Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.MM.12.2.10 | PDF

The Notifiction: How Push Notifications from Neighbourhood Surveillance Apps Can Create an Alternative Narrative of Place

Andy Fis­ch­er Wright

This arti­cle con­cerns the author’s attempt to stay con­nect­ed with his home neigh­bor­hood in Austin, TX, and how that con­flicts with using the neigh­bour­hood sur­veil­lance plat­form Ring Neigh­bors dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. Uti­liz­ing a mixed method­ol­o­gy based in autoethnog­ra­phy, the author con­sid­ers how the noti­fi­ca­tions pro­duced by this plat­form can cre­ate new poten­tial nar­ra­tives about his neigh­bour­hood dur­ing a pan­dem­ic. While this app is the­o­ret­i­cal­ly help­ful by show­ing what com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers are think­ing, the noti­fi­ca­tions that it thrusts into his dai­ly life tend to cre­ate a fic­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion of his home, which he deems a “noti­fic­tion.”

Cet arti­cle abor­de la ten­ta­tive de l’auteur de rester con­nec­té avec le voisi­nage de sa ville natale à Austin, au Texas et com­ment cela créer un con­flit avec l’utilisation de la plate-forme de sur­veil­lance de voisi­nage “Ring Neigh­bors” pen­dant la pandémie. En se bas­ant sur une méthodolo­gie mixte fondée sur l’autoethnographie, l’auteur exam­ine com­ment les noti­fi­ca­tions pro­duites par cette plate-forme peu­vent créer de poten­tielles nou­velles his­toires sur son quarti­er pen­dant la pandémie. Alors que cette appli­ca­tion est en théorie utile en mon­trant ce que à quoi les mem­bres de la com­mu­nauté pensent, ces noti­fi­ca­tions qui s’imposent dans sa vie quo­ti­di­enne ont ten­dance à créer une représen­ta­tion fic­tive de sa mai­son comme une “noti­fic­tion.”

Since March of 2020, many peo­ple have either cho­sen or been forced to stay main­ly inside of their res­i­dences due to the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic. As the pan­dem­ic con­tin­ues, peo­ple in the Unit­ed States and with­in my com­mu­ni­ty in Austin, Texas, have gen­er­al­ly been slow to return to their for­mer rou­tines that involved appear­ing in pub­lic. This has become dou­bly true for work­ers whose employ­ers have not yet required them to return to the office, lead­ing large swaths of Amer­i­cans priv­i­leged enough to stay safe­ly sta­tion­ary to increas­ing­ly view the world through a dig­i­tal lens dark­ly. Because all in-per­son forms of inter­ac­tion bear some inher­ent risk with­in a pan­dem­ic, rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the out­side world have come to be increas­ing­ly medi­at­ed through devices used in domes­tic spaces, and espe­cial­ly through ubiq­ui­tous mobile devices. This is to say, many peo­ple see more and more of the out­side world through the visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions on devices, espe­cial­ly smart phones. In this state of increased phys­i­cal iso­la­tion, the role of neigh­bour­hood social net­works and apps is worth considering.

