Virtual Spiritual Agency in Times of Covid

Dr Chloe Preece | Senior Lecturer | School of Business Management, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Dr Victoria Rodner | Lecturer University of Edinburgh Business School, University of Edinburgh

Zoom made my life much easier,” explains Mãe (mother) Fernanda, an Afro-Brazilian priestess from the coastal city of Santos (Brazil). 

Like many of us, facing an indefinite lockdown, Mãe Fernanda was forced to move her work online. Zoom, along with other video-conferencing platforms that mushroomed in the wake of Covid-19, may have made Mãe Fernanda’s life ‘easier,’ but the service she is providing is no typical consultation.

As an Afro-Brazilian priestess – or mãe de santo – Mãe Fernanda works as a medium, meaning that her faith centres on the practice of spirit possession and the channelling of spirit forces for the good of humanity. As a form of mediumship, we understand spirit possession to be the displacement of our conscious self by a ‘powerful, immaterial being’ be it a spirit, ancestor, or god, that temporarily takes control of our bodies and our minds (Seligman, 2014: 5). During these incorporations, the medium – who acts as a physical vessel for the spiritual entity – channels energies and offers counselling from the spiritual plane to our material world, sharing important oracular messages with official members of the temple (i.e. the ‘spiritual children’ who are initiated into the faith) and regular congregants alike.

Being momentarily stripped of her sacred space and in person contact with the congregation due to new, unforgiving social distancing measures, how does Mãe Fernanda – and other religious leaders – carry out her work as a medium and spiritual consultant? What does this new digitised faith look like and how does spiritual healing work in our ‘new normal’? Thanks to a small seedcorn grant from DOS, we set out to examine how spiritual leaders in Brazil – through their use of digital platforms – recreate the sacred space of their temple over the internet; how followers of the faith materialise healing rituals in their home environments; and how the embodied ritual of spirit possession is distributed across multiple planes, from the spiritual, to the physical to the digital. To do so we undertook 14 interviews with spiritual leaders and followers of Afro-Brazilian temples.

Although Afro-Brazilian services (or giras) may differ in format to other, more ‘traditional’ church services, this move toward a digitisation of faith is shared among many places of worship, including Christian denominations in the UK, as ongoing pandemic measures push religious leaders across the globe to go virtual. In her use of digital platforms, we see how Mãe Fernanda – like other Afro-Brazilian spiritual leaders – aims to recreate the rich, auspicious atmosphere and healing qualities of her terreiro (temple) sharing through our screens the highly adorned altars, the colour-coordinated candles, the smoky ambience of burning incense and sage, the luscious offerings to the entities, and – when there is live-streaming available – the rhythmic drumming, singing, and dancing that make up the spirit possession ritual.

Figure 1. Afro-Brazilian priests and priestesses use social media to connect with the faithful: Instagram posts of elaborate altars (left) and Facebook live-streaming (right) of a gira (weekly service)

As well as inviting followers virtually into their now-empty temples, spiritual leaders also show the faithful how they can recreate shrines and spiritual offerings (or firmezas) in the safety of their own homes.

Not unlike influencers, priests and priestesses of Brazil’s Afro-denominations use different digital platforms for different spiritual purposes: live-streaming through invitation-only Zoom sessions, private YouTube channels, or closed FB groups are geared specifically to the ‘spiritual children’ and mediums-in-training. During these private services, live spirit possession is common as spiritual leaders and their ‘children’ incorporate synchronously the various entities that are called upon during the ritual. Pai Fausto – of a downtown São Paulo temple – explains how simultaneous possession is possible – even via the web – because of the ‘spiritual (umbilical) chord that ties us together.’

It is during spirit possession that messages from the spiritual world are shared with the faithful. These spiritual messages can be of hope, patience, healing, love or even sense-making, especially significant in such uncertain times. A recent message from Mãe Fernanda’s guiding spirit – the Gypsy temptress Pomba Gira – explains how energy has “limitless” and “atemporal qualities” meaning that it can be accumulated and transferred when needed. Very much on trend with post-human theorising, Pomba Gira’s message encourages Mãe Fernanda to record her services so as to allow her ‘spiritual children’ to ‘play them back’ at their convenience and seamlessly tap into the spiritual agency captured online.

