Zenly, Dumplings, and Bad Girls: surveillance and social work in Wanhua

Written by Peijun Guo, translated by Sam Robbins.

Image credit: 萬華康定路 by 宇津木阿螢/cyberisland ,license CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 TW

Warning: this article contains references to assault and sexist language 

At 6 pm, myself, social workers and interns’ rode together on three motorbikes to the Wanhua district to carry out the social workers’ “outreach programme.” On the way over, one of the social workers took out his work phone and opened the app Zenly, which displayed the exact locations of the young people they were meant to be working with. I asked him why the team was using location-tracking software? He told me that the young people in the programme were becoming increasingly hard to find because they didn’t have a fixed hang-out space like previous generations. According to social workers, the fastest way to find the young people they worked with was to use this app and directly see where they were hanging out. Whilst looking at the screen, another social worker Amber (pseudonym), started talking to her teammate who was driving a motorcycle, explaining that “if there are more than two of them in the same location, then the screen will display it as a hotspot.” On the app, he saw that Hsiao-had (pseudonym), a young person in the programme, was at no 10. Park in Wanhua.

Amber: “I want to stop Hsiao-hao; he’s definitely on a date with that bitch (English in original) 

Peijun: “How do you know that?”

Amber: This is the same route they take every time. I already know their date plans like the back of my hand, and I want to beat that bitch. 

We arrived at No.10 park to find Hsiao-hao and his girlfriend, Mei-mei (pseudonym), eating dinner at the Bafang dumplings next to the park, just as Amber had predicted. When Amber first saw their location, she said, “how are they eating dumplings again?”

Hsiao-hao discretely stepped out of the restaurant when he saw us approaching and asked how the social workers knew where to find him. Amber told him that she saw his location on Zenly, where he was publicly broadcasting it; Hsiao-hao laughed and said, “oh.”

When the outreach team’s work for the day was over, we returned to their office to hold a meeting on their work thus far. One social worker took notes during the meeting whilst the others discussed their interactions with the young people.

When it was Hsiao-hao’s social worker’s turn to speak, the outreach team immediately told him that “that Mei-mei a is a real bimbo (瞎妹)”; the other social worker replied, “yes, I know.” 

Social work and technology 

These stories from my fieldwork have made me realise that digital technology has become a crucial aspect of social workers and social welfare, more broadly, linkages to the people they work with. For example, from Hsiao-hao’s story, we can see that social workers can now track the whereabouts, the love life, and even young people’s diets through their cellphones. This is possible partly because young people’s online and offline lives are becoming increasingly blurred as they post more and more of their offline activities (where they hang out, who they’re dating, what they’re thinking) on their Instagrams or TikTok accounts. Many of the young people seemingly don’t care if any of this personal information is accessed by a stranger, or even closely tracked by social workers, because either way, all engagement bumps up their much-prized follower counts. In addition, these young people are often accustomed to sharing their location amongst their friends to find things to do and people to hang out with. 

From the perspective of the social workers, most hope to be seen as friends by the young people they work with and use this role to serve as a positive role model in their lives. Technology has been very effective in helping them achieve this goal. Apart from playing mobile games to build a rapport, the constant updates posted by the youths themselves give these social workers unfettered access to their personal and private lives. The social workers use this to determine what to talk about with young people and to know how they are getting on. For example, if a fight breaks out between the youths, its digital traces can be tracked. The social workers can detect whether the teenagers are in any immediate danger or are likely to engage in risky behaviour. 

Moral guidance or gender prejudice? 

Whenever I talk about my fieldwork with my classmates, the most common response is, “that’s so weird, so the teenagers are under surveillance?” However, once we accept that they are indeed being surveilled (and seemingly willingly so), it becomes more important to ask what such surveillance means in the relationship between social workers and vulnerable youth. 

