This article is going to take ‘spatial perception’ as a starting point to consider how the Covid19 outbreak has affected our social media use due to social isolation and quarantine.
In the introduction post (Rubio, 2020) of this blog, I wrote about the blurry definition of the senses according to sensory anthropology. Including the sense ‘space perception’ was because we wanted to make a point about the senses: they are not static, straightforward or even set to the five traditional senses: sight, taste, touch, smell and hearing, as we might initially think. They are social experiences which construct meaning.
In this article I will be using a bit of a liberal understanding of the ‘sense perception’. The encyclopedia Britanica defines space perception as the “process through which humans and other organisms become aware of the relative positions of their own bodies and objects around them” (Korkala, P., Y., Järvinen, E., J., West, L., J. & von Fieandt, K. V. J., 2017). In other words, this article does not deal with the specific cues, such as depth and distance, that are important for movement and orientation, but the knowledge acquired through space perception that one is confined at home and perhaps alone in the space.
Covid19 is a hot topic right now and very much on our minds. My colleagues have written about it already (Waterton, 2020a; 2020b; Sanchez-Valladares Barahona, 2020). My past posts have not touched on the topic of the virus, but the group post did (Costa Da Silva Catela Teixeira, Sanchez-Valladares Barahona, Waterton, Rubio & Zayati). So, in this article I’m going to continue the Covid19 trend and link it to how our current perception of space whilst living in confinement and isolation has affected the way we use social media and how we engage with the online space.
The Impact of Social Media
Social media has changed the world and the way we interact, express ourselves and carry out day to day mundane tasks. “The ability to connect instantly with friends, family, and strangers alike has transformed the way relationships are created and maintained and altered the very structure of our social fabric” (Lewis, Gray & Meierhenrich, 2018). The scholars Miller et al. (2016) actually claim that ‘it is the world that changes social media’ and not the other way around. In ‘How the World Changed Social Media’ the scholars see social media not as the platforms themselves (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) but as the contents people post. Social media is how we socialize, intermingling the online and offline space. The scholars view social media as “integral to everyday life in the same way that we now understand the place of the telephone conversation as part of offline life and not as a separate sphere” (Miller et al., p.100) and they actively reject the notion that with new digital technologies we have either lost some essential element of being human or become post-human. “We have simply attained a new set of capacities that, like the skills involved in driving a car, are quickly accepted as ordinarily human” (Miller et al., 2016). The scholars produced an impressive research project on ‘how people post’ in different countries around the world and have shared their findings in books available online for free, I strongly recommend them!
The Social Movement of Support and Solidarity
Our collective global isolation during the confinement due to Covid19 has placed the online world even more central within our lives. It has become a more intensified mode of communicating, relating and working, and it has acquired a new form of meaning. Over the last weeks I have seen free online yoga classes, free meditation sessions, museums have offered virtual tours, there’s been an increase in free online courses from places such as Coursera and MOOC, online marketing experts, social media gurus and counsellors have offered their skills for free to those affected by the Covid19. Free books, free documentaries and free audiobooks have all been offered for the public for a limited time. There’s been a boost in online summits from mindfulness to farming to ‘social isolation festivals’ with online live music, theatre and storytelling events. In general, there is a collective commitment and desire to help those affected by the current Covid19 situation by making more events, resources and products available online for free.
This explosion could be called ‘online solidarity’ – helping those affected by the Covid19 pandemic. Yet, it is not so clear what ‘being affected by Covid19’ really means and the genuine effectiveness of such initiatives (this will be scrutinized in the section ‘Online Inequality’). Nevertheless, what is true is that the global acknowledging of the situation and the words of support most entities and people share, does create a sense of global genuine support like never before.
In their paper ‘Social Media and new protest movements’, Poell and van Dijck (2018) writes about the form of online protest. To my understanding some of what they claim can be applied to the current online movement of support and solidarity taking place sue to the Covid19 pandemic. The scholars explain Castells’ academic focus: how the widespread use of social media platforms affects the organization and communication of contemporary protest (Poell & van Dijck, 2018). They argue that networks of protest “‘create togetherness’, which allows people to ‘overcome fear and discover hope’. This togetherness does not, however, constitute community, because ‘community implies a set of common values’, whereas ‘most people come to the movement with their own motivations and goals’” (Poell & van Dijck, 2018, p.2). So, in this case social media is the direct mediator of a social solidarity movement taking place because of this new spatial perception of isolation during the quarantine due to the Covid19.
