Academic writing on technology doesn’t reflect our contemporary experience of the ecology of communications; the choices we make about how we talk to the people in our lives and how we interact with institutions. Much of the literature on mobile communication that I’ve read focusses on voice or SMS.
But my Smartphone offers me the following ways of communicating; SMS, email, Tweeting, Google Plus, Instant messaging… Skype. Oh yes… and the phone! Each of these means of communication has its own texture, its own emotional nuance and range; a target audience. The communications ecology of my own family illustrates this. I wouldn’t Tweet my mum or my big sister, but I would send my little brother a message on Google Plus. I would send my big brother an SMS but I wouldn’t Skype him. I would email my dad but I won’t give him access to my locked Twitter account (sorry dad).
One of the many pleasures of reading ‘Migration and New Media’ by Mirca Madionou and Daniel Miller is how it captures what the authors describe as the ‘affordances’ of different modes of communications. The authors conducted a long term ethnographic study of Filipino women working overseas and the children they leave behind; looking at how these relationships are mediated by various kinds of communication technology.
The authors propose ‘polymedia’ as a means to understand a new territory of convergent communications which many of us now occupy; beyond platform, channel or device. Within this framework people chose a means of communication (be it Facebook status update or shared meal over webcam Skype) not just because its convenient or available, but because the means of communication conveys a message too – “they become the idiom of expressive intent”. The structure as well as the content of the message conveys a message. A text message is a tool for ‘phatic’ (seemingly trivial) talk; checking in with loved ones. In the book a young Filipino uses a blog for washing dirty family laundry in public, a woman who is separated from her young baby sings songs to her over a webcam; another young woman participates in a family funeral through a laptop which a relative carries through the event.
There is much else to say about this exemplary work – not least its engagement with the political economy of the ‘care chains’ which bring the Filipino women to the UK in the first place – but I’ll save that for a journal review. For now, I’m figuring out what polymedia might look like for marginalised communities in the UK.