How, where and who will we meet and hug again? And why this matters.
Understanding communication in a global pandemic and the future of social interaction – Towards a collective semiotics
In this post, I’m sharing with you my reflections on why I believe it’s necessary and urgent that we think of how the pandemic is changing the ways in which we communicate and interact with others and why we need to do this collectively, to make sense of what’s happening and trace the implications for our future.
I hope this will trigger some further thoughts in others. If it does, please share by commenting here below!
Be warned: it will be messy – and partial (for one, I work from home in the UK, I have no kids nor caring responsibilities, and during lockdown I’m staying at my partner’s house in York – so it’s a rather specific and privileged situation – I’m a EU-migrant here and my elderly parents live in Northern Italy – they’re in good health at the moment, luckily – and all this affects my view too). But everybody’s view is partial by definition – and that’s the very reason why we’ve started PanMeMic. We need to start somewhere – and this is my personal take to get the ball rolling.
To navigate my messy post, here are a few shortcuts:
- if you want to read my personal account on where this whole PanMeMic started for me, read WHERE IT ALL STARTED (FOR ME) here below.
- If you want to go through a bullet list of changing factors that make this needed and urgent, jump to THE COORDINATES OF A CHANGING SEMIOTIC REGIME.
- If you want to go straight to the rationale for doing collective research, go to TOWARDS A COLLECTIVE SEMIOTIC RESEARCH
Luckily this website gives me the chance to break free of the constraints of academic writing, and gives those who read the chance to skim through – and comment to compare, contrast, confirm and integrate with their own experiences.
References and Sources: I’m providing links to online sources for relevant concepts and observations I refer to – I’m avoiding linking to academic work that is screened by a paywall, and I’ve prioritised links to introductory sources. Whenever possible, I’ve tried to pick sources (like Wikipedia or opinion pieces) that provide further links to both academic and non-academic work, should you wish to explore any given issue further.
As a brief intro about me, I am a (linguist as a background, turned into) ‘semiotician’, based in the UK and originally from Italy. The way I conceive of it, ‘semiotics’ is the discipline that studies how we make meaning with whatever we use to make meaning (although it’s more generally considered to be the discipline that studies signs). The kind of semiotics I do is social semiotics. That is, I look at social life, the relation among humans, and the relation between humans and the world in terms of meaning-making practices – both how we make meanings out of what we see, hear, touch, smell and feel, and how we express these meanings through images, gestures, words, sounds, objects, dress, movement etc. I admit this is not a fully comprehensive way of looking at social life – but it’s the one I’m interested in and the one that helps me making sense of the world that surrounds me.
WHERE IT ALL STARTED (FOR ME)
This is more of a personal rambling, like many you’ve probably already read. So if you’re more interested in serious ‘communication and interaction stuff’, just jump to THE COORDINATES OF A CHANGING SEMIOTIC REGIME.
Can you remember when you first got the sense that coronavirus was getting real for you?
For me it was nearly three months ago. Towards lunchtime on Sunday 23rd February, my dad (who lives in Verona, Italy) replied to my “What are you up to today?” whatsapp with a casual:
“just back from running errands. I should have watched Verona football match but suspended to prevent the virus”.
As I had been taking the weekend off from current affairs, that’s how I first got the news that coronavirus had hit Northern Italy – and that’s when I first felt it was real.
Since then both my offline interactions in the UK and my online ones with many people across Europe and elsewhere have changed dramatically. Before then, I had only exchanged a few messages with colleagues based in China and nearby countries, and with my students who have families there, to check on the virus that I heard in the news had hit “over there” – but the whole thing was still far away for me.