Neigh­bour­hood plat­forms such as Nextdoor, Cit­i­zen, and Ring Neigh­bors allow users and offi­cials to view, post, and stream text, images, and videos from secu­ri­ty cam­eras and oth­er domes­tic sen­sors about things that are hap­pen­ing in their neigh­bour­hood, with a par­tic­u­lar focus on report­ing crime and poten­tial dan­ger. How­ev­er, these net­works have often been crit­i­cized for the behav­iours they tend to encour­age. In her com­par­i­son of Nextdoor and the pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion show Mis­ter Rogers’ Neigh­bor­hood, Katie Lam­bright not­ed that Nextdoor’s focus on cre­at­ing a trust­ed com­mu­ni­ty can cre­ate a “res­ur­rect­ed dis­course of small-town com­mu­ni­ty val­ues [that elides] the more per­ni­cious effects of the entire project of uphold­ing (and polic­ing) ‘com­mu­ni­ties’” (Lam­bright 89). Cit­i­zen, which was adapt­ed from a pre­de­ces­sor named Vig­i­lante in 2017, is anoth­er app used in large cities that both noti­fies users of crim­i­nal activ­i­ty har­vest­ed from police scan­ners and user reports and has encour­aged users to “stream and doc­u­ment inci­dents that are unfold­ing around them” (Her­rman). Cit­i­zen has also recent­ly been involved in an erro­neous man­hunt for an alleged arson­ist in Cal­i­for­nia in which users post­ed iden­ti­fy­ing pic­tures and offered a reward for a man who was not in fact involved in the inci­dent (Mor­ri­son). Both of these plat­forms are worth con­sid­er­ing for their meth­ods and com­mu­ni­ty norms, but this arti­cle large­ly focus­es on Ring Neigh­bors, a social net­work and mobile app asso­ci­at­ed with the Ama­zon-acquired Ring brand of secu­ri­ty cam­eras and sur­veil­lance devices. Accord­ing to a com­pa­ny blog post made in 2014, Ring’s name orig­i­nates from “the ‘ring’ of secu­ri­ty [the com­pa­ny] cre­ates around your home, and then in time, your com­mu­ni­ty” (Simi­noff). Neigh­bors is designed for smart phones and can be eas­i­ly paired with Ring cam­eras and devices, and has a stat­ed goal to deliv­er “real-time crime and safe­ty alerts from your neigh­bors and local law enforce­ment” with the end goal of cre­at­ing “stronger com­mu­ni­ties” (Ring). As might be expect­ed, these com­mu­ni­ty-based plat­forms have opened them­selves to crit­i­cism from var­i­ous advo­ca­cy groups includ­ing the Elec­tron­ic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion. How­ev­er, Neigh­bors in par­tic­u­lar has a his­to­ry of close asso­ci­a­tion with Amer­i­can law enforce­ment, includ­ing a part­ner­ship with over 2,000 local police and fire depart­ments that can make sur­veil­lance video and meta­da­ta more acces­si­ble to law enforce­ment offi­cers (Lyons). The explic­it con­nec­tion between Neigh­bors and the police, paired with a strong ten­den­cy for over-report­ing dan­ger, can turn “what seems like a per­fect­ly safe neigh­bor­hood into a source of anx­i­ety and fear” (Guar­iglia).

For this arti­cle I specif­i­cal­ly draw atten­tion to the push noti­fi­ca­tions that the Neigh­bors app pro­duces and the nar­ra­tive they can insert into dai­ly life. Like many oth­er schol­ars writ­ing in this issue, this moti­va­tion came par­tial­ly from the 21-day autoethnog­ra­phy chal­lenge devel­oped by Anne Markham and Annette Har­ris in May of 2020 (Markham and Har­ris). This chal­lenge asked par­tic­i­pants to “trans­form our per­son­al expe­ri­ences through this COVID-19 moment into crit­i­cal under­stand­ing of scale, sense­mak­ing, and rela­tion­al­i­ty,” (Markham and Har­ris 2) con­tain­ing such prompts as look­ing at an image of a face-mask and reflect­ing on it by “repeat­ing the clas­sic ethno­graph­ic ques­tion, ‘What is going on here?’ over and over” until we under­stood how we “frame our obser­va­tions” (Markham and Har­ris 9). Despite their preva­lence, noti­fi­ca­tions are rarely afford­ed this atten­tion, and their poten­tial influ­ence goes large­ly unin­ter­ro­gat­ed as part of dai­ly life.

I specif­i­cal­ly con­sid­er the thin lev­el of descrip­tion offered by nar­ra­tivized push noti­fi­ca­tions from the geolo­cal­ized social media plat­form Neigh­bors dur­ing a pan­dem­ic, and argue that the noti­fi­ca­tions the Neigh­bors app pro­duces rep­re­sent an exten­sion of Ring’s inter­ests into the flows of every­day life. By report­ing alarm­ing mes­sages about poten­tial fires, gun­shots, and alleged crim­i­nal activ­i­ty through the same mech­a­nism through which most users receive more mun­dane emails and text mes­sages, Neigh­bors cre­ates what has been called a “vicious cycle in which police pro­mote the adop­tion of Ring, Ring ter­ri­fies peo­ple into think­ing their homes are in dan­ger, and then Ama­zon sells more cam­eras” (Guar­iglia). By explor­ing how the noti­fi­ca­tions I receive from this net­worked sur­veil­lance app come to form nar­ra­tivized ‘noti­fic­tions’ about my home, it becomes clear that the way these media objects rep­re­sent my neigh­bour­hood is a dif­fer­ent, more alarmist ver­sion than what one might encounter when in clos­er phys­i­cal prox­im­i­ty to the space and the peo­ple who live here. In the case of my home in Austin, I argue that the sto­ry I am pre­sent­ed with through this media for­mat is fun­da­men­tal­ly at odds with the place in which I live.

