The increasing symbiosis between contemporary mobility and global Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) has been widely recognized in both migration and media studies.1 Advanced media technology, including smartphones, facilitates information exchange and instantaneous communication.2 The pervasive use of smartphones is an everyday reality for migrants, whose activities are increasingly taking place online and in real time.3 Smartphone use by migrants and their families illustrates the different scales of modern mobility within structural socioeconomic and political orders.4 Smartphones, and those applications downloaded to the device, enhance connectivity5 with regard to transactions, entertainment, socialization, networking, and activism. They help with community building and boost a sense of belonging among people who are connected via various applications.
The mobility of capital, commodity, idea, and emotion is now increasingly visualized on the smartphone.6 What has been less noted is that such online mobility does not take place independently of the parallel existence of technological, sociopolitical, and economic infrastructure that is established in the offline physical world. A close look at this intertwined mobility finds that this seemingly smooth online mobility is not only subject to the state's regulation, interference, or surveillance, but is also vulnerable to the market's pricing and consumerism. Equally importantly, the virtual mobility enabled by smartphones remains conditioned by individuals’ issues of consumption, preference, and positionality in terms of their gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, age, and physical ability. On the whole, although opportunities and resources emerge from this concurrence between online and offline, the constant compression of these two modes also generates new restrictions or reifies existing constraints. As a result, switching between online and offline modes can cause cognitive, emotional, and practical challenges, particularly if real life away from the screen fails to match up to the lives projected on it. Recognizing such compression and tension between online and offline mobilities helps us explore how migrants reframe, contest, or transform the rigid social, economic, and political orders that constrain their virtual and physical mobilities.
Across state borders or community boundaries, migrants and the people connected with them via the smartphone embody and enact this contrast between online and offline. The virtual world online carves out a social space that allows a migrant to project a self-portrait, constructed by text, image, or video, to their intended audiences, such as their fellow migrants in their country of residence, their friends and families at home, and activist organizations and collectives. The size or access of their intended audiences is determined by the migrant user, and the migrant user's decision often is a manifestation of their class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and age in the physical world. The compression and tension between online and offline can also be found in activists’ advocacy and campaigning. For example, images or videos uploaded by isolated Filipino, Vietnamese, or Indonesian migrant workers became legal evidence downloaded by Taiwanese activists who assisted them in seeking justice in court against their abusive employers (interview, 9 August 2021). During the pandemic, Taiwanese activists hosted online press conferences to voice their criticism towards the government's maltreatment of migrant workers. Nevertheless, they were under no illusions that campaigning online would translate to policy change offline. Without being surrounded by the physical presence of protesters holding their banners and calling out behind their loudspeakers, government officials would feel little social pressure to respond (interviews, 5 August 2021).
Taking this compression and tension between online and offline as our vantage point, this special section explores the entanglement of mobility and migration in the increasingly overlapping social, economic, and emotional virtual and physical spaces. The four articles included in this special section aim to answer two critical questions: (1) How does the use of smartphones by migrants and their families generate new modes of mobility? (2) How do online activities and offline infrastructure interact and result in the uneasy compression of these sites and modes? With the aid of transnationalism as an analytical prism, our answers to the two questions pertain to Chinese, Filipino, and Indonesian migrants within and beyond East Asia as entrepreneurs, workers, carers, and self-transformers in relation to those connected to them online at home or abroad. To answer the first question, we explore how the use of smartphones advanced entrepreneurship (Zani and Cockel; Li), the delivery of care (Acedera, Somaiah, and Yeoh), and the transmission of emotion across state borders (Wang). Chinese women in Taiwan sold chicken feet from China to Taiwan (Zani and Cockel), and their fellow migrants in France sold infant formula from France to China (Li) to their buyers for moral and financial reasons. Filipino and Indonesian migrants provided for, and received care from, their families with their remittances and those migrants were able to participate in their children's daily lives in spite of the geographical distance between them (Acedera, Somaiah, and Yeoh). In addition, photos on their smartphones that showed the contrast between “now and then” and “here and there” served as reminders for Chinese transgender women in Japan of their past or the other selves (Wang). These articles elucidate how the women's virtual, socioeconomic, and physical mobilities were complicated by the interactions with their parents, children, clients, fellow migrants, and host societies.
