Community identities under perturbation: COVID-19 and the r/digitalnomad subreddit
Keywords:Digital nomads, hyper-mobility, covid-19, social networks, reddit
Digital nomads (DNs) are hyper-mobile, location-independent workers whose practices blur traditional boundaries between labour, leisure, home and travel. They rely on digital tools to work and on computer-mediated communication to share knowledge and resources. Their resource-sharing culture is vital for self-efficacy and self-actualisation — two fundamental values that define the DN identity. Community identity is a constant social-semiotic construct mutually determined by (micro) interactions and the (macro) influence of collectively shared meanings and symbols. However, most of our understanding of community identity comes from structural and synchronic properties that often assume identity “exists” as an entity, separate from underlying collective dynamics. In this paper, we approach community identity diachronically, by introducing a quantitative typology that projects conversational timelines on two dimensions relevant to understanding the process of community identity construction: (a) the temporal orientation to the community core (or peripheral) conversation topics, and (b) interaction pattern anomalies. We cast three years of
r/digitalnomad threads as a set of conversation topics, describing the interaction dynamics on these topics using the proposed typology. The central questions asked by this paper are whether there was a pre-pandemic stable community expression, and if so, how the COVID-19 pandemic may have perturbed it. Since lockdowns and travel restrictions impinged on fundamental DN values, the nature of the topics and interaction patterns that characterise the
r/digitalnomad subreddit could have changed its character. We found a stable pre-pandemic balanced expression of core and peripheral conversation topics with regular interaction patterns. This identity expression was perturbed temporarily in the middle of the lockdown period when the community shifted focus to interactions about visa issues. As many countries began to re-open their borders around May 2021, a record-breaking number of interactions disrupted identity expression more profoundly. First, we observed constant interaction anomalies. Second, the community orientation revealed multi-factorial emergent issues, most of which revolved around conversations about what it means to be a DN, resource sharing and restrictions. We hypothesise that an influx of outsiders may have caused a clash of social norms and triggered a transformation of the DN identity that was still ongoing at the end of the studied period, in December 2021.
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