The Notifiction

Media schol­ars have stud­ied how peo­ple have come to view places through the media they view about them, and how this is nev­er a neu­tral process (see Turn­bull et al.; Loukissas; Rap­ping). One clas­sic exam­ple of media poten­tial­ly cre­at­ing an impe­r­i­al lens is the “mag­ic car­pet” effect that Stam and Spence not­ed is inher­ent in West­ern cin­e­ma about non-West­ern places. Accord­ing to these schol­ars, gaz­ing at films about dif­fer­ent places trans­forms West­ern view­ers into “arm­chair con­quis­ta­dores, affirm­ing our sense of pow­er while mak­ing the inhab­i­tants of the Third World objects of spec­ta­cle” (Stam and Spence 316). While this impe­ri­al­ist and deficit mod­el has been wide­ly com­pli­cat­ed, dig­i­tal human­i­ties schol­ar Cameron Blevins used his­tor­i­cal edi­tions of a local dai­ly news­pa­per in the late 19th cen­tu­ry to posit that a “cheap, wide­ly avail­able, and time­ly” (Blevins 128) form of infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy could come to “define the geo­graph­i­cal con­text of the world by print­ing some loca­tions and ignor­ing oth­ers” (Blevins 128). This is to say, if the only infor­ma­tion a per­son reads about a city or region comes from news­pa­per sto­ries, the norms of how this city is shown in the newspaper’s aggre­gate nar­ra­tive can become a pow­er­ful­ly affec­tive force where­in the newspaper’s bias­es are reflect­ed in the reader’s knowl­edge of a place they have only read about. While these under­stand­ings work for their respec­tive medi­ums, in an ‘appi­fied’ world the dig­i­tal media we con­sume and the apps we use have become “embed­ded into the every­day rou­tines and rit­u­als of” dai­ly life (Mor­ris and Mur­ray 7). Schol­ars have cat­e­go­rized such intru­sions of tech­nol­o­gy into dai­ly life and cul­ture through the­o­rized sys­tems such as sur­veil­lance cap­i­tal­ism (Zuboff), data colo­nial­ism (Couldry and Mejias), and tech­no­log­i­cal redlin­ing (Noble), with the com­mon con­cern that the dis­turb­ing norms pro­duced and prop­a­gat­ed by new media tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies are becom­ing both increas­ing­ly influ­en­tial and accept­ed as mun­dane. Com­bin­ing these meth­ods of see­ing the world with the impli­ca­tions of ubiq­ui­tous media tech­nol­o­gy as part of dai­ly life sets the stage for ana­lyz­ing push noti­fi­ca­tions as dai­ly media objects. As the pri­ma­ry source of infor­ma­tion about the world out­side of the home that arrives via a device and a medi­um that is express­ly designed to blend in, Neigh­bors noti­fi­ca­tions begin to take on a false verisimil­i­tude cloaked in ordi­nary reporting.

If both nar­ra­tive media and infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy about a place can pro­duce con­cep­tions of space that blend in to dai­ly life, why should the same not be pos­si­ble for the geolo­cal­ized push noti­fi­ca­tion? I argue that noti­fi­ca­tions con­vey­ing infor­ma­tion about a place and who exists in it can pro­duce their own imag­i­na­tive geog­ra­phy by broad­cast­ing a sin­gu­lar mes­sage of what hap­pens in that place, or a ‘noti­fic­tion.’ The inter­est­ing dis­tinc­tion between the noti­fic­tion and the oth­er forms of place-shap­ing are that the sto­ries told through noti­fi­ca­tions are part and par­cel of dai­ly life. Where­as Blevins read a his­tor­i­cal cor­pus dis­tant­ly and media schol­ars read movies and tele­vi­sion con­tent close­ly, noti­fic­tions are read inti­mate­ly at the inter­sec­tion of media and the mun­dane that a smart­phone rep­re­sents. When a user is told about a sequence of things hap­pen­ing in the place they live through con­stant report­ing on neigh­bor­hood hap­pen­ings, the notifiction’s infor­ma­tion flow sup­ple­ments their knowl­edge of their home and the things that hap­pen with­in it.

