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Social Distancing vs. Digital Social Participation in Milan: Notes from fieldwork and after

ShireenWalton23 March 2020

Apartment buildings in NoLo, Milan – photo taken during fieldwork (2018). CC BY Shireen Walton

The coronavirus pandemic has significantly affected the lives of people across the world, with Italy currently experiencing among the severest consequences of the virus. Between 2018 and 2019, I conducted 16 months of fieldwork in Milan, where I had been studying issues of digital social participation, care and communication via smartphones in contexts of social isolation and marginalisation, loneliness, old age and frailty. Since then, I have remained in virtual contact with research participants in the community via WhatsApp and other modes of communication, and today, I am witnessing, every day, how people learn to live and care for one another in these extraordinary times.

In recent weeks, the news and social media have reported on high-profile signs of public-facing solidarity between people in Italy, such as the balcony and rooftop singing across apartment blocks that captured global media attention and made contemporary Italian quarantine sociability go viral. However, in addition to these examples, there are broader and subtler practices of everyday digital communication practices that are continuing to characterise and sustain daily life in Italy under quarantine, many of which can be understood as follows.

 1. Visual digital practices of care and communication

A dominant form of communication involves routine visual communication practices such as memes to wish people a good day, wishing them a nice meal, or saying good night, stickers and emojis sent throughout the day, where the frequency of sending and receiving these makes many people feel various combinations of closer, better, safer, expressing care and feeling cared for.

“A hug good morning”

“Good night, with a strong strong hug”

For example, Elena (50), who is separated from her husband and lives by herself, is reserved and private, but affectionate in her social relations. She communicates on WhatsApp mostly via memes: ‘I send up to seven or eight memes a day, mostly to friends but also to particular family members who would understand them, one of my sisters, a cousin who lives in America…

Sending memes is not always about getting a response, and this does not seem to bother Elena. Rather, it is a way of talking without always having to call someone or to disturb them in order to engage in dialogue. Today, amidst the crisis, Elena continues to send good morning and good night memes to friends and family, including myself, alongside videos and links during the day, which reflect a range of emotions from light-hearted and satirical to overtly emotional expressions of solidarity. The key difference is that in contrast to the past, hearing back from people now really matters to Elena as she passes the days by herself, with her cat, in her one-bedroom apartment in central NoLo, under quarantine.

Often these individual sharing practices reflect currents within the wider national emotional response, as in the following image, which recently emerged as a visual representation of the crisis. The mural was painted on a wall of the Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital in Bergamo, Lombardy – one of the worst affected cities and regions – by Italian artist Franco Rivolli. It depicts a nurse wearing a face mask, with wings on her back and cradling Italy. Over the last couple of weeks the image has taken on a digital form online, being shared across Italian social media, profile pictures, and cover photos. Together with its caption, ‘A tutti voi, grazie’ (To you all, thank you’), addressed to front line healthcare professionals, it draws people into its sentiment of national care and gratitude. The image itself invokes strong visual themes in Italian culture, politics and society such as the religious iconography of the Madonna and child and idyll of the Mother as principal carer, linked to care and protect of La Madrepatria (Motherland).

Nurse cradling Italy. Image source: AFP

Another popular video, linking female care with the crisis has been images and videos of Italian grandmothers, who hold a certain sacred space in Italian culture and public imagination as guardians of the family, again which blends with notions of the nation-state as la famiglia. The following video, which went viral in early March, shows an Italian Nonna (Grandmother) giving advice on how to deal with Coronavirus, beyond fear, and to make the best of domestic time spent at home under quarantine.

Italian nonna’s suggestion video. Image source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ey08XMOisiw

These themes can also extend to a global sense of common humanity, as in the following meme, which acknowledges the lessons learnt from the crisis in China, depicting healthcare workers from China and Italy holding up Italy, together.

