new media & society
2021, Vol. 23(4) 796 –815
© The Author(s) 2020
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Nomadic life archiving
Hyperlinked storage and
Singapore University of Technology and Design, Singapore
Sun Sun Lim
Singapore University of Technology and Design, Singapore
People are today located in media ecosystems in which a variety of ICT devices
and platforms coexist and complement each other to fulfil users’ heterogeneous
requirements. These multi-media affordances promote a highly hyperlinked and nomadic
habit of digital data management which blurs the long-standing boundaries between
information storage, sharing and exchange. Specifically, during the pervasive sharing
and browsing of fragmentary digital information (e.g. photos, videos, online diaries,
news articles) across various platforms, life experiences and knowledge involved are
meanwhile classified and stored for future retrieval and collective memory construction.
For international migrants who straddle different geographical and cultural contexts,
management of various digital materials is particularly complicated as they have to be
familiar with and appropriately navigate technological infrastructures of both home and
host countries. Drawing on ethnographic observations of 40 Chinese migrant mothers
in Singapore, this article delves into their quotidian routines of acquiring, storing, sharing
and exchanging digital information across a range of ICT devices and platforms, as well
as cultural and emotional implications of these mediated behaviours for their everyday
life experiences. A multi-layer and multi-sited repertoire of ‘life archiving’ was identified
among these migrant mothers in which they leave footprints of everyday life through
Yang Wang, Singapore University of Technology and Design, 8 Somapah Road Singapore 487372.
953507NMS0010.1177/1461444820953507new media & societyWang and Lim
Special Issue Article
Wang and Lim 797
a tactical combination of interactive sharing, pervasive tagging and backup storage of
diverse digital content.
Chinese migrant mothers, cultural compartmentalization, emotional negotiation, life
archiving, nomadic memory construction, participant observation
The prevalence of various information and communication technologies (ICTs) today has
dramatically changed people’s lifestyle and brought revolution in their habits of digital
data management. Multi-functional social media platforms, in particular, have promoted
an interactive and relational culture in which traditionally private data storage and cura-
tion are brought from ‘back stage’ to ‘front stage’ (Goffman, 1969), and increasingly
being replaced by public sharing and extensive exchange of information among net-
worked others (Marwick and Boyd, 2011; Oeldorf-Hirsch and Sundar, 2015; Turkle,
2011). In this context, while users are able to enjoy unprecedentedly rich connections and
information in the networked world, they also face challenges of appropriate self-presen-
tation and navigation of multiple and fluid social roles (Marwick and Boyd, 2011; Vitak
et al., 2015). For international migrants who straddle different geographical and cultural
contexts, data management is more complicated as they have to be familiar with and
appropriately navigate technological infrastructures of both home and host countries.
Previous research has provided considerable insight into the ways in which people
manage different types of digital materials via various ICTs, including massive data stor-
age devices or services like mobile hard drive and iCloud (e.g. Fernando et al., 2013;
Hashem et al., 2015), specialized online communities or applications such as online
video websites (Burgess and Green, 2009; Khan, 2017), as well as social media plat-
forms such as Facebook and Twitter (e.g. Marwick and Boyd, 2011; Pai and Arnott,
2013). However, these studies mostly focus on the role of specific ICT devices or func-
tionality in people’s data management routines, while overlooking the collective influ-
ence of the different dimensions of the overarching multi-media environment. Moreover,
the emotional burdens and dilemmas that may emerge from navigating multifarious tech-
nological affordances are hitherto understudied, especially in relation to the multi-media
data management of international migrants and transnational households.
This study seeks to consolidate and contribute to extant literature on digital data man-
agement through delving into the multi-media routines of digital data accumulation, stor-
age and exchange by a group of Chinese migrant mothers resident in Singapore. Particular
focus is placed on how these mothers strategically choose among and cycle through
multiple ICT devices or platforms to organize different types of digital materials, as well
as the emotional implications of various data management practices for their everyday
life experiences. The polymedia theory (Madianou and Miller, 2012, 2013) and theory of
emotion work (Hochschild, 1979, 1983) are combined to form an integrated framework
for understanding mediated behaviours and emotional undertakings of participants.