Everything has changed that evening. I’ve started to check the news and social media obsessively, and check the daily numbers, and check on my parents and friends in Italy multiple times a day, awfully worried for them and feeling useless and guilty to be far away. I’ve started to have weird dreams and nightmares (which I rarely have normally). I’ve started to feel frenzy, restless and – dare I say it – overexcited. (a few weeks later, I’ve identified myself so well in this powerful Letter to the UK from Italy: This is what we know about your future)
I’ve also soon realised that it all caught me earlier than it did to my UK-based friends who had no connections to Italy and still perceived it as far away. My partner didn’t quite understand the urgency when I first mentioned we needed to start thinking about lockdown arrangements soon. And while I had Italy-based friends messaging me warning that this would arrive to us soon, I went through awkward discussions with a couple of English friends, whose posts revealed rooted cultural misconceptions and some sort of internalised cultural superiority (of the sort “yes, but that’s Italy…”).
It quickly changed in the UK too. All of a sudden, on my Facebook wall, the themes of posts from Italy and from the UK became strikingly similar, only a couple of weeks apart. And all those based in other countries followed suit. Unfolding on my screen, in all languages (automatically translated for me by the apps), were battles of graphs and numbers, “it’s just flu – no, it’s not”, flatten the curve and supportive messages, facemasks, war metaphors, blaming and shaming individual behaviours, or blaming the government, scientists explaining, and everybody else grabbing scientific sources and making an effort to digest and explain them in their turn, and then memes, and jokes, and conspiracy theories… and food and baking… the list is still going on and unfolding every day on my screens.
Through our news feeds on our screens we watched Wuhan on lockdown back in January – but, at least for me, the sources and images were very limited. Then we watched Italy on lockdown and I started to see many more images of how it was… and started to count the days before experiencing it over here in the UK. It arrived – and we’re still in it while I’m writing this, although some restrictions have been eased, among controversies between those who feel the numbers of cases are still too high and blame the government for putting the economy first, and those who are concerned for the massive social and economic costs as well as the restrictions to individual freedoms (spoiler alert: I’m more leaning towards the former at the moment).
Whether it’s only momentary or the pandemic is marking a historical threshold between “the before times” and “the new normal”, the changes in our social lives have been radical.
And while we’re all (similarly and differently) undergoing this enormous change, I can’t help but noticing it everywhere and in anything we do.
While all this has been happening, I’ve felt the need of recording, tracing and reflecting on the changes. So I started to take random notes of what I was observing and experiencing, to screenshot social media posts and to bookmark articles that I was coming across. But this whole process was extremely messy and limited – what I took note of, through my personal window on the situation, was partial and very fragmented, and while the situation was changing rapidly, I was struggling to keep track of it all and felt I needed to reach out for help.
I know I’m not the only one, as I can see everybody is constantly observing, reflecting, trying to make sense – and commenting about it.
As an aside, sometimes I’m wondering if it’s only me, because of my professional (and personal) interest in communication and social interaction. And to check on this, I’ve started to take notes and observe others. Well, it’s not just me. It’s everybody. And if you start looking and listening, the insights everybody has are so many and profound. One example from my notes here: Friday night we joined some friends on Zoom for our weekly online catch up. We usually start with a pubquiz and then we move onto random chats and more drinks, until one after the other everybody drops out and goes to sleep… At some point I stopped participating actively to the random chats and started to note down the topics of conversation (a quite tipsy and live version of thematic analysis, as we call it in qualitative research, for a quite tipsy conversation with many voices alternating and changing topics). Well, in the one hour while I was taking notes, a full 45 minutes were taken up by reflections about how people interact with others now.
That’s why, with colleagues and friends worldwide, we have set up PanMeMic – to start a collective reflection and conversation with everybody (well beyond academia) who’s interested in how the pandemic is changing the ways we communicate and interact with others.
Here below you’ll find a revised and expanded version of the bullet list that opened the invitation I sent out to those who are now part of the PanMeMic founding team – consider it as a personal list of why we should be concerned of communication and interaction practices while the world seems to be falling apart.
Again, what follows is messy and partial. It requires verification through analysis of actual evidence, and ordering through abstraction and relations. It’s like at the start of a PhD: I have scattered (and hopefully insightful) intuitions and observations, pointing to different questions. Shall we start a collective PhD?
