digital platforms, gentrification, and neighborhood organizing during COVID-19 in NYC
Divergent Spaces is an original ethnographic fieldwork project on digital platforms, gentrification, and urban space during COVID-19 in Brooklyn, supported by an SSRC Just Tech Rapid-Response COVID-19 Grant.
Urban social and economic disparities have come out in sharp relief in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic in New York City, marked by new political organizing and large-scale protests over racial and economic injustice. These mobilizations are taking place across social and mobile technology platforms, such as neighborhood mutual aid and support groups, in ways that are unprecedented. But practices on mobile apps and social media often reproduce existing inequalities. This project examines how emerging technologies contribute to divergent experiences of urban space in gentrifying neighborhoods of Brooklyn, through participatory research with groups in Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill, and Crown Heights. Conceptually, it draws on approaches from anthropology, cultural geography, and feminist technology studies to understand how intersections of race, gender, and class take place on and through technology. Historically, both technology and public space have constituted white, masculine, middle-class domains. How are current technology platforms enabling or challenging existing structures of power, such as neighborhood groups on Facebook, Nextdoor, and Whatsapp or community organizing on Slack and Instagram? Methodologically, the project is grounded in digital ethnography, bringing the established tools of anthropological fieldwork to online, digital spaces. The research includes remote participant-observation and open-ended interviewing with organizers and participants in neighborhood and community groups including mutual aid groups, neighborhood associations, business associations, and activist organizations. The findings will offer insight for participants, technology designers, and policymakers into how technology practices produce multiple, divergent experiences of urban space that challenge but also re-create inequality.
emerging media, space, and sociality in cosmopolitan Berlin
(book manuscript under review at Cornell University Press)
What do we mean when we describe communities as local or communications as global? Emerging media technologies, such as social and mobile media, are remaking experiences of space and place in diverse contexts, from Europeanization to the Arab Spring movements. Based on long term ethnographic fieldwork in Berlin, Hamburg, Amsterdam, and other sites, this book project investigates the production of space and place on and with emerging media technologies, like mobile devices and social network sites. I draw on the geographic concept of spatial scale to rethink how the circulation of media generates ways of experiencing space and place. Social network sites like Facebook, for example, bring together social relationships at different geographic scales, whether local friendships based in urban neighborhoods, transnational or translocal communities of interest, such as electronic music fans, or regional German affiliations between people from the same rural areas living in Berlin. At times, users described their online networks as “global” even as they moved between audiences at local and national levels, for example, through language practices, switching between English and standard German. Yet spaces such as Facebook are designed according to U.S.-based interaction norms, such as implicitly American understandings of “friendship.”
Similarly, mobile devices can represent and accommodate the movements or mobility of western middle-class users, often young professionals whose movements are discretionary (in contrast, for example, to labor migrants). Design is not destiny, of course, and users I studied often adapted technologies like mobile phones to fit their social norms, such as leaving mobile phones out during group gatherings and answering them for one another. Mobile phones in these instances made friends available and accessible to one another, according to a more collective form of sociality, and in contrast to their somewhat individualistic interface design.
Along with these social and mobile media practices, I look at how users manage an uneven communications infrastructure, such as international licensing agreements that block American YouTube videos in Germany or local Internet providers who are notoriously slow to install wireless Internet service. Users in Berlin turn to filesharing, surfsticks, and other everyday tactics to get around these limitations.
Finally, although social and mobile media can enhance both local and transnational connections, national identity isn’t disappearing in Germany. Users who otherwise described themselves as cosmopolitan or European, for example, continue to read national German news sites, as part of national reading publics. In this sense, they continue to feel a sense of belonging at the national level, even if they don’t articulate it verbally — what some scholars have described as an “affective” public, that is, a public shaped by shared ways of feeling and being.
Together, these accounts describe the mutual relationship between emerging media technologies and social life. Social and mobile media are giving rise to new ways of experiencing space and place, such as what it means to be German or European, or to talk about life at the local or urban level while participating in transnational and regional networks. These technologies, moreover, reproduce structural inequalities that continue to shape contemporary social worlds, for example, through user interfaces that are designed with mobile, affluent, middle-class users in mind. These findings illustrate fundamental inequalities in the design and use of emerging technologies.
This collaborative project, now available from UPenn Press (or Amazon), evisits a classic anthropological volume on fieldnotes from 1990 (Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology, Cornell U.P. 1990, Roger Sanjek, ed.). New technologies are transforming how anthropologists conduct ethnographic fieldwork, including how we take, use, and engage with fieldnotes. I contributed a chapter titled “Doing Fieldwork, Brb: Locating the field on and with emerging media,” on conducting fieldwork on and with social and mobile media. How can we understand the “field” when conducting research on the same sites we use to communicate and interact with other friends, contacts, or family? By approaching both online and offline as equally real, albeit in different ways, I rethink diverse kinds of communication in terms of how specific modes and platforms affect social interactions. Along with the edited volume, we presented at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Chicago on Saturday, Nov. 23rd and the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology (including a podcast of the latter). My co-contributors are Jenna Burrell, Lisa Cliggett, Heather A. Horst, Jean E. Jackson, Graham M. Jones, William W. Kelly, Diane E. King, Rena Lederman, Mary H. Moran, Bonnie A. Nardi, Roger Sanjek, Bambi B. Schieffelin, Mieke Schrooten, Martin Slama, and Susan W. Tratner.
Image at top: Giant painted domino installation as part of the 2009 Mauerfall (Fall of the Wall) commemoration in Berlin.