Where We Care: Local Attention in a Platformized Pandemic

A mother and daughter walk past​ a closed shop during the COVID-19 lockdown in London, UK. Photo: Edward Howell
Scott Rodgers explores the novelties and continuities of emergent, very local uses of social media during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what they indicate about our deepening interdependencies with platforms.

On Thursday March 19, 2020, a few days after Britain had entered into lockdown, a recording was circulating through WhatsApp groups. The male voice, sounding mostly credulous, though marked by a subtle tinge of humor that could easily be missed, began with a familiar premise: “Also, just so you know, um, my sister, her boyfriend’s, um, brother works for the Ministry of Defence…” He went on to describe how, in an apparent effort to address problems in distributing food to people trapped in their homes, a “massive lasagna” was being carefully prepared that was the size of London’s Wembley Stadium. In fact, not just the size of the stadium, the venue itself was being used to cook the dish, becoming an enormous oven using special heaters under the pitch, with the retractable roof closed. The lasagna would then be sliced up and dropped directly into people’s homes using “loads of drones”. “Yeah, I think, I’m looking forward to that”, the voice says at the end of the recording, “because I do quite like lasagna as well.”

The voice was later revealed to be that of a 29-year-old Londoner, who had ad-libbed the clip as a parody of “viral” posts circulating around various social media, claiming to share inside information from authoritative sources such as medical researchers, local doctors or government officials. He had sent his recorded clip to a small WhatsApp group of friends, some of whom then sent it on to other friends and family. Within hours the clip had made its way back to him. It had quickly travelled around the world, apparently was taken seriously by many, and shared back by people not recognizing he was the narrator.

The story is just the kind of quirky tale that a web-conscious news outlet like The Guardian would latch onto. Yet it also represents one parable among many being told to illustrate the relatively abrupt shift, at least in the UK, to much more localized uses of social media during the COVID-19 pandemic. WhatsApp (acquired by Facebook in 2014) – and its association with the spread of mis- and disinformation — is already well established in nations such as India and Brazil.1I thank Tanya Lokot for reminding me of WhatsApp’s earlier growth and problematization in non-Western contexts Its rising profile in Western contexts during the pandemic has been more of a surprise, where messaging (as well as videoconferencing) apps quickly became indispensable for people to network locally, with those they trust or are in some way proximate, as friends, family, coworkers and neighbors. For some commentators, one reason messaging platforms like WhatsApp have been vectors of mis- and disinformation is that its users groups are so often very local. They are less exposed to, and perhaps less worried about, scrutiny being directed at their contributions by those less proximate, even compared to other very local forms of social media, such as Nextdoor or neighborhood Facebook groups.

Under the various levels of enforced social distancing introduced during the pandemic, such localized uses and forms of social media have also been vital for different kinds of mutual aid and mobilization. In the UK, for example, the volunteer-run Covid-19 Mutual Aid network strongly encourages local support groups to coordinate their activities by using communication platforms such a WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Zoom. More generally, and perhaps unsurprisingly, there have been increases in the use of digitally mediated communication services during the pandemic. In a survey of adults in the United States, Italy and Switzerland, researchers found that 43% of people reported increased use of messaging apps to maintain contact with others, closely following by significant increases in social media use and videoconferencing.

It is perhaps all too easy to get sucked into a narrative of social media and platform-driven transformation. As Myria Georgiou has pointed out, the hyperlocal forms of solidarity and mutual support seen during the pandemic have deeper roots. The density of such networking in urban areas owes much, Georgiou argues, to already-well-developed forms of inner city organizing, which have shown their strength following tragedies such as London’s 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster. Such networks have also learned lessons from the experiences of broader grassroots movements. The seemingly novel intensity of conversations and mutual support through very local uses of social media, she observes, is built predominantly on the familiarity of local places and the social connections they offer.

There is a seeming contradiction in the apparently sudden sense that social media and other platforms operate in these very localized ways. Public debates, as well as much academic literature, often describe large-scale digital platforms in terms of their translocality; as embodying a kind of extra-national political-economic sovereignty2Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 2016); Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity, 2017). that creates unprecedented governance challenges for local and national governments alike.3Robert Gorwa, ‘What Is Platform Governance?’, Information, Communication & Society 22, no. 6 (2019): 854–71; José van Dijck, Thomas Poell, and Martijn de Waal, The Platform Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018). The ways in which communication platforms such as Facebook or Twitter upscale new voices or help to amplify information (including mis- and disinformation)4danah boyd, ‘Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications’, in A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites, ed. Zizi Papacharissi (New York: Routledge, 2010), 47–66; Helen Margetts et al., Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017); Zizi Papacharissi, Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). are often connected to the relatively nonlocal technical dynamics and standards such platforms bring to local settings.5Christina Alaimo and Jannis Kallinikos, ‘Social Media and the Infrastructuring of Sociality’, in Thinking Infrastructures, ed. Martin Kornberger et al., vol. 62 (2019): 289–306.