2. Being together & doing things together online

Equally important in the present moment is the development of group activities and doing things together (‘fare cose insieme’) in digital and virtual ways, ranging from members of church congregations praying together on church WhatsApp groups, issuing timetables for online schooling programmes, facilitating yoga and gym classes from the home, bands rehearsing together across different cities, choirs singing together, as well as whole generations of families dining together in real-time co-presence via WhatsApp video and Skype. There are also references to historical precedents of struggle and survival, such as during WWII, as the most widespread hashtag in Italy at present attests, ‘andrà tutto bene’ (‘it’ll all be ok’).

From the NoLo Facebook page

‘Good morning! Everything will be ok’

‘Thought of the Day: Everything will return. But we will finally be able to appreciate it.’

3. Informing and Information

Information is of high value under quarantine, and digital platform services are being developed and curated to provide many kinds of information. Visual forms are constantly being developed for the dissemination of health and safety advice as in this example from the Ministry of Health about protocols to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Coronavirus infographic from the Italian Ministry of Health, shared widely on WhatsApp

In other examples, an app has been created in Milan to let people know in real time where supermarkets queues are the shortest – the supermarket, along with the pharmacy, being among the only officially permitted trips one can make outside of the home at the moment in Italy. In a recent article based on NoLo in Milan, The Economist noted that these supermarket queues are developing their own reputation for dating.

Screengrabs of the Italian supermarket app, which shows real-time queues in various shops near the user.

As in most regions, googling of health symptoms was well established in Milan. The main new development in the context of the crisis has been a significant pushback by medical authorities (not witnessed in the last two years during my fieldwork) against ‘fake health information’, with health professionals taking to the Internet to leave messages about what not to believe/what to believe. In one example, the Medical Director from Milan’s Niguarda hospital pleads to the people of Milan, and to the nation, to stop circulating unverified information about Coronavirus, including gossip about what doctors are/are not doing or who they are/are not treating, to groups via social media.

Roberto Fumagalli’s video appeal against fake news. Image source: https://milano.corriere.it/notizie/cronaca/20_marzo_11/coronavirus-milano-video-appello-denuncia-dell-ospedale-niguarda-contro-fake-news-1c2c96b4-639a-11ea-9cf4-1c175ff3bb7c.shtml?refresh_ce-cp

These kinds of urgent and direct responses amidst peak crisis in Italy mark a new form of official engagement with digital avenues of communication within the SSN (Servizio Sanitario Nazionale), which were not largely present in this way before the initial phase of the pandemic.

4. Ageing/living without smartphones

All of this online activity begs the question of how people cope when they do not have access to smartphones. Beatrice is 83, lives with her husband, and has two sons in their 50s and 60s, and four grandchildren. She does not have a smartphone, feeling that “the house phone gives us (her and her husband) everything we need”. Beatrice’s sons call home up to three times a day to check in with Beatrice and her husband, their father. It is her house phone that has become her “constant companion” –  a benign object, a familiar friend that she knows well, something that has served her for many years.

Fieldwork photo (2018). CC BY Shireen Walton

The family has orientated itself around Beatrice’s preferences.

By contrast Claudia, a widow and grandmother of two, who at 81 is just as much attached to her smartphone as she is to social media, through which she has met and connected with dozens of people in the NoLo community, particularly younger people –  through which today, sustains her social life in quarantine, where she cannot physically see her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.

5. Digital solidarities and digital + socioeconomic divides

Digital social participation is of course heavily situated in socioeconomic context and continues to be so in times of crisis, where digital communication and care becomes even more constricted for those who have no home WiFi. In my Milan research, this included many families of asylum seekers and migrants living in apartments let by social services. In such cases, public WiFi hot spots such as stations, cafes and bars and public libraries would be relied upon for Internet connection, accessed via an individual providing their Codice Fiscale (Italian tax code, akin to a National Insurance Number in the UK or Social Security Number in the US). In response to questions of digital vulnerability, over the last few weeks, the Italian Ministry for Technological Innovation and Digitization has put together a ‘Digital Solidarity’ campaign, whereby a range of services such as free online newspapers, faster internet and access to e-learning platforms can be accessed due to support from companies and organisations, including telecom network providers that can sign up to provide their services. This builds on Milan’s self-conscious development of a reputation as a modern ‘smart city’.

