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Ask a few people how they feel about getting their COVID-19 vaccine and, once they finish complaining about the bureaucracy – the wait times, the long times spent on hold to the hotline – and, in some cases, the side effects – one word seems to resonate: emotional.
Among them is ABC Melbourne radio host Raf Epstein, who documented his entire vaccination experience this month for the network’s Facebook page. “Yes, I was emotional. It is one of the biggest challenges of our lifetime, and I was starting down the path of protection,” says Epstein, 50.
Celebrities who have shared “vaxxies” include (clockwise from left) the Duchess of Cambridge, Dolly Parton, Adam Liaw, Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein and Mariah Carey.Credit:Illustration: Jamie Brown
Epstein, like thousands of other “ordinary” Australians, have shared vaccine selfies, or “vaxxies” on social media to document their own dates with the syringe, following a trend started by international celebrities including the Duchess of Cambridge, Dolly Parton, Marc Jacobs and Mariah Carey (who posted an IGTV of her appointment).
And despite some cringe-worthy local examples – Scott Morrison’s Australian flag mask, media personality Eddie McGuire’s “nip slip” (see also: Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in full bare-chested glory), and Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein’s panther tattoo reveal among them – several experts agree the “vaxxie” could be the most significant social media trend of 2021.
Dr Crystal Abidin, associate professor of internet studies at Curtin University, says vaccine selfies are like the COVID-19 equivalent of the “democracy sausage” photos often posted around election time, only more personal. “It signals you are part of a movement and you are encouraging others to do the same,” she says.
The Prime Minister receives his vaccine in March. Credit:Edwina Pickles
Cara Waters, a business journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, hardly posts selfies; her Instagram is predominantly food shots and the odd travel snap. But she felt compelled to share a photo after her first Pfizer shot last week at Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building, where health officials have a purpose-built media wall encouraging people to share photos with the hashtag #jabdone.
“I felt a bit emotional getting the injection,” she says. “It’s been such a tough time, and … I wanted to do my bit to advocate for vaccines because there has been a lot of negative publicity.”
Waters, 41, says that in the absence of a federal government vaccination campaign, “people are taking it in to their own hands” to spread the word: I got the vaccine, I’m OK, and you should, too.
Abidin agrees that the selfies help the argument that vaccines are safe and can help resolve information vacuums or misinformation around the process.
Still, she says it’s naive to think that social posts, however viral we may think they are, necessarily reach people who commonly fall between the cracks, such as migrants, the elderly and other minority groups.
Lillian Kline, chief executive of impact investment firm Impact Outfit, agrees the overwhelmingly positive reaction she received to her selfie may be, at least partly, evidence of “my own echo chamber”.
“If I had any anti-vaxx friends they probably wouldn’t [publicly] say I’m an idiot [for getting vaccinated],” she says.
Lillian Kline and (inset) her vaxxie.
Kline says she is conscious vaccines are a “threshold” issue that could test some personal relationships but this made her even more motivated to share her experience.
“This is an issue people want to be on the record for. People I haven’t spoken to in a long time have engaged, or made comments [on my post],” she says, adding that commenting on or posting vaxxies was a way of “self validating” on the issue.
Waters says a vaxxie definitely feels different to other modes of online activism. “It’s different to the black squares [associated with Black Lives Matter in 2020] when people asked, ‘Are you actually doing anything positive?’ You are documenting the action you have taken [by getting a vaccine] – it’s not purely performative. I guess it would be purely performative if you stood at the vaccine hub and didn’t get [the shot].”
However, not everyone has jumped at the opportunity to share their vaxxie. Celebrity chef Adam Liaw was initially hesitant over concerns he might appear like he was bragging about getting the jab. But then his work as an ambassador for charity UNICEF, which campaigns against vaccine hesitancy, changed his mind. “There’s this kind of anti-vaxx ‘noise’ that is so loud and vocal that it has to be countered with normalising the process of getting the vaccine,” he says.
Liaw, who has 244,000 Instagram followers, accepts his vaxxie may attract some negative comments but he’s happy to leave them up “to have their concerns addressed and not ignored. It’s an education process.”
Aside from the trolling risk, the only other potential harm of vaxxies raised by some experts is how they may evolve as more younger people gain access to a vaccine. Some articles in foreign publications have focused on taking the “perfect” vaxxie, including which clothes to wear (more like Kate Middleton, less like the shirt-sleeved politicians).
Abidin says that although selfies are often derided as being shallow, in this case they are helping to dilute any embarrassment people might feel about publicising what is usually private.
“The more we talk about these things, the easier it is to share knowledge but also realise we are going through the same thing,” she says. “[Vaxxies] can be productive and powerful because people usually brush them aside … but they are doing important work and driving the conversation.”
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