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.
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.