Strava: A medium/method for COVID-19 collaborative ethnography

Strava is a motivational exercise app–Let’s repurpose it for collaborative teaching and research
Cite this article as: Betsy Rymes, "Strava: A medium/method for COVID-19 collaborative ethnography," in PanMeMic, 21/07/2020, https://panmemic.hypotheses.org/670.

Last spring, after all our students suddenly left campus mid-semester, I spent the next several weeks, like many professors around the world, teaching my course from the coziness of my own dining table, looking into my computer screen at students in their Philadelphia apartments, in quarantine in China, in their living rooms in Japan, or their father’s guest room in Virginia.  COVID-19-induced quarantine had pushed us all inside to do our work, physically isolated from each other and the world.  Paradoxically, it had also opened up that world and our homes to each other.  I suddenly knew of Wuhan, a city of over 11 million people that I had never heard of before, and I started looking up—and in some cases seeing on camera—the cities where my students were quarantining.  One student’s hotel had a balcony that seemed to overlook the beach.  When I commented he mentioned, yes, he was in Xiamen, in the Fujian province, known as “the Miami of China.”  The other students laughed from their Zoom squares.  

Those minimal encounters with the physical locale of student’s homes made those Zoom moments unexpectedly intimate and localized.  Gradually, we started to talk more about encounters where we lived.  When we discussed Dr. Fauci’s hope that no one would ever shake hands in greeting again, students began to share stories about social distancing in their locations: One student was back home in Beijing and had just attended a family dinner. On arrival, everyone shook hands!  But they all donned their masks as soon as dinner was over. Another student had just left Philadelphia and relocated to Virginia.  While everyone here in Philadelphia had been staying home and wearing masks if they ventured out for necessities, nobody in rural Virginia seemed to be wearing masks—even at the grocery store.  A student in Japan also mentioned the casual approach to social distancing she was observing there. These revelations about the differences in how people were reacting to COVID-19 around the world became part of our weekly informal class check-ins.  Now, after a summer to think about this, and facing a few more weeks to plan for online teaching in the Fall, I’d like to find a way to capture those comparative insights in more detail, and more systematically—while developing global community and conversation.  

 Strava: Turning an Exercise App into a Global Connector

The Strava exercise app may offer one easy, if improbable, social medium for this systematic global sharing.  Through Strava, I hope to include students in a global online ethnographic fieldwork project. By collectively posting, sharing, and commenting on Strava, we might be able to document and explore rapidly changing global norms and social habits related to COVID-19, as well as other social movements that have come in its wake.  

First, some background on Strava: This app is designed to be a virtual motivational exercise platform, where people keep track of their exercise every day and map their routes. Its social media component provides peer pressure for reluctant exercisers.  Someone new to running or biking can join groups and follow other people to see their runs and their pictures, and to make comments or give “kudos.”  

Like those typical Strava users, I use Strava every day to keep track of my (very slow) runs. And usually I take a picture or two along the way.  When I get home, pictures or no, I add a caption to my run.  My Strava friends do the same.  Usually the captions are running related (“man is it hot out there!” “hip still killing me!”), but as the pandemic has gone on, I’ve found more captions and photos directly about the pandemic. In this one, for example, a Strava friend directly addresses the problematic lack of masks on the SRT (Schuylkill River Trail):

A screenshot of a social media post

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Strava post from Philadelphia, PA, including comments about local pandemic conditions

Posts have also begun to point to social issues that have arisen from the COVID-19 pandemic: the inequities it has revealed, and the outpouring of pent up frustrations. Last month, for example, civil unrest broke out in the United States and across the globe over anti-black police brutality. During the month of June, these protests led directly to the removal of statues of historic figures of white supremacy, and a mural of Frank Rizzo (notorious Philadelphia racist) was painted over in Philadelphia. My friends’ Strava feeds began to reflect these changes too.  This Strava runner, for example, captions her run with  comments on the removal of the Frank Rizzo mural (“Rizzo mural is no more”), and uses a black line for her running route, displaying solidarity with the fight against anti-black racism.  