After seeing Hsiao-hao’s location on Zenly, Amber became more confident than before in her conviction that Mei-mei is a “bimbo.” The reason for this is that when he had asked Hsiao-hao what he had been doing since dropping out of high school, Hsiao-hao said he had been looking for a job but couldn’t find one, and now has nothing to do. Amber then went to talk to Mei-mei, asking her, “Hsiao-hao isn’t going to school, he’s not looking for a job, he’s not doing anything, what do you think? Do you think this is good? I’m not trying to take sides; I wanna know what you think.” Mei-mei gave Amber a thumb’s up and said, “I think it’s great; if my dad didn’t try to stop me, I’d want to do exactly what Hsiao-hao is doing” with a crafty smile.

Instead of using punitive measures, social workers tend to take a “soft approach” and encourage young people with uncertain work and employment circumstances. To do this, social workers often rely on friendship networks as parental figures are often assumed to be inaccessible or unlikely to help. In addition, social workers hope to help youth they have determined to be most vulnerable by influencing those around them. For example, talking to their girlfriends is often seen as an excellent way to influence teenage boys, but the reverse approach is usually not used to help the teenage girl. This is because it is assumed that their boyfriends are probably in a worse position than they are. For example, social workers’ primary concern for at-risk teenage girls is pregnancy, a risk they assume boyfriends will not help alleviate. Likewise, women are thought to help their male peers, but not the other way around. 

Amber had hoped to use Hsiao-hao’s relationships and his girlfriend’s response to encourage him to return to school. Sadly, this failed as it turned out Mei-mei was, in fact, jealous of him. The title of “bimbo” was reserved for such young women who were expected to provide moral guidance to young men but seemingly failed to. 

Perhaps technology has not fundamentally altered what social workers do or the prejudices they carry, but apps like Zenly have certainly made it easier for the social workers and their beliefs to become a force in the lives of the young people they work with. Such technology allows social workers the ability to track the daily lives of young people. Whereas they had previously relied on interviews, social workers now had much more data at their disposal. They could directly track the interpersonal relationships, work, and the potential risks faced by the young people they work with. Despite all this extra information about their lives, the options of how to intervene in the lives of young people have not been changed by technology. Social workers still must find a way to serve as a “positive role model” and find non-punitive ways to guide young people. This task requires them to embed themselves in the interpersonal relationship of the people they work with. Perhaps social workers know more about these relationships than before, but that doesn’t make it easier to enter them. 

Perhaps all the extra knowledge only makes it more apparent to social workers how little influence they have. In addition, the new knowledge has not necessarily led the social workers to question some of their prejudices or re-assess how they imagine young women, young men and their influence on each other. Indeed, faced with an unending stream of data on young people and their lives, it is likely that a certain degree of confirmation bias has crept in. For example, if a social worker thinks a young woman is a “bimbo” for not forcing her boyfriend to go back to school, they can now find evidence to support their view from seeing when the two hang out, what they do, and what they’re thinking. 

At least, in theory, social workers are trying to improve the lives of the young people they work with and keep them out of danger. However, regardless of whether they connect online or offline, there is always an implicit power differential between social workers and the young people they work with. The risk is that social workers will unwittingly undermine the young people’s autonomy or imprint upon them their biases. Thus, we should be wary of being too quick to judge whether social worker’s watchfulness is a force for good or bad in the lives of young people. However, we should be aware of how digital technology has rapidly expanded how much they can observe. To surveil or to help the teenagers are both forms of control.

Moreover, trying to do either can lead social worker’s to diminish young people’s autonomy unconsciously. This is especially true in times of Covid-19, wherein the lives of young people have effectively become entirely online. For example, in Wanhua, the heart of Taiwan’s recent outbreak, online interaction is now the only way social workers connect with young people. Whereas in past times, such an outbreak might have taken many youths temporarily outside of the social welfare system’s view, thanks to modern digital technology, the outbreak has only made such youths more visible than before. 

Peijun Guo is a Graduate student in the Department of Sociology, National Taiwan University, where she studies urban youth poverty in Taipei. She is conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Taipei’s Wanhua district.

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