Figure 2. Live-streaming tarot reading on FB with a Pai de Santo (Afro-Brazilian priest).

Beyond these private sessions, other live-streaming sessions via FB, Instagram, or Telegram, in which spiritual leaders recreate the temple’s ambience but refrain from spirit possession, are more public and accessible, encouraging anyone to ‘like’, share and take part in the lively commentary online. Oracular consultations, including the popular tarot card-reading, can either be very public via FB live-streaming, or closed through individual Skype or Zoom calls. Online mediumship courses are run via Zoom or other video conferencing platforms and people are asked to sign up in advance. But it is WhatsApp that becomes instrumental for direct contact between the faithful and their spiritual leader. Like a real-time Agony Aunt, WhatsApp enables the faithful to share their troubles with the priest or priestess and receive instantaneous feedback via the ever-popular feature of voice messages. Noting how her WhatsApp became ‘very heavy’ since lockdown, Mãe Fernanda explains how it is ‘through this platform that people were able to overcome the lack of physical touch, the lack of hugs, the lack of face to face contact’.

Although mediatised religious services are nothing new, our interests lie not only in a new wave of mediatised faith (through the digital) but how consumers engage with their faith not merely through ‘likes’, shares or live commentary, but in an active co-construction of the healing on offer, from the recreation of shrines to the possession of spirits, all from the safety of their homes. It is through the digital, that spiritual leaders (temporarily) overcome the physical obstacles of life with Covid, distributing through the web the spiritual agency made available to them through the phenomenon of spirit possession, forming a hybrid constellation of a heterogenous network of activities, subjects and objects shaped by different forms of interagency. In a global pandemic where consumers find their agency constrained, they can use these digitised services to re-embed themselves in their faith through this distributed agency. 

Dr Chloe Preece is Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research focuses on marketing within the arts and creative industries and how this translates into social, cultural and economic value.

Dr Victoria Rodner is Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Edinburgh Business School (UEBS) and her research main interests are in value creation in the arts, religious and spiritual consumption, brand narratives and institutional theory.

The new DOS interdisciplinary research cluster on Cybersecurity, Design and Human Behaviour

Dr. Nisreen Ameen and Dr. Elizabeth Quaglia | Cluster co-leaders

On 6th November 2020, a new research cluster within RHUL’s DOS Research Centre was launched. The new research cluster on ‘Cybersecurity, Design and Human Behaviour’ aims to offer a welcoming environment for idea exchange, a platform for researchers from different research areas at RHUL and beyond to connect and work together on interdisciplinary projects, and an opportunity for collaborations on interdisciplinary funding applications. The new cluster is led by Dr. Nisreen Ameen, Lecturer in Marketing in the School of Business and Management, and Dr. Elizabeth Quaglia, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Information Security , who have reached out to researchers at RHUL from various disciplines to discuss ideas in developing the interdisciplinary area of research.

The identified areas of interest include:

  • Technology design and human interaction
  • Security and privacy in the digital society
  • Design narratives and narratives of security
  • User experience and advanced digital technologies
  • Accountability and ethics in the digital experience

The launch event

The launch event had a great attendance and started with an introduction from Dr. Nisreen Ameen, Dr. Elizabeth Quaglia and the Co-Director of DOS, Professor Gillian Symon. The main part of the event consists of two fascinating keynotes from Professor Jason Bennet Thatcher and Professor Ivan Visconti.

We heard first from Professor Jason Bennet Thatcher, Temple University, delivering the talk ‘Protecting a whale in a sea of fish: cybersecurity and top executives.

Professor Jason Bennet Thatcher, Temple University

Professor Thatcher explained that whaling is one of the most financially damaging, well-known, effective cyberattacks employed by sophisticated cybercriminals but yet there is little research on this phenomenon.He explained how important it is for researchers to consider the industry and context when conducting research on cybersecurity. In particular he argued for the importance of focusing on top executives in such research as they play a significant role in increasing cybersecurity awareness in organisations. Professor Thatcher highlighted the need for different types of research such as econometrics and qualitative research in this area to understand the drivers and problems, in addition to archival work on vulnerabilities and breaches. Such issues have arguably become even more important after the major shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused a significant increase in the number of cybersecurity threats and attacks. It is vital to build further collaborations between academics and industry practitioners when planning and providing cybersecurity training. Such steps are important to protect data, jobs, people and society as a whole.

