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Here’s an interesting thought experiment: imagine for a moment that the famous Woodstock festival had been scheduled to take place in August 2020, smack dab in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, rather than in August 1969. The response would have been quick and immediate: cancel the event immediately, urge would-be concert goers to stay in their homes and practice good social distancing, and place an immediate ban on all travel into and out of Upstate New York. Sounds rational and logical, given the current dynamics in society today, right? After all, Coachella – arguably the most important music festival in the nation right now – canceled immediately in March 2020, and things are not looking good for other music festivals scheduled for the summer and early fall.
Well, 50 years ago, Woodstock actually did take place in the middle of a pandemic, and nobody seemed to really notice. The event went on as planned, the mainstream media focused instead on events related to the political and social upheaval of the times, and the 1968-1969 epidemic known as H3N2 largely went unnoticed and under the radar. This, despite the fact that the H3N2 pandemic killed over 100,000 people in the U.S. and over 1 million people worldwide. In August 1969, the pandemic was arguably at its peak, and yet there were no widespread calls to cancel the Woodstock event and quarantine an entire nation.
So what has changed in 50 years?
One major factor, of course, is the rise of social media and how it continues to influence not only current news narratives, but also how we think about and interpret historical events. The reality is that, even if an event is really a “non-event,” it can generate tremendous visibility and influence within society if it is talked about, promoted, and debated on social media. That’s especially the case if Hollywood celebrities and social media influencers get into the game, deploying a range of hashtags (#inittogether and #saferathome) to make it easier for people’s opinions and behaviors to gravitate towards a certain societal norm.
By way of comparison, let’s go back to the Woodstock example for a second. Even if you are too young to remember the cultural tumult of the late 1960’s, you probably have seen archival footage of the event or any of the many documentaries and films made about the event. You’re probably aware that some of the biggest music personalities of the era – including Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane – played at the event, and that the very word “Woodstock” has turned into shorthand for all the artifacts of the counterculture era – free love and free expression, peace symbols, tie-dyed t-shirts and bell bottom jeans.
But here’s the thing – much of the historical narrative of Woodstock was created AFTER the event took place. It was the traditional media that transformed Woodstock into a landmark event of cultural and historical significance, starting with the 1970 documentary film “Woodstock.” Prior to the event, there was not wall-to-wall social media coverage of the 1968-69 epidemic, and no social media influencers telling you what to think, what to wear, or how to act. And, this was still before the era of massive globalization, so coverage of events in far-flung locales (like Asia) was confined to a few media conglomerates.
Social media and historical filters
Contrast that to the current social media era, during which historical and cultural events are filmed, documented, analyzed and interpreted in real-time, without time for the “fog of war” to clear. In January and February, when social media clips were being leaked from China, coronavirus looked scary as hell. People were collapsing in the streets, people in hazmat suits were spraying down the streets of Wuhan, and rumors were circulating that the Chinese authorities were going house to house, in order to round up and quarantine people. Video clips of the people of Wuhan gathering on their urban balconies and wailing in unison (“Stay Strong, Wuhan”) in the evening were powerful and visceral.
So when the coronavirus made its way to America, people were already programmed to believe the worst. It’s not that social media created a media sensation out of nothing, but that it created so much hype around the “Wuhan flu” that the few voices downplaying the threat or warning about economic consequences were quickly drowned out. As soon as the hype began to build, that’s when the celebrities and influencers got into the game, tweeting out videos of themselves in quarantine (and sometimes acting very erratically). They urged us to stay in our homes, showed us how they were wearing masks on a daily basis, and worked hand-in-hand with traditional media to produce a certain narrative about the pandemic (to “flatten the curve,” everybody must do their part). You might say that they overlaid their own “historical filters” on the event, in the same way they would apply a filter to an Instagram photo.
The historical context
50 years after Woodstock, America is arguably facing the same type of cultural and social upheaval as we did back then. Fierce debates over wars in the Middle East have replaced debates over Vietnam. Social protests over immigration have replaced civil rights protests. And famous musicians continue to be cultural trendsetters. From a socio-economic or cultural perspective, little has really changed. What has changed, however, is how the filter of social media forces us to look at historical events and interpret them in real-time. It is easy to over-react when you are locked down at home and your social media feeds are all telling you to do the same thing. How else can we explain the surreal trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic and global economic lockdown in 2020? 50 years ago, this never would have happened.