Online and Offline Space
Zooming in on protest for a moment, there has been one particular case of organising and demonstrating that caught my attention over the last few weeks. I first saw this particular example on the social media channel of a community centre in Barcelona during the early days of the quarantine in Spain.
This text makes a call to an online social media demonstration with the #PlanDeChoqueSocial at 1pm of 16th March 2020. Because citizens cannot ‘go to the streets’ and do a demonstration in the centre of Barcelona, this initiative tells users to use the hashtag at a concrete time on a specific day to voice their opinions. In other words, it seemed to me that the organisers were aiming at creating a ‘hashtag bombing’ as a form of demonstration. What social media users were asking for was: a) Cancelling rent, mortgage and basic bills (light, electricity, gas) for those who have lost their income due to the Covid19; b) No layoffs and universal basic income for those who have lost their income due to Covid19; and c) Make public all private health clinics and hospitals without any economic consequences.
This action reminds me of the article a fellow student wrote about Mexican women striking for Women’s day (Särnhult, 2020). The women were not striking from work, but striking from social media. Doing the strike in such a digital way aimed at making the initiative more inclusive for those women who simply could not stop doing anything for one day. I find these two ways of protest interesting because they are wholly based on social media; both to carry out the form of action, and to share and spread information about it. These two cases are strong examples of how social media not only enables activist activity, but also fundamentally shape it (Poell & van Dijck, 2018).
Even though it is by now acknowledged that social media user activity is at the heart of a fundamental transformation of activism (Castells, 2012; Bennett & Segerberg, 2013; Margetts, John, Hale & Yasseri, 2015) social media must be considered as an interconnecting offline and online space hard to disentangle. The scholars Miller et al. (2016) write that the use of social media “may complement rather than reflect other forms of socialisation” and that “online interactions are in fact another aspect of the same offline relationships” (p.100). In the light of the current situation, there is no way to disentangled the online with the offline, yet at the same time they are also distinct and can be recognized as so. For instance, the current increase of meaning of the online space is due to the offline space being, in a sense, cancelled due to social isolation. Interactions, relationships and socializing is still taking place but in a more online way.
All the positive outcomes of solidarity and community support have been overwhelming and comforting. Yet, that is not the whole picture. There are many losers to the current situation. In a way, we all are (except planet Earth, but that is a whole other story).
In times of quarantine and Covid19, there are those directly or indirectly affected by the virus and the deaths the virus is producing. My heart goes out to Europe’s homeless and those who simply need to work offline in order to have an income. At this, point I have started to fear the effects of the lockdown to the vulnerable populations of developing countries. I shrill at the thought of all of those who will lose their life not due to Covid19 but due to the effects of the lockdown.
Given that our lives, in the West, are currently predominantly based on online activity, it is particularly important to remember that the online space also has systemic inequality entangled into it. O’Donell and Sweetman warn of the risk of social media carving inequalities in terms of who benefits and whose voice is heard (2018). “Technology mirrors the societies that create it, and access to (and effective use of) technologies is affected by intersecting spectrums of exclusion including gender, ethnicity, age, social class, geography, and disability” (O’Donell & Sweetman, 2018, p.217). The scholars argue for a social media that is fit for challenging and ending inequality and injustice throughout the globe.
Birhane (2019) writes of the inequality enmeshed into Artificial Intelligence (AI) and algorithms found within social media are part of this. Even though data can help bridge the huge inequalities that plague every social, political, and economical sphere, we must remember that the over-positivism of AI, algorithms and social media obscures the darker sides of it. All these types of data are often presented as objective and value-free. In fact, “some automated systems used for hiring and policing are put forward with the explicit claim that these tools eliminate human bias” because they apply the same rules to everybody (Birhane, 2019, ¶2), yet algorithms are opinions embedded in code. We are made to believe that AI, social media and everything data-driven are politically neutral, yet because the way data is constructed, collected, and used to produce certain outcomes (that align with those controlling and analysing data), they become politically fuelled acts. Such political acts affect social fabrics, reinforce stereotypes, and further disadvantage those already at the bottom (Birhane, 2019). This can be seen when algorithms create ‘trending topics’ or ranks based on the amount of ‘likes’ a person or a post might have. Algorithms are designed to making the strong stronger and to make certain voices heard and others unheard. “How we see the world and how we choose to represent it is reflected in the algorithmic models of the world that we build” (Birhane, 2019, ¶9).