Professor Ivan Visconti, University of Salerno delivered a talk on ‘Blockchain Technology and Decentralized Contact Tracing: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’.

Professor Ivan Visconti, University of Salerno

In a very interesting journey through the promises and shortcomings of each technology, we learned that blockchain has not yet managed to find the right balance between transparency and confidentiality, and that creating a digital twin of a physical asset is still a challenge. As for digital contact tracing, a plethora of issues were identified (from the imprecision of distance measuring to the false alarms such systems can cause), and the reactions of the security, big tech and policy communities, demonstrating how truly interdisciplinary real-world technological solutions are.

The two keynotes generated connections to some of the themes covered by the new DOS cluster. After the talks, Dr. Elizabeth Quaglia and Dr. Nisreen Ameen presented some of the topics of research interests on which the research cluster is focusing on in more depth and the importance of these areas. Examples include: challenging traditional narratives of security; balancing the requirements of user privacy and accountability in the digital experience; security and privacy issues that arise in a post-COVID-19 world; and ethical concerns in the adoption of advanced technologies.

The new DOS cluster will remain active for the rest of the academic year. Upcoming events in the planning include a round table meeting for members of the cluster and a workshop on interdisciplinary research projects and funding.  Researchers who are working on related areas and wish to join the research cluster please email the cluster co-leaders Dr. Nisreen Ameen and Dr. Elizabeth Quaglia to express their interest. We are very much looking forward to the next steps of this cluster!

Collecting qualitative online data: Our methodological journey since 2012

– 2 Dec 2020, 15:30 GMT –

Dr Rebecca Whiting, Birkbeck, University of London & Professor Katrina Pritchard, Swansea University

In this session, we consider our methodological journey in using qualitative online data in a project that set out to map the language of age at work using Web 2.0 data. We explain how and why we developed a methodology to enable our empirical examination (e.g. of how age, age identities and related concepts such as generations are socially constructed in relation to issues of work). We introduce and explain two related and flexible approaches that we term ‘tracking’ and ‘trawling’. These approaches, at either end of a methodological spectrum, use a variety of digital (often proprietary) means to collect selected material from the Internet.

Like interviews, these digital methods are flexible and can be used to investigate a wide range of topics, within different research paradigms, and produce data that can be analysed using various methods. However, whereas interviews are well-established methods of data collection, these technology-enabled approaches are much less developed in terms of what they are, when and where they can be used and how to carry them out. We outline the generic steps in collecting online qualitative data, illustrated with examples from our own and others work.

At the heart of this journey has been a reflexive approach to examining the fundamental assumptions we have as researchers, such as what constitutes data and participants and how to apply ethical frameworks to the Internet context. We unpack these and how we addressed challenges encountered along the way, for example, through piloting. We conclude by looking to future developments in the use of qualitative online data in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic and given the evolving and ephemeral nature of multi-modal digital material.

Biographies

Rebecca Whiting is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London where she leads the Department’s Qualitative Research Group. She is interested in a wide range of qualitative methodologies, including the use of digital and visual data, and research ethics. She has published journal articles and book chapters on aspects of qualitative methods, including in The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Business and Management Research Methods and the OUP volume, Unconventional Methodology in Organization and Management Research. Her research topics include the discursive construction of work identities, work-life boundaries, diversity (particularly age, gender and class and how they are socially constructed) and invisible work.

Katrina Pritchard is a Professor in the School of Management, Swansea University. She has published journal articles and book chapters on aspects of qualitative methods, including in The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Business and Management Research Methods and Symon and Cassell’s Qualitative Organizational Research: Core Methods and Current Challenges (2012). Katrina’s methodological interests extend from traditional to creative qualitative methods, including visual and object-based, in addition to digital methods. She researches a range of topics related to issues of identity at work.

