Richard Jean So | How a Pandemic Becomes a Story: Narrative and Social Crisis in the Platform Age

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Join us for the next lecture in our Digital Horizons series, presented in partnership with the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA).

As the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, critics and scholars have begun to ask: how will culture (fiction, film, TV) memorialize this massive social crisis? What will be the COVID-19 "narrative"? However, since early 2020, tens of thousands of ordinary online users, on popular writing platforms like Wattpad, have been writing about COVID-19 (i.e. #Covid) in real time.

This talk combines computational and critical methods, leveraging the affordances of Internet data, to study how individuals internalized COVID-19 by writing stories about it, ad hoc and before anyone knew how the story would end. What kinds of stories did they write? What kinds of social worlds did they imagine? How did those stories evolve over time, as the world learned more about the pandemic? More broadly, this talk reflects on the impact of new writing platforms on how we understand the relationship between writing and social representation, models rooted traditionally in pre-Internet print culture. How are such platforms changing what it means to narrate a social event? How is user generated content impacting traditional publishing—how is #Covid19 anticipating the novels, films, and TV shows to come

Related Reading

Redlining Culture: A Data History of Racial Inequality and Postwar Fiction. Forthcoming, Columbia University Press, 2020.

Transpacific Community: America, China, and the Rise and Fall of a Cultural Network. Columbia University Press, 2016.

"Race and Distant Reading." With Edwin Roland. PMLA, vol. 135, no. 1 (2020), special issue on "Varieties of Digital Humanities."

About the Speaker

Richard Jean So is associate professor of English and Cultural Analytics at McGill University. He works at the intersection of cultural analysis and data science, with a particular interest in cultural institutions, online platforms, racial inequality, and social movements. His most recent book is Redlining Culture: A Data History of Racial Inequality and Postwar Culture (Columbia UP 2021), and he has published articles in humanistic journals, such as PMLA and Critical Inquiry, scientific proceedings, such as EMNLP, and public-facing venues, such as the New York Times and the Atlantic. He is writing Fast Culture, Slow Justice: Storytelling and Social Movements in the Platform Age, a study of how online writing platforms, such as Twitter and Wattpad, and their interaction with recent social movements, such as #BLM, have transformed how we talk and write about race.

About the Series

Launched in 2022 in partnership with the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), Digital Horizons is a lecture series at the intersection of the humanistic and the technological.

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