The locality of social media is not, however, all that novel or surprising. Academic research on the relationships of media and cities,6Shannon Mattern, Code + Clay… Data + Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); Scott McQuire, Geomedia: Networked Cities and the Future of Public Space (Cambridge: Polity, 2016). the geographies of communication7Karin Fast et al., eds., Geomedia Studies: Spaces and Mobilities in Mediatized Worlds (London: Routledge, 2017). and especially location-based technologies8Leighton Evans, Locative Social Media (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015); Eric Gordon and Adriana de Souza e Silva, Net Locality : Why Location Matters in a Networked World (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011); Rowan Wilken, Cultural Economies of Locative Media (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019). has already provided ways of thinking about the inherent locality of social media platforms. For one, social media, increasingly accessed via mobile technologies, structurally rely on and produce geospatial data, whether this is volunteered by users or automatically generated by their practices of use. But social data is not only technically localized. As Yanni Loukissas puts it, they are also culturally localized, as “artifacts created by people, and their dutiful machines, at a time, in a place, and with the instruments at hand for audiences that are conditioned to receive them”.9Yanni A. Loukissas, All Data Are Local: Thinking Critically in a Data-Driven Society (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2019), 1–2.

This reminder about the cultural milieus of digital platforms and their data seems to demand academic scholars think carefully about what it means for “platforms” to intervene, mediate or disrupt at a time like the current pandemic. Recent years have seen a growing chorus of criticism directed at platform companies as such, focusing on their policies (e.g. related to excluding users or content), or their business models based on monetizing user contributions and metadata which, for some, mark an new era of capitalism.10Srnicek, Platform Capitalism. Closely connected to these criticisms, though in certain ways analytically distinct, are analyses in software studies that have helpfully specified the type of technical architectures through which platforms have exerted so much control over digital space. For example, Anne Helmond’s work considers how Facebook has gone from “website” to “platform” by building elaborate rules that govern data flows between its own services and external third-party websites and apps.11Anne Helmond, ‘The Platformization of the Web: Making Web Data Platform Ready’, Social Media + Society 1, no. 2 (2015): https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305115603080. These critiques have helped to build momentum for better regulation of the unprecedented size and power of platforms, both as companies and technological ecosystems. As Jonathan Cinnamon suggests, the same critiques also create a context for many platforms to see COVID-19 as a strategic opportunity to grow economically, while also demonstrating their public value.12Jonathan Cinnamon, ‘Platform Philanthropy, “Public Value”, and the COVID-19 Pandemic Moment’, Dialogues in Human Geography 10, no. 2 (2020): 242–45.

A concern for economic and technological dynamics has dominated debates about platforms, and to some extent also the growing literature on “platform urbanism”13Sarah Barns, Platform Urbanism: Negotiating Platform Ecosystems in Connected Cities (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020); Jathan Sadowski, ‘Cyberspace and Cityscapes: On the Emergence of Platform Urbanism’, Urban Geography 41, no. 3: 448–52. – including in the pages of this journal. Less attention has been given, however, to platforms as experiential infrastructures of everyday living and organization in cities 14Sarah Barns, ‘Negotiating the Platform Pivot: From Participatory Digital Ecosystems to Infrastructures of Everyday Life’, Geography Compass 13, no. 9: https://doi.org/10.1111/gec3.12464.; Scott Rodgers and Susan Moore, ‘Platform Phenomenologies: Social Media as Experiential Infrastructures of Urban Public Life’, in Urban Platforms and the Future City: Transformations in Infrastructure, Governance, Knowledge and Everyday Life, ed. John Stehlin et al. (London: Routledge, 2020). and other localities. Platforms and other digital technologies are not fully-formed instruments of power, but rather form the “lossy”,15Robert Payne, ‘Lossy Media: Queer Encounters with Infrastructure’, Open Cultural Studies 2, no. 1 (2018): 528–39. “quirky”16David Beer, The Quirks of Digital Culture (Bingley: Emerald Publishing, 2019). and “glitchy”17Agnieszka Leszczynski, ‘Glitchy Vignettes of Platform Urbanism’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 38, no. 2 (2020): 189-208. social and technical conditions in which we increasingly live. So, it is not enough to critique or challenge platform power. Instead, the current pandemic has brought some focus to the need to negotiate our deepening interdependencies with platforms.