Launch event of a new research cluster: Cybersecurity, Design and Human Behaviour

On 6 Nov 2020.

We are pleased to invite you to the launch of the new interdisciplinary research cluster as part of the Digital Organisation and Society research centre at Royal Holloway, University of London. Dr. Nisreen Ameen and Dr. Elizabeth Quaglia will be co-leading this new cluster, which seeks to link researchers across departments and schools. It will cover topics such as technology design and human interaction, security and privacy in the digital society, design narratives and narratives of security, user experience and advanced digital technologies, and accountability and ethics in the digital experience.

Programme

2pm Welcome by Dr. Nisreen Ameen, Dr. Elizabeth Quaglia and Prof. Gillian Symon

2.15pm Keynote by Prof. Jason Bennett Thatcher‬

Protecting a whale in a sea of fish: cybersecurity and top executives

2.45pm Keynote by Prof. Ivan Visconti

Blockchain Technology and Decentralized Contact Tracing: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

3:15pm-3:30pm Discussion and celebrations

Keynote Speakers

Professor Jason Bennett Thatcher

Professor Thatcher holds the Milton F. Stauffer Professorship in the Department of Management Information Systems at the Fox School of Business of Temple University. He also holds faculty appointments at the Technical University of Munich and the Information Technology University-Copenhagen. Jason studies individual decision-making, strategic alignment, and workforce issues as they relate to the effective and secure application of information technologies in organizations. His more recent projects direct attention to cybersecurity and social media. Jason’s work appears in journals such as MIS Quarterly, Information Systems Research, Journal of Applied Psychology, and other outlets. Jason has published (or forthcoming) 20 papers in Financial Times 50 listed journals (about once a year) since earning his PhD and 10 in MISQ, placing him in the top 35 or so active researchers in the Information Systems discipline

Professor Ivan Visconti

Ivan Visconti is a full professor of Computer Science in the Computer and Electrical Engineering and Applied Mathematics Department of the University of Salerno. His research interests focus mainly on designing provably secure and private cryptographic protocols and securing blockchains and their applications. He is the scientific coordinator at the University of Salerno for the H2020 European project “PRIViLEDGE” (Privacy-Enhancing Cryptography in Distributed Ledgers). Very recently, motivated by the Covid-19 pandemic, he has shown how to use blockchain technology both to secure and to attack digital contact tracing systems. Currently he is serving as Senior Area Editor for the IEEE Transactions on Information Forensics and Security journal. Several of his results have been published in the most competitive conferences in cryptography and theoretical computer science (i.e., STOC, FOCS, CRYPTO, EUROCRYPT, TCC).

Gig-work and spatiotemporal (in)justice: Auto-ethnographic study of food delivery platforms

Shyam Krishna| PhD Candidate| School of Business and Management at Royal Holloway, University of London.

In recent months amidst the uncertainty of COVID-19, food delivery workers in India have faced a tightening of their working conditions. The main contention voiced by the workers in strikes and protests is that digital platforms have lowered effective wages by changing the payment structure and its underlying algorithmic calculations. My research seeks to understand the uncertainties in how wages and other work conditions are affected by algorithms. As part of a research project (Investigators: Dr. Yingqin Zheng / Shyam Krishna ) I queried such algorithmic ‘social justice’ implications of digital platforms. Set in the south Indian city of Chennai, I conducted several  interviews with food delivery workers (called ‘riders’) and engaged in the work myself in a form of auto-ethnography. I created as many opportunities as possible to observe first-hand the algorithmic control of work, the customers, the digital platforms, and its processes, and also the restaurants using these platforms. I worked on two different food-delivery platforms.  I found that a steep learning curve faced me which entailed learning to navigate the digital platform, gaining local knowledge of the city and even knowing the local cuisine.

Working as a rider over a period of five weeks just as the COVID19 crises was blooming globally and in continuing engagement with other riders during the pandemic I gained some useful insights into the ‘gig-work’ practices with some being specific to the Indian context.  Mirroring recent work on ‘spatiotemporalities’, the main contestation as found in my research is between workers and the platform in how their ‘space’ and ‘time’ are algorithmically controlled and manipulated.