798 new media & society 23(4)
Through ethnographic observation, a multi-layer and multi-sited repertoire of ‘life
archiving’ was identified wherein these migrant mothers left footprints of everyday life
through a tactical combination of interactive sharing, pervasive tagging and backup stor-
age across various ICT devices and platforms. Archiving, as a method of collecting,
accumulating and preserving historical records, has gained new layers of performativity
and narrativizing on the burgeoning social media platforms such as Facebook (Banks
and Vokes, 2010; McKay, 2010; Zhao et al., 2013). In this article, life archiving is used
to describe the hyperlinked, performative and chronological narrativizing of everyday
life in mediated spaces, including personal narratives, family conversations and tagging
of fragmentary information online. Compared to mechanical and haphazard ‘recording’
of life experiences, archiving charted the trajectory and milestones of these mothers’
transnational journeys, which allowed them to preserve memories and reproduce self-
identities over time.
Digital data management with multi-media affordances
Affordance of a media technology refers to potential opportunities it could provide for
users to undertake certain tasks, which determine how the ICT should be used, what
practices can be performed, as well as what outcomes can be expected (Conole and
Dyke, 2004; Mcloughlin and Lee, 2007; Norman, 1988). In this research, the focus of
technological affordances is twofold – it on the one hand points to what technologies
enable people to do; and on the other hand, also involves how people appropriate the
available affordances in a strategic and creative manner to fulfil their heterogeneous
goals. In our current multi-media environment, each digital artefact or platform offers
different affordances for acquiring, storing, sharing and retrieving data, and can be used
to manage different types of digital materials, including but not limited to text docu-
ments, videos, images and so on. In general, previous research has delved into three
categories of ICT tools which play significant roles in people’s digital data management,
namely massive data storage devices or services, specialized online communities or
applications and social media platforms.
The first category consists of data storage ICTs which afford users a relatively large-
scale and reliable ‘digital warehouse’ for long-term storage, organization and retrieval of
massive digital materials. This warehouse role was previously undertaken by tangible
digital devices such as home computers or laptops, mobile phones and mobile hard
drives. With the growing prevalence of Internet access and proliferation of digital data,
these offline devices are increasingly replaced by cloud services like iCloud, Google
Drive, Dropbox and so on. Compared with offline devices, networked services demon-
strate many advantages such as larger storage space, accessibility of data from multiple
terminals and retrievability of version history, while also bringing about potential con-
cerns about information privacy and overreliance on Internet connections (Fernando
et al., 2013; Hashem et al., 2015).
Another significant category of data management ICT is specialized online platforms
or applications that are designed to collect, record, organize and store specific types of
digital materials such as videos, music and diaries. These include platforms such as
Blogger, Pinterest and YouTube. These compartmentalized platforms afford users more
Wang and Lim 799
customized experiences in which they not only obtain professional gadgets for data cura-
tion but also come into contact with people who share similar interests. For example,
video websites such as YouTube allow users to seek, subscribe and upload a wide variety
of videos, and at the same time engage in discussions on relevant topics with others
(Burgess and Green, 2009; Khan, 2017).
The prevalence of multi-functional social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter
has dramatically transformed people’s habits of digital data management. In particular, a
series of interactive functionalities on social network sites (SNS), such as status posting,
liking, tagging and location check-in, combine to encourage a relational-oriented culture in
which logging and sharing of digital materials are reduced to mere means of initiating
conversations and strengthening relationships (Brantner, 2018; Oeldorf-Hirsch and Sundar,
2015; Pai and Arnott, 2013). The emergence and popularity of mobile camera applications
further facilitated the flourishing of interactive sharing practices as they enable the visual
engagement with others’ life experiences in real-time (Keep, 2014; Van House, 2011). In
this networked culture, while users are able to enjoy wider and more extensive connec-
tions, they increasingly face challenges of appropriate self-presentation and the navigation
of multiple and fluid social roles (Marwick and Boyd, 2011; Vitak et al., 2015).
Although previous studies have elaborated on how users manage different types of
digital materials according to the respective technological affordances, so far minimal
light has been shed on how users systematically employ a combination of old and new,
offline and online, integrated and specialized ICT devices or platforms for effective data
management. Moreover, the potential tensions and emotional burdens that may emerge
from choosing between, cycling through and complementary use of various ICTs for
navigating massive digital materials are hitherto understudied. In view of these gaps, this
article seeks to provide insight into the multi-media routines of digital data management
by a group of Chinese migrant mothers, and to identify any attendant emotional burdens
and dilemmas. Specifically, the following research questions will be answered:
RQ1: How do Chinese migrant mothers employ various ICT functionalities to man-
age their growing body of digital materials?
