From connective to collective actions: Collective physical support emerged from self-organized local virtual groups during the COVID pandemic in Belarus!

Blog for Urban Mill by Aliaksei Zanouski 30.12.2020, heading and subheadings by Urban Mill.

March for freedom in Minsk, Belarus. 16 August 2020. photo: Alyaksandr Vasyukovich / Vot-tak.tv / Belsat.eu

”My name is Aliaksei Zanouski. I am an architect and a student at the Urban Studies and Planning master program at Aalto University. During Urban Mill’s Otaniemi recycling days in December 2020, I had an interesting and fruitful discussion with Lars Miikki, co-founder and co-producer at Urban Mill. This occasional meeting reminded me of importance to be in the same space for networking and how casual small talk leads to an interesting discussion. I want to share with you some highlights of our conversation.”

Connective individual actions through social media networks

Poster “Structures don’t take to the streets” Minsk, Belarus. 27 September 2020. photo: Facebook post

In August as a response on fraudulent elections mass protests swept across Belarus demanding democracy and end of the 26-year authoritarian rule of Alexander Lukashenko. Despite a shocking amount of violence used against peaceful demonstrators, protests keep going since August. Media write a lot about Belarus recently. However, what is missing from international media coverage is an inner dynamic of the uprising which could be interesting to those who are interested in urbanity.

Like many other recent social movements uprising in Belarus could be categorized as a connective action. Coordination almost absent, the role of political parties and structures wasn’t significant. The movement was based on personalized content sharing across social media networks. Leaderless action without a defined political structure seems more sustainable against the repressive machine in a short term. Nevertheless, in most cases we know, connective action cannot sustain in a long run. Movements built on a mostly virtual ‘weak tie’ networks failing to get offline and build their own political structures. Is it the case in Belarus?

Interestingly virtual groups united not by ideology, but location

It is early to say yet. It seems that uprising in Belarus has a unique feature that can change overall protest dynamics. Citizens self-organized themselves in small virtual groups according to their geographical location. In September there were more than a thousand Telegram chats of local communities used by about half million of not unique users. Moreover, it is only public groups available from the dze.chat web page. Most of the groups created today are private for security reasons. Only trusted residents can join. To some extent, the creation of local virtual communities is a switch from individualistic (connective) action to collective action. Interestingly these groups united not by ideology, but location.

Web page dze.chat where links to some open telegram groups of local virtual communities are collected.

Use of messaging technologies resulted in simple village-style face-to-face gatherings existed in our societies for ages

People in critical situation needed mutual aid. And they found it from their neighbours. Support came in different forms from donations to small encouraging gatherings. In a way, it reminds seemed forgotten tradition of mutual support in rural areas called ”talaka” (талака in Belarusian, it is the similar term to “talkoot in Finnish). City dwellers with help from technology revived tradition helped survive their ancestors during ages.

Michail Sjauruk ”Harvest”. 1937. vs. Neighbour gathering. Minsk, Belarus. September 2020. Photo: Dmitry Brushko, TUT.BY

COVID pandemic showed how individualistic our societies have become and how fast we can go virtual. Nevertheless, the help you need is sometimes behind the next door, as the crisis in Belarus revealed. The idea of cities of the future as spaces shrunk into residential apartments, from where residents will work remotely and communicate with the world through the web neglect our social habits rooted deep inside in human nature. I assume that in the future instead, technologies could be used to become closer and bizarrely adapt long-forgotten social traditions. As it happened during our meeting with Lars Miikki, virtual contact turned in a good old small talk face to face. Or how it happened in Belarus when the use of the latest secure messaging technologies resulted in simple village-style gatherings existed in our societies for ages.

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