We live in a moment that has no precedents in many respects.
- The global scope is unprecedented, in its pace of spread and the radical changes it provokes to our social lives. The pandemic has hit nearly everywhere. It affects everybody (differently and yet similarly) around the world – and the perception of its global scope is even more significant, maybe because it has hit the richest areas of the world, like China, Europe and the USA, but also because we have a communication and information system that was not in place in other moments in history. From what I’ve noticed so far, there’s as much sharedness across different countries as there is difference among individuals depending on each personal situation. We need to widen the participation into sharing observations to be able to come to a better mapping of the global-and-the-particular.
- Spaces, places, times and paces of social life have changed. The world has started to be one same place all of a sudden, caught in one big emergency (that has foreshadowed all the other global and local ones), while we ourselves have started to be separated in our own physical worlds, and in our own personal emotional rollercoasters, each with our own specific privileges, disadvantages, challenges, and resources to cope.
- The times have both delayed and accelerated at once. While many of us mention not knowing what day it is during our life in lockdown, the pace of information has sped up massively – and for many key workers, scientists, parents juggling between work and homeschooling, people struggling economically or with difficult household situations, and those who are sick or have their dear ones in hospitals, time is running out. Some can’t wait for it to be over, others are appreciating the slowing down they’re experiencing. And still I’m feeling I’m in a sort of suspended time in my personal and our social histories. The spaces, places, times, means and rules for our priorities, behaviours and activities have changed, but we still don’t know if it’s only temporary or how and which of these changes will become normalised.
- While health and the economic implications of this situation are understandably main concerns, we must not forget that communication plays a huge role in our lives (without communication, most of us would not even know about the pandemic nor how to behave) and that the ways in which we regulate how we interact with others have massive implications for our societies.
- Former ideological groupings seem to have reshuffled. At least in my personal social network, the “before” divisions (left and right wing, pro- or against Brexit, pro- and anti-experts, climate change advocates and deniers, government supporters or critics) do not quite match the current positions, debates and arguments on the virus – but maybe it’s just the emergency moment and everybody will go back to their ranks soon?
- Social interaction is changing in unprecedented ways. Social distance (term originated in the work of cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall), self-isolation, staying at home, are all policies and practices that we are adopting to save lives. And yet these are forcing us to change our communication practices and the ways in which we interact with others.
- What was familiar, almost ‘natural’ before, is no longer – but there’s no new familiar yet. Am I the only one who feels weird watching a film or a TV show shot before the pandemic, when I see characters gathering, hugging each other, getting on crowded buses, and talking close to each other? A voice in me says “you can’t do that; you don’t do that (anymore)”. And yet, what we do now is still new and awkward; there’s a sort of alertness not only of the health danger outside, but also on how to go about to do things. We are re-disciplining ourselves, our bodies and our actions anew. And we do this all the time, when managing turn-taking on zoom, while prepping to surpass the safe/danger threshold to go food shopping and to get back in the house, or when walking in the streets with a mask while trying to detect other people’s body trajectories and readjusting our own to keep social distance.
- The level and character of mediation is unprecedented. We have technologies that enable us to be connected like never before. Now that lockdown measures have been imposed in many countries, largest numbers of people have resorted to using these technologies to carry out activities that were previously done offline. Some of us were already using some of them – for others it’s all new. It’s a massive learning curve, but also a massive pool for creativity in how we use these technologies to express ourselves. (and the so-called digital divide is now a much more salient exclusionary boundary, between those who have access to connectivity and devices – and the abilities to use them – and those who don’t).
- Screens and apps enhance our connectivity (how many of you have thought of how different your life on lockdown would have been only a few decades ago?). But our lives on screens carry with them enhanced risks for potential unethical uses of our own images. Apps also enhance the fears of social control.
