🗽🍎 New Report! A Study of NYC’s Digital Public Space

Through quarantine, people learned new ways of being online.


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Terra Incognita NYC: A study of NYC’s digital public space in the pandemic.


When the pandemic hit New York City last March and forced citizens indoors to quarantine and social distance, people had to learn and navigate new ways of being online. New_ Public teamed up with NYU’s Mona Sloane and Jordan Kraemer to collaborate on a rapid-response ethnographic research project titled Terra Incognita NYC to investigate the city’s new digital public spaces. 

What we found: The digital city reinforces — but also expands on — the physical city. Many New Yorkers were forced to replace their social infrastructure — the physical elements of community that bring people together — with technology infrastructure like Zoom. These issues were pronounced: reliance on private enterprise, racialized policing of public space, the (digital) divide, harassment, disproportionately impacted communities and individuals, political polarization.

Launch event: The project and report will launch on March 30th with a roundtable discussion hosted by New_ Public co-director Eli Pariser, project director Mona Sloane, research lead Jordan Kraemer, Chief Technology Officer of New York City John Paul Farmer, Community Tech NY’s Monique Tate, and urban studies scholar Garnette Cadogan. Register for the event here

Nine elements of New York City’s digital public life: During the pandemic in New York City, digital platforms became a synagogue, a community center, a game room, an open mic stage, and many other places. We found that a lot of effort was placed on recreating the original space a community convened in. Throughout our ethnographies, we found nine key insights.

  • Curation: NYC’s digital public space manifested through targeted programming and curation of online events, accompanied by a narrative and desire to maintain established routines and achieve a sense of normalcy. Moderation was key as was directing and controlling the flow of activity and interaction.

  • Membership: Membership served as a platform for constituting a sense of belonging to a particular community or place in New York City. Communities had implicit and explicit rules about membership that were layered on the digital space they inhabited, affecting how people could access the space. 

  • Publicness: Platforms often confounded boundaries of “public” versus “private," and digital publicness raised new questions of politics. The pandemic lockdown also remade the physical public spaces of neighborhoods, as more people spent time at and near their home.

  • Safety: “Feeling safe” was a necessary condition for digital public spaces to emerge. It was connected to feeling welcome and to belonging, but its nature was continually changing. Physical safety, especially being at risk of contracting the virus, affected decisions made by moderators and facilitators about programming.

  • Locality: Daily connections became denser and localized, while expanding geographically. It was  hyper local, and more global. Events and social spaces online allowed people not in New York to participate remotely, causing digital public spaces to become comprised of multiple geographic connections.

  • Infrastructure: During the lockdown, unevenly distributed and maintained infrastructure came to the fore. The digital divide was heightened and expanded. The vulnerabilities of the technical infrastructure became social vulnerabilities.

  • Affordances: The technologies used for social practices and the built up digital public space afforded new possibilities, but they also afforded new barriers to participating and belonging. Knowledge and control of platform affordances played a central role in how publicness was constructed, perceived, and maintained.

  • Intimacy: Digital platforms and services provided social and economic lifelines. Technologies brought many public events and activities into people’s homes, reconfiguring experiences of public versus private. Platforms and interfaces could forge intimacy in some instances.

  • Temporality: Experiences of space and place were inseparable from shifting experiences of time. The pandemic itself was often narrated in temporally specific ways, such as points on a timeline. Digital technologies and platforms extended these narratives and experiences.

[Read the full report here.]


The Five Boroughs 

Below we highlight a community from each of the five boroughs of NYC and how they were affected during the first 100 days of the pandemic. As part of the ethnography process, we promised anonymity to each subject interviewed. The Terra Incognita NYC project asks: How do people “do” public space online, in a pandemic? And under what conditions? Who dictates the conditions for digital spaces, and why? 

Latinx Open Mic Night, Manhattan

A well-known Latinx performing arts venue moved its weekly events online during the lockdown. Every Monday evening, 40–60 people signed onto Zoom to participate in a poetry open mic. Performers and audience members joined from NYC and around the globe, and were linked by their shared Latinx identity and affinity for the venue. The event ran according to a tight schedule: performers were given four minutes each. The host unmuted all participants for 10 seconds, allowing them to clap, snap, and offer words of encouragement. New rituals emerged. Participants made substantial use of the Zoom chat feature to engage conversations, quote the poems, write out snaps/responses, offer encouragement, and share social media accounts. “Quotables” were popular in the Zoom chat, wherein people quoted lines or words from the performance that resonated with them.

Takeaways: 

  • The feeling of safety was integral to how the digital space was defined. 

  • For the Latinx open mic, curation of a celebratory space — where one could be vulnerable — was at the core of what made the venue feel special to community members.

  • The poets shared how personally invested they were in the membership of the space, and how crucial the open mic events had been for their emotional well-being over the course of the lockdown.

Running Clubs, Brooklyn

Many New York runners join clubs that organize group runs — typically neighborhood-based. Most running clubs had a Facebook Page before the pandemic, ranging from 1,500–200,000 Likes. Brooklyn-specific pages tended to have a few thousand followers. Some interaction and organizing happened on Facebook, but many participants posted about their runs on Instagram, or shared data over Strava, an exercise app. During lockdown, some clubs organized non-running-related activities, like pastry swaps or a poetry reading night. Running apps like Strava and social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram became the refuge for runners wishing to socialize with their peers, share their running accomplishments, derive motivation for exercise, and follow news of the pandemic and other current events.

