For those knowledgeable about these things, apparently being number one on BuzzFeed Trending and Facebook Trending is “huge.” The frenzy included mainstream media with articles and interviews appearing in the Washington Post, The Guardian and The Independent, as well as on CNN, Canadian television, BBC Radio 5, South African radio and the list goes on and on. On one site alone the photo received more than one million likes.
I have been inundated with emails, Facebook friendship requests and hundreds, possibly thousands of comments. It is impossible to keep up. Comments have included “Teacher of the Year” and “Feminist Hero.” As a clinical community and organizational psychologist, however, I am fascinated as much by what has not been said as by what has been said.
If I try to sum up what has been said by both journalists and lay commentators, it seems to boil down to this: How refreshing to see education with a human face, and issues of family and parenting addressed in a fresh way. The former articles concentrate on how education should be more than merely content and how educators should be more than content providers. The latter focus on how difficult it is to balance family and educational demands on one’s time and energy, and how to continue parenting when the social environment is not necessarily supportive.
As important as these issues are, there are equally interesting and significant issues that emerge from the reactions to the photo that have not been mentioned. Even articles ostensibly dealing with why the photo went viral concentrated on the event itself rather than the phenomenon.
So what can we learn? I would suggest at least three insights. They relate to the phenomenon itself; to the flood of responses; and to the subtext or music underlying the many, many individual comments. All three are based on a single common assumption. The assumption is that despite the pace of technological change and the digital world we live in, millions of years of evolution cannot be so easily erased.
The implication is that we have been and we remain social animals. As such, our needs for support, intimacy and belonging remain unchanged. This view is captured in an image circulating, where else, on the Internet. It shows a group of young people sitting and playing guitars and singing in union, together with another image of a group with everyone totally absorbed in their smartphones. The caption reads, “Remember when being together was like this?,” referring, of course, to the group singing and interacting with one another.
The first insight is what Seymour Sarason, over 40 years ago, called the psychological sense of community. In his own words, “(It is) the sense that one (is) part of a readily available, mutually supportive network of relationships upon which one (can) depend and as a result of which one (does) not experience sustained feelings of loneliness that impel one to actions or to adopting a style of living masking anxiety and setting the stage for later and more destructive anguish.”
To use a rather old-fashioned concept, it is the antithesis of alienation. So much of what I have experienced over these past weeks seems to be a search for such a psychological sense of community. People are asking for friendship, looking for connections, searching for meaning. They seem to feel that the possibility of finding these are hinted at in the photo and that by turning to me on the Internet they can have these needs met.