- The type of mediation we have available reconfigures the channels of perceptions through which we communicate. The audio-visual dominates. Online through our screens we can only use resources that rely on auditory and visual perceptions – the resources for expression (or semiotic modes) afforded by these channels are plenty, like images, sound and music, speech, writing, gestures, face expressions, objects, numbers, body movements… But they are not all those that humans have developed to communicate. Offline too, by keeping at a distance, our bodily communication still relies heavily on the audio-visual. We can only show, sound, and say. All the unsayable and unshowable meanings that we can perceive and express through touch, smell, taste and all other complex sensory combinations involved in the close physical co-presence of bodies are ruled out. When they happen outside the safe and acceptable space of our homes, they are re-signified as threats or signs of disrespect.
- In this, I’ve been fascinated at how bodies move in space when walking outside or in shops. It’s a choreography of bodies – I rely on the visual to detect other people’s trajectories and re-adjust my own to keep social distance; and I interpret the way they adjust their own trajectories as a sign of how they stand on the whole coronavirus issue. In shop aisles, my partner said he feels it’s like playing Pac-man; you see a free aisle and get in, if somebody arrives, then you turn and go away. This all by relying on the visual (we used to do that also earlier, trying to avoid bumping into each other in crowded streets – but the social distance now requires planning at a much earlier stage than we would normally do in the past).
- I’ve also been fascinated by the silence. Sure the silence on lockdown has been caused firstly by the reduced street traffic. But I would have thought that, being physically separated, people would speak louder to each other, from the windows or in the streets. At least here in York, instead, everybody is terribly quiet. Maybe it’s a local thing – as in the UK you tend to be loud only when socialising in groups (alcohol playing a big part on the level of loudness too), while socialising is now limited. Maybe it’s something we’re bringing from what was acceptable behaviour in urban public areas in the “before times”, when it would be rude to be loud in public (I’ve always been amazed at how sound would be considered more invasive, while we usually tolerated all sorts of visual pollution in our in-built environments). Maybe it’s an acceleration of the ongoing trend of individualised societies, where contacts among strangers are rarer and even in public we tend to mind our own businesses and interact (through our mobiles) only with those we know. Sound with strangers seems to be used only in rituals (like the weekly flashmobs singing from the windows in Italy and Spain, and the weekly clapping for the health and key workers in the UK). I don’t know, but it would be interesting to hear how this works in other environments and settings.
- We’re both isolated and connected selves. Our personal bubbles (a term we used to associate with social media networks) are now the physical environment in which we live, while the screens are our windows to the world and to others. In the physical environment we are isolated in the spaces of our homes (if we are lucky to have one) and with the members of our household (if we have any – and here too we might be more or less lucky depending on who’s living with us). Mobility restrictions have massively reduced the ‘slice’ of the offline worlds that we can physically access.
- The social functions of offline and online have changed. All sorts of activities that we used to carry out offline can no longer take place, and have been reshaped to be carried out online. This has massive implications – too many to list here as they would deserve a whole piece (or many) of its own.
- Private and public have both separated and merged (further).
- Offline, there is now a dramatic threshold between our private/home space and our public/outside space. Outside we need to discipline our bodies, the way they move in space, how close we get to others, and what/who we touch. The threshold is marked and salient, as we are not yet accustomed to what we need to do to prep ourselves, mentally and physically, to cross it both to venture outside and to get back inside. But the threshold comes with us everywhere, as it marks the separation between our own bodies (or intimate units, if we go out with somebody in our households) and those of others. The way we conduct ourselves with others, what Goffman called the interaction order, is undergoing a resetting of its parameters, as Ben Rampton has pointed out in a PanMeMic comment.
- Our private/home space has changed its nature – for some it has become also a workplace, and a school, for some it’s overcrowded, for others it is peace and solitude, or loneliness – and for most it is where online and offline blur and intertwine.
- Online, private and public have merged (even further) as online connectivity on screens shows each other’s private space, be it when interacting online with friends, for a work meeting, or for public appearances. Through the backgrounds of what is shown on screens, we all have access to slices of others’ private places, be our friends, colleagues, authorities, scientists, teachers, trainers or celebrities.
