Recall the last time you cried in public. Chances are you can. It’s not a pleasant experience but, for most of us, it’s memorable. Yet we largely never talk about the experience—pushing the moment to the back of our minds, only recurring when that one street, that one train stop, that one nightclub causes the memories to come flooding back. But what if there was a space to share your experiences, anonymously and with no repercussions—a space to not only share your own experience but read other strangers’ experiences too? Well, look no further. Depending on how you approach it, it’s entertaining at worst and therapeutic at best.
Sonia Weiser, the founder of the ‘Public Places Where We’ve Cried’ map explained how she started the collective project back in 2014 after she graduated college because she was “crying everywhere.” She said, “Since then, I’ve cried even more. I’m guessing you have too.” And she’s right, you’d be hard-pressed to find a person that hasn’t cried since 2014—even if they say they haven’t, they’re probably lying.
There’s comfort in knowing we’re not alone. Weiser tapped into that realisation, she continued: “Life is shitty. People cry. Everyone cries, and it’s not a weakness, it’s a strength. Add the places you’ve cried to this map by placing a pin on the exact location and typing out your story.” She goes on to emphasise how the map was designed to create a “safe space” to share experiences, not claiming to own anything written on the map. The project is purely community-driven, a completely anonymous documentation of a common experience—an experience which, on the whole, is largely stigmatised.
The beauty of the interactive map comes from its mystery: every anonymous post, dotted onto a different geographic location, tells a story. It feels almost like the digital version of a wall in the toilets of a grimy inner-city bar (only replace the ‘ACAB’ and drug dealer numbers with intimate, emotional stories). Some of these stories are more descriptive than others; each addition, however, paints a mental image—providing a snippet into a memorable experience felt by a complete stranger.
The experiences range from wholehearted to, quite frankly, pretty funny: one anonymous user placed a marker on the O2 Arena, London, after “seeing Roger Waters perform The Wall” because “how can you not cry at a Roger Waters concert?” Another anonymous user placed a mark on IKEA (isle 28 to be exact) in Brooklyn, New York because “who doesn’t cry in IKEA?” To be honest, as good as IKEA meatballs are and as disorientating the labyrinth of its shop is, I can’t say I ever have. Other entries take a more sobering note. In a small town in Virginia, US, one user posted: “I got the call that my uncle was dying and that I needed to leave work and to go to the ICU.”
What’s the point? You’d be mistaken for thinking this was a gimmick at first—and in many ways, it can be seen as that. But I like to think of it as more than that, it’s an important reminder that whatever we’re feeling at that certain point in time, thousands across the planet are probably experiencing the exact same thing. For most of the time, we live life with blinkers on—confined to our bubbles of experience. All it takes, however, is an interactive Google Map to burst that bubble—to remind ourselves that we’re not alone. Rather touching, don’t you think?
There seems to be less of an urgency associated with our current discussions around HIV/AIDS. Though still a source of stigma and lingering fear, HIV often appears to us as a tragedy of the previous generation. Alas, the pandemic is far from being over, and in 2017 an estimated 36.9 million people lived with HIV globally, including 1.8 million children.
Vulnerable populations and people living in low and middle-income countries are disproportionately affected by the virus, with over 65 percent of individuals living with HIV located in sub-Saharan Africa. In Russia and Eastern Europe, HIV diagnoses are at an all-time high, and in the United States infection rates among certain ethnic and racial minorities has increased in the past few years. What all of these populations share in common is a deadly concoction of meagre resources and prevalent conservatism, which prevents them from finding out their status and seeking help.
UNAIDS, the United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS, has set a goal of eliminating the epidemic worldwide by 2030. In order to achieve this ambitious target, the organisation has set an additional ‘90-90-90’ goal, according to which by 2020 90 percent of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status, 90 percent of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy, and 90 percent of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression. However, lack of awareness and crippling stigmas surrounding the disease make reaching these goals unlikely.
AIDSVu, an interactive online map that visualises the impact of HIV on communities across the U.S., offers a highly useful solution to this problem. Led by Patrick Sullivan, PhD, Professor of Epidemiology and co-director of the CFAR Prevention Science Core, the project uses data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local health departments, and prescription analytics in order to map out and track HIV statistics across 36 U.S. cities, 49 states, DC, and Puerto Rico.
Using AIDSVu’s interactive map, people can learn about the HIV epidemic reality in their state, county, or even zip code. In addition to providing statistics about diagnoses according to location, sex, race, and method of transmission, AIDSVu also help users locate services such as HIV prevention, testing, treatment, and clinical trials available in their communities. The website also offers focused information tool kits and experts’ views to particular groups that are vulnerable to HIV, such as trans people and youths.
One of the great advantages of AIDSVu is that it paints an incredibly vivid map of the HIV reality in the United States. Glancing at the statistics city by city, county by county, and state by state, one could immediately discern the troubling disparities that exist between communities in terms of access to information, care, and services, largely along lines of race and socio-economic background. In Pennsylvania, for instance, out of 34,233 individuals living with HIV 48.3 percent of them are African American and 16.4 percent are Hispanic/ Latinx. In Atlanta, black males are 5 times more likely to be living with HIV than white males and black females are 15 times more likely to contract the virus than their white counterparts. And the list goes on.
Furthermore, by making HIV statistics and services information so easily accessible online, AIDSVu significantly contributes to spreading awareness of the issue. As stigma, misconceptions, and fear still shroud the HIV/AIDS epidemic, many people prefer to remain in the dark and do not get tested, learn about prevention methods, or seek care. Disseminating such information online may grant a certain degree of anonymity and privacy to individuals who are afraid to openly consult their peers or community members about the issue.
While an increased number of government funded programs and formal education campaigns are needed in order to effectively tackle the HIV pandemic and meet the 2030 UNAIDS goal, an initiative such as AIDSVu could nonetheless provide an immense contribution to the fight against the virus. Imagine what an effect could such a platform have in a place like Tanzania or Nigeria—where openly seeking out HIV-related care could mean a death sentence.