In the case of the solidarity during the quarantine, it is true that I have seen so much positivity on social media, but this could be due to algorithms. I could assume that certain voices are not heard due to lack of ‘likes’ or ‘shares’. Another example of how social media and their algorithms are not designed for all voices or discussions is the article by Denskus and Esser (2013). The scholars analysed the tweets and blog entries written about and during the United Nations High-level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGS) in 2010. This revealed that the topics receiving the most coverage mirrored existing priorities as defined by the MDGS and did not bring up alternative debates (Denskus & Esser, 2013). “Although most blog entries created content which, in contrast to tweets, went beyond spreading mere factual or referential information on the event and even included some critical commentary, sustained debates did not emerge” (Denskus & Esser, 2013, p.405).
Further, the scholars Lewis et al. argue that social media’s effectiveness to make voices heard and create change is merely an “illusion of activism rather than facilitating the real thing” (2014). In the article ‘The Structure of Online Activism’ (Lewis et al., 2014), the authors analysed the use of Facebook’s causes, which revealed an inverse relationship between broad online social movement mobilization and deep participation. In other words, it could be said that all the solidarity now taking place online is just a form of clicktivism (Cornelissen, Karelaia & Soyer, 2013). From their analysis, Facebook emerged less useful a mobilizing tool than a marketing tool (Lewis et al., 2014) and did not turn discontent into movement participation or put differently, ‘a deep and sustained commitment to the work’ (Land 2009).
Finally, those who do not have access to the online space and social media at all are also worth a mention. Given the current online space’s weight, what happens to those voices? Similarly, now when the news is only talking about Covid19, I also fear the violations to human rights that might be taking place in all corners of the world. I think of aid workers who have left the countries where they were stationed, what happens to the places they leave behind? (such as Chad as can be seen in Taub’s (2017) eye-opening article).
This blogging exercise has been an interesting and useful learning journey. I am very happy to finally have learnt about WordPress and blogging. Learning to manage a Content Management System (CMS) was on my list of skills yet to acquire for my career. As a Communications specialist some basic web creation knowledge and WordPress experience is a must-have in today’s online context.
I was very impressed by how with our joint forces we managed to create such an interesting blog, with good content and good structure. Personally, I am very pleased to have used this opportunity to be able to record my first amateur podcasts. In fact, it was podcasting that led me to the world of communication and communication for development. I have been in the backstage of podcast production but never in the frontstage of it. Nevertheless, I do feel that given the limited time available and my limited previous knowledge in the editing side of podcasting, I have much improvement yet to do.
Yet, most of all I am excited to have been introduced to blogging as a free-form type of de-centralized social media (Rettberg, 2014) where unheard voices have the possibility to at least express themselves. I am also very pleased with our sensory theme and how we gave much thought to making our blog accessible to people living with diverse abilities.
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Birhane, A. (2019, 9 July). The Algorithmic Colonization of Africa. Retrieved from https://reallifemag.com/the-algorithmic-colonization-of-africa/
Castells, M. (2015). Networks of outrage and hope: Social movements in the Internet age. John Wiley & Sons.
Cornelissen, G., Karelaia, N., & Soyer, E. (2013). Clicktivism Or Slacktivism? Impression Management and Moral Licensing. ACR European Advances.
Costa Da Silva Catela Teixeira, M, Sanchez-Valladares Barahona, C., Waterton, S., Rubio, A. & Zayati, N. (2020, March 11). Group Post: The effects of Corona Virus on the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) [Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://wpmu.mah.se/nmict201group3/2020/03/11/the-effects-of-corona-virus-on-the-commission-on-the-status-of-women-csw/
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Sanchez-Valladares Barahona, C. (2020, February, 19). “I am not a virus, I am a human being” The Coronavirus and the Sense of fear [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://wpmu.mah.se/nmict201group3/2020/02/19/i-am-not-a-virus-i-am-a-human-being-the-coronavirus-and-the-sense-of-fear/
Särnhult, V. (2020, March 8). Online initiatives to combat femicides [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://wpmu.mah.se/nmict201group4/2020/03/08/online-initiatives-to-combat-femicides/
Taub, B. (2017, December 4). Lake Chad: The World’s Most Complex Humanitarian Disaster [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/04/lake-chad-the-worlds-most-complex-humanitarian-disaster
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Waterton, S. (2020b, March 28). WhatsApp and the coronavirus infodemic [Blog post]. Retrieced from http://wpmu.mah.se/nmict201group3/2020/03/28/whatsapp-and-the-coronavirus-infodemic/