Yi Dahua is a Chinese student in Turin, Italy. Although he only started vlogging about his overseas student life recently, in February 2020, he has already made a major breakthrough in viewership after the outbreak of coronavirus in Northern Italy in March. In his now viral vlogs, he presents how Italian citizens are experiencing the coronavirus crisis though videos shot in supermarkets, street corners and from his balcony. These vlogs, published on Dahua’s Weibo account, become an information source for Chinese audiences, which allows them to “flesh out” the pandemic situation in Italy.
Dahua’s ascendance to micro-celebrity status illustrates the “boundary-blurred” public sphere where distinct public actors, different storytelling genres and community dynamics co-construct public communication about the pandemic.
Becoming a witness to the coronavirus pandemic
Yi Dahua updates his vlogs on multiple Chinese and global social media platforms. When these short videos started, they introduced his mundane student life in Turin. Like many Chinese international students in Europe, Dahua holds mixed opinions about European lifestyle and culture, and tries to play a role of cross-cultural communicator to his vlogs' audience. These early videos, however, did not gain much visibility on the internet.
Virality came all of a sudden, when a video come out in which Dahua ran errands in the city of Turin on the first day of the national lockdown of Italy. Several newly emerged Weibo hastags were added to the video title including # fighting against the pandemic in Italy, #pandemic in Italy, #pandemic around the globe, and fighting against the pandemic overseas. In these hashtags, we can observe the vlogger’s active design of his communicative context. Overseas studies and student lifestyle is an established genre in the Chinese vlogging world and its audience is mainly composed of students. However, Dahua quickly fine-tuned his content production to feature quarantined student life and the hashtags helped him to target wider audiences beyond the student cohort. In other words, the vlogger injected his content into the global and local media hype of the coronavirus crisis.
Another important factor contributing to the virality of Dahua’s vlogs is mainstream news media’s uptake. The news channel of China Central Television (CCTV), the state-owned news outlet, reposted his vlog on Weibo. This is a key incident in which we can observe the boundary-blurred public sphere where news reporting is conducted by both professionals and ordinary citizens.
Sourcing from user-generated content on social media is a significant journalistic practice in today’s converged media landscape. Although we can regard this practice as aiming to amplify the voices from below, or as the empowering effect of digital media, we can also understand it as an unexpected outcome of the management of journalistic infrastructure according to geopolitical concerns.
The timely reportage of international events relies on the infrastructural arrangement of a news institution, which sets up overseas news desks and dispatches correspondence. Most outlets distribute their technological and human resources like a web, hence the term “news web”. The holes on this web are not evenly knitted. The web is tighter, thus more capital is spent, in places which are assumed to yield more newsworthy events. In this sense, preparatory journalistic routines reproduce geopolitical concerns.
For example, in continental Europe, we assume that events deserving global coverage will mostly emerge in metropoles such as Berlin, Paris and Brussels. While it is understandable that news workers follow the agenda of political and economic institutions which are located at those places, natural disasters and the spread of a pandemic recognize no geopolitical boundaries. When the earthquake and tsunami hit Indonesia in 2004, reporters of prestigious news outlets failed to bring first-hand footage back home, simply because most news workers were sent to the Middle East, not Indonesia. Starting from that year, the concepts of citizen journalism and citizen witnessing began to be discussed widely amongst the public.
The vlog is the surrogate eye of Chinese audiences back home.
Although there are Chinese reporters in Italy, news coverage has been following safety measures and statistics on a general level. Moreover, the pandemic directly affects the mobility and gathering of people, rendering face-to-face journalistic interviews difficult. In this scenario, the aesthetic of “self-disclosure” and “documenting the ordinariness” imbedded in vlogging culture plays a critical informative function in the communication of the pandemic.
Yi Dahua’s vlog conveys a sense of authenticity by illustrating how real people are struggling on the ground. CCTV also introduces his video in this way by posting it with the description “let’s have a walk on streets in Italy to see how people are fighting against the pandemic”. The vlogger hence becomes the witness of the pandemic. The vlog is the surrogate eye of Chinese audiences back home.
Here we need to consider the similarities and differences between vlogging and witnessing. Bearing witness is self-reflective and it involves two steps. An individual sensory experience is followed by a speech act to make the experience public for those who were absent from the scene. The urge to tell in witnessing can be motivated by moral obligation, for instance the belief that the public deserves the truth. In comparison, a vlogger also tells their individual experience, although no one ever asks. The confessional and self-disclosing urge is encouraged by the design of social media platforms which promotes sharing and branding oneself.
