The Paradox of Digital Infrastructures: Polarization vs Unification on Unjected
By Jessica Blom, Jasmin Leech, Nadia Murady & Zofia Karolak
At the end of May 2021, the app ‘Unjected’, created by two mothers and friends Shelby Thomson and Heather Pyle from Hawaii became available to users on both Apple and Android. Unjected can be used for dating, friendship, housing, business opportunities, and community building for the Covid-19 unvaccinated (Luce 2021). There were a few reasons behind the creation of the app, one reason being unvaccinated people getting blocked from dating apps when explicitly stating that they were looking for an unvaccinated partner (Luce 2021). Another reason is the belief that vaccination mandates should not be enforced, as well as the wrongful belief that the Covid-19 vaccine would cause ‘shedding’ (Seladi-Schulman 2021).
As the app was flagged for the spread of Covid-19 vaccine misinformation, inappropriate references to the Covid-19 pandemic, and violating Covid-19 policies, it got deleted from the Apple app store on August 31 (Shalvey, Agustin 2021). At the time of an interview published on August 19 2021, the app had over 25.000 users in 80 countries according to Shelby Thomson (Luce 2021).
The app allows unvaccinated people to meet up, build relationships and join protests together (Luce 2021). The app thus provides an infrastructure for unvaccinated people to create a community outside of the app consisting of like-minded individuals. The infrastructures of other social media platforms before Unjected seemed to be insufficient to create such a community due to the restrictions placed on their views on the pandemic and vaccinations. Facebook for example does not want fake news and misinformation to spread.
On the contrary, users on Unjected share the same viewing points and are not restricted to what they can and cannot say. However, a divide is made between communities when users feel the necessity to separate themselves from the big social media platforms. Partition is thus facilitated among communities through digital infrastructures. At the same time, within those divided communities people are brought closer together through echo chambers, which can be seen in the counter-public of unvaccinated people. How then can digital infrastructures both facilitate community building while also fostering polarization? The methodology to answering this question is discussed after introducing the more relevant theory to this research.
In Margins as methods, Clark-parsons and Lingel (2020) propose a way of approaching counter publics to better understand, represent and acknowledge them. They note the ease with which these communities can be dismissed, over-simplified and have their needs overlooked. In the case of Unjected, there is a group of individuals who have faced difficulties on other dating platforms, due to their beliefs regarding the Covid-19 Vaccine (Luce 2021). While the morality and question of public safety regarding their vaccine opinions may be contested, there remains the fact that they as a group can be defined as a counter-public. They convey ‘(…) an explicitly antagonistic stance toward a more mainstream, dominant order, defined primarily through its opposition to established power structures.’ (Clark-Parsons, Lingel, 2020). This leads us to question, how has this community’s usage and participation on online forums and other dating apps led them to create their own? What power structures are invisible to people who willingly get the vaccine, but serve as a complete barrier of entry to these users? Why has the infrastructure led this counter-public off the mainstream platforms and into their own ideological bubble? For this reason, this project aims to approach this app to better understand the digitisation of the culture of the unvaccinated and the movement as a whole.
This research aims to analyse the phenomenon of Unjected from the position of the users, their experience on other platforms such as Facebook, and the infrastructure of the app. This also serves as a case study of an example of an infrastructure that omits and separates people according to beliefs and practices. Often in academic literature, infrastructures are described as something that makes connections possible in a positive sense (Mattern 2013, 2). They are being described as essential ‘sociotechnical systems’ that facilitate the persistent connection between all the elements of the infrastructure (Mattern 2013, 2; Plantin et al. 2018, 294). Therefore, mainstream social media can be approached as infrastructures because their affordances are implicitly enabling the interconnectivity between their users. Within this line of thought, infrastructures are perceived as facilitating the tightening of social bonds.
However, with this case study, the aim is to showcase that infrastructures can also result in a divide between actors, in this case, the vaccinated vs the unvaccinated. By referring to the interview with Shelby Thomson, one of the founders of Unjected, we suggest that the infrastructure of mainstream social apps like Facebook and Tinder have made unvaccinated people feel discriminated against (Luce 2021). She highlights that many were directly confronted or rejected because of their approach towards the COVID-19 vaccination. Therefore, we argue that the infrastructures can as well facilitate discriminatory behaviours which result in polarization.
