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Vigilant Neighbours: City Surveillance and WhatsApp

Alex Gekker, Carolina Frossard, Klasien van de Zandschulp, Natalie Dixon and Rivke Jaffe

If you live in Amsterdam, chances are you have come across a street sign that features the WhatsApp logo, followed by the word “buurtpreventie” (neighbourhood watch), which indicates that residents living nearby are using their smartphones to inform each other on perceived threats to their safety. The use of the popular messaging app for street-level surveillance by ordinary people is certainly not a local phenomenon, though. In cities around the world, WhatsApp groups for security have encouraged neighbours to keep their eyes on the streets, and on each other.

Within these digital communities for urban policing, participants are quick to capture – and share – images of what and whom they view as threatening to the spaces they inhabit. By engaging in such vigilant exchanges, residents constantly stress and negotiate the lines between “good” and “bad” neighbourly behaviour, between insiders and strangers.

Individually and collectively, we have been interested in understanding how WhatsApp surveillance affects social and spatial relations at the neighbourhood level. Do these security groups enhance participants’ sense of belonging to particular territories? Do they generate feelings of alienation, amongst those excluded from, or othered within, such groups? Might these pervasive digital spaces afford both dynamics?

Here, we do not aim to provide definitive answers to these questions. Rather, we suggest four themes that might be of use, as we try to unpack how digital technology influences how we live together in the city: digitality, spatiality, affect, and governance. Digitality pertains to the digital technology itself: what are its specific features and what interactions do they enable or prevent? Spatiality, here, relates to the online, offline and hybrid spaces that WhatsApp groups engender and interact with.

In centering affect, we are interested in how technologies shape the feel of such spaces, while governance speaks to the forms of control they exercise and are subject to themselves. Last winter, we gathered a multidisciplinary group of researchers to speculate around these themes at an online workshop session focused on WhatsApp urban surveillance. Below, we very briefly summarize the main insights that this effort generated - our findings are presented in a more elaborate, illustrated form on this interactive page.

Digitality

The specificity of WhatsApp as a digital medium matters to the neighbourly relations it enables or discourages. For example, “read receipts” can shape how accountability is perceived and measured within a group. Due to different levels of digital literacy, these features can also contribute to power imbalances amongst WhatsApp-ing peers.

Spatiality

WhatsApp groups that assemble residents for territorial control and surveillance may serve as virtual meeting spaces for like-minded individuals who live in close proximity to each other. At the same time, these are also policed spaces, where neighbours may express both approval and reproach. The virtuality of this space makes it mobile, allowing participants to stay in them as they move within and beyond their respective neighbourhoods.

Affect

In contemporary neighbourhood settings, expressions of fear, paranoia, joy and excitement are often mediated by mobile technologies. Through platforms such as WhatsApp and Nextdoor, neighbours circulate news and information related to the spaces they share, as well as their place-based fears and frustrations. These affects can function as a binding force that grounds the formation of particular subject positions, while also informing social hierarchies.

Governance

By participating in WhatsApp groups for local surveillance, neighbours take on a share of the control over the places that they locate as their territories, which entails keeping an eye out for those profiled as “outsiders”. When its vigilant gaze turns towards those othered along the lines of class, race, and gender, WhatsApp-based surveillance may work as an intimate extension of the exclusionary orders that more established forms of policing also maintain.

The online workshop “Vigilant Neighbours: City Surveillance and WhatsApp” and the content that came from it were made possible by a CUS/CREATE Joint Seed Grant. The organizers would also like to thank all workshop participants for their generous, lively, and playful engagement with all our digital, Zoom-based shenanigans.