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Digital Citizenship in the City: Chinese Students and Social Media’s Mobile Scene in Melbourne

2020.04.10 20:48

By Fran Martin 

Associate Professor

The University of Melbourne.

E-mail: [email protected]

For the first few days after I arrived, I didn’t eat anything – I couldn’t eat. […] It was because when I came, I didn’t bring my mobile phone, because my Dad said I should open an account here. I didn’t have the internet, and I didn’t have a phone, I didn’t know anything! I was completely cut off from the world! I couldn’t sleep at all, either. I’d get up really early in the morning. I missed home a lot, I missed my Mum, and my Dad, and I thought, oh, there’s such good stuff to eat back home, and I have so many good friends. I had no friends at all here. Then later after I got a phone account and got the internet on, ahhhh, my life gradually got back to normal. […] Usually, I go online to chat with my Mum and things like that. And with the phone, I’ll go online and look at entertainment news and celebrity gossip, and keep up with things back home a bit, which tends to cheer you up. […]. I could chat about how I was feeling; you feel different when you’ve got someone to talk to. I could hear my Mum and Dad’s voice, and feel, ah, Mum and Dad are with me here all the time. 

                                                                                                                                               Mianmian, 19, Zhejiang

This story from a Chinese undergraduate student recently arrived in Melbourne suggests a particular conceptualization of Chinese international students, digital media, citizenship, and the relation between them. Mianmian’s discussion provides an arresting account of how the capacity for transnational communication may be experienced by the current generation of mobile digital natives like herself as a condition of a place’s inhabitability. For Melbourne to become livable for Mianmian, it needed first to be translocalized through digital mediation: reconnected to the familiarity of popular culture back home and the affective networks of her family in Zhejiang (Wilding 2006). If we were to extrapolate a view of citizenship from Mianmian’s account, then, it would be a view based not on nation and state but instead on city and body. For Mianmian to experience Melbourne as a locality she could inhabit (that is, somewhere connected to the world), and to experience herself inhabiting a livable body (that is, one that could eat, sleep and socialize), she had first to get reconnected to her transnational digital networks. This points toward a model of digitally enabled, translocal citizenship that will be central to my explorations in this paper.

Drawing on fieldwork data from an in-progress ethnography of 56 young women from China who are (or were) studying and living in Melbourne, my paper considers how everyday engagements with mobile digital media produce these educational transmigrants’ experiences of place; and in doing so, enable us to take a different path into the question of citizenship. The kind of “citizenship” I want to think through in this paper has three key characteristics. First, it is not a normative model––it does not outline how things should be––but instead it is descriptive and analytic: it accounts for “actually existing” forms of digital and urban practice that I argue constitute an alternative form of citizenship. Second, as I have already intimated, it is not concerned with nation, government, law, and the realm of formalized rights and allegiances––the terrain of citizenship studies as they are usually conceived––but instead, focusses on the ephemeral, affective realms of people’s everyday digital and embodied experience, which extend across local and transnational scales. Third, this kind of citizenship describes not a majority experience, but a marginal one: the ways in which a particular minoritized group inhabits and produces a city. Chinese international students are excluded from social life in Melbourne in a multitude of ways, including in relation to employment (through the bureaucratic regulation of working rights correlating with visa status; as well as employer racism); in relation to campus sociality (by indifferent and sometimes hostile domestic students and a higher education sector that arguably has yet to systematically address their educational needs); in relation to their right to the city (by outbursts of racist abuse in public space); and vis-à-vis their relationship with the Australian state (which interpellates them largely as consumers rather than as a migrant population entitled to social and settlement services). In the face of these forms of exclusion and minoritization, however, these educational transmigrants nonetheless elaborate new ways of being in the city, and in doing so, I will try to show, they produce alternative versions of the city, in significant part through their everyday digital practices. 

Rejecting the popular dichotomy in which embodied experience is understood as standing in conceptual opposition to technological mediation, this paper’s project rests on the assumption that––especially for the current generation who have grown up in the era when digital media and communication systems constitute a taken-for-granted aspect of everyday experience (Prensky 2001; Zhang 2010)––embodied and mediated engagements with place are constitutively intertwined. My central contention is that a significant part of what makes Melbourne, for these inhabitants (or, we might say, how they make it) is a proliferation of translocal media connections. I hope to demonstrate how for these residents, Melbourne is fundamentally shaped by the thoroughgoing mediatization of everyday life, especially in the kinds of social media accessed through smartphones to which Mianmian refers here. The intensifying mediatization of everyday life, especially through mobile devices, means that at an experiential level our sense of place becomes transformed in its very substance, as physical and digital experiences intertwine, hybridize, and mutually transform (de Souza e Silva 2006; Silverstone 2008: 110-111; Lee 2010). More specifically, ubiquitous media connections intensify the effects of translocality, so that the places we inhabit come to feel less and less territorially defined and more and more marked by their inter-linkage into expansive networks of other sites, near and far. It is this process to which we now turn.

