Welcome to the summer of 2020, where hot dogs, beach balls, and road trips are joined by protests, oximeters, and arguments about section 230(c). And, every week, your Plaintext newsletter.

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The Plain View

I have become a Citizen addict. Citizen is an app, currently active in 18 cities, that’s sort of a supercharged police scanner—its home screen is a map of the area around your location that pinpoints disturbances. These include user-contributed videos of fires, police activity, and lately, major protests. Since my New York City neighborhood has become a hot spot for social upheaval in recent weeks, the baseline of nearby incidents and emergencies has dramatically elevated, and the distance to various conflagrations and marches is often reported not in miles but feet. Accompanied by the unrelenting soundtrack of overhead helicopters, my use of Citizen has been both inspiring (the uprising is long overdue!) and alarming (already fragile Covid-affected businesses in my neighborhood have been hit hard by vandalism and looting).

Citizen’s founder and CEO is Andrew Frame, a hacker turned entrepreneur who was behind the VoIP app Ooma. “The original foundation for Citizen was really ‘What does the future of public safety look like?’” he tells me, while heading to the airport for his first plane trip since the virus hit. “Step one is opening up the 911 system. So, it’s a shared system, and everybody has access to the same information in real time.” Frame says that in recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of new users have flocked to the app. (Though Frame wouldn’t share actual numbers, he didn’t dispute a recent report in Forbes that estimated 600,000 new users, for a total of around 5 million overall.) Once people get that information, he says, it’s up to them to figure out what to do with it—whether to rush out and document an incident, join a protest, or cower in their apartments. (In some cases, he says, people have left their apartments after learning through Citizen that the building was on fire.) “We try to stay as neutral as possible politically—we create the transparency,” he says.

But as other platforms have learned, staying neutral is a difficult balance to strike when your decidedly nonneutral users express themselves within the app. Each incident reported on Citizen invites comments, and in our politically fractured environment, these often break out into political discussion. That’s fine, but not when commenters complain about the protests with hate speech and racism, and I’ve been taken aback at some of the intolerance displayed by my supposedly liberal NYC neighbors, including some comments expressing unbridled venom towards people of color. App store reviewers have noted it too—a recent user talked of deleting the app, because “there’s a ton of racist comments.”