“Digital solidarity”. Image source: https://solidarietadigitale.agid.gov.it/

Conclusion

Apartment building, Via Padova, Milan. Fieldwork photo (2018), CC BY Shireen Walton.

Examining the community of NoLo, Milan under quarantine from afar, but remaining close via WhatsApp groups and social media, it seems that many existing patterns of sociability in this context have in fact extended to the digital from groups and patterns already firmly in place in people’s offline/wider social lives. These are met by top-down government, regional and city-led services, instructions and restrictions – one result is the emergence of a shared sense of social solidarity, expressed in a variety of forms, including popular hashtags such as #iorestoacasa (I’m staying at home), and #andràtuttobene, while others who are not engaging in these digital ways under quarantine seek, and/or are met with, crucial alternative vehicles of care and contact at this time – from regular house phone calling by relatives, friends and neighbours, to food shopping delivered to the door, to initiatives to help people connect to the Internet and access faster connections, and online lessons aimed at older adults on how to download and use Skype on a PC desktop.

This is indeed a digital moment for Milan, in an already digitally-developing city, and, like the rest of the world, my research participants in NoLo, digitally connected to varying degrees, are figuring out how to live and take care of each other amidst this unprecedented crisis. For a significant number of people, digital social participation feels “vitale”* in connecting to others and the world, and sustaining countless days and nights in quarantine. In the meantime, much care and attention needs to be paid to particularly vulnerable members of society who are not within the digital scope of contemporary care and communication practices and platforms, as the country utilises existing and novel ways to navigate the extraordinary necessity of being together apart, until further notice.

*vital, as ‘of, or belonging to, life’, from the Latin/Italian vita for life.

Coronavirus and social isolation: 16 insights from Digital Anthropology

GeorgianaMurariu20 March 2020

Source: Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/tDtwC11XjuU

Blog post by ASSA (Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing) team

We recently conducted nine 16 month studies on the use of smartphones by older people, which is the main source of insights here. You can read more about the project here.

This is a summary of insights from our previous research intended to be on benefit for individuals or institutions considering  digital health initiatives for older people. It is a preliminary list and we hope to deepen our contribution through subsequent blog posts.

Additional insights are also drawn from Daniel Miller’s The Comfort of People (Polity, 2017), a book about the social universe of hospice patients, which includes recommendations for how to use new media to assist isolated older people to maintain social relationships.

1) USE EXISTING APPS

Our research found that older people are often very reluctant to use a new app. When trying to assist older people in using online resources it is best, if possible, not to suggest new apps. Find a way of achieving your aims through an app they already regularly use, such as WhatsApp.

2) EMPATHY

Social isolation has been a common experience for older people, especially those who have lost a partner. Isolation is particularly common in the UK. One result of this virus is that people of all ages are now experiencing isolation. They may thereby gain greater empathy with the lived experience of older people living alone or in isolation.

3) POLYMEDIA

Our research shows that today each individual has particular preferences for how they prefer to communicate. For example, a person might be fine with the webcam, but only if you text first so that they are prepared. It is important to learn about an individual’s media preferences and then respect these.

4) FORUMS

The hospice research found that people who are struggling (in that case it was mainly cancer patients) find forums of considerable value. But they divided into two equal groups. One group only wished to exchange such intimate problems when the forum was entirely anonymous; the other was only comfortable communicating with identifiable others. We need to develop and proliferate both kinds of forums.

5) FREQUENCY, NOT CONTENT

For many older people what matters is not what is contained in communication, but its frequency. Knowing that people are interested enough to make some kind of contact is far more important than anything those people actually say.

