Photo-sharing is back: how social media has framed the pandemic


They have flooded in recent days on to Twitter and Facebook, or been shared in excited texts and WhatsApps: photographs of beaming friends and colleagues, delightedly capturing the moment they could at last down a pub garden pint, or have a haircut, or receive a long-awaited vaccine.

As Britain has begun to ease Covid restrictions and the vaccine rollout continues, pubs, shops and immunisation centres are not the only places that have seen a flurry of activity. On social media, too, after a year in which, at times, there didn’t seem much to photograph, exuberant photo-sharing is very much back. Or as one Twitter user put it after outdoor hospitality opened this week in England: “Everyone is taking selfies like they haven’t been to the pub before.”

But while the return of photo-worthy moments is to be welcomed, it also underlines how the strange and difficult days of the pandemic changed the way we take pictures. For some – deprived of holidays, weddings or family get-togethers – this meant taking many fewer photographs in the first place. How we post and share images on social media also changed in 2020, say social media experts – and shaped how the strange Covid period will be remembered.

Tanya Barrow, from Fleet in Hampshire, certainly feels she shared fewer photos over the past year to her blog and social feeds. There was a time, a few years ago, when she and her husband would do “daft things” like book a morning ferry on a whim to have lunch in France – “because it would make a good day out, and we could share it on Instagram”.

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That inevitably changed with the pandemic – while posting lots of photos of her life, even her newborn granddaughter, also felt inappropriate while others were undergoing real hardships, she said.

“I just wanted to be very careful about what I was sharing. And certainly the DMs that I got from people were along the lines of, I’m not posting anything at the moment, I’ve got nothing to say.”

While the Covid lockdowns certainly restricted the number and kind of photographs we were taking – globally, camera sales plummeted by 40% in 2020, partly driven by the collapse in tourism – they also hastened changes to the way we use social media, according to Lore Oxford, global head of cultural insights at the social media marketing and insight agency We Are Social.

“Previous to the pandemic, you’d see lots of people’s very curated lives, one perfect birthday picture, for example, or one perfect holiday snap that went on to your Instagram grid.” As life became more challenging, she said, “we didn’t see people post less, we saw people change what they were posting about. And sometimes that was posting about their darker days – ‘Let’s not feel pressured to be baking bread, some of us are barely holding it together.’”

She points to the “photo-dump” – adding multiple photos to an Instagram post instead of one – as a key shift in 2020, allowing much more context to supposedly idealised events. Overall the social media landscape has atomised, with TikTok, Snapchat, Zoom and even gaming apps becoming more central to our digital communication and self-presentation.

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In addition, the way platforms are used has been changing dramatically, supercharged by the pandemic. Where Instagram, for instance, was once used largely to post static photos, it was now an important platform for video, a major shopping outlet and used increasingly for news, activism and even longer-form writing, said Oxford.

Snippets of data from Facebook and Instagram (which it also owns) support this. Between March and April 2020, views of Instagram Stories videos doubled, according to the company; a sticker reading “Stay Home” was added to 200m posts in that month. Charitable donations via the site doubled last June. Social media – if it ever was – is no longer an outlet principally for the sharing of snapshots and updates on what you had for lunch.

The stats also reflect a more domestic, local focus among users. A million people in the UK joined Facebook gardening groups between March and May last year (there are now 3m in total) and almost 2 million Britons are now members of local Covid-19 community support groups on the platform.

According to Paul Marsden, a lecturer in psychology at the University of the Arts London and member of the British Psychological Society, those things that we have paused to photograph over the past year will shape how the pandemic is remembered. Contrary to the argument that we are outsourcing our memories to our picture folders, he said, “we actually become more attentive to things we have photographed because we have to pause, and frame them”.

And so, for better or worse, he said: “Everybody going out to the pub and taking lots of photos is a really good way of remembering the pandemic as a positive experience and actually forgetting all the rubbish.”





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