Author: Pauline Garvey, Department of Anthropology in Maynooth University, the National University of Ireland. Pauline is also a member of the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (‘ASSA’) team.
Fieldsite: A middle-class suburb on the northern side of Dublin city.
In his address to the nation on the 9pm news bulletin on 17th March, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar commented that this year’s St Patrick’s Day was ‘like no other’, where parades in towns and cities were cancelled, pubs were shut and celebrations confined to people’s homes. In an effort to introduce a degree of normalcy, the national broadcaster (RTE) showed short video clips of children parading in their back gardens waving flags, while other householders put ‘Happy St Patrick’s Day’ signs in kitchen windows for passing pedestrians. Social celebrations on this national holiday moved from the public arena of towns and cities to the private sphere of homes and gardens.
These are unsettling times and not surprisingly, in a situation where social distancing is enforced, online media has become the main site where people actually communicate. Whatsapp groups among family members, friends, work colleagues, school and sports’ groups were invigorated and the announcement of government measures sparked a flood of messages between people as they shared information, asked each other if the information they had received is correct or discussed plans for the care of relatives. Jokes, memes, gifs, news articles, videos and advice from purported medical professionals was (and still is) swapped, shared and commented upon. Often the same content circulated from one WhatsApp group to another, although very little of it was new. Arguably, most of the Covid-19 content that is passed between groups is composed of jokes, uplifting images, stories and funny videos.
Anthropologists have argued that here we can see one role of the media more generally. The activities of our daily lives maintain a sense of reliability and continuity, and these activities are managed through predictable order and taken-for-granted routines. According to the media scholar Roger Silverstone for example, the integration of television news bulletins provides a level of predictable routine that informs the audience of sources of anxiety while simultaneously offering reassurance that these dangers will be successfully combated.
WhatsApp is different in several interesting ways, however. Unlike news bulletins that ‘address the nation’, WhatsApp messaging provides a feeling of direct participation. Instead of posting or announcing or informing, on WhatsApp, people are speaking directly to known others, who often respond immediately, providing a sense of an ongoing conversation. These types of exchanges allow for more intimate and individualised communication. In Ireland, health officials have adopted this mode of direct communication to speak to people directly and the Minister for Health (Simon Harris) circulated a WhatsApp message to urge people to stay indoors and maintain social distancing on 22nd March. Also, the WhatsApp groups that sprang into activity during the lockdown often consist of jokes, thumbs-up and emojis. Indeed, very little about the interaction seems to be about acquiring news and most of it is far more about sharing the emotional burden of what is going on. The sheer number, variety and frequency of WhatsApp messages in various groups seems to suggest, then, that it is the practice of being in touch that is more important than the actual content of these messages. One 70-year-old woman told me that she forwarded short videos that were ‘rubbish’ and even mildly offensive but circulated them to her groups anyhow because her niece had sent them to her. People laugh or forward frightening statistics regarding how many will contract the disease while also wishing others well and commenting on the exceptional circumstances we are living in. WhatsApp, in other words, allows a kind of affective venting that is difficult to express elsewhere.
 Silverstone, Roger 1994 Television and Everyday Life New York and London: Routledge.
 For a comparable argument regarding Twitter see Rosa, J. 2015 Digital protest, hashtag ethnography, and the racial politics of social media in the United States, American Ethnologist Volume 00 Number 0, pp. 4-16.
 The World Health Organisation has launched a dedicated messaging service in Arabic, English, French and Spanish with WhatsApp partners to inform the public about the virus. In order to activate the app, you have to text ‘hi’ to the relevant number. See https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/who-health-alert-brings-covid-19-facts-to-billions-via-whatsapp, accessed 8/4/20