Staying Connected to Stay Safe: Boredom and Social Media Literacy in a High-Speed Society
25 February 2022
This paper offers a reflection on the role of media literacies in a high-speed society by looking at the relationship between boredom and digital intensification in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the global lockdowns rapidly decelerated some aspects of “high-speed society,” they also greatly intensified pressures on individuals to adapt to new digital technologies—in part, through public campaigns that encouraged people to ‘stay connected’ to ‘stay safe.’ Building on my academic research into boredom and networked media, I reflect on these campaigns as examples of public media pedagogy that takes aim at boredom as a problem in need of careful management through screen-based technologies. What COVID-19 taught the world was how vital it was to remain tethered to our entertainment machines, since doing so was suddenly not only a matter of personal pleasure, but of collective solidarity and the public good. However, if boredom has become instrumentalized in a digital network culture as a feeling that keeps driving us individually back to our social media feeds, it is important to ask how else it might operate. As an incipient force of felt intensity, what else might boredom do within spatiotemporal structures of enclosure? How else might users respond to the painful negativities that disrupted some of our previous ways of organizing life?
Building on these questions, in this paper I reflect on my experience working with the Chelmsford Young Creatives on The Boredom Project—a co-creative project that took place virtually during the first Covid-19 lockdown in the United Kingdom between May and September 2020. The project was designed to enable young people to document their experiences of lockdown, by asking them what it was like to feel bored while self-isolating at home. The project created a space for young people to come together virtually to reflect on boredom and how it was being constructed as both a persistent problem and as an index of privilege in the context of the lockdowns. The aim of this project was to experiment with using social media platforms not as a means of distraction from, nor of keeping up with high-speed society, but as tools for actively making sense of the experience of lockdown boredom.
Reflecting on the experience of taking part in this project, my paper sketches out a few initial reflections on how we might frame the value of public-facing critical digital literacy in a high-speed society. I frame this in relation to the work of scholars such as Samantha Talib (2018), Maximillian Alvarez (2019) and others who advocate for the importance of critical, multimodal and interdisciplinary frameworks that can help students to navigate the proliferation of screen-based communication in a high-speed society. However, as a public co-creative partnership, I place the emphasis on a kind of pedagogy that might resist the power relationships that are often still embedded in the literature on critical media literacy. Instead, I frame this project as the coming together of what I call a digital ‘bored collective,’ a group of people who worked together on and with digital platforms, to question and generate new insight into the value and meanings of both boredom and social media in a pandemic context.
Concretely, we ran the project on a fortnightly basis over the duration of the first UK lockdown from May to September 2020. At the beginning of the Boredom Project, the facilitators worked with the Young Creatives to explore their initial ideas around what boredom ‘looks’ and ‘feels’ like through a range of stock-taking, free-association, and creative/performative activities. From there, the Creatives proceeded to think about how boredom had been represented on social media, both before and during the lockdowns. The group researched the use of boredom-themed hashtags across a wide range of social media platforms, as well as GIFs and other digital formats, to compile a collective picture of socially mediated boredom. The Creatives concluded that although there were specific boredom-themed trends that emerged during the lockdown—such as the #Boredinthehouse and #LockdownLife hashtags—the nature of the content produced on social media continued to work within previously established ‘communication forms’ (Schellewald 2021). The most popular posts that we researched during this period originated on TikTok, and those posts tended towards the comedic and interactive categories. From our research, we concluded that a key feature of these #boredom posts on social media is the use of humour or zany hyperactivity to modulate boredom, making it feel ‘eventful’ rather than boring.
The next step was to fold together our initial ideas about boredom and what we had learned through our collective social media research, to discuss whether and how the COVID-19 lockdowns had impacted on perceptions of social media use and feelings of boredom. One theme that kept coming out of these discussions was a tension between the need to keep pace with the tempo of our media feeds through practices such as doomscrolling, or ‘absentmindedly scrolling through nothing’ (Lupinacci 2021), and the urge to stay off of or ‘quit social media’ altogether (Feldman 2021). Wishing to avoid this on/off polarity, the Creatives began to experiment with ways of using social media platforms as tools for actively researching, documenting, reflecting on, and shaping creative responses to experiences of boredom during lockdown.
We then decided to track and document our experiences of boredom, by setting up new individual profiles on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Tumblr and other social media platforms. The Creatives set these boredom profiles entirely to private so that they could function as a personal and reflective account of what boredom felt like in the flow of their ‘real-time’ experience. This meant working with the documentary affordances of these social media platforms, but it also meant working against the grain of networked media too, in ways that we found both awkward and liberating. Firstly, the removal of the pressure to produce for a specified audience of social followers had a distinct impact on the nature of the content that the Creatives produced, with some very de-dramatized and highly personal reflections on boredom as a complex aspect of lockdown life. Secondly, by focusing consistently on one particular aspect of lived experience, the individual accounts were remarkably cohesive, transforming the micro-moments of lockdown boredom into a larger continuum of lived experience. Their boredom profiles often spoke to duration in ways that aren’t always so readily visible in socially mediated environments.
The project culminated in the production of a 64-page hybrid physical/digital zine, which the Young Creatives produced in collaboration with other young people between the ages of 15 and 24 living in Essex. The zine creates a composite picture of boredom as something that is much more complicated and nuanced than what we have been taught by dominant social discourse. It captures a series of key tensions that are being worked through boredom: tensions between connection and disconnection, different tempos and speeds of engagement, loneliness, and social connectivity. What emerged from this ‘bored collective,’ I suggest, is one small example of the kind of work that can be achieved through an approach to media literacy that resists the twin pressures of ‘continuous compulsory connectedness’ (Lupinacci 2020) and ‘quitting social media’ altogether (Feldman 2020).
25 February 2022
Dr Tina Kendall is Associate Professor of Film & Media at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Her work on boredom and networked media has been published in New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics (93, 2018), Critical Studies in Television (13.4 2018), Necsus: European Journal of Media Studies (November 2019), and Film Quarterly (75.1, 2021).
Contributed as part of Symposium: Making Sense of the High-Speed Society
Feldman, Z. 2021. ‘Quitting Digital Culture: Rethinking Agency in a Beyond-Choice Ontology’ in Aleena Chia, Ana Jorge and Tero Karppi eds., Reckonging with Social Media London: Rowman & Littlefield.
Lupinacci, L. 2021. ‘“Absentmindedly Scrolling through Nothing”: Liveness and Compulsory Continuous Connectedness in Social Media’ Media, Culture & Society 43.2: 273-290.
Schellewald, A. 2021. ‘Communicative Forms on TikTok: Perspectives from Digital Ethnography’ International Journal of Communication 15: 1437-1457.
Talib, S. 2018. ‘Social Media Pedagogy: Applying an Interdisciplinary Approach to Teach Multimodal Critical Digital Literacy’ E-Learning and Digital Media 15.2: 55-66.