In the case of neigh­bour­hood apps and oth­er local net­works, this can have poten­tial­ly dis­as­trous side effects. In 2019, Matthew Guar­iglia of the Elec­tron­ic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion quot­ed an assis­tant police chief in Ari­zona that see­ing poten­tial crim­i­nal acts report­ed dai­ly on social media allowed for peo­ple in his area to “start believ­ing that [crim­i­nal­i­ty] is preva­lent, and that crime is real­ly high” when this was not actu­al­ly the case (Guar­iglia). A con­tin­u­al flow of warn­ings also can cre­ate a need to stay tuned into the noti­fic­tion. Writ­ing about Citizen’s report­ing style, John Her­rman called a sim­i­lar desire to stay informed a “con­flict­ed enthu­si­asm” guid­ed by a log­ic of “I don’t know if I want to know, but I can’t not know” (Her­rman). Ring’s own adver­tis­ing has also played into this sense of curios­i­ty, such as through the two-image ad I received on Insta­gram ear­ly in 2019 (Fig. 1.) The first pan­el of this ad reads, “Won­der­ing what’s going on in your neigh­bor­hood?” The sec­ond pan­el presents an answer to this desire: “Down­load the Free Neigh­bors App” so that you may know. Keep­ing informed of the seem­ing­ly end­less threats that Neigh­bors reports is pre­sent­ed a way of know­ing “what’s going on” in this place.

Figure 1: Screenshots of a two-image Instagram ad I received for Ring Neighbors (read left to right). Screenshots recorded by author February 12, 2019.

To place this project in con­text, I wish to trace a noti­fic­tion across a few moments in time when I was able to record it. The first of these takes place before the pan­dem­ic began, when pub­lic inter­ac­tion was more nor­mal for many. The sec­ond takes place dur­ing a peak of the pan­dem­ic, when the virus and local laws in my com­mu­ni­ty made all pub­lic inter­ac­tion more dif­fi­cult and poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous. The final entry takes place in the tran­si­tion­al peri­od after vac­ci­na­tions have become more acces­si­ble in my com­mu­ni­ty but herd immu­ni­ty has not yet been achieved. The one thread that holds these exam­ples togeth­er is that they all take place in Austin, Texas, and specif­i­cal­ly in my home neigh­bour­hood of Cherrywood.

Local Perspective

Cher­ry­wood offers up a com­pelling case study because of the com­pli­cat­ed his­to­ry present in Austin. The east side of this city has been inten­tion­al­ly shaped by forces of redlin­ing and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, dat­ing back to a 1928 city plan that refused city ser­vices to Black indi­vid­u­als liv­ing west of East Avenue (Hunt and Losey 1), con­tin­u­ing through a New Deal process of redlin­ing that lat­er involved the Fed­er­al con­struc­tion of Inter­state 35 along the same lon­gi­tude (Zehr et al.), and cul­mi­nat­ing in an indus­try-friend­ly “tech­nop­o­lis” (Straub­haar et al.) that con­tin­ues to strug­gle with inequity and the dig­i­tal divide. There is also a prece­dent of sur­veil­lance by com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers in east Austin seem­ing to reflect a clear sense of bias. In a 2016 study of a neigh­bor­hood list­serv in the pre­dom­i­nant­ly white Austin neigh­bour­hood of Wood­cliff in East Austin not far away from my own, researchers Lowe, Stroud, and Nguyen found that race and gen­der can shape respons­es to whether res­i­dents would clas­si­fy a per­son along the lines of whether they belong in the neigh­bor­hood or not (47). These researchers deter­mined that “res­i­dents [of Wood­cliff] rely on race as one of the most impor­tant fac­tors to deter­mine if some­one is a threat,” includ­ing a clear bias against Black men and an accom­pa­ny­ing pre­rog­a­tive that “required [a good neigh­bour] to call the police and to alert oth­ers.” (Lowe et al., 47). Many of the ways the researchers describe Wood­cliff ring true for Cher­ry­wood, from its sta­tus as a “pro­gres­sive, upper-mid­dle-class, pre­dom­i­nant­ly white neigh­bor­hood” to the “well-inten­tioned, self-described ‘lib­er­al’ whites” who live there (Lowe et al. 37). While these neigh­bour­hoods and the media they pro­duce are not com­plete­ly iden­ti­cal, the sim­i­lar­i­ty of the set­ting as well as the researchers’ con­cerns about a “recent increase in the use of dig­i­tal sur­veil­lance strate­gies to mon­i­tor areas for sus­pi­cious activ­i­ty” (Lowe et al. 37) when the arti­cle was pub­lished in 2016 rais­es a legit­i­mate con­cern for my home.

