Courtesy of Patrick Stewart's Twitter

Patrick Stewart reads Shakespeare's Sonnet 16

April 13, 2020

YANDAVA | Social Media and Celebrity in the Coronavirus Age

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Celebrities and social media influencers have been getting a bad rap lately. They’ve been lambasted for being tone-deaf, for making the virus all about themselves and for not putting their money where their mouths are. At a time when thousands of Americans are dying and far more (over 16 million in the past three weeks) have lost their jobs, going on social media and seeing “influencers” — who are usually followed in the first place due to their apparent relatability — document their escapes out of New York City to the Hamptons, nanny in tow, can feel like a slap in the face. Our old, mindless escapes out of the tedium of our daily lives no longer offer any comfort but rather, like a too-bright light, our scrolling reveals the hypocrisies and deceits of our society. As one Twitter user wrote, “If quarantine lasts a year or longer celebs gonna need better pr teams because ordinary folks are starting to put two and two together real fast lmao.”

But this raises another question: Besides donating money and spreading accurate information about the pandemic (e.g. NBA star Stephen Curry hosting a Q&A with Dr. Anthony Fauci on Instagram Live; other celebrities begging fans to stay home and follow social distancing measures), are there ways that famous people can use social media without (justifiably) earning the ire of millions? And will celebrity culture actually change when this is all over, or will it go back to what it was before?

Amid all the vanity and self-aggrandizement, there are a few celebrities who have used their platforms for less self-focused, more unexpected purposes. On Twitter, for example, Sir Patrick Stewart is reading one Shakespearean sonnet a day. Along with offering a soothing sense of ritual and stability to these confusing times, Stewart’s readings might also bring poetry to those who wouldn’t ordinarily seek it out on their own or feel that the Bard is too inaccessible.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see the French auteur (filmmaker) and New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard — the last person I’d expect on social media — come out of hibernation and take to Instagram Live, giving a masterclass in filmmaking hosted by Lionel Baier, head of the cinema department at ECAL in Switzerland, and Fabrice Aragno, Godard’s frequent collaborator in recent years. Godard expressed his ideas about the failings of language, the possibility of returning to a pictorial alphabet and the potential of film to mix language and images powerfully, reflecting on the changes that have taken place, both in the world and in his own views, since the Nouvelle Vague.

On the subject of COVID-19, the director stated that “the virus is a form of communication, it needs another, to go to the neighbor, like some birds, to enter it. Like when you send a message, even on a social network, you need the other in order to get into his house.” He added later, “The virus is a communication: Like what we are doing… of which we are not going to die, but perhaps we are not able to live well.” In this statement lies the implication that the “communication… what we are doing,” i.e., social media, perhaps prevents us from “liv[ing] well,” or as well as we could be. Indeed, many are using the virus as an opportunity to slow down, disconnect and make time for offline hobbies that are personally fulfilling. Going on social media only seems to exacerbate the boredom and stress that we’re all feeling.

Nevertheless, examples like Stewart’s and Godard’s also show us the ways in which social media and celebrity influence can be used for good — to share art, to spread new ideas, to offer an escape or brief moment of joy and, ultimately, to connect. Perhaps these are lessons we could carry into the future, when (if) “normal” returns.


Ramya Yandava is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Thursdays this semester.