To analyse the phenomenon of Unjected from the position of the user, a discursive interface analysis of the android app Unjected is conducted. A discursive interface analysis is most relevant for this research as it aims to showcase the normative claims that are made through the interface (Stanfill 2015, 1061). These normative claims influence the way that users of the app act and interact with one another as well as with vaccinated people.
The discourse in the discourse analysis is of importance as it can showcase productive power in design through affordances. “Discourses structure how we think about things and accordingly how it makes sense to us to act” (Stanfill 2015, 1061). Affordances can in a broad sense be explained as the functions and restrictions, with which a platform in this case allows users in this case to act or not to act (Davis, Chouinard 2016, 241). Through identifying the affordances visible to users on the Unjected interface, such as what users can do with the app, the categories, functions, and features light is shed on the “norms of use” (Stanfill 2015, 1061). The diversified norms of use help us structure a preliminary hypothesis that the participants of the Unjected app were being stigmatized on multiple platforms, and therefore created this app as a safe environment that will provide an alternative to all the functions of those other networks like Facebook or Tinder (Luce 2021). By furnishing multiple different affordances, the Unjected facilitates the creation of a strong and developed community which is also very hermetic.
The discursive interface analysis divides its focus into three types of affordances. Firstly, functional affordances indicate the functionality of the app, visible by menu options and buttons etc. (Stanfill 2015, 1063). By enabling one activity, they explicitly limit others and therefore define what sort of behaviour is being expected and considered correct. The second type of affordances is cognitive ones which define how users are made aware of the app’s functionalities and how users are addressed, which is done through e.g., naming and labelling (Stanfill 2015, 1063). Finally, sensory affordances indicate how the aesthetic of the app affords users to engage in normative behaviour, through colours and symbols (Stanfill 2015, 1064).
By discussing the various affordances of the app that replace unvaccinated peoples’ regular social media, we aim to emphasize the extent to which unvaccinated individuals feel excluded on platforms like Facebook as this showcases their need for such a complex app. The previously discussed theory of infrastructures, margins as methods, and counter publics are used as the framework for the analysis.
Unjected allows for unvaccinated individuals to connect by creating a personalized profile. Similar to other dating apps, it requires the user to fill out personal information and choose pre-selected interests about different topics. The app provides functional affordances such as swiping left or right to show your (dis-)interest in another user and start a chat conversation if you both ‘like’ each other. The user will then receive a notification that the user liked their profile. Its functional affordances allow for users to interact, however, the chat function is limited to ‘matches’ who both like each other. The app, therefore, does not facilitate direct or group interactions between users but allows for connections between individuals and the unvaccinated community at large. The platform’s infrastructure provides opportunities for users to find each other and move towards other apps to create group chats or find other, more sustainable ways to stay in touch.
Aside from the dating aspect of the app, Unjected has a large community building feature facilitated through the ‘community directory’. Here, users can provide professional services such as ‘holistic beauty treatments with beautiful sea views or find a ‘holistic therapist and crystal supplier’. Users can send inquiries to the providers, get in touch with them or write reviews of the services. Most striking is the board ‘health and wellness’ where alternative health practices are promoted.
Additionally, this specific affordance of providing services by and for unvaccinated individuals reinforces a closed, intimate community. Rather than being involved with a diverse range of people, the users find affinity in being unvaccinated. The app hereby provides an alternative infrastructure for individuals who may find their posts are censored or limited on mainstream platforms such as Facebook. Instead, the app proposes to provide a ‘safe space for us [the users] to come together’, according to its declaration, ‘We feel that our community is full of trustworthy, honest, and like-minded like-minded’ (Unjected 2021).
Through its cognitive affordances, Unjected’s rhetoric highlights the sense of creating connections and forming a community together. In this way, it is similar to Facebook’s initial idea of connecting friends and other users together. Next to that, the repetition of the word ‘community’ emphasizes how the individuals form their own community based on the shared ideal of being unvaccinated. In their declaration, Unjected uses words such as ‘beloved users’, ‘safe space for us to come together’ and ‘like-minded individuals’ which again illustrates the community aspect of the app which unifies individuals through the shared aspect of being ‘unjected’ or unvaccinated.
