March 25, 2019

LIEBERMAN | Breathing Life Into Screen Time

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I spend most of Sunday on Twitter. It’s easy enough to convince myself that I’ll find a story idea there and that the column will pour out of it so quickly that it’ll make up for itself in time lost scrolling. Maybe it’s because the news tastes less bitter when I only see it in small parts, or maybe it’s because the targeted advertisements aren’t quite as terrifying, but it’s about the only social media I can bear lately. I’m definitely using the term “bear” loosely.

There are certain Sundays when, already sunken deep in the couch, I really don’t want to get online. For example, this Sunday a friend yelled, “No Collusion!” over their cell phone, and I knew instantly that Twitter was going to be terrible. Sometimes the news feels too heavy or even just aggravating to manage. This is an ancient concept. We have all felt it — maybe more recently, maybe more frequently. But my Sundays are marked by something a little more special: The #FlowerReport.

Every Sunday, writer Alyssa Harad inundates the timelines of her almost 7,000 followers with photos of flowers, snapped and retweeted from around the world. There is something poetic about a garden popping up in the places we least expect them, like the Internet. Endorphins explode around my head like fireworks whenever there are flowers around. My roommate bought me a thick clump of Irish daffodils for my birthday. Weeks later, I can’t stand to put the droopy blooms in the trash can.

Writer Teju Cole was the original creator of the #FlowerReport, but I didn’t discover the hashtag until after Harad took over. I was first directed to Harad’s account and the project when it was retweeted onto my timeline. Since then, my Sundays on Twitter — while still extraordinarily frustrating — are punctuated with photos of flowers from around the world. Just this week, I saw Pear Blossoms in Texas and Magnolias in France between tweets about the Mueller Investigation. These flowers are ultimately moments to breathe — moments of beauty.

I spoke to Harad on the phone about how the #FlowerReport functions when splayed against the background of Twitter. I learned that, in many ways, the photos of flowers aren’t merely distractions from the news, but they interact with what is going on with the world as well.

After a terrorist attack in Lahore one Sunday, Harad wrestled with how to curate the flood of flower photos, knowing it wasn’t just business as usual.

“I’m sure if you’re a twitter user you know that feeling of watching an event take over your timeline. And then it feels weird to be tweeting about anything else,” she said. “It feels disrespectful, it feels out of step. Especially if people are expressing shock and outrage and horror and grief.”

She was able to acknowledge the attacks without straying too far from the #FlowerReport. She found previous photos on Flickr of the park, eager to validate “the original value and worth of these places to the people who [were] local to the event,” and shared the images as part of her report. “I watched [people who had lived near that park] find that tweet and have that moment of recognition of that place that they remembered rather than the images that were on the news.”

Harad’s and the #FlowerReport’s compassion for people and place gives a depth to stories that far exceeds the character count. The natural world — so much bigger and older and wiser than us — provides perspective among the drudge and the tragedies alike. Flowers are enduring and so much stronger than they appear. Flowers heal. It is easy to understand how technology has quickly become the antonym of nature, but in a world increasingly digitized, should we fret about all the things that are at the opposite end of the spectrum as flowers?

New York Times technology reporter Nellie Bowles wrote an article called “Human Contact is Now a Luxury Good.” Technology, once reserved for only the richest, is becoming the cheapest option in healthcare, education and other labor markets. Bowles argues that the ability to “unplug” from the demands, information and services flung through our screens is increasingly a privilege. The co-pay on an iPhone app that allows me to talk to a doctor through my front-facing camera is much cheaper than a trip to urgent care.

While many of us worry that the proliferation of technology in our lives may be as equally rife with negative side effects as it is with positive ones, there doesn’t seem to be much we can do with the facts or fears regarding the influence of screens. They are here to stay, and they are becoming an issue of class. It still feels counterintuitive to argue that technology is becoming more accessible and affordable while human contact is becoming more exclusive. But like most situations, the case for the proliferation of technology offers logical opportunities to prove this argument, and improved health care is just one. Additionally, I remember a friend from high school telling me, “Oh, my parents couldn’t afford pre-school. Sesame Street was my pre-school.”

When things like pre-school, with real-life students and real-life teachers, are inaccessible, some children are given opportunities to socialize and acclimate academically much earlier than others. Opting for technological services rather than human ones is becoming a clear class distinction. With rampant wealth inequality, the question is worth asking: Who in our society is actually given the time to stop and smell the flowers?

Flowers, or nature in general, is a type of healthcare. It is an act of self-care in taking time to acknowledge beauty in the ugliest moments. Harad is both literally and thematically bringing the therapeutic nature of flowers to Twitter. She told me, “I’m a reader and I believe in the value of fiction and poetry and art as well as journalism and documentary, so I think these oblique ways, these more gentle ways of connecting, are sometimes really necessary because sometimes we can’t always face what’s happening straight on.”

By facilitating and curating the appearance of flowers en masse online, Harad is breathing life into our screen time. #FlowerReport is about hope among horror, beauty in tragedy, and the collective crossing the disparate. But it also provides the therapeutic properties of nature to the people who can’t unplug any time soon. #FlowerReport is a cheap vacation. As long as the #FlowerReport is online, every other terrible thing on Twitter feels a little more survivable.

Sarah Lieberman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Blueberries for Sal runs every other Tuesday this semester.