Figure 2: A Neighborhood Watch sign under two blocks from my apartment, faded from exposure to the sun over time.

There is a much longer his­to­ry of sur­veil­lance and inequitable polic­ing in Amer­i­ca out­side of com­mu­ni­ty list­servs in Austin (Browne), and the most telling lega­cy of these plat­forms comes from Neigh­bor­hood Watch orga­ni­za­tions. These cit­i­zen groups usu­al­ly com­posed of prop­er­ty own­ers in an area were orig­i­nal­ly orga­nized in the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tu­ry as part of a much larg­er ini­tia­tive to pro­vide a “frame­work for cit­i­zen involve­ment in local crime pre­ven­tion activ­i­ties,” (McConville and Shep­herd 3) and have often been crit­i­cized for encour­ag­ing vig­i­lante jus­tice, racial pro­fil­ing, and extra­ju­di­cial vio­lence. The pur­port­ed moti­va­tion of Neigh­bor­hood Watch is often as sim­ple as the sign near my apart­ment pic­tured above: “We Look Out for Each Oth­er” by report­ing “sus­pi­cious activ­i­ty” to the local police (Fig. 2.) The orga­ni­za­tion of a group focused on search­ing out sus­pi­cious activ­i­ties nat­u­ral­ly cre­ates a reliance on mark­ing dif­fer­ence based on what data can be observed, cat­e­go­rized, and circulated.

Though Neigh­bor­hood Watch orga­ni­za­tions estab­lish dif­fer­ence based on sub­jec­tive notions of sus­pi­cious per­sons or activ­i­ties, plat­forms may also build upon user prej­u­dices. Sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies, as a norm, tend to mark as oth­er “vir­tu­al­ly any­thing that aber­rates from the norm” (Tuck­er), which in terms of plat­forms can mean those who are on the net­work and those who are not. Neigh­bour­hood social net­works seem to large­ly treat this through mod­er­at­ing spe­cif­ic instances of racism, includ­ing the recent deci­sion by Nextdoor to add an “anti-racism” noti­fi­ca­tion which “aims to make peo­ple aware of lan­guage that may vio­late our pol­i­cy against dis­crim­i­na­tion and the harm that can be caused by the use of these phras­es [such as All Lives Mat­ter]” (Ong­we­so Jr). Noti­fy­ing indi­vid­ual users that the posts they are mak­ing might be harm­ful allows plat­forms to treat bias as an issue exter­nal to the plat­form; a glitch, not a fea­ture. Katie Lam­bright fur­ther writes of Nextdoor that “empha­siz­ing the need for good neigh­bor­hoods, close com­mu­ni­ties, and well-watched gates effaces struc­tur­al gate­keep­ing and repro­duces the inequal­i­ty that [red­lined neigh­bor­hoods and bound­ary mark­ers like fences] were cre­at­ed to pro­duce” (Lam­bright 89). In addi­tion, Guar­iglia writes for the EFF that, “[these plat­forms] are mar­ket­ed as local­ized social net­works where peo­ple in a neigh­bor­hood can dis­cuss local issues or share con­cerns. But all too often, they facil­i­tate report­ing of so-called ‘sus­pi­cious’ behav­ior that real­ly amounts to racial pro­fil­ing” (Guar­iglia). In this role, the net­worked neigh­bour­hood watch acts to report peo­ple and behav­ior cod­ed as oth­er through posts and alerts that are then trans­lat­ed to time­ly notifications.

Figure 3: The screen shown before logging into Ring Neighbors on an iPhone demonstrates that Ring has not shied away from a comparison with the neighborhood watch. Screenshot recorded May 28, 2020.

Reading The Notifiction: Before, During, and in Transitory Stages of the Pandemic

Consid­er­ing these noti­fi­ca­tions as a media flow allows us to grasp a slip­pery mes­sage and ana­lyze it over a set peri­od of time. To show­case what the noti­fic­tion looks like in prac­tice, I turn to three dis­crete time peri­ods when I was able to record noti­fi­ca­tions from Ring Neigh­bors. I began my obser­va­tions casu­al­ly before the pan­dem­ic, specif­i­cal­ly when I had just installed the Neigh­bors app on my phone in April of 2019. After spend­ing a Sat­ur­day on cam­pus work­ing late in the library, I checked my phone to see if it would rain on my walk home. This is what I saw on my lock screen that had been deliv­ered by Neigh­bors dur­ing the day:

Figure 4: Notifications I received from Ring Neighbors over the course of April 13, 2019. I have covered the video preview for the privacy of the surveilled parties.