As opposed to the modern and polished interfaces of mainstream platforms such as Facebook and Tinder, Unjected’s design is simple and resembles an early 2000s aesthetic. This sensory affordance reflects the novice of the creators and is also demonstrated through the app’s lacking functionality. Nonetheless, this showcases the demand from the unvaccinated community to create an alternative infrastructure despite lacking the technical and professional skills. Although the idea of connecting users is similar to Facebook and the dating interface resembles that of Tinder, Unjected and its unique 2000s aesthetics reflect how the platform acts as a unique counterculture.
The developed structure of Unjected visible through wide functional affordances such as multiple thematic sectors in the app claims the purpose of the app. Through the discursive interface analysis, we have concluded that the diverse range of app’s features proves that Unjected was deliberately developed within time to provide an alternative infrastructure to mainstream social media, solely for unvaccinated people. On Unjected, individuals can meet others who share their opinion towards the COVID-19 vaccinations and therefore they can avoid uncomfortable confrontations and discussions as they have experienced before on Facebook or Tinder (Luce 2021). In this case, the infrastructure was used to bind like-minded people to reinforce their community. However, the initial reason behind the creation of the infrastructure of Unjected were discriminatory behaviours facilitated through affordances of mainstream social media infrastructures. One of the latest whistleblowers from Facebook, Frances Haugen, disclosed many internal investigations from the company that prove its divisive activities (Duffy 2021). According to the files, Facebook is deliberately prioritizing to optimize the content that conveys hate speech and polarizing behaviours as it provides higher engagement rates which generate more income for the company (Duffy 2021). This example shows that the features of social media infrastructures can be purposefully used to increase the partition among users.
Through the development of Unjected, an infrastructure was able to bring unvaccinated communities together and tighten their social bonds. However, we have noticed that at the same time, it became highly hermetic. The diversification of sectors and affordances made it possible to exist independently, so its users do not need to download other apps. This way, Unjected deepened the separation of unvaccinated people from others. This argumentation answers our research question on ‘How can digital infrastructures both facilitate community building while also fostering polarization?’.
This brings us to question the phenomenon of the complexity and verity of unvaccinated groups of why they were in this case rejected from mainstream discourse and spaces, such as Tinder. It is for this reason that the study of them requires equal complexity and variety. The Feminist theory of margins of ethics calls on us to challenge how we analyse these groups; actively requiring a rejection of preconceived notions of power and instead, approaching these groups from their perspective. This infrastructure analysis builds on this and has allowed us to understand how users interact with this specific app from the like-minded perspective of a user. This has allowed us to see how people interact with the app, what options they are offered and how they are encouraged to engage with their online and local communities. This app affords people access to communities of not vaccinated people, but only in the context of either people who they match with, or the community directory, in which they can avail of services. This is an interesting choice as researchers (Tuters and de Zeeuw, 2020) observe, the development of much anti-vaccination, alt-right and conspiracy culture occurs in anonymous forums, that prescribe to mask culture.
Mask culture means that one of the defining features is that there is an expectation of anonymity as laid out by Tuters and de Zeeuw. This is a way in which we can understand that there is perhaps a lost opportunity for the not vaccinated to communicate directly, while also using their name, in isolation of the mask culture of anonymous forums. This is an interesting infrastructural choice as it appears to greatly restrict the community affordances for fostering debate and communication. As a result of the infrastructure of Unjected, we can observe that the complexity of anti-vaccination opinions is greatly reduced, the discussion is limited only to people with whom you match and the services offered. This further aids in the polarisation of not vaccinated groups from each other and mainstream culture. This leads us to question whether Unjected serves the purpose it was intended for, as well as considering the actual public good that it may foster in the online digital mediascape. By conducting both margins as methods and infrastructure studies approach, this paper would suggest that on both counts, the app Unjected serves neither the community it was made for nor the public good.
In conclusion, this research paper has considered the app Unjected from the perspective of both margins as methods and infrastructure studies. Additionally, through identifying the affordances visible on the app, the polarisation between the not vaccinated and the vaccinated was showcased. The infrastructure of the app allowed for the bonds of the community of Unjected to become tighter, however, this also resulted in the Unjected community becoming separated from other communities. One of the reasons for this is that not vaccinated individuals had trouble on the main social media platforms. Additionally, on Unjected, no discussions needed to take place with individuals with different opinions. This all led to the community of Unjected becoming separated from mainstream culture as well as its users becoming stuck in filter bubbles and echo chambers.