Mobile scene

Throughout the four years that my research project has been running so far, the app that has been the most ubiquitous and shaping presence in participants’ daily lives in Melbourne (and indeed has been a central and effective feature of its research methods) is WeChat. A vast majority of Chinese students open WeChat multiple times every day, making it their most favoured social media platform by an extremely wide margin. The way the Chinese student community networks internally in offline life––co-national students sharing flats together, taking the same courses, working in the same businesses––is reflected in their WeChat connections. For users, the digital visibility of these social connections contributes to the sense that Melbourne is a small place: a close-knit, village-like community where “everyone knows everyone.” 

Student transmigrants’ uses of WeChat in Melbourne grow out of their habituated prior use in China, where the mega-app has become a central feature of everyday life for a majority of the population. Professor Sun Wei at Fudan University has developed perhaps the richest theorization to date of the social and philosophical implications of WeChat’s ubiquity in contemporary Chinese social life. Extrapolating from Heideggerian phenomenology an understanding of both place and subjectivity as produced through everyday practical engagements, Sun proposes that WeChat’s pervasive mediation of both spatial experience and social relations means that it can be understood to constitute contemporary Chinese people’s being-in-the-world (Sun 2015). Sun underlines the specificities of WeChat that set it apart from both traditional media and other forms of new social media like Weibo: these specificities include its portability via smartphone, the centrality to the typical user experience of multiuser groups based on personal acquaintance or affiliation, and the app’s convergence of virtually all of the forms of signification and functionality available in other forms of old and new media. Based on these characteristics, Sun argues that WeChat enables the emergence of three new phenomena: the mobile scene (移動場景: a melding of physical and virtual spaces to produce a new, syncretic type of “scene” that is mobile both insofar as it is carried with the user wherever s/he travels, and insofar as it affords experiential mobility between different types of scenes); practiced place (實踐的地方: a globalized sense of place that is produced through people’s everyday engagements with the app, emblematized in its opening screen graphic:) and the nodal subject (節點主體: not a subject that wields technology instrumentally, but rather one that is brought into being as a function of the multiple interweaving media-technological networks to which s/he is connected––much as Mianmian described herself in the section I quoted earlier).

For my purposes, what is most interesting in Sun’s account is her discussion of the mobile scene. She writes:

The mobile scene describes a situation where a person can be placed in multiple scenes at the same time. The scene follows people to become mobile, interwoven, collaged, and integrated. […] The mobility to which I refer has two implications. Obviously the first one is travel between physical spaces, whereby people move, along with their mobile phones and WeChat, from one physical scene to another one. […] The deeper meaning of [the mobile scene’s] mobility is that people habitually shuttle between multiple scenes including physical scenes, mass media scenes, and WeChat friendship circles, producing a situation in which multiple scenes are juxtaposed, crossed, and integrated. (Sun 2015: 10, my translation)

The mobile scene, in other words, is an assemblage of images, sounds, social relations, and affects composed and recomposed moment-to-moment through users’ WeChat-enabled interactions through text, graphics, videos and voice. This syncretic scene “moves along with people” as they move from one location to another and becomes integrated with their experience of whatever physical space they are inhabiting. 

The other aspect of WeChat to which Sun attributes the capacity to “follow” users is the sense of belonging generated by the groups function, whereby conversations are established and often maintained over time in virtual communities sharing a particular affiliation. Sun’s examples are WeChat groups based on ex-classmates and school alumni. With reference to the groups function, Sun writes that “the most significant characteristic of WeChat use is the ubiquity of the sense of group affiliation in everyday life” (Sun 2015: 13). The sense of group affiliation, like the mobile scene, “follows” the user from place to place across different physical locations. Sun further connects considerations of geographic mobility with WeChat’s foregrounding of group feeling when she writes that: “the particularity of the sense of place created by WeChat lies in the fact that while it breaks [spatial] borders, at the same time it produces localized belonging and identity for individuals and groups.” (Sun 2015: 14)

