Community organizers in Columbus, Ohio, signed up for a free trial of Slack’s enterprise software to coordinate with musicians who wanted to play free concerts outside the windows of isolated seniors. A group in Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, held Slack tutorials to teach people who had never used the software in a work setting how to use it to volunteer time and money. In the Flatbush United Mutual Aid group, which I joined in mid-April to “pitch in” as a member of my Brooklyn neighborhood for the first time ever, neighbors were using Slack to find babysitters and offer up spare air conditioners.
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Mutual-aid groups—community-level organizations coordinating to deliver groceries, pick up prescriptions, and find financial support for people affected by the pandemic—have been springing up all over the country in the past two months, necessarily online, and often using productivity tools. There are community Facebook groups for exchanging information, Airtable forms for requesting help, open databases about how to seek various forms of aid from the government or nonprofits. QueerCare, a network based in the United Kingdom, published a detailed Wiki for community groups, including protocols for how to walk a dog owned by a person who is immunocompromised and how to run a Zoom meeting for volunteers.
Social movements have been organized on commercial platforms before—in the U.S., most notably Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street. As a consequence, these movements have always, eventually, had to grapple with the contrast between their values and the incentives of the companies that host them: Viral posts and events with hundreds of RSVPs and thousands of comments work well on Twitter and Facebook, respectively, but they are challenging to translate into coordinated, real-world action. Now, at a time when millions of Americans can’t work, can’t participate in the economic sphere, and are searching for entirely new ways to use their skills and time, the productivity culture nurtured by companies such as Slack and Google is at odds with what people currently need. Still, these office-optimization companies are the best options we have for caring for one another at scale and from afar—a new type of productivity that they weren’t built for, but can serve in a pinch.
According to a list compiled by the activist and writer Cindy Milstein, mutual-aid groups have been started in at least 44 states and Washington, D.C., in response to the coronavirus. Most of these groups are technologically sophisticated and make use of a range of productivity tools, in unexpected ways.
Airtable, a platform that simplifies creating complex databases and spreadsheets, was valued at $1.1 billion after its latest funding round, in 2018. Like Slack, its purpose is productivity—getting work done faster, and tracking it better. To make money! But in March, Chris Dancy, a health technologist and author based in Houston, created a simple COVID-19 community-organizing tool for Airtable and made it public. So far, it’s been copied and repurposed more than 340 times, according to the company, which recently announced that all COVID-19 initiatives will be able to use the pro version of its software for free forever.