The first noti­fi­ca­tion I saw made me stop flat: “Sus­pi­cious- Appears to be teenager’s up to no good [sic.] They heard the dog and ran” (Fig. 4). Look­ing down the list of noti­fi­ca­tions, I saw that the remain­der of the posts that day were sim­i­lar. Some­one had rung a door­bell, and a “sketchy guy” had hopped a fence. Over this same inter­val, there were reports of two fires that had bro­ken out. Dur­ing one qui­et Sat­ur­day, my neigh­bor­hood had seem­ing­ly been bom­bard­ed with crimes and dis­as­ters arriv­ing in quick suc­ces­sion, though none of the peo­ple respon­si­ble for these deeds appeared to be rec­og­niz­able by any fac­tors out­side of their per­ceived behav­iour. The per­pe­tra­tors were “teenager’s,” a “guy who came to our house,” and a “sketchy guy” whom the poster did not rec­og­nize. These peo­ple were seen as young, looked “sketchy” to the per­son report­ing the activ­i­ty, or just act­ed in a way that was unex­pect­ed. More dis­turbing­ly, they were report­ed by these alerts as dan­ger­ous forces to be wary of for noth­ing more than that fact that they were seen.

Though I am high­ly skep­ti­cal of sur­veil­lance tech­nol­o­gy, I will admit that being told about fires and crime in my neigh­bour­hood before walk­ing home from the library late in the evening was unnerv­ing for a moment. The noti­fic­tion rep­re­sent­ed a dan­ger­ous place, but with the con­text of hav­ing lived there I knew that my neigh­bour­hood was like­ly not actu­al­ly unsafe. Walk­ing home, the most direct threat to my well­be­ing was undoubt­ed­ly the fact that I would need to cross a few major roads on a Sat­ur­day night, and when I arrived home to the small apart­ment I shared with anoth­er grad­u­ate stu­dent there was noth­ing out of the ordi­nary to note. Yet the noti­fic­tion told a sto­ry that was direct­ly in con­trast to this under­stand­ing, and more­over pro­mot­ed a mes­sage that know­ing about these vague threats in my area would make me and my com­mu­ni­ty safer.

Figure 5: Screenshot recorded on October 1, 2019.

The noti­fic­tion from Neigh­bors con­tin­ued lat­er into that year (Fig. 5). I have includ­ed this screen­shot because it shows a dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion between three dis­tinct types of noti­fi­ca­tions that emerged in the same series: Neigh­bor­hood Alerts, Safe­ty Alerts, and Austin PD Alerts. While Neigh­bor­hood Alerts seem to come from posts made by com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, the Safe­ty Alerts shown here as well as in the pre­vi­ous screen­shot seem to be noti­fi­ca­tions of report­ed safe­ty haz­ards such as fire or rob­bery. Mean­while, the Austin PD Alert is a warn­ing that peo­ple liv­ing in Austin should be reg­is­ter­ing their firearms in case they were lat­er stolen. Though the sources of these alerts are all dif­fer­ent and occurred over the course of four days, read­ing this col­lec­tion of noti­fi­ca­tions con­tin­ues to tell a noti­fic­tion that Cher­ry­wood was sup­pos­ed­ly an unsafe place and that inhab­i­tants need­ed to be pre­pared. But again, the noti­fic­tion was easy to ignore with context.

My rou­tine was sig­nif­i­cant­ly altered by the pan­dem­ic, but the noti­fic­tion pre­sent­ed by Neigh­bors remained large­ly the same. Before my employ­er and school sus­pend­ed most face-to-face activ­i­ties in March of 2020, I would walk through my neigh­bour­hood every morn­ing on my way to cam­pus. Even if I did not meet any peo­ple that I knew, I still passed by the same cof­feeshops, bus stops, and build­ings, see­ing if any­thing had changed since I had walked home the pre­vi­ous evening. By con­trast, the only times I would reg­u­lar­ly leave my apart­ment dur­ing the heart of the pan­dem­ic were to go gro­cery shop­ping once a week, or for rare social gath­er­ings that were care­ful­ly planned to fol­low pub­lic health guide­lines. The face-to-face inter­ac­tions that had hap­pened fre­quent­ly with my friends, neigh­bours, and strangers were replaced with obser­va­tions made by users on plat­forms like Neigh­bors, mov­ing my per­spec­tive from a com­mut­ing inhab­i­tant to a sta­tion­ary bene­fac­tor of this net­worked sys­tem of sur­veil­lant information.

