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Digital media and our social relationships

Lara is a 30-year-old professional currently living by herself in a tower flat in Metro Manila. During last year’s ECQ, she suddenly found herself cut off from her loved ones. Unable to see her family and her partner who lived outside Manila, her mobile phone became her lifeline. “I guess this is how it feels like to be an OFW,” said Lara. “Only, unlike those who go abroad, I didn’t have the time to psych myself and accept that this is going to be my life for the next few months.”Like Lara, COVID-19 has shifted the way many of us go on romantic dates, spend time with family, and hang out with friends. It seems like suddenly, we all find ourselves in social isolation and separation reminiscent of the experiences of migrant Filipinos. Similar to them, we have also become more reliant on mobile media in maintaining our relationships and making new ones, too.

In our co-edited book “Mobile Media and Social Intimacies in Asia,” we introduced the concept of “glocal intimacies.” This describes how mobile media has made it more evident that our relationships are influenced by the things happening around us as well as the things that are happening elsewhere in the world. During this pandemic, our mobile connections have given us the opportunity to encounter new kinds of intimacies that other people around the globe are exploring, from “quaranzoned” romances to family Zooms. Despite these innovative ways of connecting, though, we are also seeing the limits of digital intimacies.

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Quaranzoned romances. In the early days of ECQ, 32-year-old advertising executive Andrea found herself in a situation similar to Lara’s. All alone in her Makati condo, she sought company through the dating app Bumble. Using the new video chat feature of the app, she was able have regular conversations with 35-year-old banker Joey. Via video chats, they were able to have “dates,” eating and drinking together. But as soon as the ECQ was lifted and Andrea and Joey no longer needed each other’s company, they called it quits. Theirs is an example of a “quaranzoned romance,” where relationships remain within the dating app and only during the quarantine.

The casual kind of connection of quaranzoned romances is premised on a cosmopolitan lifestyle common in the West. Apps like Bumble allow lonely young professionals like Andrea and Joey a form of intimacy that fills a need created by the quarantine. But it is by no means a substitute for the many other kinds of relationships that people want. And neither is it available to everyone. Bumble particularly caters to the upper middle class, requiring personal smartphones and good data service that are out of reach for many Filipinos, especially those from lower incomes and who live with their families.

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Family Zooms. For Filipino families, one of the hardest things about the quarantine is that they are not able to gather for regular Sunday lunches and for other special occasions. Businessman Matt, 43, lamented that due to ECQ restrictions, his son Liam’s baptism had to be canceled. They finally got permission during GCQ, but only Matt, his wife Candy, and two godparents could be with baby Liam. Luckily, the church allowed the ceremony to be livestreamed on Zoom, so that extended family and friends could participate. And everyone had to stay on in Zoom to celebrate afterwards, since there couldn’t be a live reception. To make it special, Candy sent cupcakes to family members through Lalamove. That way, they could at least eat together while enjoying a video montage of Liam’s photos.

Matt was grateful that family and friends—and especially Liam’s other four godparents who could not join them in church — were able to participate virtually. A benefit of the Zoom baptism was that baby Liam’s relatives abroad were able to join in together with the rest of the extended family all over Metro Manila, making it a global event. Here we see how a typical family gathering had to be reimagined so that it could still be shared by everyone. The logistics of it, though, would have been very challenging for the many Filipinos who are less digitally savvy than Matt’s family. And even then, family Zooms don’t make up for the large family gatherings essential to Filipino family life. Matt’s family and friends weren’t able to linger, chat, and exchange stories over good food. And sadly, Liam’s grandparents have yet to hold their newest apo.

To be sure, the kinds of intimacies enabled by our mobile connections allow us to keep in touch. But, clearly, they don’t make up for our need for a hug, a shared meal, or a round of drinks. And for a majority of Filipinos who have limited mobile phone and data access, these new ways of connecting can also be very difficult to achieve.

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Jason Cabañes and Cecilia Uy-Tioco are both scholars of mobile intimacies and are co-editors of the book “Mobile Media and Social Intimacies in Asia.” Jason is an associate professor at De La Salle University-Manila and Cecilia is an associate professor at California State University San Marcos.

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TAGS: Cecilia Uy-Tioco, Commentary, coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus philippines, COVID-19, Jason Cabañes, pandemic relationships, quaranzoned romances, relationships, social media
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