- Maybe because of this constant entering of the private into the public and vice versa, also the levels of formality and informality cross and intertwine. Outside like in their houses, people wander around in home-clothes more and, occasionally, dress up just to throw out the bins or for an online chat (as many have joked on my facebook wall). On video in work meetings and even in public appearances on TV, people appear less groomed, less beautified, less perfect. Will this foster a more ‘natural’ look in the future or not?
- At the same time, everything is a source for a meta-commentary. I’ve mentioned in the earlier section about how much we all reflect on how we and others interact. Also backgrounds and attires we see on videos have now become a topic of much discussion. And while women particularly are still subject to body-shaming, sexism and normativity (of what was thought to be ‘appropriate’ for public appearances in the before times), discussions emerge and sometimes are useful in revealing manipulatory attempts in the designed appearances in videos, as in this case of Matteo Salvini, of the right-wing Lega North party in Italy, who appeared in video (allegedly from home) with a designed background and attire that portrayed him as a medic in a health service environment. Is this the pathway towards a new, chaotic, dispersed and conflictual visual literacy? Certainly there seems to be a greater need for critical visual awareness.
- The pace and volume of information (an infodemic?) is unprecedented. Communication about the pandemic is done ‘live’, at the minute, from multiple sources, which everybody engages with their own way, re-interprets, explains, re-signifies, and shares to others. I’ve never seen these many interested in knowing more, in wanting to make sense, in telling others about many different aspects of one single (global) event. True, the sources can be more or less reliable, and some can be purposefully designed to mislead and manipulate. Yet we’ve never all witnessed the chaotic dynamics of science and research this close and this live and we’ve never talked this much about it (for an insightful take on this, read here – in Italian only). Unprecedented are also the pace and volume of all other sorts of communications that are influenced by the situation – checking on friends, doing artwork on Instagram, sharing memes, or the dishes we cook… And this also implies that it is all very fleeting and transient. It will be difficult to retrieve and track it backwards at a later time.
And here I come to why we need to collectively report on our experiences, gather data, analyse, interpret and reflect on the communicative changes that we’re undergoing.
TOWARDS A COLLECTIVE SEMIOTIC RESEARCH
From the changes I’ve listed here above (and many more that you might have observed) and the various implications that these may have in our futures, here come the reasons to start public forms of sharing of experiences and knowledge:
- Perceptions of changes need to be recorded while they happen – as we can easily become normalized into new habits, while the changes escalate – the metaphor of the Boiling Frog comes to my mind here – the pace is certainly faster, but every new change can let us easily forget the previous one and how we perceived it.
- We don’t know how long this will last, how this will develop, and how these changes will affect us in the future – while we’re hearing and reading many asking what the “new normal” will be (a quick google search of “new normal” and “coronavirus” together gives me already 34.5million results) there are already different hypotheses in place on how to reshape offline public spaces and discipline our bodies in them (see a design for beach-goers), and also on how much of our daily activities and interactions will stay online also after the emergency (such as working from home, or teaching and learning, for example).
- We need to understand how this is affecting people in different parts of the world and in different demographics (age, class, ethnicity, gender, abilities, type of household etc.), as well as in different areas of social interaction (work, leisure, personal relations, relations with strangers, at home and outside…). We need to understand the sensory, cognitive, social, emotional, physical, political (and you can add more here) implications of the changes in our communicative and interactional practices – we also need to understand how people are creatively coping with this, to gather best practices and help share them.
- We need to understand what is fully new, what is an acceleration of past practices, or what could be a turn against past trends. And we need to understand what these new, accelerated, or u-turned trends point towards.
- Never before it has become so manifest that the times, processes, and means of dissemination of traditional research are utterly inadequate, as they are too slow to keep track of the changes and provide insights that can be useful when we need them – as is happening in scientific research on the virus worldwide (read more here and here), also for research on communication and interaction during the pandemic we need to start sharing insights now, openly, and live, among as many as possible – and we need to analyse the now to foresee (and try to act towards) the future.
