The Internet’s Missing Link in the Age of COVID-19
Almost 16 years ago, Zephyr Teachout wrote an article for the pre-pre-cursor to this site, PersonalDemocracy.com, titled, “Come Together Now: The Internet’s Unlit Fuse.” Having just finished two intense years in the trenches of Democratic presidential campaigning, first as a digital organizing trail-cutter for Vermont Governor Howard Dean, and then for Democratic nominee John Kerry, Teachout identified a fundamental weakness in how political campaigns were using the Internet to involve people in the election. After noting how much money was raised online and then spent on old-fashioned TV ads, and how effectively some groups, like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, had used the Internet to move their message, she wrote,
“Never before in history have we had a tool that enables–with so little work–local groups to act in coordination with other local groups elsewhere. Never before in history have we had a tool that at its core holds the solution to the most difficult collective action problems in democracy. And almost no one used it…. I believe the offline collective-action problem-solving potential of the Internet is still an unlit fuse. I’m talking about the ability to quickly create very strong, complete, offline/online decision-making, action-oriented communities.”
As we sit in our homes and, where necessary, go to work, practicing physical distancing as best we can, I believe we are also suffering because of how the last fifteen years of the Internet’s development and use have reordered our social lives, organizing us into virtual verticals whose data is harvested by Big Tech corporations and whose civic energies are optimized by Big Email advocacy organizations and undermining our natural tendency to form communities of purpose with the people we live near. Well over a decade later, Teachout’s point about the world of political advocacy still holds. The leaders of most brand-name political organizations prefer to treat the names that they have on their lists as resources to be mined, not people to be introduced to each other. Today, when one of the things we need most—the ability to associate with the people who are physically near to us—is cut off thanks to the Great Pandemic, our collective-action problem-solving abilities have been badly stunted.
Or, as my friend Ami Dar of Idealist.org memorably put it, “Our problems are connected, but we are not.” It’s time we addressed that problem (pun intended).
This is not to diminish the kinds of ingenious solutions that have flowered as many of us have used digital connection tools to solve pressing problems during this crisis. The Coronavirus Tech Handbook is the product of the collaborative knowledge sharing efforts of dozens of volunteers worldwide. Here in New York, the #NYCPPE Last Mile group, which at its heart is a fluid network of dozens of volunteers lightly coordinated via WhatsApp by a small core of very smart organizers, has managed to raise the funds, source the purchasing and channel the delivery of more than 50,000 N95-equivalent masks to medical workers on the frontlines of the COVID crisis in New York City. Mutual aid groups like Bed-Stuy Strong pepper large parts of Brooklyn and Queens, using Slack as their hub and in some cases benefiting from sophisticated product designers like Alyssa Dizon who have built great systems for connecting people with needs to volunteers who can help them. Civic tech volunteer organizations like BetaNYC have built timely resources like their map of essential services that are currently open in North Brooklyn.
On the internet, no one knows who is nearby
But it was hearing Cea Weaver, the one-woman director of New York state’s Housing Justice for All coalition, that got me thinking about the missing link stymieing more effective collective action today. Speaking at the opening of this year’s Organizing 2.0 conference in mid-April, Weaver described how the pandemic had set off a crisis for the millions of people in New York who literally couldn’t pay their monthly rent. “This is an incredible organizing moment,” she told the audience, noting that her group’s email list and website traffic had exploded. The time was ripe for a mass rent strike, she believed, with tenants withholding monthly payments until landlords (or legislators) delivered relief. But converting all that individual, atomized interest in confronting the housing crisis into durable collective action was not something tenant activists knew how to do under conditions of social distancing. Normally, a rent strike is successful when a critical mass of residents of a single building or common tenants of a particular landlord act in concert. “If you’re not talking to your neighbors, you’re not going on rent strike—you’re just withholding your rent,” is a common saying among tenant organizers.
Unfortunately for these kinds of organizing purposes, while we have physical mailing addresses, our email addresses aren’t mapped to where we live. Nor do phone numbers have a strong correlation to location, unless you can afford expensive geo-fencing services. It’s notable that in March, when a property management company handling two dozen buildings in Los Angeles accidentally cc-ed all their tenants on an email message insisting they would have to pay their April rent despite the pandemic, the tenants quickly seized the ability to connect digitally to organize themselves to demand better treatment. Weaver would love the ability to text the neighbors of people who live in the same building as tenants who have signed up on her list, but that info isn’t freely available. A grass-roots activist might solve these coordination problems by knocking on people’s doors–but you can’t safely do that right now. Leafleting people’s apartments is also a solution, but tenant organizers have to be more careful, lest they tip off landlords to their efforts. In the physical world, you can solve this problem by posting flyers on nearby lamp-posts or telephone poles, but in cyberspace there are no telephone poles. There are just private platforms like Facebook who will charge you a nice fee to make sure something you post reaches all the people who have joined your group. On the Internet, no one knows who is nearby.