RQ2: What emotional burdens have emerged from these mothers’ data management
Polymedia as a transnational lifestyle
In contemporary society, we are surrounded by an increasingly complicated media eco-
system in which a whole variety of ICT devices, applications and platforms coexist and
complement each other to meet people’s heterogeneous requirements (Feaster, 2009;
Quandt and Pape, 2010). With this ever-evolving multi-media landscape, people are
endowed with unprecedented autonomy in strategically choosing among, combining and
alternating between multiple ICT innovations based on their social positions and imme-
diate circumstances (Bakardjieva, 2006; Licoppe, 2004).
A suitable framework that could contribute to our understanding of this environment
of media multiplicity is polymedia theory (Madianou and Miller, 2012, 2013). This
800 new media & society 23(4)
framework considers media as an integrated environment and provides insights into
social, emotional and moral consequences of multi-media navigation on people’s life
experiences. In particular, each single ICT should be defined in historical and functional
relation to all the other ICTs to form a composite structure of affordances. This organic
structure emancipates users from limitations of each ICT device or functionality, and
allows systematic mobilization of a variety of technologies to appropriately fulfil differ-
ent tasks. In this context, decisions about what ICTs to use, how to use and with what
expectations become emotional undertakings driven by users’ subjective desires and
preferences rather than physical or economic constraints imposed by limited available
For international migrants and their remote family members, polymedia has become
a habitual lifestyle in which they strategically deploy a combination of multiple ICTs
to fulfil family responsibilities and reproduce intimacies across vast distances. Mothers
in transnational families, for instance, are reported to employ a wide variety of techno-
logical devices and applications to stay updated on the well-being of their far-away
children on a daily or even hourly basis (e.g. Longhurst, 2013; Madianou and Miller,
2011; Peng and Wong, 2013; Uy-Tioco, 2007). In particular, prolonged video chats
with webcam software (e.g. Skype, Facetime) and the frequent exchange of photo-
graphs are particularly suitable for intensive ‘deep conversations’ in which they par-
ticipate in each other’s everyday routines and provide real-time emotional support in a
quasi-face-to-face manner (Cabalquinto, 2017; King-O’Riain, 2015; Sinanan et al.,
2018). Meanwhile, text-based communications, such as SMS and instant messages, are
used as complements for visual and audio interactions to maintain continuous greet-
ings, updates and coordination (Peng and Wong, 2013; Uy-Tioco, 2007). In addition,
many mothers also stay in ‘ambient co-presence’ with their children on SNS like
Facebook and Twitter to get a sense of their quotidian bittersweet moments without
direct interaction (Madianou, 2016).
Emotion work and feeling rules
ICTs have long been perceived as emotion-laden, mediating not only emotional experi-
ences and expressions but also creating emotional attachments and burdens of their own
(Lasen, 2004; Vincent, 2011). In this research, the theory of emotion work developed by
Arlie Hochschild (1979, 1983) is employed as a framework for investigating the emotional
negotiation of migrant mothers in their daily management of various digital materials.
According to this framework, people’s inner emotions are increasingly being regu-
lated and commodified in their outward expression in exchange for certain benefits.
Emotion work, as a product of this commodification process, emerges from the negotia-
tion of contradictions between one’s authentic emotions and the socially expected ways
of displaying (or concealing) these emotions in particular circumstances. In other words,
emotion work describes an effort of overcoming the dissonance between ‘what one actu-
ally feels’ and ‘what one should feel’ in view of one’s assigned social role and the spe-
cific situation she or he encounters. The socially appropriate norm of emotional
expression, or the tacit consensus about ‘what one should feel’, is referred to as ‘feeling
rules’, which are largely unwritten moral codes acquired through socialization within
Wang and Lim 801
given cultural contexts. For instance, as Hochschild exemplified, flight attendants are
required to abide by the feeling rules of being cheerful and friendly to customers even
when they actually feel very depressed. Solving this dissonance usually requires a person
to intentionally suppress or summon specific inner feelings of oneself in order to create
expected emotions in others.
