11AM Pressers and the Comfort of the Live Event

A short note: This article was written back in July, when daily press conferences were still happening and Gladys Berejiklian was still Premier of NSW. This piece was originally published in print as part of EXTRA! EXTRA! Edition One. EXTRA! EXTRA! is a limited edition riso-printed newspaper run by Malcolm Whittaker for PACT Centre for Emerging Artists. A subscription to the four 2021 editions can be purchased here.

Sydney is in lockdown again, and with lockdown comes the resurgence of zoom activities. Living alone, I have combatted the lockdown loneliness by doing all of my regular activities as usual, while being virtually accompanied by all my friends. 

My daily walks around Centennial Park have now become an virtual partner activity, with my inner-west friend walking the Bay Run at the same time. We talk on the phone and share photos of the views we see on the way. My yoga and workout routines have migrated to zoom, where another friend and I stretch while chatting about our days, trying to overcome the grainy laptop screen and constantly buffering internet connection (thanks Optus!). My TV viewing has, too, become a communal activity with the help of Teleparty, an app which syncs up your Netflix screen with your friends’, allowing you to all chat while watching together. This app, of course, reportedly crashed from overuse in the early days of lockdown. So, sometimes my friend and I just do it the old fashion way: our fingers hovering over the play button at the right timecode as we try and coordinate “Are you ready to go? —Are you ready to go?—Yep—Same—OK, 3, 2, 1 PLAY—Wait, hang on, mine’s buffering now”, etc, etc.

This insistence on doing things at the same time as my friends, just for a fleeting sensation of connection, has caused me to reflect on the significance of shared time in creating meaningful social experiences.

Last year, as part of my Honours degree in Theatre at UNSW, I researched liveness in online performance—what is lost, and what is gained. Performance studies Professor Philip Auslander is one of the most prominent academic voices on the subject of liveness and has been writing about the topic since the early 1990s. In his 2012 journal article ‘Digital Liveness: A Historico-Philosophical Perspective’, Auslander describes the “default definition of live performance” as one in which “the performers and the audiences are both physically and temporally co-present to one another” (emphasis added).

This definition, with its twofold emphasis on physical presence and temporal presence, has stayed in my mind, both in its description of the different ways ‘liveness’ operates in the digital theatre world, and more broadly, how ‘liveness’ informs the way we socialise during lockdown. With lockdown robbing us of in-person socialising and in-person theatre performances, the significance of temporal co-presence is more important than ever. Following my research last year, I have concluded that the most important aspect of ‘live performance’ is not being in the same room as other people, but the experience of being in the same time as other people.

By this logic, the various forms of ‘liveness’ available via the internet’s social media services (Instagram and Facebook live, live YouTube premieres, live tweeting, etc) all come under the banner of ‘live performance’ because they all satisfy the most important element of live theatre: a shared, co-temporal communal experience. So, what is “temporal co-presence”, and what it is about shared live experiences, that make us feel so much less lonely in lockdown?

In his 2012 paper, Auslander acknowledges the social benefits of “digital liveness”:

Understood in this way, the experience of liveness is not limited to specific performer-audience interactions but refers to a sense of always being connected to other people, of continuous, technologically mediated temporal co-presence with others known and unknown. (emphasis added)

Philip Auslander. 2012. “Digital Liveness: A Historico-Philosophical Perspective”. PAJ: A Journal Of Performance And Art 34 (3): p. 6.

This concept of “always being connected to other people” could literally be a tagline for any one of the plethora of social media networks that dominate online culture today. In the last decade, various digital forums have emerged that allow for viewers to discuss live events as they unfold. Modern social media networks have recently recognised the importance of liveness and immediacy in the way users connect, with YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok all rolling out live streaming video functions in the last five years. An important part of these live streaming functions is the rolling comment section, where all the viewers who are existing together in this technological space can comment on the action and engage with one another.

The live stream function on social media platforms was originally used by celebrities and influencers to connect with their fans and answer questions. The celebrity can read and respond to the live comment section, making the often parasocial relationship between celebrity and fan feel less distant. The immediacy of Instagram Live creates an impression that fans are receiving a forbidden insight into celebrities’ unfiltered, private lives. Instagram Lives function as a more ‘authentic’ alternative to the perfectly planned, photoshopped posts found on the Instagram feed, and makes fans feel more connected to a celebrity, and to other fans. Famously, the wedding of Game of Thrones actress Sophie Turner and pop star Joe Jonas was announced to the world via Instagram Live, courtesy of their friend, celebrity DJ Diplo, live-streaming the ceremony to his six million followers, dog-face filters and all.

