access to the internet, to enjoyable or safe outdoor spaces to move in, and/or may experience precarious or unsafe living conditions that Covid-19 social distancing conditions only intensify. While the conditions of Covid-19 place barriers and constraints on the lives of many, these are not felt or distributed equally. In some ways, this zeal for everyone to get and remain active for wellbeing assumes that everyone CAN be active, and risks minimizing the very real and devastating reasons for which they cannot.

Indeed, the importance of movement for our mental health seems to be in clearer focus than ever, and this offers many positives: we may begin to think more carefully about what getting up and moving does for our relationships with others, our neighbourhoods and environments as well as our moods. We may begin to expand the broader social dialogue around physical activity that tends to frame it as something we do to reduce health risks and built aesthetic bodies and instead notice in new ways how our bodies benefit from movement; how moving more or less impacts the way we feel and how those experiences aren’t always best explained through – nor can they reduced to — discourses of health and beauty.

However, in our current zeal to promote – and perform – various forms of exercise to maintain wellbeing, it’s important to consider how the vast messaging around fitness and physical activity acknowledges (or fails to acknowledge) the diversity of conditions in which people are living. This is particularly important in times of crisis when mental and physical health are already precarious. In times when nothing is at it was, we, (researchers, pedagogues, journalists, social media influencers, physical educators and fitness instructors ) have an opportunity, perhaps a responsibility, to think how the very taken for granted ways we often think about health and exercise, and the social evaluations often attached to these behaviour, might be shifted. For example, we might ask:

  • How can we — especially those working in the area of health and physical activity promotion — elaborate our thinking to recognize the specific ways barriers to physical activity play out in people’s daily lives and shape their embodied experiences of health?
  • How might virtual and online offerings address some of these barriers and what barriers remain?
  • How do we harness this time of overall disruption to imagine how such barriers might be addressed and to shake up our thinking about the meanings of physical activity beyond physical indices of health and the pursuit of aesthetic bodies?

COVID-19 Visual Diary

Vitalities Lab team members have documented public spaces in their local areas (eastern suburbs of Sydney and inner south Canberra) to record their experiences of living in COVID worlds of physical isolation. These are the new ways of living and engaging with other humans, place, space and things in the highly restricted conditions of physical isolation to which we have had to adjust in recent weeks.

Click on an image for the image description.

COVID society – some resources I have put together for social researchers

This Sociological Life


Over the past fortnight, I’ve put together a few open-access resources concerning what an initial agenda for COVID-related social research could be and research methods for conducting fieldwork in the COVID world.

Links are below:

Conducting  Fieldwork in a Pandemic (Google Doc crowd-sourced resource)

Social Research for a COVID and post-COVID World: An Initial Agenda (blog post)

Conducting Qualitative Fieldwork During COVID-19 (PowerPoint slides) (Webinar presentation with voice and slides)

Photo credit: Daniel Tafjord on Unsplash

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Can lip-syncing save lives?

Viral health information on TikTok

Clare Southerton

With the rapid rise of short-form video-sharing platform TikTok, health professionals have started mobilising the popularity of the site to provide users insight into their work conditions as well as offer health advice. In the wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis, social media has played a particularly central role in the spread of information, with the situation changing rapidly and events unfolding on a global scale. Health-related content on TikTok is diverse, ranging from everyday health issues, such as psychologists making ‘TikToks’ offering tips to deal with anxiety, to content that responds to emerging crises like COVID-19, with Italian doctors offering glimpses of their everyday lives and organisations like the Red Cross demonstrating proper hand hygiene. Despite ongoing controversies about misinformation, it’s important to acknowledge the positive potential for health information dissemination that TikTok presents, especially with reports suggesting that its popularity is increasing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

TikTok’s significant reach

There’s no doubt that Chinese-owned TikTok, known in China as Douyin, is now a major player on the global social media market. In January this year, it was the most downloaded (non-game) app worldwide across both the Apple App Store and Google Play. TikTok’s 800 million active monthly users create 15-second videos set to music, with lipsyncing and dancing being popular content. TikTok is oriented around humour and strongly focused on virality, with the app being characterised by a constant stream of prank videos and short, video punchlines. The app has significant potential to reach young people, with a largely preteen user base, especially given that recent reports in the US suggest many teens consider their internet use ‘near-constant’.

Health professionals take to TikTok

It might be surprising given the youthful nature of the platform, that doctors, nurses and health organisations are taking to TikTok to spread health messages. Yet, health-focused content on the app is popular, ranging from more-traditional informational content such as medical professionals using the short-form videos to explain specific concepts, conditions or practices. For example, a doctor might explain what to expect at your first pap smear exam or a mental health worker might offer a tool to help deal with impulses to self-harm. These demonstrations would rely on short explanations and perhaps be set to music in keeping with the usual style on the platform. While the health professionals on TikTok do draw on their authority as qualified medical practitioners, often appearing in their scrubs, stethoscopes slung around their necks, or in other distinctive workplace attire, the style of many informative TikToks are informal, often taking the format of ‘did you know?’.

The platform-specific conditions of TikTok, oriented around play and virality have facilitated the development of a genre of health-focused TikToks that are funny and informational. These videos might feature doctors and nurses offering behind-the-scenes views of their work in hospitals, highlighting the more light-hearted aspects of their often emotionally and physically demanding work. For example, medical staff have filmed videos of themselves dancing in various parts of the hospitals they work in or made videos mocking the most unreasonable requests patients have made while in their care.

