Saturday, October 24, 2020

The race to save the first draft of coronavirus history from internet oblivion

Eight years ago, Suleika Jaouad was alone in a hospital room, undergoing aggressive treatment for leukaemia and awaiting a bone marrow transplant. Just out of college and harbouring dreams of becoming a war correspondent, Jaouad was instead confined to her hospital room and felt desperate, stiflingly alone.

In the end, journaling helped Jaouad through her medical isolation. Nearly a decade later, in remission but immunocompromised, she found herself in an eerily familiar situation as the coronavirus crisis forced her to shelter in place at home in New York.

So she launched The Isolation Journals, a project designed to encourage people to capture their experiences as they navigate life during the pandemic. She reached out to people including artist Mari Andrew, author Elizabeth Gilbert, and blues singer Mavis Staples to brainstorm prompts that are emailed to participants at 5 a.m. US Eastern time. “Within five hours, we had 20,000 people sign up,” Jaouad says. “Now, it’s about 60,000 participants.”

While it’s possible to take part with just pen and paper, many users have posted their responses on Instagram and Twitter, tagged with #theisolationjournals. Contributions range from simple photos to interpretive dance videos, original music and art, and blog posts.

As lockdowns, shelter-in-place orders, and social distancing threaten to stretch out into the weeks, months, and even years ahead, there is a scramble to collect, in real-time, the overwhelming abundance of information being produced online. Without it, the record of how we lived, how we changed, and how we addressed the global pandemic would be left incomplete and at the mercy of a constantly shifting internet, where even recent history has a tendency to get buried or vanish.


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Here is my prompt for Day 3 of #TheIsolationJournals (head to my spectacular friend @suleikajaouad’s bio to sign up and join 40,000 other people in daily journaling!). Below is an abridged version of my prompt and the art above is my own visual example. I encourage you to join me in keeping a daily journal this month, and, as always, I would love to see what you write/make 💕 • We are all going through collective culture shock right now. We are oh-so-quickly adjusting to a whole new way of going through the world: interpreting distance as kindness, embracing solitude for the sake of community, and advocating for stasis as a means of progress. It's wild and weird. This is a brand new land where none of us have ever been, even though most of us are at home. I've been thinking a lot about how this experience parallels to traveling to a new place, where cultural norms are totally different and our daily routines are out of whack and we have jet lag from lack of/too much sleep. We have to celebrate differently, mourn differently, even dress differently (i.e. incorporate masks and gloves into our outfits). Your prompt: Write a travel journal entry from your home, could be your living room, could be your bed. Write as though you've just arrived in a new place (because, in many ways, you have) and what you're observing about the place and how you feel in it. Write what you see, hear, and touch, as though it's all brand new. What are you learning about yourself in this different land, with all its deprivations? If you'd like to turn this into a visual entry, draw a map complete with notes about this foreign land's customs, rituals, and routines.

A post shared by Mari Andrew (@bymariandrew) on

Looking at how we document our lives is an obvious first step. Journaling has always been a way for people to understand and contextualize their world, particularly during tumultuous times. It has been shown to be therapeutic, particularly for those who have gone through trauma. The dawn of the internet played into this very human desire: Blogspot, Tumblr, and even early Facebook and Twitter had an element of “Dear Diary” to them.

Now, recording thoughts freeform on an Instagram live session, posting art on Tumblr, or choreographing a meme-y dance for TikTok all fulfil the same function as journaling: commemorating an experience and expressing its effect on you. In theory, these creative efforts should form a ready-made repository of crucial information about this period and how we lived through it.

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