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MI Diaries project documents Michiganders' lives during the coronavirus pandemic

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Posted at 9:26 PM, Feb 02, 2021

EAST LANSING, Mich. — If you kept a diary during the coronavirus pandemic, what would it say?

Would you talk about the toilet paper shortage or the protests or what it was like for your family during the lockdown?

At Michigan State University, a team of researchers in the Sociolinguistics Lab is making sure those changes are being documented.

The MI Diaries project was created in the spring by linguistics professors Betsy Sneller and Suzanne Wagner.

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“Michigan was just starting to go into lockdown, and we had a conversation immediately about how the lockdowns are such a big social change and are likely to have a really big impact on language," Sneller said.

That conversation led to questions: How could they document changes happening in people's lives? And how might their language be changing?

The solution they came up with was asking people to keep anonymous audio diaries.

“One of our goals is to capture stories from a diverse range of Michiganders. And by Michiganders, we mean anyone who is currently living in Michigan," Sneller said.

The team sends out questions every week to participants, and they are hearing from adults, teens, and children. Close to 200 people have submitted audio diary entries, around 95 of them are doing it consistently.

The team has been collecting audio diaries from participants since the beginning of April, placing selected excerpts on their website for people to hear.

"It’s kind of a little time capsule of the pandemic so far,” Sneller said.

“One thing that I noticed is at the beginning of the lockdowns; there was a lot of documenting new things," she said, new things that they noticed at parks or new things they were trying out.

The big thing that was happening over the summer was Black Lives Matter protests, Sneller said.

"We heard from participants who, despite wanting to social distance that it was more important for them to be out protesting,” she said.

As they moved to the fall of 2020, the tone of participants' diaries focused more on boredom and their mental health not doing so well, Sneller said.

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They also asked people about Michigan specific stories.

“So, when the flooding happened in Midland, we had diarist respond to that and tell us about their experience with the flooding," Wagner said. "We've asked about vacations in the summer. So if you took a vacation, did you camp this year in order to be more socially distanced?"

The project was initially callled MI COVID Diaries but they changed the name to MI Diaries in November because they plan to keep documenting the changes in Michiganders' lives even after the pandemic.

To build up trust with participants, members of their research team have also released some audio diaries.

Lindsay Moore is an MSU senior who is in charge of story selection and a part of the brand team.

"I think the generations that have lived through the quarantine and are old enough to recognize and understand the importance of this social isolation, probably will go about their days differently," Moore said in one snippet of her audio diary.

She said in an interview that, “It’s really interesting that we’ve become not only just a source for research but also kind of a social source for people to not feel so alone."

All of this data is going to a bigger cause. The project has a partnership with the Library of Michigan.

“When our project wraps up, we will deposit anonymize versions of recordings from participants who have agreed to it with the Library of Michigan," Sneller said. "So that their data can also be part of a bigger corpus of social documentation.”

Wagner says this is a project for Michiganders in a real way and that they are giving young people a chance to contribute to something that is lasting permanently.

“We want to leave a collection of stories that other people in Michigan can benefit over time," Wagner said. "There will always be a resource there where people can go and listen to these stories from this strange times we are living in.”

The MI Diaries Project wants to continue hearing from Michiganders about what's going on in their lives.

If you would like to participate, you can sign up online. Or, if you would like more information on The MI Diaries Project, click here.

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