An aspect of spatiotemporal negotiation emanated from the first order I delivered. The order was assigned to me with a rather resounding buzz on my phone

A ‘New order’ of food delivery : Loud alarm and vibrating buzz alert on workers phone.

All platforms use haptic feedback and a loud alarm on the smartphones designed to grab attention and ultimately control rider behaviour to attend to orders quickly. I had about 30 to 60 seconds to accept the orders assigned to me without clear information of the distance to be driven or the address for delivery. The only information I saw on screen was the estimated time taken to reach the restaurant. Features such as alarms and partial information shown are ostensibly designed to add pressure and even panic at many points during the food delivery work process. These temporal pressures play out during riding on the road which itself posed significant challenges specific to an Indian urban context. The risks on road due to traffic were compounded by near constant exposure to air pollution or difficult weather conditions during the hot and humid days in Chennai. Such risks are transferred from the customer to the rider as is inherent to the gig-work practice and become a common expectation of work conditions that workers navigate.

Risk on road during gig-work: Food delivery workers crossing a road in Chennai .

I barely juggled such vagaries of working alongside the technical issues I faced – such as using mapping services as location-based-services were often imprecise. Extra but unpaid effort was required to sort out the erroneous approximations automatically generated by the digital platform or manual errors made by customers in marking locations on a map. Moreover, it was repeatedly reinforced in training that the closest rider to a restaurant (in theory at least) is assigned the next order. So, there was a quite a lot of effort in figuring out the correct and the most optimised location. Luckily – or as is probably the way in which many new riders learn this – I was helped along by other experienced riders. Some of these riders even took the time to escort me to specific places and gave me tips on the time of the day to arrive there.

Moreover, algorithmically defined but imperfect estimates of waiting times or delivery times were a constant issue faced by workers and are referenced by the restaurants and the customers even when we met face to face. Power and information are privileged to customer and restaurants, the platforms use the riders in their subordinated position to negotiate difficult physical conditions arising within the digitised food delivery process. This happens under the close control and manipulation of workers’ space and time even when such extra efforts are unpaid and unaccounted for in how wages are determined.

The findings from this research suggest that riders face unfair conditions and intensive control of work broadly brought about by time-controlled and location-driven algorithmic elements.  There are clearly intimate and individual spatiotemporal machinations within gig-work under the mostly opaque nature of platforms and algorithms. These have been conceptualised as ‘spatiotemporal (in)justice’  to probe the aspects of (un)fairness and (in)equity faced by gig-workers.  Centring on spatiotemporal justice then would help establish what ‘fair’ pay and practices, standards, and metrics for food delivery gig-workers might look like – which forms the basis of the ongoing collective efforts within India and beyond. The research project itself has resulted in a report on unfair practices in food-delivery work shared with riders, labour leaders and community organisations in Chennai, to assist in ongoing efforts. A further academic paper is forthcoming in the IFIPJWC 2020 conference proceedings.


Why Amazon Reviewers Review (and How to Deal with Fake Reviews)

Dr Philip Wu | Senior LecturerDepartment of Digital Innovation and Management at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Online reviews have become an important phenomenon in this so-called reputation economy. Headlines such as “online reviews impact purchasing decisions for over 93% of consumers” seem exaggerated but not entirely surprising. On the surface, online reviews are simply after-sales opinions shared online by average consumers; yet, a close look would reveal that it’s a complex phenomenon influencing, and being influenced by, commercial activities. Most research about online reviews, including two of my own (1 & 2), focused on the value (e.g., “helpfulness”) and impact (e.g., sales) of the reviews, whereas the people who contributed those reviews have largely been overlooked. After all, who are these reviewers and why are they writing product reviews?

These are important questions not only for social scientists who are interested in studying the reviewing behaviour, but also for today’s e-commerce platforms where fake reviews are rampaging. Thus, in a more recent paper, I turned my attention to reviewers on Amazon to explore how a mix of, and the interaction between, different types of motivation shape the reviewers’ behaviours. The theoretical foundation of the work was the theory of motivation crowding, which posits that the motivational interaction in performing a task can result in motivation moving toward the extrinsic side (crowding-out) or the intrinsic side (crowding-in).

