Close by and yet so far away


Close by and yet so far away

The paradoxes of “digital intimacy”

How does it feel when your loved ones come so close through a screen, while remaining physically unreachable? Koen Leurs interviewed expats and refugees about this. Meanwhile, his conclusions now apply to all of us.

Koen Leurs in his officeKoen Leurs in his office (Photo: Ivar Pel, Universiteit Utrecht)

Dutch colonials who settled in Indonesia kept contact with their motherland via letters and photos. These took weeks to arrive, so for big news an expensive telegram was sent. Those were the options. Now things are very different for everyone who is far away from home, such as refugees, economic migrants, expats and foreign students. They can communicate with family and friends in real-time and almost free of charge, all day long if need be. They can choose from a wide range of digital communication tools: e-mail, messaging services such as WhatsApp, Telegram and SnapChat, social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram or TikTok, cheap international phone calls or video calls via Skype or Facetime. The past few decades have seen a true revolution has occurred in how we organise our personal relationships, nearby or at a distance.

If your mother has been left behind in a war zone, just the fact that the little blue tick appears can give you a sense of relief
- Koen Leurs

Koen Leurs specialises in digital media, youth culture and migration, and works in the Graduate Gender Programme of Utrecht University. He noticed that a lot of research had been done into the economic, political and ecological aspects of globalisation, but not the personal and emotional aspects. He has filled a part of that information gap himself. With a Veni grant from NWO and subsequently with funding from the Dutch Research Agenda, he interviewed 84 young asylum seekers, expats and foreign students about the use of digital media to maintain relationships with home and about what this means for them at an emotional level. Leurs received help with this from two experts by experience: Ghadeer Udwan, a Syrian sociologist who now lives in the Netherlands, and Jeffrey Patterson, a Canadian studying in the Netherlands.

Leurs found, for example, that there is a pattern to how people choose from the many available communication channels. ‘Text messages are used for everyday things. For example, some families wish each other good night in the group chat. Or they’ll say what they’re up to. By doing so, they exchange literal signs of life. “Good night” means “I’m safe”. If your mother has been left behind in a war zone, just the fact that the little blue tick appears can give you a sense of relief.’

Snapchat photo of Patrisia from AleppoPatrisia, a 15-year-old girl from Aleppo who is an avid badminton and piano player, and her 6-week-old baby. Photo sent to her grandparents in Aleppo; the image manipulated by SnapChat filters.

Whereas text messages are routine, emotional events are preferably shared via video calls, says Leurs. ‘For example, children can show their recently born brother or sister to grandma and grandad, or family members from across the world can jointly celebrate a birthday or a holiday with a meal, a cake or champagne. Romantic partners use video calls to have sex.’

That immediately brings to light the huge paradox that makes digital intimacy also stressful. One moment someone on the screen can seem really close, but as soon as you hang up you’re left staring at a cold screen. Then there is the painful realisation that he or she is actually on the other side of the world, leading a life of their own. This is not the single painful farewell of a boat leaving for Indonesia, but a small dose each day. This is what Ifrah, a 23-year-old Somalian woman said to Leurs about Skyping with a husband: 'I feel that sometimes I can bridge the distance… but the moment you hang up you realise that there is a distance and that kills you.’

Did you know? Young refugees are anything but naive with regard to “fake news”. They often come from countries with authoritarian regimes and so they are highly critical Internet users. That became apparent during the course “media wisdom” that Leurs and his colleagues taught in international transition classes.

Digital contacts with loved ones who live far away therefore bring joy and proximity but also frustration. Migrants are continuously connected, but also helpless. Because if a situation suddenly arises, they can literally not be there for their family and friends. They therefore also feel that they must always be available, discovered Leurs. ‘Teachers can get annoyed about the fact that the boy who has fled from Aleppo has his phone switched on during lessons. However, they are understanding of the situation once they realise that he has a lot to arrange, and that he has to travel a long way to be with members of his family if something happens to them, such as an accident or a crisis at the family business.’ At the same time, migrants find it exhausting that they always have to be “on”. Young people who have fled from conflict and war zones, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or Somalia, said that it sometimes feels as if their phone is “burning inside their pockets”.

They want to connect and share experiences, but they do not want to show everything. All social media users are confronted with this paradox. But migrants can really struggle with it, says Leurs. For them, the dilemmas are anything but innocent. For example, there are women from countries with a conservative Islamic background who have embraced a new lifestyle in the Netherlands. They take off the headscarf or they interact with male peers or colleagues. To retain their honour, but also to preserve the safety of those left at home, these aspects must sometimes remain hidden to the home front. Homosexual young men sometimes find it easier to come out in the Netherlands, but they do not want their sexual orientation to become known in Syria or Afghanistan. This would not only damage the reputation of their family members, but it could also lead to persecution.

Migrants can also not simply showcase their successes, such as a graduation or a performance. They are ashamed of their happiness and the comfort in which they live, while those left behind are far worse off. And that is especially the case if those who remained behind paid human traffickers a fortune, or are still paying it off. ‘The young people I spoke to solve this by assuming different identities that they display on different platforms for different groups of their contacts,’ says Leurs. ‘However, that is tiring and stressful. And, of course, it sometimes goes wrong.’

Since COVID-19 has been physically pulling people apart, many throughout the world have been forced to take a crash course in “digital intimacy” so that they can communicate with loved ones who are close by and nevertheless unreachable. The paradoxes that Leurs discovered for migrants therefore suddenly apply to nearly everyone else too.

People living in the diaspora have always led the way in mastering digital communication tools, says Leurs. International phoning, Internet cafes, online platforms, text messaging, Skype… they were, understandably, the first users. What can we now learn from that diaspora about the future of our own communication? Leurs has to think about that for a moment. ‘Perhaps Amani, a 19-year-old Syrian girl, is heralding a new trend,’ he then says. ‘Eventually, she lost interest in all of that transient digital communication. She started − in classical Arabic handwriting − to write long letters again.’

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Text: Mariette Huisjes