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Absent friends? Smartphones, mediated presence and the recoupling of social contact in everyday life

Journal article
Authors Eva Thulin
Bertil Vilhelmson
Tim Schwanen
Published in Annals of the Association of American Geographers
Volume 110
Issue 1
Pages 166-183
ISSN 0004-5608
Publication year 2020
Published at Department of Economy and Society, Unit for Human Geography
Pages 166-183
Language en
Keywords online co-presence, spatial practice, rhythm, intervening background, local and mediated pockets of order
Subject categories Human Geography


This paper contributes to the geographical understanding of how mobile online presence enabled by smartphones transforms human spatial practices, i.e., people’s everyday routines and experiences in time and space. Contrasting a mainstream discourse concentrating on the autonomy and flexibility of ubiquitous (anywhere, anytime) use of social media, we examine new and mounting constraints on user agency. Building on time-geographic theory we advance novel insights into the virtualities of young people’s social lives and how they are materialized in the physical world. Critically, we rework the classical time-geographic conceptions of bundling, constraints, rhythms and pockets of local order, draw on the emerging literature on smartphone usage, and use illustrative examples from interviews with young people. We suggest a set of general and profound changes in everyday life and sociality due to pervasive and perpetual mediated presence of friends: i) the emergence of new coupling constraints and the recoupling of social interaction; ii) the changing rhythms of social interaction due to mediated bundles of sociality becoming more frequent and insistent; iii) the shifting nature of the streaming background of online contacts, which are becoming more active, intervening in and intruding on ongoing foreground activities of everyday life; and iv) the reordering of foreground activity as well as co-located and mediated presences, centering on processes of interweaving, congestion and ambivalence, and co-located absence.

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