One of the ways these interdependencies are taking shape is the changing conditions in which we care for local life. Care has cropped up as a keyword in recent geographical writing related to the pandemic and its related crises, which often draws on perspectives emphasizing the “substance of care” as an ethical responsibility.18Victoria Lawson, ‘Geographies of Care and Responsibility’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 97, no. 1 (2007): 1–11. In the context of current mutual aid practices, for example, Simon Springer sees care as the everyday ways in which people show “a proclivity for compassion that radiate in spite of this pandemic.”19 Simon Springer, ‘Caring Geographies: The COVID-19 Interregnum and a Return to Mutual Aid’, Dialogues in Human Geography 10, no. 2 (2020): 112. An appreciation of care in these registers is obviously important, valuable and hopeful.

The sense of care I am referring to here, however, is phenomenological, indicating a basic structure of being in the world. To “care” for the local can be deep concern or love, but it can also be disinterest or disregard.20Hubert L Dreyfus, Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 238. Taking a stance on (caring about) the local depends on our taken-for-granted localized situations. Indeed, we most often treat “local” as self-evident. It is simply here or there and it matters. However, this smoothness of local experience owes much to the production of locality.21Arjun Appadurai, ‘The Production of Locality’, in Counterworks: Managing the Diversity of Knowledge, ed. R. Fardon (London: Routledge, 1995), 208–29. We experience a locality, such as a named urban neighborhood, as relatively durable because it is constantly reproduced by various discourses, technologies and institutions, which are largely withdrawn in our daily practices.

Bernard Stiegler’s broadly related notion of “attention” brings us even closer to thinking about how local care depends in particular on the technical conditions afforded by digital platforms.22Bernard Stiegler, Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010); Bernard Stiegler, ‘Relational Ecology and the Digital Pharmakon’, Culture Machine 13 (2012): 1–19. Stiegler’s notion of attention is chiefly an argument around the conditions under which digital technologies are “generating” subjects with limited capacities to maintain an urbane or civil society. However, it also provides a way to think about how objects of care such as locality are exteriorized into technical objects and infrastructures.23 Patrick Crogan and Samuel Kinsley, ‘Paying Attention: Towards a Critique of the Attention Economy’, Culture Machine 13 (2012): 1–29. As Kinsley puts it in a helpful blog commentary:

Attention, as a capacity, is always and already situated in a socio-technical milieu, within which it is invited, cajoled, conditioned and broken. This has not least been brought into sharp relief in the contemporary milieu by global communications networks, and how they are searched, and “always on” social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Long before the current pandemic, our local experiences were already becoming more and more digitalized. We use search engines to find local information,24Andrea Ballatore, Mark Graham, and Shilad Sen, ‘Digital Hegemonies: The Localness of Search Engine Results’, Annals of the American Association of Geographers 107, no. 5 (2017): 1194–1215. inhabit polygon-delineated Nextdoor neighborhoods25Will Payne, ‘Welcome to the Polygon: Contested Digital Neighborhoods and Spatialized Segregation on Nextdoor’, Computational Culture 6 (2017): http://computationalculture.net/welcome-to-the-polygon-contested-digital-neighborhoods-and-spatialized-segregation-on-nextdoor/. and help shape awareness of a nearby high street when we retweet the posts of Twitter-savvy local businesses.26John Bingham-Hall and Stephen Law, ‘Connected or Informed?: Local Twitter Networking in a London Neighbourhood’, Big Data & Society 2, no. 2 (1 December 2015): https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951715597457. These technologies build on many which came before, in which we have learned and relearned to care for the local.

The digital hyper-locality which seems to have rapidly arisen from the sudden circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic has precedents, in other words. Localized forms of direct messaging using WhatsApp, for example, have been growing for some time. As David Beer observed in his review of UK media regulator Ofcom’s 2020 Online Nation report, the rise of WhatsApp and similar platforms indicates “competing tendencies in social media, one is to reveal and broadcast and the other is [to] message. One is public the other is private.”

Amongst other things, this points to the divergent conditions of local intimacy afforded by different social platforms, between those founded on publicity (e.g. Twitter) and those founded on direct-messaging (e.g. WhatsApp).

There has been some skepticism about the avalanche of academic hot takes on what the COVID-19 pandemic means for X or Y field, or how theory Z might shine some light on what this all means. This skepticism is on the whole healthy, but I also think that it is entirely legitimate that our novel if unevenly experienced circumstances might spur a little reflection. What seems interesting to me is how the pandemic underscores that the flexible organization already associated with digital platforms might entail more of a priority for the local than scholars have tended to think. The question that follows is how might care or attention in relation to local life depend increasingly on the socio-technical organizing environments of platforms. A critique of platform power, or prevailing discourses of localism, will only get us so far. We also might need to think, for instance, about alternative platform models for re-mediating technologies and institutions of a democratic and just local life. This is not only a conceptual task but a practical one too, involving research and action bringing together affected interests and stakeholders, inside the academy and in society at large.


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