Figure 6: Screenshot of notifications from July 17th-July 19th, 2020. Screenshot recorded on July 20, 2020.

By July of 2020 (Fig. 6), the noti­fi­ca­tions I was receiv­ing about my neigh­bour­hood had diver­si­fied in con­tent, but had not devi­at­ed from the theme of report­ing uni­lat­er­al dan­ger. Dur­ing the three-day peri­od that this screen­shot shows, I received noti­fi­ca­tions that rep­re­sent­ed mul­ti­ple attempt­ed break-ins, inci­dents of tres­pass­ing, a report­ed fire, and a lost dog that had been tak­en in by some­one. The lan­guage used to describe activ­i­ties and the peo­ple who were observed per­form­ing them seems set on estab­lish­ing that many peo­ple seen in Cher­ry­wood did not belong there: one is a “stranger,” anoth­er is a “tres­pass­er,” while anoth­er alert details how “peo­ple are get­ting so [brazen] now” and look­ing at cars. On the oth­er hand, a found dog mer­it­ed its own post under the assump­tion that a com­mu­ni­ty mem­ber may be look­ing for it.

What is not imme­di­ate­ly appar­ent from this screen­shot is the state of the pan­dem­ic at the time. Just days before the first noti­fi­ca­tion arrived and in response to cel­e­bra­tions dur­ing the Amer­i­can Inde­pen­dence Day hol­i­day ear­li­er in the month, Travis Coun­ty Judge Sam Bis­coe signed Coun­ty Judge Order 2020-14 which pro­hib­it­ed most gath­er­ings over 10 peo­ple, enforced more strict mask guide­lines, and con­tin­ued a dis­as­ter dec­la­ra­tion and pub­lic health emer­gency for the area (Bis­coe). With this order in effect and lev­els of infec­tion increas­ing rapid­ly, leav­ing the apart­ment not only opened myself up to infec­tion but was also poten­tial­ly ille­gal. The corol­lary to my iso­la­tion is that pre­sum­ably my neigh­bours were also choos­ing to stay inside if they were able to. Paul Pre­ci­a­do char­ac­ter­ized this con­di­tion of self-quar­an­tine as a sort of Fou­cauldian night­mare, writ­ing of a soci­ety “locked up in their cage, [with] every­one at their win­dow” ready to dis­ci­pline those whom they could observe and report to their net­works. With the abil­i­ty to leave the home space phys­i­cal­ly dis­in­cen­tivized and restrict­ed by the state, net­worked plat­forms became a more promi­nent way of see­ing the world with­out chang­ing their mes­sag­ing of per­pet­u­al dan­ger. In iso­la­tion, the noti­fic­tion presents a myth that had no acces­si­ble coun­ter­part from the neigh­bour­hood out­side my door.

Figure 7: A screenshot that shows notifications received between May 18th-May 20th, 2021. Screenshot recorded May 20th, 2021.

Just over a year after the first pub­lic mea­sures to curb the pan­dem­ic took effect in Texas, the state declared that all adults were now eli­gi­ble to receive a vac­cine. By ear­ly May of 2021, over a third of Travis Coun­try res­i­dents were ful­ly vac­ci­nat­ed and over one mil­lion dos­es of vac­cines had been admin­is­tered (Laskey). As I write this in May of 2021, the city in which I live seems to be enter­ing yet anoth­er tran­si­tion­al state in the pan­dem­ic back into pub­lic life. Due to an order from the Governor’s office fol­low­ing guid­ance from the Cen­ter for Dis­ease Con­trol, wear­ing a mask will no longer be required by state gov­ern­men­tal agen­cies includ­ing my home uni­ver­si­ty (Ragas). The pre­sump­tion seems to be that the pan­dem­ic is reach­ing an end­point, at least at a local lev­el, and that the time is com­ing for the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion to read­just to pub­lic encoun­ters. And yet, the noti­fi­ca­tions that are being com­mu­ni­cat­ed (Fig. 7) retain their dire mes­sag­ing: nat­ur­al dis­as­ters, “unex­pect­ed visitor[s,]” and the occa­sion­al loose pet. It is not entire­ly clear how dai­ly life will pro­ceed after this tem­po­rary stage of the pan­dem­ic, as mem­bers of my neigh­bour­hood begin to see each oth­er more fre­quent­ly at work and around the city. The role of the noti­fic­tion in an uncer­tain future remains to be seen.