6) THE FINE LINE BETWEEN CARE AND SURVEILLANCE

This point applies to personal relationships, where older people may appreciate being in constant contact, but care greatly about autonomy and dignity. It also applies to the macro level, as where some people regard China’s response to the virus as unacceptable authoritarianism, and others see it as an entirely justified expression of how a state cares for its citizens.

7) SMART FROM BELOW

Most policy suggestions are implemented by policy experts in a ‘top-down’ manner, thereby affecting the bulk of the population, but the widespread use of digital technologies produce a democratising of creativity and ingenuity. Anthropologists seek to learn from the creative responses of ordinary people, accumulate examples (e.g. https://covidmutualaid.org/) and use these to educate others.

ASSA will soon be publishing a 150-page manual of protocols on how to use WhatsApp for health, created by Marilia Duque, who is a researcher on our team. These are not her own ideas, but best practice examples gathered from 16 months of observing how older people in Brazil used smartphones for health purposes. We need to establish platforms where people can share what they are learning from the creative response of ordinary people.

8) CARE AT A DISTANCE

Digital technologies have made the practice of care at a distance commonplace. This occurs in different ways. For example, working with older people in China and Japan, we found they have shifted to much greater use of visual communication, such as stickers and short videos, as a way of expressing care. These people found it easier to convey affection through these means, rather than through more conservative traditions of face-to-face encounters.

9) WHATSAPP SUPPORT

Today many people form WhatsApp groups with family and friends to support isolated people or patients. This is highly effective. So we need to ensure that everyone is aware of its benefits. Marilia Duque is advocating a system of `WhatsApp Angels’ in Brazil in response to the virus. As it happens, Whatsapp has already created a ‘Coronavirus Information Hub’ which includes examples of how to use the app to stay in touch with loved ones or seek up-to-date health information on the virus. The Information Hub can be accessed here.

10) WEBCAM

In a phone call, older English people traditionally tend to say they are fine, even if they are at death’s door. There are many advantages to connecting via webcam, which allows one to see how a person is actually doing. Many might find it helpful to have their webcam switched on even when people are not actually talking, since this is more akin to co-present living together.

11) NON-TECH-SAVVY ELDERLY PEOPLE

Coronavirus is about to cause a crisis for those elderly people who may never learn to use smartphones, as access is stopped for visitors to care homes. A helpful device is the Amazon Echo Show, since it can conduct webcam conversation through simple voice commands such as ‘Echo, videocall Mary’. Set-up requires another person using an Alexa App and is quite complex but the technology does work.

12) FACEBOOK

Facebook has shifted from a young person’s platform to use more by older people and community groups. At this point, the main advice is for young people to remain on Facebook where they will be able to share more family information, jokes, and other material with those older people.

13) CONFIDENTIALITY IS LESS IMPORTANT

The hospice research mentioned above suggested that, so far from protecting people, an obsession by institutions with privacy and confidentiality has become a major source of harm. People who are ill were more concerned to ensure that relevant people were informed about their condition, rather than that strangers might also know about their condition. Privacy is important, but tight controls over data because of concerns over litigation can cause considerable harm to patients.

14) PATIENCE AND PATIENTS

Older people may want and need to learn about how to use smartphones and similar skills, but they mainly reported that young people do not help teach them. They become irritable and impatient and take the phone away to make changes. With social isolation it will become even more important to help people learn to do things for themselves.

15) KITEMARKING

Googling for health information is now a ubiquitous part of how people respond to illness or the fear of illness. Users, influenced by commercial sites or scare stories, can end up more anxious and misinformed. Kitemarking has improved with the foregrounding of more authoritative sources and is promising to do more. Google have already implemented this, prompting UK-based internet users to consult the WHO and NHS pages when the term ‘covid 19’ is entered into Google. However, Google health enquiries are still often headed by commercial and sponsored sites.

16) A GLOBAL EXPERIMENT

Right now, the world is embarking upon a vast global experiment, by default: a massive shift of education, work and sociality to online. This is an important time for digital anthropology to try to help assess any associated problems that arise from these strategies, as well as any long-term benefits.