The ability to connect is the well-spring of American democracy. As Alexis de Toqueville wrote in Democracy in America,
“When citizens can associate only in certain cases, they regard association as a rare and singular process, and they hardly think of it. When you allow them to associate freely in everything, they end up seeing in association the universal and, so to speak, unique means that men can use to attain the various ends that they propose. Each new need immediately awakens the idea of association. The art of association then becomes, as I said above, the mother science; everyone studies it and applies it.”
Our mother science, the art of association, is also the source of social health. In 1995, more than 700 Chicagoans died during a brutal summer heatwave. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s first book, Heat Wave, performed a “social autopsy” on this disaster and discovered that the people who were most likely to perish were the elderly poor, living alone in un-air-conditioned apartments and unaware or unable to get themselves to city-run cooling centers. Klinenberg kept studying the Chicago experience, and in his more recent book, Palaces for the People, he adds a critical insight: in some poor neighborhoods, the death rate was much less terrible and more like middle-class neighborhoods. Why? Because those neighborhoods had places where people interacted with each other on a regular basis: parks, libraries, schools, and mom-and-pop shopping districts. This social infrastructure bred connections between people and thus, when the heat came, those elderly shut-ins were more likely to have a friend, neighbor or nearby shopkeeper who knew them and came to their rescue.
Organizing when you can’t knock on doors
Building local connections, especially during this time of extended physical separation, could help a lot of people. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, there’s a WhatsApp group with 80 block captains who have been collecting names and phone numbers of neighbors the slow, old-fashioned way, using handwritten notes left on doors, labor organizer Aneta Molenda tells me. But might there be a way to ease this process with the help of tech? Better yet, could we start thinking of digital social infrastructure as something that is available to all, as opposed to the “social graph” that Big Tech companies have devoted themselves to acquiring and controlling, or the private data of all our cellphone movements that the Big Telcos sell to the highest bidder?
Many people have taken runs at this problem of building local coordination using the Internet. In 2008, some volunteer coders at mySociety created a service called “Groups Near You,” but the organization explained that it abandoned the effort three years later “due to data quality problems: there were too many false positives and groups that were miscategorised, and we were not able to produce data of a useful enough standard within the budget we had available.” Waze, the app that crowdsources real-time traffic data from its millions of users, originally had a feature called Waze Groups that people used to independently connect with each other around shared experiences like their daily commute, but after Google bought Waze that feature was abandoned. (Instead, Waze started selling a feature which aggregated user information without their knowledge or consent, that it shamelessly called “Connected Citizens” to customers like city police departments.)
Today, if you Google for events nearby you’ll only see the high-level kinds of events organized by towns, nothing truly hyper-local. Twitter allows you to search for content “near you” but returns results that could be across the county from where you live. On Meetup, a search for “groups near me” will surface local Meetups, which is a step closer to finding your neighbors but still a patchwork, not a full quilt of who and what is nearby.
Another way of finding groups near you is to start with a common interest. That’s the idea behind the U.S. Forest Service’s Stewardship Mapping and Assessment Project (STEW-MAP) which is focused on answering the question: who takes care of our environment? STEW-MAP “surveys civic groups who work to conserve, manage, monitor, transform, educate on and/or advocate for the environment across a defined city, region, or landscape.” The project’s 2017 map of New York City lists more than 700 public and private organizations and community groups that manage spaces like community gardens, green roofs or dog parks, along with broader services like providing housing or shelter, or helping youth and seniors. Lindsay Campbell, one of the research scientists at the Forest Service’s NYC Urban Field Station working on the STEW-MAP, tells me that her team would love to update its data now, to try to assess how groups are responding to the COVID-19 crisis and to also understand better the new forms of community engagement now flowering, like the rise of “mutual aid” groups in many neighborhoods.
The ways we use the web are so varied, it is near impossible to “see” at a glance all the digital social infrastructure that may exist for a given neighborhood. For example, with a little Googling, I found the following forms of hyper-local information or networks related to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and not one of them is as hyper-local as a building list-serv or a blog for a single block.
- Podcasts: Lower East Side Girls Club, The Tenement Museum.
- Zines and Blogs: Lower East Side Librarian, LES for Life, Bowery Blog, Bedford and Bowery.
- Newsletters and Mailing Lists: Community Board #3, Manny Cantor Center, The LowDown, Bowery Boogie, Lower East Side Partnership, Lower East Side Ecology Center, FABnyc, Friends of the Lower East Side.
