The cure to doomscrolling blues? Chicago professor's #SomethingBeautiful hashtag strikes a COVID-19 chord worldwide.

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CHICAGO — The bleakness of the COVID-19 pandemic recalls another time when social media sites like Twitter were overflowing with contention — the 2016 presidential election. Back then, Ada Palmer, a University of Chicago associate professor of history, wanted to do something about it, she said.

“I noticed how much Twitter was filling up with pain, hate and blame and criticism,” Palmer said. “I decided when we really do need to be looking at news — because Twitter is some of the fastest and, in a strange way, most reliable crowdsourced news — there needs to be some kind of psychological break from the constant flow of hate and fear.”

Palmer started the #SomethingBeautiful campaign, posting beautiful photos every hour on the day of the election and the day after.

The response she received from people then was so positive, she decided to bring it back in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began. In just a few months, the hashtag has garnered an international following.

Palmer said for the first week or two of quarantine, she posted pictures (many of hers hail from museums and historical sites) and did it every hour, on the hour. Other people would send in their pictures of animals, food, art, flowers — anything that one considers beautiful to share with the world, including sunrises and a seed in a cobweb in Holland.

“Over time, as more people started doing it, I posted less often,” Palmer said. “Now I think it’s four or five a day, as other people keep it up.”

There are posts from England, Canada, Finland and a person from Scotland, who posts adorable pictures of Highland cows. Palmer said it’s fun to see the beauty spreading globally.

“Some people join in a few times during the week, some people do it multiple times a day, some people have done it just once,” said Palmer, who is currently studying censorship for a book she’s writing. “It’s a thing to look forward to, and it’s a thing to intersperse in the rest of your timeline to give you that little bit of rest in the middle of consuming the news that you really do need.”

She and other fans of the hashtag make a point of trying to reshare the posted pictures every day, she said.

As someone with a combination of Crohn’s disease and polycystic ovary syndrome, Palmer faces an unpredictable level of chronic pain on any given day, she said. And in trying to better understand her condition, Palmer said she has been doing research on it since 2016.

So by the time the pandemic hit, she said she knew how to put a name to the negative feelings she had in those two days of 2016 — the negativity that hurts.

“I think we’ve all had that feeling … it’s called trauma, and it does lead to both short-term problems, like trouble sleeping, and long-term problems, like increased risk of depression and anxiety,” she said. “I had already done a lot of the work that other people are now learning about: How do I cope with trying to be productive while in pain?”

Palmer’s plan for #SomethingBeautiful is to keep it going through the pandemic to help those who can’t stop doomscrolling (obsessive perusing of social media causing physical discomfort). And when the World Health Organization declares the pandemic over, Palmer said there may be a celebratory finale.

“I bet people will keep it up, probably me, too, since there will never be a downside to having small moments of happiness amid the news,” Palmer said. “Twitter is a very valuable source … but it needs to have that break — little moments of something happy. Every day when you’re exposing yourself to traumatic fear and stress, you’re alternating with moments of uplifting beauty.”


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