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Strava post from Philadelphia, PA, including Black Lives Matter route marker and commentary about the removal of Frank Rizzo mural

This post, from a Strava friend logging a bike ride in Portand OR, USA, includes photos of the graffiti in support of black lives, that covered the Apple Store there:

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Strava post from Portland, OR, including mural about police brutality

In my own Strava account, I used to post photos of scenic river scenes, a portrait of a handsome duck, or a picturesque sunrise now and then.  But now I’ve started to use my Strava feed more deliberately to document the changing mood in Philadelphia. At the start of the pandemic I’d see new graffiti about the conditions (“COVID-19/Civilization is Poison”), but these would often get painted over by the next time I took that route.  So, I started to take pictures and post them in Strava to preserve the sentiments.  This one, for example, includes both a sunrise and a statement about the move to shift funding away from police (“pigs”) to other public services:  

Strava Post from Philadelphia, PA, including a photo of funding suggestions graffiti

And the posts below feature photos of stencils that I run over nearly every day now.  They appeared on the Schuylkill River Trail (SRT) as the pandemic began to take its toll, leaving more people homeless, unemployed and uninsured, and increasingly feeling cast aside: 

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Two Strava posts from Philadelphia, PA, including photos of stenciled messages on the running trail

Moving Forward: Using Strava as Online Ethnographers to Explore the Global Context of COVID-19 

Now I’m hoping we can collectively repurpose Strava not (only) to log our exercise, but as an ethnographic tool for collectively documenting how people are reacting and coping with the Pandemic. Because Strava also is a social medium, we are able not only to collect materials, but also to share them, caption them, and comment on others.  As a global platform, Strava affords instant sharing and comparing of responses to COVID-19, in different and distant contexts.  Students and their professors can participate both by actively generating data in their own posts— “sharing” online—as well as by collecting data by observing others’ posts—what some might call “lurking”–online. We could prompt each other, for example, with questions like these: 

  1. GENERATE DATA: Go for a stroll or a jog through your neighborhood. What do you see in your area?  Take a picture, post it on Strava and caption it! Share your post with others on the project by “following” them on Strava. Watch for comments—add your own responses. 
  2. COLLECT DATA: Browse through other posts on your Strava feed. What are other people posting in your area? Elsewhere? What can you learn from those posts about what’s going on? Comment on those posts (Which takes you back to #1, GENERATE DATA)!

We don’t all need to go on long runs—just walks around the neighborhood.  As we upload our Strava routes, complete with pictures, captions, and comments, we will create, collectively, a summative, global, reflective log of all our observations and discoveries.  Students will be exploring, seeing, and sharing the pandemic responses they see out in their neighborhoods, or from wherever they may be engaging in their learning.   

While not available in China, Strava is used globally—I have Strava followers from all around the world, and across the United States.  Those students in China who do not have Strava access would not be able to generate data, but, if we screen grab Strava posts from others in the class and upload them to our course website, students in China would be able to learn what their classmates have shared from other places in the world, participate in the discussion, and add their perspective. 

In the process of global collaboration on Strava, we will also be teaching and learning about the potential of online ethnography—as a medium and method through which students both generate and collect material about how people are publicly reacting to COVID-19 as well as the other movements and social ills that COVID-19 has brought to the fore.  As Blommaert and Jie write in Ethnographic Fieldwork: A Beginner’s Guide, this type of online collaborative research provides us with a new way to think more literally about “participant observation,” that foundational stance of ethnographers:

The notion of ‘participant observation’ needs to be understood literally in the online–offline nexus: ethnographers are participating in exactly the same contextualized processes they are studying, and there is no privileged vantage point that gives us an edge over other, ‘ordinary’ participants (Bommaert & Jie, 2020, p. 224).

From this humble vantage point—with no “edge over other, ‘ordinary’ participants” on Strava, we can begin to enter into a global form of participant/observation together.  Strava can provide a context where students and professors, as well as those who are using the Strava app primarily as an exercise log, are both researchers and researched, where the medium of our investigation also supplies the method of analysis.  Let’s see what we can find and share there, together. 