I conducted in-depth interviews with 27 reviewers on Amazon.co.uk, including four Top 10 reviewers at the time and six reviewers in the “Hall of Fame”, plus a six-month observation of the Amazon reviewer forums (in writing this blog post, I discovered that these forums have now disappeared! I think I know why.). I use the interviewees’ own words to explain the four dominant motives for writing product reviews on Amazon:

  • enjoyment (intrinsic) – “I enjoy reviewing”
  • material reward (extrinsic) – “I write reviews so I can get freebies”
  • reputation/recognition (extrinsic) – “I need some kind of recognition”
  • direct reciprocity (extrinsic) – “You got the obligation coz you agreed to review”

More interestingly, there is a crowding-in effect where reputation (commensurated as reviewer league table ranking) reinforces the enjoyment of reviewing, and a crowding-out effect where the obligation of reciprocating material reward undermines the enjoyment.  I also found that the reviewers’ motivation mix could evolve as their rankings change. Many prolific reviewers started reviewing with an intrinsic motivation of “fun” or enjoyment. As the reviewing activity is being rewarded by status recognition and unsolicited freebies, extrinsic elements become more prominent in the motivation mix. After a while, however, the reviewers begin to feel a loss of self-determination due to external influences and decide to “take a step back” from pursuing extrinsic rewards, which result in intrinsic interest taking centre stage again.

The motivation crowding effects and the evolution of motivation mix have important implications for e-commerce platforms like Amazon.  For example, for novice reviewers, positive feedback (in the form of “helpful” votes) can create a powerful “recognition-enjoyment” crowding-in effect. Hence, the platforms need proper presentation and sorting mechanisms to ensure visibility of new reviewer’s contribution so as to curb the detrimental Matthew effect.

The study also raises questions about e-commerce platforms’ strategies in dealing with “fake reviews”. Some claim that they have solved the problem through automated fake review detecting (e.g., Fakespot). Fake reviews are generally understood as reviews written by people who did not actually purchase the product or service. However, as review writing is driven by a whole range of interacting motives, we need to have a more nuanced view of what fake reviews really are. Many of the prolific reviewers I interviewed had accepted “freebies” but also produced honest and high-quality reviews.

Perhaps one way to combat fake reviews is through some sort of grassroots review moderation.  I was fascinated when a seasoned reviewer told me that he acted like a “warrior” to fight against fake reviews and he knew which reviews were fake at first glance. He would vote the fake review “unhelpful”, report it to Amazon, or even write a review pointing out why the other review was fake. These “warriors” seem motivated either by a commitment to the platform or a moral duty of “making things right.” Leveraging the motivation of this small group of individuals, coupled with an automated detection system, could be the key to solving the fake review problem.

Dr Philip Wu is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Digital Innovation and Management at Royal Holloway. His research lies at the intersection of social psychology, technology design, and information management.

Online Research Seminar

8th July, Joint event DOS and College of Economics and Management, Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (NUAA), China

Speakers: Prof Lianlian Song, Dr Zhitao Xu , Dr Weishan He

Organisers: Dr Ling Xiao and Prof Hari Harindranath

Bringing together lectures and researchers from RHUL and NUAA to discuss topics of mutual interest including multiple media marketing, smart logistics and remote teaching.  This is the beginning of a  process of developing a research and teaching relationship with NUAA, with whom SBM has now agreed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).  

COVID-19 driven digital transformation in retail business

Xiangming Tao|PhD Student (4th Year)| Royal Holloway School of Business and Management

The virtues of digital transformation have been promoted by the popular business press and academic articles, particularly in the pursuit of strategic renewal (Warner and Wäger, 2019). The massive scale of Covid-19 outbreak and lockdown policy have further demonstrated the significance of digital transformation for organisations to rapidly respond to the disruptive world and remain sustainable (Agostino, Arnaboldi, & Lema, 2020). Two recent surveys of 153 CXOs in China conducted by International Data Corporation (IDC) have highlighted the value of digital transformation during the Covid-19 pandemic. Organisations are thus encouraged to turn the crisis into an opportunity to accelerate the transformation (IDC, 2020).

