If over 270 million people worldwide could watch something “together,” what should it be? In a period of enforced physical distancing, what claims to collectivity are being made on behalf of the livestream?
The Together at Home Instagram Live campaign is a particularly high-profile example of a new genre of online pandemic entertainment. The musical performance series was organized by Global Citizen, an international non-profit that describes itself as “a movement of engaged citizens who are using their collective voice to end extreme poverty by 2030,” and inaugurated with a performance by the organization’s festival curator and Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. Building on the extreme popularity of these Instagram Live performances, the organization quickly pivoted to planning a larger event in support of COVID-19 relief.
This subsequent relief event came to be titled One World: Together at Home. The spectacle consisted of a six-hour livestream “pre-show” on Saturday, April 18th, 2020, available to watch on platforms including Amazon Prime Video, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, followed by a two-hour television special broadcast on the aforementioned platforms alongside U.S. television channels such as NBC, ABC, and CBS and rebroadcast the next day in primetime on networks in at least 175 countries. Both pre-show and show offered a pre-recorded mix of celebrity appearances, musical performances, and statements from world leaders, interspersed with image montages of frontline workers. Curated by Lady Gaga and organized in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO), the livestream and television special was part of a campaign to raise money for the WHO’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. The broadcast itself was not a fundraiser, a fact reiterated throughout the special, but instead offered a platform for corporations to promote their economic support of the WHO campaign.
...the screen mediates experience like a mask, highlighting the division between self and other and chronicling those pictured within a narrative of crisis and resolve
I did not expect One World: Together at Home to be an exercise in radical political consciousness building (and it was not). But in our current moment, in which large-scale physical gatherings have been prohibited for the foreseeable future, examining the claims made on behalf of such events allows us to explore the political implications of the mass livestream and disassemble this particularly blatant equation of synchronous consumption with solidarity.
Parsing the event title into its two constitutive slogans—“one world” experienced via streaming entertainment “together at home”—we can see the contours of Global Citizen’s ethos: the concept of global citizenship and the gamification of social activism. In a 2016 TED talk, Hugh Evans, co-founder of the organization, defined a global citizen as “someone who self-identifies, first and foremost, not as a member of a state, a tribe, or a nation but as a member of the human race and someone who is prepared to act on that belief to tackle our world’s greatest challenges.” Echoing this language, COVID-19 has been described as a virus which “doesn’t respect borders.” But as the unequal impact of the virus has shown, a “global” experience is not the same as a “universal” one. Collapsing these concepts—such as by framing mass virtual experiences such as One World: Together At Home as grounds for solidarity—obscures the political claims at the heart of this production.
The One World event was framed not only in terms of an exercise in global citizenship but also as an historic event in simultaneous broadcasting, one in which over 270 million viewers around the world reportedly tuned in to watch on an unprecedented number of digital platforms. This is not, however, the first time that watching TV together has been cast as an exercise in global citizenship or collective solidarity. The first live, international satellite television event, Our World, was broadcast in 1967 amid Cold War tensions. While it was promoted as a global event, only fourteen countries contributed content and the show was only accessible in twenty-four countries. The shared experience of “liveness” and the witnessing of “our world” was, as media scholar Lisa Parks notes, “indistinguishable from Western discourses of modernization” in which participation in the global was predicated on access to advanced satellite broadcast technology. While Our World purported to be the first global media experience—the first time "the world" had watched TV together—production of the broadcast special was centred in the United Kingdom and Europe. Then, as now, the producers' vision of who constitutes "the world" was tethered to European and North-American cultural hegemony.
Like the team behind One World, the producers of the 1967 broadcast believed they were addressing a crisis of unforetold proportions. The theme of Our World was the “population explosion”—a concept which was declared a “crisis” by Western social scientists across the 1960s and that was (and still is) framed within the distinctly colonial terms of population control. Both broadcasts broke with the visual language of liveness to include montages of still images in an attempt to communicate the scope of the crisis at hand, whether hungry children in 1967 or exhausted healthcare workers in 2020. In both instances, the screen mediates experience like a mask, highlighting the division between self and other and chronicling those pictured within a narrative of crisis and resolve. Throughout the One World livestream, exhausted yet resilient healthcare workers were portrayed as “heroes”—mythical figures whose superhuman qualities drive the story along. Not unlike the images of global poverty included in the 1967 broadcast, the kind of solidarity displayed here merely aestheticizes dangerous labour rather than providing any critique of the structural conditions which have led to and often aggravated the effects of the respective public health crises.
Since the early days of the internet, people have shared information and experiences virtually when doing so in person was physically or socially impossible, but the current moment arguably represents something different. I hesitate to be prescriptive about what we should be watching instead, since that should and will look different for each community affected. But all this emphasis on “liveness” and narratives about how we’re going to get out of this have left me yearning for a bit more reflection on how we got here in the first place. Maybe solidarity looks a little bit less like representing the crisis and a little more like telling a story about how things could be different next time.