Sun’s theorization WeChat as a new kind of “being-in-the-world” is immensely useful for my purposes of thinking through the relationships among mobile digital media, citizenship, urban space and mobile students. Two notes, however, are in order. First, Sun’s article assumes a Chinese national framework (albeit one complicated by the mobile scene’s capacity to transcend borders and scramble conventional geographies). Her ultimately optimistic conclusion is that WeChat produces an imagined “group co-presence, […] a brand new sense of co-presence for human society” (2015: 18); but despite this appeal to the generic human, the framing for the analysis is wholly in Chinese national terms, and elsewhere she presents WeChat as a technology transforming social life and subjectivity in the Chinese mainland, specifically. It is interesting, then, to extend Sun’s reflections to the experiences of WeChat users travelling and living outside China. In this case the user herself becomes physically mobile at a transnational scale, yet continues to participate in a WeChat-enabled mobile scene that is characterized by Chinese-language interactions and peopled overwhelmingly by others of her own ethnicity and nationality, whether they are physically located inside or outside China. So how will personal transnational mobility intersect with WeChat’s proto-national mobile scene? Second, there may be a need to extend Sun’s reflections to cover not just one app––albeit the most wildly influential––but rather the bundles of platforms that users typically engage. Indeed, when I was discussing with study participants (via our WeChat group!) Sun’s argument that WeChat groups may give rise to the sense that one’s friends are constantly “following” one through the times and spaces of everyday life, one participant, a gamer, volunteered that she had exactly this sense about her gaming buddies, except that they had followed her to Australia and back via a QQ group rather than WeChat. Examples like this remind us that it may be useful to approach people’s communicative engagements not based on discrete platforms but rather through the lens of polymedia: “new media as an environment of affordances” (Madianou and Miller 2012). In other words, new media’s mobile scene may be the result not of WeChat alone but of a polymedia bundle that could also include online games, QQ, Weibo, and others.

Thus far, the material I have presented might be seen to support a negative view of the social effects of mobile social media. Do transnational mobile media like WeChat, gaming, Weibo and others enclose student-transmigrants into fragmented media sphericules damagingly distanced from Australian public life? I think that if we approach the question of digital citizenship from the point of view of people’s embodied inhabitations of urban and suburban space, a different picture may emerge. 

In an earlier article co-authored with Fazal Rizvi (Martin and Rizvi 2014), we focused in depth on the translocal character of new Chinese social media. WeChat, Weibo, QQ and others are apps developed in and run from China and populated by many of the student-migrants’ contacts and familiar media contents from back home; yet they are often engaged in public space, as student-migrants access them via smartphone while physically traversing the city and suburbs. Accordingly, we proposed that:

Both “out here” and “back home” become fragmented and deterritorialized, woven in and through each other, as the Melbourne that this generation of international students inhabit is fundamentally conditioned by the fluctuating mediated co-presence of elements of “back home.” Such a proposal goes beyond arguments about media’s doubling or pluralization of places […] to suggest a more fundamental transformation in the very meaning of place itself as a result of the experiential ubiquity of transnational media connections. (2014: 1018) 

We had in mind, here, something that resonates with Sun’s conceptualization of the mobile scene (2015). However, importantly, we argued that their capacity to syncretize “here” and “there” does not entail that translocal social media magically remove student-migrants from the geographic locality of their place of study: on the contrary, they may provide a “way in to the city” (Georgiou 2011). In Sun’s terms, these overseas users’ mobile scenes integrate elements of Melbourne locality and to a significant extent become localized, both spatially and socially, in the Chinese educational diaspora in Australia (Sun 2015). Illustrating this, among the most widely used features of apps like WeChat and Weibo are those that extend student-migrants’ sociospatial connections by helping them to navigate the micro-level of urban and suburban geography. This occurs especially through students’ readership of a range of public subscription accounts providing news and information on many aspects of life in Melbourne from the weather to current affairs to food, shopping, day trips, and entertainment. These features may enable the “thickening” of locality (Andersson 2012) by providing student-migrants with readily accessible information on where to go in Melbourne, how to get there, and how to understand and engage with the places and people one encounters. 

This observation leads me to reflect on the ways in which Melbourne––the city I grew up in and have inhabited for decades––changed shape for me as a result of undertaking my study with the student transmigrants, including immersing myself in their digital media worlds. Walking along the inner-suburban streets near the campus of the university where I teach, my eyes are now attuned to the lines of Chinese students snaking out of particular cafes (Seven Seeds, Humble Rays, Black Star Pastry, Lune Croissanterie) and I recognize them from my WeChat Moments feed as 網紅店: cafes made popular by Chinese internet celebrities, especially for the almost obsessively popular institution of brunch (which is far more of a thing for Chinese student than for locals). My eye also tunes in to the ubiquitous Chinese couriers, where the student transmigrants take the packages of vitamins, milk powder, and groceries they parallel-trade back to customers in China, and advertise tirelessly via their WeChat feeds. And I have begun to think of neighbourhoods near where I live based on the number of the tramstop on the number 86 tram (“near stop 31” instead of Northcote; “stop 50” for Bundoora, and so on): this is the parlance of Chinese students’ digital room-to-rent notices. 