- Personal Maps: My Lower East Side
- Forums: LES Parents Forum
- Groups: The Lower East Side (Facebook Group), Xtinction Rebellion LES, Psychology Today LES support groups, BoweryBabes (nonprofit mothers group), Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
- Mutual Aid: Lower East Side Mutual Aid
But maybe making it easier for people to connect with their actual neighbors is a terrible idea. Being “legible” if you are from a community targeted for persecution or exploitation is not desirable; this is why the folks at Digital Democracy, who have co-developed the Mapeo tool with indigenous community partners in the Amazon, are not interested in local maps becoming accessible to outsiders via Google, for example. This is why any approach to making it easier to find people or groups in your vicinity needs to be based firmly on prior consent to be publicly accessible.
If you use Facebook or NextDoor to find your neighbors, you’ll experience the VC-driven version of connecting people locally at scale. These are sites that were built on Reid Hoffman’s principle of “blitzscaling,” which means doing everything to monopolize market share with little regard for actually providing a quality service to users as long as you can avoid doing so. So while it is true that these platforms will help connect you to other people in your town or zip code, you will be colliding with each other without adequate, or any, moderation. Facebook makes it easy to form a group, but impossible to reach all of its members without paying the company to advertise to them. Other local platforms, like Amazon’s Ring or its “Neighbors” content-sharing platform, or the Citizen app, are designed to turn users into de-facto police auxiliaries, posting reports and videoclips of people who they have been primed to think of as suspicious, rather than fellow humans worthy of trust and respect.
Building the digital public infrastructure we need to thrive
In all my years of reporting on how we use tech in civic life, one platform has stood out for how it has successfully fostered healthy community engagement while reaching significant scale: Vermont’s Front Porch Forum. Seventy percent of the state’s 260,000 households have an account on one of FPF’s local town or neighborhood forums, which are in every part of the rural state. Two years ago, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released an in-depth study of FPF’s users, finding that their daily use of the site led to increased trust in their neighbors, increased interest in civic life, greater participation in local government, and increased optimism about the future. “Witnessing everyday acts of neighborliness is a powerful driver of both online and offline community engagement,” the study concluded.
Last week, I checked in with its founder Michael Wood-Lewis and his chief innovation officer, Jason Van Driesche, to find out how they are weathering the current storm. After a brief dip in the site’s fortunes when the state went into lockdown in March, they were happy to report that even though no one was posting yard sales or local events, the type of information that has always been FPF’s bread-and-butter, user engagement was up. The number of net new signups per day doubled during the first weeks of the crisis, and posting is up considerably over the seasonable average, along with open rates.
Wood-Lewis and Van Driesche are also gratified to report that people are using the forum’s daily email bulletins to organize help for neighbors, share vital public health information, and fight isolation. They’ve decided to have their paid community moderators screen out misinformation about COVID, which Wood-Lewis said is “usually people getting stuff off of Facebook and sharing it with good intentions.” They’re working on an array of service improvements, and also thinking hard about how to support the 10,000 local businesses, thousands of local officials and hundreds of nonprofits that use the site. “On a daily basis, most of the people in our state are giving us five to ten minutes of their attention,” Wood-Lewis noted. But he and his team are frustrated that so much of FPF’s core mission, which is to bring neighbors together face-to-face, is stymied by the pandemic. “We know we’re successful when those real in-person things happen,” he adds, so his team is trying to highlight local initiatives like safe scavenger hunts for kids and community claps for frontline workers.
Front Porch Forum’s model works because it keeps its forums to human size and speed, and it has paid moderators perusing every post before they reach subscribers. A typical instance has 500 to 1,000 people on it, all from the same town or neighborhood, and all verified, using their real names. Everyone sees the same content at the same time, Van Driesche pointed out; there’s no microtargeting of content. So while people still are people, and they may post things that get on their neighbors’ nerves, the general tenor of the site is “let’s pull together instead of knocking each other down.”
Despite the dearth of obvious options for people seeking to connect locally during this time of physical distancing, I suspect there is more going on beneath the surface than we know. All kinds of tools and platforms are probably being used to fill in the gaps that the pandemic is making us feel like never before. Hyper-local podcasts, WhatsApp groups, parenting circles, personal newsletters, building list-servs, gamer live chats, Zoom church happy hours—these are just a few of the solutions I’ve heard of anecdotally. But imagine if it truly was easier to find each other by our locations right now—what might change?
I’m left with a question: On balance, would it help to know how to find people and groups near you that you’re currently unaware of? Would it help you? Would it help your organization?