To answer the second question, we situate Chinese, Filipino, and Indonesian migrants in the transnational social space between sending and receiving states. We look at migration and mobility beyond the points of departure and destination and trace the process in between, as scholarship in migration studies has advocated. Our findings underline the migrants’ difficulties in negotiating offline challenges. For Chinese women entrepreneurs in Taiwan, the sovereignty dispute between Taiwan and China, on top of quarantine and taxation regulations administered in the name of sovereignty, obstructed their businesses on WeChat, a marketplace in the virtual borderland (Zani and Cockel). For Chinese migrant women in France, the materiality of the infant formula, such as its weight, packaging, and quality, complicated its transportation. The pandemic unexpectedly “toppled” the reputation of French products, the niche of this moral economy. Beyond consumption preferences, food safety issues, and the untrust in China's distribution channels, Chinese migrants’ e-commerce of infant formula embodies feelings of trust, responsibility, care as well as affection between China-based buyers and France-based sellers. However, the availability of direct order via Alibaba, an impersonal digital platform, growingly nullified the moral appeal between the buyer and the seller (Li). Filipino and Indonesian children, once conceptualized as left-behind care recipients lacking agency, proved adept at using the phone and acting more independently towards their parents (Acedera, Somaiah, and Yeoh). For Chinese transgender women, mobility is a strategic resource for negotiating sexuality, safety, and well-being, in that their departure from China and the arrival in Japan, as well as the journey in between, created socio-mental space to move out of social intolerance they faced in China. However, dominant homophobia in Japan, an offline difficulty beyond individuals’ control or means of escape, meant that “moving out” did not necessarily lead to “coming out” (Wang).
Supported by these critical and refreshing findings, we argue that the use of smartphones has meshed social, economic, emotional, virtual, and physical mobilities. However, their inseparability has yet to break down the boundary that marks the distinctive and discrete existence of social virtual and physical mobilities. Put simply, the absence, loss, malfunction, switch-off, unaffordability, or confiscation of the device can easily obstruct or take away altogether this meshed mobility. Interrogating what causes these obstructions, as presented by the four articles, brings to the fore the challenges posed by offline infrastructure and embedded structural constraints. Using smartphones as a lens, these articles illuminate how the compression and tension between online and offline is interlaced with different modes of mobility.
On the whole, this interdisciplinary project addresses the ongoing challenges posed by the use of smartphones among migrants and the people in their social networks in their everyday lives. Despite the growing interests in the link between transnationalism and digital communication, most of the relevant scholarship to date has focused on the novelty of what occurs online. However, when the novelty has waned and become mundane, as happened with our lives during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, new analytical foci come into view. We note that there is a paucity of studies drawing on the lens of mobility that look specifically at the compression and tension between the virtual and the physical. This special section fills the gap and underlines that this compression has become a defining feature of contemporary mobilities. We hope and anticipate that “Migrants and Their Smartphones” reveals the criticality and malleability of this phenomenon and serves as a foundation for future research.
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Marie Gillespie, “Syrian Refugees and the Digital Passage to Europe: Smartphone Infrastructure and Affordances,” Social Media and Society 4, no. 1 (2018),
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Donja Alinejad and Sandra Ponzanesi, “Migrancy and Digital Mediation of Emotions,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 20, no. 5 (2020). DOI: 10.1177/1367877920933649; Beatrice Zani, “WeChat, We Sell, We Feel: Chinese Migrant Women's Emotional Petit Capitalism,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 20, no. 5 (2020). DOI: 10.1177/136787792092336; Mirca Madianou and Daniel Miller, “Polymedia: Towards a New Theory of Digital Media in Interpersonal Communication,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 16, no. 2 (2013). DOI: 10.1177/1367877912452486