By Dimetri Whitfield
It is the morning of Wednesday, September 6, 2017. My eyes are only open through trepidation. I was barely able to get more than an hour of sleep the night before. Hurricane Irma, the second strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, is barrelling through the North-Eastern Caribbean. The core of her 185 mile-per-hour winds sweep across Saba, St. Maarten, Anguilla, St. Kitts, among many other places. Places where I have numerous acquaintances, friends, and family members.
It is 11 am for me in Europe, but 5 am for those on the islands. I see my cousin on Facebook, the one always known for an air of effortless confidence. I ask him how he’s doing. In the message he sends me, his voice cracks as he speaks of desperately trying to hold his door in place. Never have I heard him so scared. He says that the locks have failed. The wind wants to take the door, and everything behind it, into the raging sky.
A little after 6 am I get a call from a high school friend. Though safe and sound in the Netherlands she is in tears. She received a video call from her cousin moments before. He is huddled in his bathroom. The walls of his home are cracking. He prays that they will not collapse.
Shortly after, I call another friend in Miami. She sighs as she tells me that my best friend’s sister lost her roof. She says more people on my island home are losing their roofs as well.
I try to call my parents. I cannot get through.
Scores of people are on Facebook, sharing videos of others going “live” while riding out the storm. We all become attached in the commonality of seeing Irma’s wrath as it is happening, swapping the trickles of information that we have received from loved ones, and offering advice and consolation with those in the middle of the storm. We are many miles away from each other, many miles from the ones we love. We watch – from Tennessee, and Canada, and the Netherlands, and New Zealand.
It is no great surprise that natural disasters have a way of bonding humans together. When it is mother nature that is trying to kill us, we have often united against this external “other,” sharing in each other’s pain and suffering, full participants in a community bound together in the quest for survival against a formidable enemy.
But I am not writing this to tell you about disasters, or despair, or desolation. Rather, as a social anthropologist, I want to make a point about what made this collective act of anguish unique in relation to the previous pages of history and, more importantly, how we can better study it as social scientists.
It is not unique in the fact that it extended across borders and time zones; what is otherwise known as “transnationalism.” Scholars have long argued that the increasing interconnectivity between people, due to the proliferation of instant communication technologies, have allowed humans to compress the limits of space and time and thereby inhabit more than one space at any given moment (Robertson 1994; Bauman 2000).
No, its distinctiveness lies in its immediacy. With the arrival of Facebook live and other social media applications that permit users to witness events as they occur, the constraint of time is eliminated altogether. These platforms have allowed a contiguity that was hitherto unknown. Hosts and viewers alike not only communicate in real-time, but they experience in real-time. For those of us who watched and shared videos that day, the transcendence of time was complete. We were “there” when the calm of the eye came, and both host and viewers, simultaneously, saw the mangled wreckage of property for the first time. We were “there” in joint powerlessness as the wind howled and roofs groaned in resistance, not knowing whether the next second would be the moment of structural failure. We were “there” through feelings of hopelessness. We were “there” amid the worst storm to hit the Leeward islands in living memory. Until, of course, when we were left in darkness, when the internet connection on the islands went down.
In order to study social media encounters that are live, we must not ignore how senses, emotions, and collective uncertainty intertwine to produce the “experience” of an event (See Pink 2015), and how these engender new kinds of online sociality. Through examining the depth of sensorial stimulation and emotive immediacy that live social media now enables, we, as social scientists, can better understand how communities thrive despite being separated by great distances, and how individuals can truly feel as though they have been through things together despite being thousands of miles apart.
Dimetri Whitfield is a former student in the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU. He is currently a doctoral fellow at the Berlin Graduate School of Muslim Cultures and Societies. His research looks at transnationalism, social media, and Islamic missionary activity in the Gambia.