Black and nonblack runners became involved politically in the widespread protest movements against racial injustice following George Floyd’s killing, along with resurgent Black Lives Matter protests in Brooklyn and elsewhere. Running became a new site of protest as runners organized running-based protest events.

Brooklyn runner: I still do consider it [Strava] a public space; I wouldn't post anything too personal there. I wouldn't post anything that I would regret my boss reading. I don't really post bad news there. If I had an issue that I was upset about, I would talk about it with someone. But I wouldn't write it somewhere permanent. I do think of those platforms as being relatively permanent; yes, you can go back and scrub, but that's also work. I just make it a goal to never write anything that I would be embarrassed about or regret having the public know.

Takeaways:

  • New York running clubs were based on locality and expanded through online platforms. 

  • Since the start of the pandemic, leaders of these clubs turned to the Internet and social media platforms to recreate a sense of togetherness (membership) and to consolidate their community’s existence online after gatherings were canceled.

Synagogue, Queens

As NYC went into lockdown, so did its religious institutions. A Queens-based synagogue started to host services, community events, and religious education online. Some of their programming changed to explicitly address the pandemic. A Shabbat service was held to honor essential workers, which culminated in making noise during the 7PM shift change; there was also an event dedicated to finding employment for congregants who lost their jobs in the pandemic. Most of the digital practices of the synagogue were hosted on Zoom. This included Friday services which saw on average about 90–100 participants.  Programming was communicated on the synagogue website, as well as on a Listserv. The religious education, including Hebrew school, was hosted on Google Classroom.

The services were led by the rabbi and the cantor who wanted to maintain a sense of community and keep the rituals as close as possible to how they were done in the physical temple. During the online services, many of the physical aspects of worship were retained, such as standing, bowing, turning to face the door, and covering one’s eyes. The virtual background the rabbi used during services was a photograph of the interior of the temple.

The technologies that New Yorkers used to continue their social practices and to build up digital public space afforded new possibilities. But they also afforded new barriers to participating and belonging, a dynamic that the rabbi tried to address by installing new technologies in congregants’ homes.  

Queens Reform temple rabbi: We've been having some people go to people's homes, in as safe a manner as we can, to install a webcam. We have a fair number of senior members, people in their late eighties and into their nineties, who are regulars at our services. Slowly we've been able to get some of them online with a Zoom camera. They are there with their faces, and they can see us. We can see them. And we know what a huge advantage that is.

Takeaways:

  • The unevenly distributed technological infrastructure of the senior community came to the foreground. The rabbi did the best that he could to allocated as many cameras as possible to his community. 

  • Zoom brought many public events and activities into people’s homes, reconfiguring experiences of publicness into ones of intimacy

Senior Arts Center, Bronx

This senior arts center teaches visual arts and literacy to adults between 60 and 90. The program included weekly classes to learn digital visual arts production, followed by a yearly exhibition of selected artwork documenting the daily lives of the participants. Before the pandemic, there was a yearly exhibition in a community public space. The seniors’ artwork was produced in durable materials and mounted outdoors for people to view.

The senior arts center programming was suspended and the centers closed during the pandemic — which disproportionately affected the Bronx and put seniors at high risk. The weekly classes first moved to phone conferences, as many seniors were unfamiliar with Zoom; but over time, participants learned to use Zoom. Most seniors had no Internet or computers at home, and some stopped taking classes altogether. The senior centers partnered with the city’s Department of Aging and other agencies to procure tablets for participants. Through phone conferences and Zoom classes, seniors learned how to document their lives and worlds visually to produce art for the exhibition. Some participants fell ill with COVID-19 or suffered other pandemic-related challenges such as isolation, which they were able to document and address through their artwork.

Isolation was a recurring theme for many participants, especially for those living alone. Screen-based activities could mitigate such isolation, but also intensify it.  The exhibition for 2020 was converted to an online gallery and a virtual panel discussion over Zoom which was broadcast on YouTube Live, as well as a distanced gathering for participants.

Takeaways:

  • Mental health and emotional wellbeing were of particular concern for seniors, LGBT people, and others who already experienced ostracization or marginalization through the traditional physical infrastructures; these critical issues intensified online. 

  • The seniors here identified themselves and their artmaking through the locality of their community, their Bronx neighborhood and the public spaces available to them to display their artwork in public during non-Covid times, but learned how to expand their art practice online. 

LGBT Council, Staten Island

The LGBT Council is a non-profit community center, with one building in the borough. The Council was founded as an LGBT health center and later became an independent non-profit community center, providing an array of services and programming for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people on Staten Island. In March, the center closed its physical location and announced it was opening a “Virtual Front Desk.” All programs and services moved onto digital platforms. The virtual programming took place across Zoom, Google Hangouts, Discord, Facebook Live, Instagram Live, Twitter, and Meetup while platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Meetup were used for outreach.

Takeaways:

  • Membership emerged from individual and group representation as some social platforms like Discord was the platform for queer youth drop-in services, Google Hangout for LGBT elders’ groups, and Facebook Live was used for pride parties, attended mostly by adult lesbians. 

  • The center organizers took great care in their online curation of events and programming to serve the diverse age, experience, and identities of their community and needs. 

  • The center’s organizers were especially concerned with protecting members’ safety and privacy, and addressing the increased risks of isolation that worsened existing health and economic disparities through the pandemic.

Terra Incognita NYC was made possible with the support from the Knight Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


Phone Stories

New_ Public Phone Stories is an audio archive dedicated to better understanding our digital public lives. Listen to a sample here!


Join us for our Terra Incognita NYC launch on March 30th,

The New_ Public team

Illustrations by Josh Kramer

Civic Signals is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.