The Covid-19 pandemic has widely challenged business models. This is especially true for retail businesses, which are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 disruptions (Bartik et al., 2020). Many businesses have to make hard decisions on whether to close their physical stores and whether to digitally innovate even further. For instance, established in 1993, the renowned British fashion and furnishing label Cath Kidson, has permanently closed all its UK stores and becomes an online-only retailer. As Melinda Paraie, the CEO of Cath Kidson, said: “Despite our very best efforts, against the backdrop of Covid-19, we were unable to secure a solvent sale of the business which would have allowed us to avoid administration and carry on trading in our current form” (Butler, 2020). Although undergoing a massive transformation may be the only way for survival, some retail businesses have taken the pandemic as an opportunity to drive their digital transformation, for example:

  • Doing more online. John Lewis and its sister company Waitrose are rebalancing their platforms towards more online shopping and interactive content. For example, John Lewis is exploring digital services such as wellbeing, craft and cookery services during the pandemic (Coker, 2020). Waitrose has provided a dedicated advice section on its website, such as recipes and advice for self-isolating consumers.
  • Data analytics-driven approach. During the Covid-19 outbreak, the Canadian healthy-lifestyle brand Viva Naturals saw a surging interest in wellness and health supplements based on the analytics services provided by Alibaba’s B2C e-commerce platform Tmall (Wang, 2020). Through embedding analysis, data, and reasoning into the decision-making process, this brand has launched content-marketing campaigns such as blog posts and sales initiatives to meet consumer demand.
  • Livestreaming sales. To ease the adverse effects of coronavirus, China’s leading department-store chain Intime primarily adopted livestreaming as a way to promote products and attract new consumers. Since the pandemic, the organization has claimed that more than 5000 sales associates from Intime’s physical stores have used livestreaming on Taobao Live from morning to midnight with an average of 200 livestreaming sessions a day (Li, 2020).
Intime’s sales associates livestream at work.

Adopting digital methods or not is no longer a question for the retail sector but a necessity (Hagberg, Sundström, & Nicklas, 2016), especially given the Covid-19 pandemic. For the incumbent retail businesses, digital technologies will fundamentally transform their business models. For the digitally agile retail businesses, small adaptations or increased efforts have been enhanced to accelerate the transforming process. Although the challenge varies across businesses, the Covid-19 pandemic appears to be the catalyst that has pushed this transformation over the finish line.

Reference:

Agostino, D., Arnaboldi, M., & Lema, M. D. (2020). New development: COVID-19 as an accelerator of digital transformation in public service delivery. Public Money & Management, https://doi.org/10.1080/09540962.2020.1764206.

Bartik, A. W., Bertrand, M., Cullen, Z. B., Glaeser, E. L., Luca, M., & Stanton, C. T. (2020). How are small businesses adjusting to covid-19? early evidence from a survey (No. w26989). National Bureau of Economic Research, https://doi.org/10.3386/w26989.

Butler, S. (2020). Cath Kidston to close all 60 UK stores with loss of 900 jobs. Retrieved from The Guardian.com at https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/apr/21/cath-kidston-to-close-all-60-uk-stores-with-loss-of-900-jobs.

Coker, J. (2020). Covid-19: John Lewis explores digital services to tackle loneliness during self isolation. Retrieved from Essential Retail at https://www.essentialretail.com/news/john-lewis-coronavirus-vulnerable-1/.

International Data Corporation. (2020). CXO surveys: IT and digital transformation show growing value as the covid-19 epidemic taks its toll. Retrieved from https://www.idc.com/getdoc.jsp?containerId=prCHE46116820.

Hagberg, J., Sundström, M., & Nicklas, E. Z. (2016). The digitalization of retailing: an exploratory framework. International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, 44(7), 694-712.

Li, C. (2020). How Chineses department-store chain intime survived Covid-19, online and offline. Retrieved from https://www.alizila.com/chinese-department-store-intime-covid-19/.

