Digital care: How social support during the Covid-19 pandemic shifted to the digital and our worries became “surplus value”
Decreasing Covid-19 incidence and vaccination progress might make many of us optimistic to spend a summer in contact with others. The New York Times recently published a photo series of vaccinated New Yorkers, portrayed whilst “at last” reuniting and hugging friends, relatives, and spouses that kept distance during the pandemic[i]. We learn that families met again face to face for the first time after family members passed away, or that friends and spouses kept contact over distance using digital services like FaceTime or Instagram. Seeing these pictures feels like sharing a great relief – after what feels like a very long winter of staying at home, restricting social contacts, keeping physical distance to loved ones and shifting many of our daily tasks and needs into the digital sphere. We argued, protested, married, learned, laughed, worked, mourned, and cried for months using Zoom, WhatsApp, Facebook, or Google Hangouts. We shared many private moments with others, received and gave support – but what does it mean when we share these moments online; when we engage in what Zuboff (2019) calls the “primary text” of social connection and communication and forget its “shadow text”?
In this post, we revisit results from our survey we conducted in the research project “Urban Life Amidst COVID-19”. We show that contact restrictions have shifted where and how social support with others is being exchanged. This is, as we argue, problematic as digital platforms were increasingly used to replace social support that would otherwise have been exchanged face-to-face and the problematic foundations of digital exchanges go unnoticed due to the illusio of privacy.
The pandemic changed how we exchanged care with each other
Although digital platforms deliberately shift our face-to-face social exchanges into the online sphere, major platforms could not anticipate their role in bridging a period in which states all over the globe ask people to distance themselves from the people they know, love and care about. No one would have seriously guessed, nor foreseen that platforms would provide the means that would allow many to stay connected whilst being physically distant in such a speed and to an unforeseen degree. In 2019, we conducted a survey in four Berlin neighborhoods as part of our project ‘The World Down my Street: Networks and Resources Used by City Dweller’ at the Collaborative Research Centre 1265 ‘The Re-Figuration of Spaces’. We repeated this survey in summer 2020 after Corona restrictions were implemented. In both surveys, we focused on where and how people exchanged social support in the city. Unsurprisingly, we observed an important shift towards digital communication in 2020, compared to 2019. It suggested that many people did, in fact, turn to digital communication.
|Share of Interactions (%) via..||2019||2020|
|Digital Means, thereof:||20.53||48.36|
Table 1: Shifts in how people exchanged social support, own elaboration
Table 1 shows that before Covid19 restrictions were implemented, the vast majority of Berliners talked to others in person when confronting their most important challenges. After contact restrictions were introduced, this share dropped remarkably. It shifted towards digital communication: While in 2019 around 80% of the support exchanges that interview partners had were face-to-face and around 20% were digital, this changed significantly: to 52% face-to-face interactions and a share of 48% digital exchanges in 2020. Differentiated between different means of communication (in the survey: telephone, video-chat and messenger/email), we see a major increase of the share of video-chat (2019: 2% – 2020: 17%). Also, writing to others through messenger apps was used more often in 2020 (22%) than in 2019 (16%).
While the numbers for video-chats and messengers were relatively small in 2019, this does not necessarily mean that Berliners participating in the survey did not use these means to digitally communicate with others at that time. Yet, with the public life still open and possibilities to meet face-to-face, they might not have considered these exchanges as support or, in fact, as supportive when we asked them for the most important exchanges of support before the pandemic. With changes in how work and much of social life had to be reorganized in 2020, this also meant for many the switch to digital means for talking about problems (the exchange itself) and not only as a coordination tool for face-to-face meetings (for preparing and facilitating the exchange itself).
Comparable research mirrors the reported shift from face-to-face to online communication. In a survey by YouGov[ii], for example, 47% of the participants talked about using messenger services such as WhatsApp, Telegram or Threema “often” and “much more often” than before the pandemic to stay in touch with family, friends, and co-workers. Furthermore, data on the active use of WhatsApp in Germany[iii] for IOS users show an increase from March 2020 of around 7,7 Mio users to around 15 Mio users in November 2020. Social distancing may have increased the use of messenger apps to connect digitally.
Another surprising shift in how we cared for another during the lockdown concerned where we were when exchanging digital support. Whereas in 2019, 76% of the respondents communicated with others from home, in 2020 only 46% did so. Conversely, the number of people who went outside to text and call went up from 17% of all respondents to 66% (Blokland et al. 2020b). Public space and more so people´s neighbourhoods, have become especially relevant for practicing digital communication and support. Blokland et al. (2020b) assumed that one reason why people left their homes to engage digitally was the feeling of privacy and anonymity when being in public space. When passing lots of time in the home office and facing closed schools, kindergartens, and universities, it might have been much more difficult to talk about worries, frustrations, or intimate topics. In this context, the street, park, or playground might have become a space where we feel free of unwanted listeners such as flatmates, parents, or partners; where we feel relatively unknown and unnoticed. But is going outside really creating a (new) mode of privacy in the sense of going digitally, yet unnoticed?
