While perusing ye olde map store (how do these places still turn a profit?) with my long-term partner, we launched into a discussion about communication in long-distance relationships. Since I’ll be studying abroad and there will be a 5 hour time difference between us, it soon became apparent that we would need to use different information and communications technologies (ICTs) for different purposes and at varied times. Here’s what we’ve preemptively decided upon:
- Video Chat/Phone – This is the most costly form of long-distance communication not only in terms of phone bills or bandwidth/data limitations but also from the perspective of spending dedicated time communicating. We both understand that focused, real-time communication is important in a relationship but it’s not always possible – nor is it easy to look presentable or summon fascinating topics at 7:00am or 11:00pm without a serious jolt of caffeine. Even so, we’re determined to check in at least once a day using this form of communication though have yet to determine whether Skype, Gchat/Google Hangouts, or another tool will be best for this.
- Texting/SMS – After staring (lovingly) at someone’s face on a screen, this is the next closest thing to real-time communication. We figure we’ll be sending a bunch of texts on the go simply to include each other in the daily minutia of life that seem to help retain rapport between people. Nothing glues two individuals together better than venting about the odd sites and smells on public transit or sending a picture of your lunch. Plus it’s fast, allows for multitasking, and can be affordable when using wifi or data with tools like What’sApp. However, we’ll need to be aware of the various pitfalls of relying on texting, such as the way that certain messages don’t go over very well without any additional cues indicating tone or emotion (once again, DO NOT tell me that emoticons will cut it – see previous rant). There’s also a bunch of complexity with texting as to expectations about responses and the burden of responding (you know, since a text is a sort of communicative ‘gift’ because I’m thinking about you and so you have to respond to show you’re thinking about me too…says Haddon, 2004).
- Instant Messaging – My IM career died shortly after I graduated from high school and killed my email@example.com account. However, I quite enjoyed the convenience of MS Office Communicator at work when I wanted to check who was not online (read: late for work) or when walking across the floor was just too much trouble. Gchat has become a quick and easy way to integrate real-time conversations into time spent online doing other things and I think we’ll use it quite often, but generally only for short bursts between tasks. My least favourite activity is the long, meandering IM conversation:
- E-mail – I still love e-mail. It will be particularly useful to send descriptions of things and encounters that are simply too detailed or nuanced than can be contained in a text. My partner, who does not like writing, will surely send responses but he particularly likes to include Gifs that make my day:
- Facebook/social networking sites – It’s odd but my partner and I rarely connect on Facebook. Generally, we’re aware of what each other has posted (thanks to the mostly awful ‘star’ feature), but often Wall postings seem too public for messages intended to communicate emotion and sending private messages is similar to e-mailing. I doubt this will change with distance.
- Blogging – I’ve opened a personal Tumblr account to record my travels (sorry, it’s with a pseudonym and a link to it will never see the light of day on this blog), which I hope I’ll have time to upkeep. I haven’t had any burning desire to post to it, though I also haven’t left yet and I’m sure the world does not need more mundane posts about “So today I’m having my last hair cut in Canada…” My partner has vowed to read this microblog and therefore it will at least have an audience of one.
- Letters/Mail – Not an ICT, unless you’re living in the 1900s, but we’ve joked about sending care packages of maple syrup. Of course, there’s something romantic about scrawling on paper by candlelight and sending Hedwig to deliver a love letter, but this oldschool method of communication may just be too time-consuming to be very worthwhile. Any sentiments I send won’t arrive until they’re out of date and mailing packages is quite costly, I doubt either of us will be running to the post office every week.
The convenience of communication using ICTs is reliant on two emergent qualities of new technology. They are the “space of flows”* and “timeless time” as coined by Castells (2009), which I’ll attempt to explain in plain language. The space of flows refers to the fact that technology has made it possible to communicate without being in direct contact (e.g. face-to-face, or even directly connected by telephone wires). People can now communicate at the time of their choosing and at a distance, and they know the other person will receive the message even though it is not tied to a particular time or place of contact. Even so, this is not an immaterial property of communication with ICTs. It occurs in a space consisting of ‘nodes and networks’ that include people and electronic trappings of communication (e.g. wires, satellites, etc).
From understanding that the space of flows is communication without the need for direct contact, timeless time is easily understood as the way that technology now allows us to communicate without the sequence of messages mattering very much. This happens through the way that time becomes compressed when we are able to send messages in a split second. It is also due to the blurring of sequences of communication – if you friend me on Facebook, you can access information I’ve posted today alongside photos from 2006.
That’s just the Coles Notes version; I encourage you to pick up Castells’ book if you get a chance, he’s very good at articulating phenomena related to everyday communication in a way that adds vocabulary to things I had noticed but did not previously have the means of defining. In any case, it sounds like a bit of a fairytale: meeting a loved one in the space of flows and timeless time. Romantic comedy, anyone?
(Image courtesy of Soundtrack Collector)
*Although it may seem like it, the “space of flows” is not synonymous with “drainpipe”.
Castells, M. (2009). Communication power. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Haddon, L. (2004). Information and communication technologies in everyday life: A concise introduction and research guide. Oxford and New York: Berg.