The Future of the Notifiction

The mes­sages Neigh­bors dri­ves in its col­lec­tive noti­fic­tion are not by any means reli­able, but by tak­ing this look at the con­tin­u­al mes­sag­ing across this span of time we can out­line two themes that emerge through their col­lec­tive sto­ry. First, all of these noti­fi­ca­tions are local­ized in space and time, which gives the noti­fic­tion a sense of imme­di­a­cy and rel­e­van­cy to dai­ly life with­in an actu­al geo­graph­ic area. Sec­ond, many of these noti­fi­ca­tions rep­re­sent a dis­tinct dan­ger or crime (fire, theft, tres­pass­ing, etc.) or less dis­tinct sus­pi­cious activ­i­ty, but few pos­sess a clear jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for why the per­son read­ing these noti­fi­ca­tions needs to know about this activ­i­ty with this imme­di­a­cy. The push noti­fi­ca­tions I see and all the tech­nol­o­gy they come with aim to cre­ate a phan­tas­magoric neigh­bour­hood con­stant­ly under attack, whose image is con­trolled by the plat­forms and users that make up the net­worked neigh­bour­hood watch. The resul­tant noti­fic­tion of con­stant immi­nent dan­ger with­in the com­mu­ni­ty from with­out seems to encour­age sus­pi­cion based on social net­works that have proven poten­tial­ly fal­li­ble or biased, which is not nec­es­sar­i­ly in my neighbourhood’s best interest.

The noti­fi­ca­tions I received on my phone from Ring Neigh­bors dur­ing a pan­dem­ic present an espe­cial­ly promi­nent exam­ple of a noti­fic­tion, but the con­cept may be applied across oth­er plat­forms as well. As a the­o­ret­i­cal con­cept, read­ing noti­fi­ca­tions as both indi­vid­ual media objects and parts of media flows that arrive as part of dai­ly life with dis­cernible moti­va­tions and nar­ra­tives can pro­vide a method for ana­lyz­ing oth­er algo­rith­mic com­mu­ni­ca­tions that are often tak­en as part of mun­dan­i­ty in visu­al cul­ture. Because of how preva­lent noti­fi­ca­tions are in an econ­o­my based on get­ting and hold­ing atten­tion, the noti­fic­tions apps gen­er­ate and users view are var­i­ous in mes­sage and influ­ence. Doc­u­ment­ing this par­tic­u­lar noti­fic­tion joins in the project of this spe­cial issue to take a moment dur­ing the pan­dem­ic to explore that which has become hid­den in dai­ly life and inter­ro­gate it crit­i­cal­ly. The micro­scop­ic noti­fic­tion tells a sto­ry of the macro­scop­ic world, which is restrict­ed from view in the lock­down. This read­ing of the noti­fic­tion is a start; oth­er analy­ses of noti­fi­ca­tions and their sto­ries are worth pursuing.

Works Cited

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Image Notes

Fig­ure 1: Screen­shots of a two-image Insta­gram ad I received for Ring Neigh­bors (read left to right). Screen­shots record­ed by author Feb­ru­ary 12, 2019.

Fig­ure 2: A Neigh­bor­hood Watch sign under two blocks from my apart­ment, fad­ed from expo­sure to the sun over time.

Fig­ure 3: The screen shown before log­ging into Ring Neigh­bors on an iPhone demon­strates that Ring has not shied away from a com­par­i­son with the neigh­bor­hood watch. Screen­shot record­ed May 28, 2020.

Fig­ure 4: Noti­fi­ca­tions I received from Ring Neigh­bors over the course of April 13, 2019. I have cov­ered the video pre­view for the pri­va­cy of the sur­veilled parties.

Fig­ure 5: Screen­shot record­ed on Octo­ber 1, 2019.

Fig­ure 6: Screen­shot of noti­fi­ca­tions from July 17th-July 19th, 2020. Screen­shot record­ed on July 20, 2020.

Fig­ure 7: A screen­shot that shows noti­fi­ca­tions received between May 18th-May 20th, 2021. Screen­shot record­ed May 20th, 2021.