Wang., J. (2020). How brands have embraced digital transformation during covid-19. Retrieved from https://www.alizila.com/how-brands-have-embraced-digital-transformation-during-covid-19/.

Warner, K. S., & Wäger, M. (2019). Building dynamic capabilities for digital transformation: An ongoing process of strategic renewal. Long Range Planning, 52(3), 326-349.

Photo credit: Cecilia Li on alizila.com

Notes on Digital Activism

Dr Vera Hoelscher|Lecturer in Marketing| Royal Holloway School of Business and Management

On 19 February 2020, the DOS Research Centre organised a half-day event on Digital Activism. The purpose of the day was to learn about the nature and impact of digitally enabled and enhanced mobilisation for political, economic and social change, and how research and practice can learn from and support each other in this process.  The event brought together artists, academics and practitioners who gave short talks on pertinent issues.  Below we pick out the main themes emerging from the day.

The Requirement to Combine Digital and Physical Activism

We heard first from Janet Gunter who is co-founder of the Restart Project.   The Restart Project aims to help people in repairing their electronic devices as a correction to our throwaway culture and campaigns for legislation to force businesses to produce longer lasting tech.  Janet explained how the Restart Project built its own on-line network of activists which has proven very effective for coalition building, as an organising tool for activist events and for interaction with the public. However greater visibility can have its problems and can create passive involvement so Janet argued a combination of on-line and off-line interaction is required.  Similarly, Vera Hoelscher, lecturer in Marketing at Royal Holloway, discussed her research with digital activist networks in London which noted that entirely online activism leads to a craving for physical action while entirely physical activism can be constraining and claustrophobic, therefore arguing for the qualitatively-distinct benefits of communicating in both physical and digital spaces for activist organizations.   

Innovative Ways of Giving Voice to the Invisible or Under-Represented

Kui Kihoro Mackay, PhD student in Politics at Royal Holloway, shared her experiences of #blacktwitterverse and #BlackJoy as spaces of radical resistance within the Twittersphere, demonstrating the potential for groups to appropriate the digital to counter oppression in their own terms.  Matthias Kispert, musician, artist and PhD student at the University of Westminster, demonstrated how he has used the accessibility of digital platforms to enable voice for casualised labour.  Matthias has co-produced videos with platform workers, and a number of other provocative art works that draw attention to workers’ labour conditions, demonstrating the power of the visual to bring home the activist message.  In a similar vein, Robbie Warrin discussed enabling creative ways for gigworkers to share their experiences and comment on their own lives.  Robbie and his colleagues are founders of the Invisible Worker Zine, which regularly asks for contributions from gig-economy workers that represent in narrative, poetical or visual form the everyday struggles of this fast-growing mode of working.   

Building Digital Picket Lines

This group of speakers sought to illustrate the role of the digital in supporting political action.  Torsten Geelan of the University of Leicester presented his research on the role of social media in the UCU pension debate in late 2019 (and still ongoing).  Drawing on their study which utilised data mining, Torsten argued that social media enabled mobilisation through “personalised collective action frames”, combining personal issues with collective action.  Relatedly, James Sloam, lecturer in Politics at Royal Holloway and author of Youthquake , discussed the distinctive features of online youth movements which work through authenticity rather than the bureaucratic control of traditional political parties.  Our final contributor, Mikko Laamanen, lecturer in Marketing at Royal Holloway, discussed the “F*ck off Google” (FOG) protest and its role in deterring the data giant from re-purposing an existing building in Kreuzberg, Germany, through online resistance, ‘noise events’ and local café-based actions.  On the basis of their investigations, Mikko and colleagues argue for a ‘cosmopolitan localism’ of activist movements, that is, a global networked sharing of knowledge and resources between place-based communities.

Overall, the day drew attention to the myriad approaches and concerns of digital activism, illustrating the many ways in which the digital can both enable activism and be a constraining factor.  An important discussion point that emerged from the day was how academics can best work with community activists, in particular through allowing their research to be guided by the needs of activist groups rather than seeking to impose their own research agendas.  Consequently, the DOS Research Centre will be organising further events that bring together practitioners, academics and members of the public to work on ways in which researchers can best support important social change in the digital sphere.