In a boundary-blurred public sphere, labelling every netizen a journalist would be stretching the concept of citizen journalism too far. Camera-equipped smart phones and digital media make it habitual for users to document routine events in their lives. When emergency public events like a pandemic happen, the imagery produced by ordinary people also plays an informative role, complementing mainstream news reports.
Distant suffering, home understanding
Journalistic reports on distant suffering can be tricky, as they engage with both closeness and distance. On the one hand, journalists need to bring audiences close to the experience that is geographically and culturally distant. On the other hand, such experience needs to be clarified, made logical and understandable through a home conceptual model. Vlogging has a similar logic. Self-disclosure and self-representation center on “me”, a personal interpretation of the world.
Interestingly, the overseas student’s vlog implements similar contextualization cues with that of Chinese mainstream news reports on coronavirus in Europe. What happened in Italy is not only considered as distant suffering, but also a familiar plot that already been played out in China. On March 10, the first day of the national lockdown of Italy, Yi Dahua walked out of his student house. In the video of this, he is seen heading to an Apple Store in Turin and buying an iPhone for filming better quality videos. Along the way, he notes that fewer people are on the street due to the safety policies.
A central theme of the vlog is a humorous complaint that people on the street do not wear mouth masks. Yi Dahua believes that citizens in Turin have not yet realized the gravity of the pandemic. Protecting oneself by using a mask is a conceptual model of how Chinese news reports and public opinions understand the pandemic safety measures. In early February, massive anecdotal news stories in China featured innovative ways to implement mouth mask policies in public places. Drones were hovering above street corners, surveilling and reminding anybody without a mask that they need one. Public announcements within communities and villages were shouted out through gigantic loudspeakers, asking people to wear masks. Under such consitions, the image of “no mask in public” is easily interpreted as signalling ignorance, arrogance, lack of discipline, and danger.
Therefore, the overseas student’s vlog and wider Chinese reports on coronavirus in Europe are infused with a sense of blame and anxiety. The crisis in Italy is understood from a Chinese perspective, not only because the pandemic has developed earlier in Chinese cities, but also because audiences cast the capability and possibility of domestic safety measures onto foreign countries. However, the efficacy of mask protection is still highly debatable as medical knowledge, and it is introduced in widely differen ways from country to country.
A community of “no mask anxiety”
Mass media create what Benedict Anderson calls imagined communities. For example, although we may have never spoken to our neighbors next door, we feel comradery of living in Brabant. This is because Omroep Brabant makes news out of local happenings, addressing us with the images of familiar street corners and happy carnival celebrators.
It is a community of anxious feeling and the members communicate through digital practices to soothe and relieve their anxiety.
Vlogging culture also creates communities. Yi Dahua’s vlog receives wide publicity and helps him to accumulate fan bases on different social media platforms. The design of Weibo easily affords community building through fan group chat. Now there are more than 1,200 fans of the vlogger exchanging their opinions and experiences with the coronavirus crisis. Many of them are overseas students who feel helpless and less protected by the safety measures in the countries in which they study.
Yi Dahua’s fan base is a light community of the digital age par excellence. Celebrity following seems to be anying but light. Fans usually attach intense emotion to a star and conduct intensive media consumption. However, Dahua’s fans only come into groupness because of their frustrated experience with coronavirus policies in foreign countries. It is a community of anxious feeling and the members communicate through digital practices to soothe and relieve their anxiety. The intangible affect and the tangible communicative practices constitute the fiber that shapes the dynamic of this digital community.
How are we informed in a boundary-blurred public sphere?
The topic of the coronavirus crisis has developed into a media hype, whereby long-lasting and highly frequent information flows flood into our media landscape. Information is generated from distinct public actors and narrated with different storytelling structures; it thus shapes varied community dynamics.
However, we should also be cautious and note that not every piece of information aims at clarifying the current pandemic scenario. Politicians, as elite communicators with established media visibility, can bypass the gatekeeping role of journalism and abuse public health communication to advance their own political agenda. Vloggers are newly emergent gatekeepers. For one, they are able to report authentic lived experiences. Further, this personal and self-representational approach to a public event filters through the human impact and filters out the structural forces associated with that event.
The coronavirus crisis urges us to reflect on the boundary-blurred public sphere. Statistic modelling, contested medical knowledge, economic decisions, political concerns and personal stories all claim for their own validity. It is also no longer easy to separate facts from affect. In this scenario, the public is informed more, but not necessarily informed well with accuracy and objectivity.