How the story of 2020 was told on social media

Lawrence Bury

22 Jul 2020

This year has been a consequential one, a year of social unrest and international health crisis, it’s a time we’ll tell future generations about. But what are the platforms which we will use to document these times? From the surge in popularity of TikTok, to Facebook and Twitter being used by people to relay their unique experiences with civil rights movements, COVID-19, or just their local pub shutting down, social media has been an influential platform for both individuals and businesses alike.

In 1964 Marshall McLuhan stated that: “The medium is the message.” He saw that the platforms on which we tell stories are as compelling as the stories themselves. So then, what do some of the trends on social media in 2020 tell us about how we communicate what’s been going on?

We’ve all seen kids on TikTok dancing to music and posting silly pranks. The Chinese-owned, video-first mobile app (rebranded from in 2018) has captured an incredible amount of engagement in recent months. It uses an adaptive algorithm which can learn the subject matters that interest you most. That technology combined with a lot of collective free time, is a recipe for massive social media attention and consumption. By the middle of 2020, TikTok is nearly at 1 billion active users, with 1.5 billion total downloads to date.

In the context of COVID-19, many people turned to the app to understand how others were experiencing lockdowns around the world. The discover #foryou page opened users up to content they weren’t necessarily subscribed to, but which it predicted they’d be interested in. When Boris Johnson announced new, stricter UK lockdown measures in spring, the rate of downloads in the UK alone surged by 34%. From ideas on hosting a ‘stay at home rave’ to doctors informing us how to be more mindful whilst in isolation, the app has proved to be an invaluable forum for creativity and discovery amongst people sheltering from the storm.

Long-established platforms like Twitter and Facebook have been sources of contention and debate during these trying times. Facebook refused to denounce a Donald Trump post, which caused many brands to move their marketing budget from the platform. Twitter took action to limit tweets of his that were deemed untrue or inflammatory; a move that seems seismic – a President’s tweet being deemed too damaging for public consumption. The tragic death of George Floyd, documented in a Facebook video by 17-year old Darnella Frazier, gave rise to arguably one of the biggest civil rights movements in recent times, spreading beyond the US to spur protests and action around the world. A vast swelling of human energy was released from a single Facebook video.

I took to the streets in London to try and capture the movement and take pictures that aimed to document the feelings and energy of the massive crowd. Using Instagram, I was able to share what I saw at the march and add to the narrative in my own way. Instagram, with both ‘Stories’ and ‘Posts’ becomes a platform for documenting and recording the key moments in our collective modern history. It felt like Instagram was enabling those who couldn’t participate to understand the spirit of the marches. You can find some of the pictures I was able to take here

When we were all captivated by cat videos in the 2000’s on YouTube, or trying to understand what ‘lol’ meant on MSN, did we fully appreciate the raw power that social media would have by 2020? For many, being able to watch an educational podcast on YouTube about racism or being able to recreate their favourite scene from Dirty Dancing on TikTok, social media has been both a disruptive and cathartic force amongst significant and unusual times.