This gradual coming-into-view of a revised urban geography puts me in mind of Ghassan Hage’s theorization of what he calls “lenticularity,” a concept he uses in thinking through Lebanese migrants’ experiential lifeworlds in Australian cities:

A lenticular is an image that appears differently depending on how you look at it. Think of the granulated postcards that change images depending on the angle from which they are seen […]. In contrast with the single image/reality captured in the common photograph the lenticular surface contains a multiplicity of images/realities that reveal themselves perspectively. […] The lenticular surface does not offer one image that looks differently according to how you look at it, it contains many […]  images/ realities that only come forth from a particular perspective in the process of encountering the surface. (Hage 2016, n.p.)

What emerges from the intertwining of digital and physical worlds in digital media’s mobile scenes is exactly such a lenticular geography. The lenticular image is a scene that is mobile in a different way––mobile internally. It is a picture of a city that reveals multiple others within itself, some more inhabitable than others; some open and some closed, depending on your perspective and position.

The visions of Australian cities and localities that take form in student-transmigrants’ own social media posts are also, themselves, multiple and lenticular. First, we can observe in students’ Moments feeds what I will call the consumer city: dominated by the aesthetics of endless camera-ready brunches and tourist trips inside and outside the city with friends. The logic of the consumer city echoes the interpellation of these mobile middle-class young people by government and institutional discourses both in China and in Australia, where they learn to understand themselves as subjects of the market more than of political participation. The city of parallel trading, meanwhile, is a city of micro-entrepreneurship, with a visual field dominated by photographs of the inside of supermarkets and discount chemists, where the parallel traders take careful pictures of their own hands holding the products for sale, as visual proof that they are being purchased personally by the seller in Australia (far from the food and pharmaceutical safety scandals in China that create the market for daigou in the first place). Third, there is the reflexive-affective city: a place where particular sights, tastes, and atmospheres set off chain reactions of inchoate affective association, and people’s Instagram and WeChat feeds become saturated with longing, nostalgia, love, and other affects harder to classify. Finally, there is the city of fear, when the effects of racist attacks and other violent street crime send instantaneous digital ripples through the whole community. Sensationalized reportage on tabloid-style WeChat public accounts lead to students holing up in their apartments, avoiding being out at night, and becoming fearful of moving alone through the city and suburbs. Student-transmigrants’ digitally mediated city of fear co-exists as a kind of shadowland alongside the largely safe- and friendly-feeling city that is experienced by “local” urban dwellers, especially those perceived as white. 


The kinds of digital world-making that I have considered in this paper could be framed in two very different ways, depending on which approach we take. On one hand, these practices, with the co-national social clustering they entail, could be seen to illustrate conservative Australian commentators’ xenophobic fears that migrants cluster together––including in their digital media worlds––because their values and interests are “different from our own.” But as I hope is clear by now, such a framing leaves out two crucial considerations. First, it disregards the reality of social exclusion that drives educational transmigrants into their own microworld (both online and off) in search of friendship and social support. Second, in its obsessive centering of the national, it forgets the unavoidably trans-national dimensions of belonging for increasing numbers of people in the world today (including, but by no means exclusively, migrants). As I have tried to show, today transnational digital media are a pre-requisite for Chinese student-transmigrants to make a liveable life in Australian cities; to develop an alternative urban geography where one’s right to the city is imaginable, and is interwoven––as is one’s very subjectivity and consciousness––with one’s belonging across multiple spaces and communities, both local and transnational. To return to the question I raised earlier by way of Sun Wei (“How will personal transnational mobility intersect with WeChat’s proto-national mobile scene?”), I have been trying to show throughout this paper that much if not most of what my study participants do with mobile digital media––including WeChat but also other platforms––is not inherently or essentially national. Instead, in most participants’ everyday life uses of mobile social media, questions of the state and the national are backgrounded in favour of all-consuming absorption in the local (more precisely, the translocal): the micro-level material and affective textures and feels of specific places where one is, or that one remembers, stretching across and bringing together Melbourne and back-home. Social media feeds are alive with the concrete, everyday forms of a mantou (steamed bun) that stirs homesickness; some golden leaves that arouse melancholy in the evening light; a friend; a cup of coffee; a cloud; a snatch of melody; the vaguely evocative view out of a city window. If we can see this a form of digital citizenship, then it is less about the abstract entity of the nation than about a meshing of multiple senses of social and spatial belonging (and unbelonging). The mobile scenes of digital social media connect the everyday, embodied experience of locality to a transnational level of culture, most of the time bypassing the national altogether. Such a conceptualization of translocal digital belonging may hold resources to help us rethink the relationships among citizenship, place, mobility, subjectivity and cities in ways that are, I think, quite urgent for our times.

Works cited

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Hage, Ghassan. “Lenticularity: On the Entanglement of Realities,” paper presented at Crossroads in Cultural Studies Conference, 14-17th December, 2016, Sydney.

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Martin, Fran and Fazal Rizvi. 2014. “Making Melbourne: Digital Connectivity and International Students’ Experience of Locality,” Media, Culture and Society 36 (7): 1016-1031

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