#3: Gather in Place

+ What Paris's boulevards have in common with the infinite scroll.

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Come together

As we hunker down to self-isolate through the pandemic, the crisis is forcing people to rethink how the internet can function as a gathering space.

Over the past few days in my city, I have seen friends and neighbors use the internet as an organizing tool: People are providing virtual tips for service workers as bars and restaurants shut down and organizing food drives for the elderly. Meanwhile, across the country, people are orchestrating online happy hours to combat their loneliness.

Even the global community feels a bit closer; you’ve likely seen the videos of self-isolated people on balconies singing songs in Italy and doing squats in Spain, spreading hope about getting through what’s next, together. But the web is also connecting people’s experiences across borders. This video from the Atlantic shows Italians in quarantine sending video messages they would have sent themselves 10 days earlier, as we follow along on a similar path of the virus’s progression.

On Reddit, the subreddit group /r/coronavirus has grown from 1,000 people back in January to more than 1.2 million members. NBC News reports that the team of 60 volunteer moderators—including researchers of infectious diseases, virologists, doctors and nurses—who are spending hours policing more than 50,000 daily comments, keeping misinformation, trolls, and off-topic political fighting at bay. "No matter how much it makes my blood pressure rise, it helps me sleep at night knowing I at least tried to help," says Emerson Boggs, a 25-year-old student and virologist at the University of Pittsburgh who is a moderator on the message board.

If last week’s essential lesson was social distancing, the coming weeks will demonstrate the need for social solidarity, the interdependency between and across groups. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg argues that solidarity is “an essential tool for combating infectious diseases and other collective threats.” (Klinenberg is a Civic Signals advisory board member.) As Klinenberg writes in the New York Times

Solidarity motivates us to promote public health, not just our own personal security. It keeps us from hoarding medicine, toughing out a cold in the workplace or sending a sick child to school. It compels us to let a ship of stranded people dock in our safe harbors, to knock on our older neighbor’s door.

As we peer out our digital windows, we’re finding more of those common bonds online, too. Readers: We want to hear from you. How are you finding ways to build digital closeness? Send us an email at civicsignals@gmail.com and we may feature some of your ideas in an upcoming edition of this newsletter.

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Send strong signals

As common as talk about social distancing has become online, it can still take some explaining to get across what people should be doing right now. Some simple ideas include ranking acceptable activities on a traffic light or the beloved hip hop group, the Wu Tang Clan, turning their name into an acrostic message for defensive techniques.

But for my money, the young adult novelist Ashley Woodfolk wins for directness.

(Courtesy of Ashley Woodfolk)

On Twitter, Woodfolk splashed out these delightful ready-to-share broadsides to make the message on social distancing loud and clear so the folks in the back can hear it. The visuals are eye-catching and the language plain and simple: “Cancel Your Party.” “Brunch Can Wait.” “Heroes Stay Home!”


What’s clicking

Twitter to remove harmful fake news about coronavirus - The Guardian

Against virus as metaphor - New Yorker

We’re not going back to normal - MIT Technology Review

Is it time for an elbow bump emoji? - Wired

The coronavirus is creating ‘an enormous stress test’ of America’s internet - CNN

People with disabilities have worked remotely for years, and they’ve got advice for you and your bosses - Washington Post

You can still have happy hour, on FaceTime- New York Times

Is digital infrastructure the new sanitation? - Philadelphia Inquirer

Welcome to your hastily prepared online college course - McSweeney’s


Quote of the week

“Going out meant risking life and limb. But Londoners waited in lines that stretched out the front door of the gallery and across Trafalgar Square, hoping for seats. … [W]hen a 1,000-pound unexploded bomb was discovered in some rubble outside the gallery, the event was moved to a distant room and no one budged when the device was detonated during a Beethoven quartet.”

In the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman shares a great story about how London’s National Gallery stayed open with one rotating painting and lunchtime orchestra concerts during the Blitz in World War II that shut down all other public spaces.

Today, the internet affords the luxury of getting to visit cultural spaces from home with museums across the world that have virtual presences. I’m particularly looking forward to online one-upmanship that the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago got started, sharing videos of penguins taking a tour of its fish tanks.

Boulevard of broken dreams

One challenge people feel logging right now is how no matter what platform you are on, there’s a feeling of information overload. It’s a product of the infinite scroll feature that drives newsfeeds and collapses everything in one place. It’s hard to find calm, as everything fills to brim and never stops.

I was reminded how cities have had trouble creating places of calm while reading about how this week Parisians were publicly shaming people for gathering in public spaces with the hashtag #irresponsables. Ironically, the streets of Paris were once redesigned to prevent overcrowding and reduce the spread of disease back in the day.

Between 1853 and 1870, Napoleon III tasked Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann with what is now known as the renovation of Paris. The plan is largely responsible for those broad, triumphant boulevards that you associate with the City of Lights. Indeed, part of the success of Haussmann’s plan for public health and safety was that the public works program brought other improvements for streetlife like creating parks and installing lamps, and building underground infrastructure like sewers and aqueducts. It linked transportation infrastructure and gave rise even to the iconic Haussman apartments

📍 (Camille Pissarro’s Place du Théâtre-Francais and the Avenue de l'Opéra, Sunlight, Winter Morning, 1898)

Still, Haussmann’s name has become a shorthand for a reckless form of creative destruction and he gets blamed for one of urban planning’s most stubborn modern problems: building wide roads for automobiles. As cities have grown, planners and politicians have tried to relieve congestion through highway expansions, by adding more lanes to roads or widening them to increase speeds. 

Not only does this often mean bulldozing neighborhoods or exacerbating suburban sprawl, but it fails to alleviate traffic; Drivers run up against the laws of physics, a phenomenon known as induced demand” where increased road capacity just encourages more people to drive and the roads get full again. Traffic doesn’t flow like a liquid; it expands like a gas.

It’s here where we can find an analogue to the infinite scroll. No matter how many different platforms there are or hashtags or columns on Tweetdeck, few places on the web serendipitously invite us to stop and sit still. Everything pulls at our attention all at once, creating a digital exhaustion. In Paris, the problem of automobile traffic and pollution has meant that Mayor Anne Hidalgo envisioned how to reprogram streets for a 15-minute-city, where walking and biking instead of driving can you what you need. As we consider this in our digital spaces, where can we find room to breathe?

It’s a small world after all,

Andrew Small


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. Share this newsletter with your friends!

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