Su, Hua. “Constant connection as the media condition of love: where bonds become bondage” MCS Mar 2016 38.2 (15 pages).
Su takes a critical look at Chinese lovers’ creation of constant connection through mobile technologies in order to develop and maintain a sense of intimacy. Lovers often employ media multiplexity to maintain this connection: “mobilize multiple channels to communication with each other” (233). Chinese lovers are a noteworthy population to study for a number of reasons. First, because of the restriction placed on many social media enterprises (like Facebook and Twitter) by the Chinese government, there is a proliferation of other kinds of technologies—many of them for mobile devices—to create connections. Second, the use of these technologies often operates in backchannels and create a subversive underlife that provides opportunity to develop intimacy while negotiating traditional institutional pressures of Chinese culture and society: digital media “[allow] people to talk with intimate partners in time and space that are otherwise regulated by such institutions as factories and schools. In other words, ‘perpetual contact’ is a blessing because people can remain in touch with their loved ones even when modern institutions prevent them from doing so” (235).
Su notes that the kinds of communication that circulates in these digitally mediated networks is phatic: trivial comments that often contain “mundane routines of everyday life” (235). However such trivial, phatic communication is very important for developing intimacy: “couples keep in touch and reaffirm their relationships by constantly engaging each other’s attention and establishing psychological contact” (235). Furthermore, the use of referential and inferential conversation pieces—nicknames, unique language style, personal idioms—operate as a kind of hypertext: “like the blue links that expand upon the click of a mouse, mundane chats call upon what is not said but available to the interactive parties as shared histories and meanings. Couple’s regular rehearsal of these ‘relational capsules’ through various media keeps their relational histories and meaning alive” (236).
Su also notes the importance of the sharing of photos and the real-time video chatting of couples—as she writes, such real-time sharing of visuals helps to “synchronize” their lives. In fact, some couples would simulate physical closeness or proximity by setting up a visual link via Skype and going about daily routines while keeping the visual link. However, such use became immersive and drew even more attention to the distance and isolation felt when such a link is not maintained.
Su also confronts how platform interfaces allows users to control their access to other users, including one’s own partner. For example, “presence, or rather, being seen as present, entails the obligation to connection. The ‘online’ status display makes one’s online presence visible, and the visibility subjects one to relational expectations” (239). However, some couples needed to use communication technology for work or other purposes, placing their status to ‘invisible.’ Although Su does not believe such status was not used maliciously, couples would employ other technologies that would, in a way, hack to see whether their partner was ‘invisible’ without telling them. Simply, “when media technology encourage human curiosity about ‘truth’ behind the thin veil of politeness, personal boundaries are easily trampled” (240). Regardless, Su also makes clear that the media multiplexity of constant contact prevents being ever truly ‘offline’: “it is questionable whether being offline is possible in the digital culture of connectivity. With the cornucopia of media available, lovers are able to contact each other through other means if one channel fails to connect them” (240).
She further found that “increased connectivity means increased vulnerability…constant connectivity poses ‘a new threat’ to relationships because every failure to access the partner suggests a failure for the relationship to be resumed from a previous instance of connectedness” (241). Accordingly, minor lapses in communication emphasize more the fragility of the absent present of distant, mobile relationships.
As she concludes, the constant contact may not necessarily “enhance intimate relationships so far as an intimate relationship is a process of parties’ joint construction rather than an automatic result of remaining connected” (243).