- Academic researchers cannot do this on their own. So many people – and the media – have been reflecting and posting about how the pandemic is affecting human communication and interaction – and observing also how authorities have been communicating. The more I look at it, the more I’m seeing everybody constantly commenting on how interactions are changing. And each has a different perspective because of their own situation. We are both all together in this and yet all very different in it. That’s why we need as many different perspectives as possible to join forces.
- There are precedents in ‘citizen science’ that we can follow (and adjust). The so-called hard and natural sciences have long involved non-academics in collecting data and in collaborative, participatory forms of research. This method is generally called citizen science (or ‘community’, ‘civic’ or ‘crowdsource’ research – for an introduction read here). In the social sciences and humanities the method has been approached more recently, like in ethnography (see this great crowdsourced anthropological project on the pandemic); citizen sociolinguistics has emerged too (read here and here for examples). This has never been attempted in semiotics though – and yet everybody constantly reflects not only on language use but on all forms of expressions (or ‘sign-making’ as we call it in social semiotics) and on how they and others communicate. And now more than ever, we need to make the best of distributed knowledge to try to make sense of what’s happening.
- I propose not to use
‘citizen’in the label; although originally the use was meant to refer to ‘non-professional’ (as in citizen journalism, for example), rather than to those who have ‘citizenship’, it has however potentially exclusionary values, for non-citizens, such as migrants. So I’d propose grassroots, collective or distributed semiotics. But let’s see where this takes us and if we can come up with a better term.
- This collective research initiative needs to involve as many people as possible, in as many areas of personal and professional expertise as possible – we can start with a founding team covering all continents that coordinates the first activities – but it needs to involve both academics and non-academics who have a special interest in communication and social interaction – from communication and media studies to linguists, from software designers to architects, from artists to PRs, from dancers to film-makers, from key workers to those who have lost their job, to reach anybody who has a special insight into some sphere of communications (which we all do, in our everyday life, work, leisure, personal relations).
In sum, it is the time to find a way to start collective forms for researching on the semiotics of these pandemic times.
Here are the characteristics of this initiative:
- No limits on the aspects to be researched: all spheres of communication and social interaction are admitted, both interpersonal and institutional, both private and public, both in relation to contents and to forms, and the focus can be on anything: on interaction while wearing masks, on touch, on videocalls, on deserted cities, on online playdates for kids, on authorities’ press conferences, on infographics, on fake news, on ads, on apps….
- A call for people beyond academia to share their reflections and experiences on how their communication practices have been changing, their fears, their surprises, their successes… but also on what they have observed in others, and in the institutions
- All researchers posting their own reflections ‘live’, on the moment, without the constraints of academic writing and publishing, and through a sharing rather than competitive effort – no editorial process; everybody will be responsible for what they post and will receive feedback through the conversations that will follow up in the comments.
- From this joint sharing of reflections, we can start thinking about
- how to develop methods for collective and individual collection and analysis of the experiences and data – and agree on more structured ways of conducting collective research, as well as
- how to derive from all these the implications for the future – the losses and the gains – the possibilities and the threats and dangers.
- And maybe, by predicting these, start providing indications on good practices and policies, and shape forms of collective actions that try to impact towards positive change for the common good, to minimize risks for the future of social interactions, and design new and better futures.
- As semioticians, we could assess whether and how ‘distributed knowledge’ can work, and start a new approach and method in semiotic research (akin to participatory methods used in other disciplines)
- This would all start as a free and voluntary-led enterprise (no grants, no obligations, no research productivity) – which hopefully will give us ideas also for more formal forms of collaborations among those who contribute – in all cases, we will be fostering distributed research knowledge outside the self-referentiality of our academic circles, and frankly, I (am terrified but) can’t wait.
That’s it, more or less. Let’s see how it goes. Waiting to meet and hug you all again soon.