How to Just Do It

We can all start participating in this Strava Global inquiry project immediately. If you have a smart phone, you can join the app:  https://www.strava.com. Then follow me, Betsy Rymes, and we can start sharing our runs, walks, bike rides, or strolls, our captions for those routes, our photos and our comments on each other’s posts.  When Fall comes around, I plan to connect with my students through this app as well.  Please join us there!  We will all be sharing our neighborhoods together—and commenting, captioning, and uploading photographs too.  We will inevitably find out more about the world—and the way the world is reacting to a global crisis.  As we make those discoveries, and learn about new places and norms, we’ll also develop new questions, together. 

Let’s go! 

As Summer starts to fade without, it seems, having ever really arrived, as we look ahead to more online teaching in the Fall, I’ve been feeling the ups and downs of the “coronacoaster”, the doldrums and dreams of this pandemic. During those doldrums, I catch myself longing for the good old days, when we could work in our offices, get coffee together across the street, literally bump into colleagues and then chat with them, mask free, or have conversations with students while sitting around a small table together or talking across my office desk.  

Now, we have to dream up new ways to “bump into each other” and to engage in our more structured research and teaching.   As Blommaert and Jie also point out, in the final chapter of the ethnography guidebook, prophetically entitled, “When your Field goes Online,” “the blissful simplicity of ‘the local’ has been traded for a far more complex reality of connected fieldwork sites.” This may be the ideal time to explore that complex reality with our students while also developing the possibilities for global online connection with each other. How can we repurpose Strava—and possibly other apps and online platforms?  Let’s try it and see what we learn. Please join me on Strava!  I’m also eager to hear about any other platforms we might use for this kind of collective online ethnography.  Add your comments below and let us all know what you’ve discovered! 

Betsy Rymes

Betsy Rymes lives in Philadelphia, PA, where she is Professor of Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is author of the forthcoming book "How we talk about language: Exploring citizen sociolinguistics," (Cambridge, 2020), and a regular contributor to her own blog site, citizensociolinguistics.com.

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Betsy Rymes

Betsy Rymes lives in Philadelphia, PA, where she is Professor of Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is author of the forthcoming book "How we talk about language: Exploring citizen sociolinguistics," (Cambridge, 2020), and a regular contributor to her own blog site, citizensociolinguistics.com.

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4 Responses

  1. Betsy Rymes says:

    Hi David! Thanks for the comment! I just saw your profile on Strava and all the picks you’ve been posting around San Jose (I think ?). I see what you mean about how you too have been using Strava as a way to keep an informal timeline of impressions through photos. I noticed you had a pic of the Little Free Library “temporarily closed due to the COVID -19 pandemic.” 🙁 I had just been noticing, this afternoon, how odd it is to walk down a street and see everything closed in the middle of the day. And yet, we’re almost used to it now. I’m looking forward to seeing what these changing impressions look like across the country and around the world!

  2. David Malinowski says:

    Thank you for this inspiring post, Betsy! It’s great to see your insights into this potential of Strava–and I was fascinated to see some of the things you’ve seen on your own runs, and to think about some of the changes you’ve seen in the weeks and now months that the pandemic has been evolving. Running/walking/biking/driving the same route over time really gives us a chance to see those changes, and that seems like a really powerful application.

    Incidentally I joined Strava this summer, too, but somewhat by accident since a colleague and friend of mine uses it to track fitness. I found myself starting to use it to record impressions of the places I’d been, uploading a few pictures along the way, so your suggestions really resonate with me. I’ve just followed you on Strava and I look forward to seeing what others do, and thinking about what’s possible!

  3. Betsy Rymes says:

    Wonderful! I’ll look for you and your students on Strava. I never thought of the gender differences you mention–I’m learning already about different global norms. I’m glad women students will be able to drive though. Looking forward to seeing all your posts! 🙂

  4. Najma Al Zidjaly says:

    Thank you very much Betsy for this wonderful essay and initiative. My students in Oman and I are fully in. As Arabian women, my female students can’t go running here or even sometimes walking but driving is a great option for us/them. So I am really looking forward to experimenting with this app and this global initiative.

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