The illusio of privacy
It is not without reason that we write that we “feel” unnoticed and without anyone listening. If we look at the tools we use to digitally engage with others, the picture is somewhat different. Not just since the pandemic, numerous studies and activists have demonstrated how our phones and other digital devices reveal more information about us than we may be aware of or care to know (see for example, Beckedahl & Meister 2013; Reuter 2016; Mau 2017). Many apps and messenger services collect data without our knowledge or approval, process it and earn money from it[iv]. In her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), scholar and digital rights activist Shoshana Zuboff described in great detail how this exploitation of our data works. She uses the distinction between “primary text” and “shadow text”. By “primary text” she refers to the private connection between you and me texting, sharing and calling. It can be seen as the surface or the front stage of the services we use and is directly visible to us. The “shadow text”, however, is a relatively hidden and non-public handling. It involves the analysis and, in countries like the US or outside the EU[v], also the sale of the meta-data which companies collect during a chat or call[vi]. The shadow text is thus like a backstage to which users usually have no access.
“The work of the shadow text”, as Zuboff writes (2019, 393), “is to evaluate, categorize, and predict our behavior in millions of ways that we can neither know nor combat – these are our digital dossiers”. What can be found in these digital dossiers? For example, the duration and time of calls, what we share with others (calls, texts, pictures), where we are, where the other person is, and where we log into WIFI connections. But it is difficult to say whether the list always ends here or goes on, as it often remains unclear what is considered relevant for specific group targeting (for example for personalized advertising). Either way, all these are information that help companies to draw conclusions about us, our relations with others and our emotional states (are we falling in love, did we separate from someone, etc.)[vii]. The more we use messenger services and apps, the better the companies behind them can compile and refine the shadow text and thus our digital dossiers. What happens with these dossiers is usually unclear and part of companies’ well-kept business secrets.
So, the privacy we seek whether leaving the house to talk or chatting from the sofa, is only a partial privacy or mere illusion. For sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, the illusio, as he called it, is a kind of investment in a social game without the need to actively reflect on the costs, stakes, or legitimacy of the rules (1990, 66). We engage in chats and calls in the illusio or fundamental belief of these digital exchanges as private encounters with a colleague, partner or family member. And while we do so, we are often disinterested or unaware of the metadata that huge servers store from these exchanges somewhere (often in countries with lower privacy standards). We belief and thus engage in the “primary text” of the app: in connecting to others. Would we overthink every text, call or picture that we exchange online, think about the wider underlying power structures of relying on apps like WhatsApp, we would not engage in the “social game” of contacting the other to talk “privately” in the same way. The illusio of privacy helps to smooth out this reflection and data capitalists thrive on its effectiveness using the meta-data of our worries and our social supporters to further nurture our data profiles and customize their services to better answer to or predict our needs (Zuboff 2019). So, while we try to “stay in touch” and “talk in private” despite social distancing, our online engagements create value, or more precisely surplus value for platforms and companies.
While the vaccinated New Yorkers of the NY Times’ photo series were again able to meet face to face and hug friends, family members, and other significant people, other countries are still facing increasing Covid-19 numbers. Not only that the latter suffer from the overstrain of frail healthcare systems but also from the vaccine nationalism of countries in the Global North and the side effects of market-driven medical research. Social distance is still a reality for many, and with it the risk of having to rely on digital support to exchange with others. We argue that this is generally problematic but has become cynically visible during the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only as it changes the nature of social support (see Blokland et al. 2020a) that participants in our survey evaluated to be less helpful, but also because during social distancing, our worries have become surplus value in an intransparent market, capitalizing on data that we produce – or is produced on us. Digital companies, without a doubt, are one of the economic profiteers of the pandemic and a mean to satisfy our enduring desire for social support.
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[i] Kilgannon, Corey and Lila Barth, 2021: At Last: Hugs; New York Times; ULR: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/05/13/multimedia/hugging-after-vaccine.html (Accessed: 31.5.21).
[ii] YouGov, 2021: Änderung der Nutzungshäufigkeit von Messaging-Diensten in der Corona-Krise 2020; URL: https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/1106442/umfrage/aenderung-der-nutzungshaeufigkeit-von-messaging-diensten-in-der-corona-krise-in-deutschland/ (Accessed: 31.5.21).
[iii] Airnow, 2021: Monatlich aktive WhatsApp-Nutzer über iOS in Deutschland bis November 2020; URL: https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/1044174/umfrage/anzahl-der-monatlich-aktiven-whatsapp-nutzer-ueber-ios-in-deutschland/ (Accessed: 31.5.21).
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[v] Schieb, Jörg (2020) „Facebook freut sich über all unsere Metadaten!“, https://blog.wdr.de/digitalistan/facebook-freut-sich-ueber-all-unsere-metadaten/ (Accessed: 31.5.21).
[vi] Hottes, Dirk (2021) “Neue WhatsApp-Bedingungen: Keine Einschränkungen für Verweigerer”, Netzwelt, May 25, 2021: https://www.netzwelt.de/news/184033-whatsapp-neuen-nutzungsbedingungen-250521.html (Accessed: 31.5.21); don´t panic (2020) “Mac-Nutzer*innen: Update der Zoom-App vornehmen, da diese Ton aufzeichnet”, Datenschutz unter dem Radar, TU Berlin, December 29, 2020: https://blogs.tu-berlin.de/datenschutz_notizen/2020/12/29/mac-nutzer-update-der-zoom-app-vornehmen-da-diese-ton-aufzeichnet/#nachtrag (Accessed: 31.5.21).
[vii] Schieb, Jörg (2021) „WhatsApp verwirrt User mit neuen Regeln“, https://blog.wdr.de/digitalistan/whatsapp-verwirrt-user-mit-neuen-regeln/ (Accessed: 31.5.21).