Digital Communities of Care
Review by Clarissa Lim Kye Lee

For the youth engaged with architecture and design, digital communities have become a space for exchanging ideas which they do not have direct access to in their institutions. Almost all institutions rely on traditional forms of sharing, such as working within a shared physical space – a studio. As we shift towards online learning, the shared realm of learning immediately becomes confined to Miro boards, and 1:1 critique on Zoom.

Outside of education, the discipline is a form of collaborative work. Architects and designers are constantly mediating between contractors, engineers, and co-workers. However, the once communal studio space shared between peers melts away with time. Spaces to find solidarity in order to offer support and mutual care between fellow architects, designers and researchers are far and few in between, especially for the youth.

I’ve written previously about online projects that have begun to tap into modes of gathering and discourse, such as BACA, Concrete Matter and XYZ Podcast. But a common thread that began to weave the fabric of connections was undoubtedly tied to digitally bumping into Nicholas Ng, an educator currently teaching at Taylor’s School of Architecture, Building and Design (SABD). In some way or another he brainstormed with, encouraged and mentored many young practitioners to collectively embark on building this community. Armed with over five years of teaching experience, he has developed a network of alumni who have forged their own paths in the design world.

Even before the pandemic hit, a few alumni and Ng were toying with the idea of creating a digital community to bridge the growing global network of Malaysian architecture and design youth. This was put into action during the pandemic as everyone shifted inwards and connected outwards over the Internet.

I wanted to explore the idea of the collective, the urgency behind community building, and arming oneself with multiple digital tools to connect. I talked to Ng and a few other friends who are embedded in our current ecology to unpack the impact of cultivating a community and the labour it involves.

The beginnings of a digital community
I began the conversation by asking Ng what the existing spaces of collectives were online. “We already have groups on Facebook that we’ve been using for years but there seems to be very little engagement from the younger generation. Instagram or Snapchat seem to be a hit with them, but these platforms are really just one-dimensional with very little interaction.” Ng then turned to Discord as a possibility, which was familiar to him as it “kind of reminds me of the old days of Internet Relay Chat (IRC)” he said.

After testing the platform, Ng began creating a digital community: a Discord channel for the design and architecture youth. With this apparatus, Ng was interested in finding ways to “cultivate new forms of knowledge towards the architecture and design industry in Malaysia” which led to the discussion of how we could engage with the younger generation of architecture and design students, since they would be the minds we need to mould.

When asked about Discord, Ng said he was “slightly overwhelmed at the beginning” but that he began to see its charm after a few test runs, “especially the immediate connectivity of the voice chat function.” The platform served as a tool to anonymously discuss ideas. “From this digital community, BACA was born. Concrete matter and ProjectXYZ were already establishing their own footprint, but I think the Discord channel really brought all of us closer together to form a community with shared interests and shared visions.”

Ng joins in to guide conversations, as he has realised many of the youth need inspiration and a space for exchanging resources and ideas. Another layer is to cultivate a space for care and encouragement, a social space situated a stone’s throw away from purely academic help.

Collective Care

Ng previously worked with EPIC (Extraordinary People Impacting Communities, an ecology of social enterprise companies helping primarily the Orang Asli community), volunteering to build, design and organise within a multidisciplinary organisation. He says: “If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my volunteering work with EPIC, it’s this: We can’t all work in silos. I am of the opinion that we are stronger if these groups come together, build relationships and achieve what they seek for as a collective.”

From Ng’s words, I began to think about the different individuals who make up a digital community, so I asked another member of the community, designer and researcher Jowin Foo, about the roles needed to activate the online sphere.

Foo positions such communities in relationship to the physical world. He describes the online avatar as a “digital double, taking on different roles”. He explained that roles such as a “librarian or archivist, their existence within the digital ecology could become weavers of digital communities, to organise, document, facilitate and build bridges”.

The digital community allows leaders to build relevant channels of information to facilitate conversations, encourage programs to activate topics and connect beyond our silos. Currently ProjectsXYZ uses the digital community to garner questions and discussion, especially for their milo ais podcast programs. Other activities, such as watching movies and discussing pop culture and memes collectively, have also been activated within the digital community.

I asked Ng about his thoughts on whether the digital space allowed for the widening of the discipline of architecture within the arts. “That’s an interesting perspective, and one that I’ve never really thought of because the current education system in Malaysia can be rather rigid and I’m not currently in a position to change it too much,” he replied. “I just wanted to bring a group of people together and share ideas and knowledge. But you’re right, you can say that the attempt for the Discord channel was to expose the younger generation to a wider field in the creative discipline and the relationship of ideas between them.”

The digital community allows for expanding into the arts and humanities. Some people in the community also observed that the world outside of architecture could coalesce here. The randomness and spontaneity filtered through designed channels allow for instant access to a plethora of ideas not necessarily bound to the discipline.

But it is not without its faults. A community member described the world as a linear flow of information. Be it Facebook, Instagram or Discord, using text may also lead to misinformation or miscommunication between members. There is also the tendency to be overwhelmed with information, a blurriness forms between work and play. Other members have felt a fear of being on “stage”, to have an imaginary audience privy to your words due to the degrees of anonymity.

With time, all modes of gathering will shift and change. New applications such as Clubhouse highlights the voice, where ideas are prized, yet remain ephemeral. On VRChat, one can envision your own online avatar and allow users to collectively build worlds for events, music and talks. Spaces of gathering online have gained prevalence to connect during moments of need, and perhaps will dissipate as we reconnect physically. For now, having an open, horizontal platform where opinions are shared liberally creates a social space for deeper conversations, collective learning and a space for gathering during distanced times.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Clarissa Lim Kye Lee is a writer under the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021

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