In recent years, the ubiquitous nature of social media has meant that ‘live streaming’ is no longer just for celebrity influencers, and now hosts important news announcements and political discussions that were once exclusively found on TV. Live cultural events like political speeches and debates, sporting events, TV show premieres and awards shows are regularly streamed live. These live events are then commented on, and narrated by, social media users who experience these events ‘together’ (temporally) while being apart (geographically). 

For Sydneysiders trapped in lockdown with minimal live cultural events to distract us (at least, until the Olympics arrive), the most reliable and popular event is the daily livestreamed broadcast of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s 11AM Covid-19 press conference. With the fate of more than five million locked down Sydneysiders resting in her hands, Gladys’ daily announcement of Covid-19 case numbers, and possible restriction updates, is a must-watch event. On Facebook alone, the NSW Health’s daily press conference livestream receives hundreds of thousands of views a day.

These videos are also home to the funniest phenomenon of lockdown (and the perfect illustration of live online spaces as a place of community and bonding): The Daily Pre-Press Conference Betting Game. Punters swarm the NSW Health Facebook livestream comment section to place their bets in nervous anticipation of Gladys’ arrival. The standard bet includes how many cases have been announced overnight and what colour Gladys is going to be wearing. Sophisticated punters will go into more detail, guessing testing numbers, Gladys’ most popular phrases, how many cases were active in the community, and what exactly she will be wearing. Commenters debate one another about the severity of lockdown, punishments for rule-breaking and the safety and availability of the vaccine.

A screenshot from the NSW Health Livestream Facebook comment section on August 4th, 2021

In her 2016 journal article Associate Professor Lena Kjeldsen observed that:

“The compression of time” on the internet “facilitates the creation of a communal social experience as viewers can discuss the event across physical settings”.

Lena Kjeldsen, 2016. “Event-As-Participation: Building A Framework For The Practice Of ‘Live-Tweeting’ During Televised Public Events”. Media, Culture & Society 38 (7): p.1073.

At a time where Sydneysiders are bored, stressed, lonely and isolated, the press conference comment section is a warm reminder that millions of other people are experiencing the exact same thing. By watching the conference together and discussing it live with friends and strangers alike, users find themselves a part of a community where they can debate and joke together. It’s a powerful tool in combatting the pervasive isolation of lockdown.

A screenshot from the NSW Health Livestream Facebook comment section on August 4th, 2021

In 2014’s ‘Together Alone: Motivations for Live-Tweeting a Television Series’ a group of Cambridge Media students investigated the reasons users live-tweet the show Downton Abbey. In interviews, they found the perfect metaphor for the social relationship between live-tweeting and going to the theatre:

…the difference between watching Downton Abbey with and without Twitter is “sort of like the difference between watching a movie at home on a DVD and watching the movie in a movie theatre. Like when you go to a movie theatre and you feel like you’re part of an experience because there are other people sharing it with you.”

Anonymous in Schirra, Steven, Huan Sun, and Frank Bentley. 2014.‘Together Alone: Motivations for Live-Tweeting a Television Series’. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, p. 2446.

Considering that movie theatres have been closed in Sydney for weeks now, it seems we must take solace in the metaphorical next best thing: the crowded theatre foyer of the NSW Press Conference comment section, buzzing with anticipation. It may not satisfy the human urge for touch and physical contact, but the temporal co-presence facilitated by these online spaces delivers a sense of support and community that many of us are desperately needing in these isolated times. 

So, organise that zoom event, call your friend, have a virtual movie night with your family. It may not be the same as in-person contact, but knowing that someone else, no matter how far away, is experiencing the exact same thing with you, at the exact same time as you, is pretty comforting. 

So, 11AM tomorrow? The NSW Health Facebook Live Chat? I’ll see you there. 

Jo Bradley

Subscribe to EXTRA! EXTRA!, a limited edition riso-printed newspaper run by Malcolm Whittaker for PACT Centre for Emerging Artists, to receive a print copy of this article.

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