Photo by Kon Karampelas on Unsplash

COVID-19: potential and controversies

As the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has unfolded, TikTok has been criticised for failing to control misinformation in videos about the outbreak on its app, with some videos uploaded featuring users fraudulently posing as doctors or COVID-19 patients, or spread conspiracy theories about the virus. In response, TikTok has partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) to produce content with experts from the organisation for the platform. The WHO verified TikTok account shares informational TikToks and runs live streams to answer questions about the virus. The social media giant also pledged $10 million (USD) to the WHO to help fight the spread of COVID-19. TikTok also joined forces with Microsoft and Facebook to help the WHO with a global hackathon to try to find software solutions for the pandemic. Alongside this partnership, other organisations like the Red Cross and the UN have recently joined the platform to share COVID-19 related health advice with videos on handwashing and tips for staying healthy at home.

TikTok viral trends have also played a role in the dissemination of health information and encouraging social distancing measures as COVID-19 has become a global crisis. TikTok enlisted one of their most popular content creators, Charli D’Amelio – a fifteen-year-old with more than 41 million followers on the site – to create a viral dance to encourage her young fans to stay at home and practice social distancing to reduce the spread of the virus. The #distancedance original video has over 170 million views, with millions of users creating their own dance videos.

Content from these health organisations and TikTok partnerships now dominates COVID-19 related search results, which is a welcome relief from controversial ‘corona challenge’ videos that had previously been popular on the site. These viral videos, which involved users licking toilet seats and door handles, have resulted in the hospitalisation of at least one person and drawn criticism to the platform. While TikTok’s response to COVID-19 is, in part, also a reaction to criticism of the site hosting controversial virus-related content, this is only the latest in a series of controversies to hit the social media platform when it comes to health information.

In July last year, nursing staff in the Sick and Newborn Care Unit (SNCU) in Odisha faced disciplinary action, India after they filmed a TikTok at work that featured newborn babies. Then, in January of this year, a US nurse, known on TikTok as Nurse Holly, found herself at the centre of an internet scandal after she posted a video for her 1.7 million followers that advised that abstinence was the best way to prevent STIs. Another nurse, Danyelle Rose, also faced backlash for a TikTok she created in which she made fun of patients who exaggerate their pain. In the wake of these controversies, The Association for Healthcare Social Media (AHSM) issued a statement concerning ‘social media behaviour that may perpetuate health misinformation’ and warned that’ ‘the perception of a fragmenting medical community may further drive distrust in the medical profession’. Some scholars have even expressed concern that patient trust could be eroded with the proliferation of informal information.

Navigating pitfalls by understanding the platform

Medical professionals who are active on TikTok or other social media platforms have spoken out in the wake of the backlash, emphasising their experiences on the sites are largely about connecting with the community, sharing evidence-based information and addressing misinformation.

What we see with the #distancedance is an effective mobilising of the core elements of the platform, the playful affordances that communicate effectively with the predominantly young user-base. The message is simple, telling users to stay inside. The engagement of an influencer is an important strategy that sidesteps some of the tricky concerns about maintaining professionalism I’ve identified. This is not to say that medical professionals can’t draw on the elements of dance, lip-syncing and meme-making that are the dominant language of TikTok. In fact, many of the health organisations on the platform do engage these strategies very successfully. However, recent controversies show that health workers do take a risk when they engage on TikTok in a professional capacity. When medical professionals invoke their authority on TikTok this extends expectations of professionalism into a space characterised by a quest for viral hits and this may, at times, be incompatible with their intentions to spread evidence-based health messages.

Though it is a difficult task, at times, to strike a balance between entertainment and information, there has never been a more important time to think more creatively about health promotion. Despite the Australian Prime Minister labelling a lot of the COVID19 information social media “gossip and nonsense”, it is clear from the significant number of medical professionals and health organisations engaged on these platforms that any assertion that expertise cannot be engaged in these places is false. The rapidly changing pandemic we are currently facing is a problem that demands diverse and innovative public health solutions. Though a 15-second dance video might not be a familiar format to get the message out, the time is now to engage. After all, as we can see from TikTok, health information circulates within these platforms, only increasing during global health events like COVID-19. The question is whether health professionals and organisations contribute to the conversation.

Digital Food Cultures book now published

This Sociological Life

Digital Food Cultures cover

My latest book, Digital Food Cultures, co-edited with Zeena Feldman, has now been published with Routledge, as part of their Critical Food Studies Series. The abstracts and authors of each chapter are listed below. A book preview on Google Books is available here.

1. Understanding Digital Food Cultures: Deborah Lupton

This chapter introduces the book and provides a comprehensive overview of previous scholarship on digital food cultures. The five main themes into which the twelve other chapters are grouped are identified: bodies and affects; healthism and spirituality; expertise and influencers; spatiality and politics; and food futures.

2. Self-Tracking and Digital Food Cultures: Surveillance and Self-Representation of the Moral ‘Healthy’ Body: Rachael Kent

No longer defined in opposition to illness, ‘good’ health as representative of lifestyle correction has become a central discourse in international health promotion strategies for many decades.  This neoliberal discourse positions the citizen as a consumer…

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