In the context of the mediated world, different digital devices or platforms are charac-
terized by different feeling rules, and hence engender different types of emotional nego-
tiation in people’s navigation across various platforms (Lasen, 2004; Vincent, 2011).
Mediated interactions that happen between strong-tie and intimate relationships, such as
family members, usually imply less effort in emotion work since people involved are
usually familiar with and naturally behave according to relevant feeling rules of interac-
tions (Clark, 2014; Longhurst, 2013; Sinanan and Hjorth, 2018). On the contrary, weak-
tie relationships are more vulnerable to emotion work as people strategically adjust their
emotions and behaviours to cater to the complicated and unfamiliar feeling rules in the
given mediated culture (e.g. Köhl and Götzenbrucker, 2014).
Research method and samples
Data presented in this article were derived from a 2-year ethnographic research on ICT
domestication by a group of Chinese migrant mothers in Singapore. The mothers being
studied are commonly referred to as ‘peidu mama’ (literally ‘study mothers’) who
accompany their young children to pursue education abroad while leaving their husbands
behind in China to continue working to support this family endeavour (Wang and Lim,
2017; Huang and Yeoh, 2005, 2011). These mothers are products of ‘education-moti-
vated migration’ in which middle- or upper-middle-class families in East and Southeast
Asia make every effort to guarantee their children an education opportunity in more
advanced western countries, even at the price of transnational split of the household
(Chee, 2003; Huang and Yeoh, 2005; Lee, 2010; Waters, 2002). Venturing the unfamiliar
foreign land, the lives of study mothers are known to be tough and fluid, characterized
by challenges of transnational householding, economic hardship and undesirable employ-
ments, language barriers and so on. In particular, these mothers are deprived of profes-
sional careers, and often experience an overwhelming sense of loneliness, helplessness
and insecurity due to the loss of financial independence and support networks (Jeong
et al., 2014; Waters, 2002). Moreover, as de facto ‘single mothers’ in the host country,
they tend to privilege ‘motherhood’ over ‘wifehood’ and ‘selfhood’, even to the extent of
sacrificing conjugal relations and career aspirations in favour of fulfilling maternal obli-
gations (Chee, 2003; Huang and Yeoh, 2005; Jeong et al., 2014). In the face of these
multifarious difficulties, these mothers tend to rely heavily on a variety of ICTs to main-
tain intimate relationships back home and at the same time acculturate themselves to new
social contexts of the host community.
For this research, an innovative ‘content-context diary’ cum participant observation
was conducted with 40 study mothers after institutional ethical approval was obtained.
Participants were recruited through a combination of convenience sampling and snow-
ball sampling, and selected to ensure diversity in demographic traits (e.g. age of child,
years of relocation, type of employment).
802 new media & society 23(4)
In the fieldwork, each participant was shadowed for two full days, one weekday and
one weekend day. Each observation lasted for 8 to 12 hours according to the schedule of
the participant. Before the observation, the researcher began to establish relationships
with and engage in everyday activities with the participants, so as to get them accus-
tomed to her presence. During the observation, participants were told to behave as they
usually do, while the researcher accompanied them and observed their behaviours of
using various digital devices or platforms. In order to avoid interrupting the natural flow
of participants’ life rhythms, the researcher tried her best to minimize her intrusiveness
into their daily routines, and initiate conversations only when they had free time. A
researcher-administered ‘content-context diary’ was incorporated into the observation to
record both contents produced, shared or exchanged during their mediated practices and
contextual clues of these practices, such as temporal and spatial settings of information
sharing, attitudes towards different technological affordances, cultural norms related to
certain contents and so on. Informal interviews were also conducted during the observa-
tion process to gather background information and probe into interesting issues.
All the interviews were conducted in Chinese, digitally recorded and transcribed for
data analysis later. Diary entries were maintained in English, Chinese or a mixture of
both during the fieldwork, and selectively transcribed into English afterwards. Qualitative
data in the form of diaries and transcripts were analysed with NVivo through thematic
analysis (Boyatzia, 1998) to identify salient themes emerging from participants’ routines
of digital data management, such as perceived advantages of certain platform for sharing
or storing certain type of material, strategies of organizing data from different sources,
emotional burdens experienced during data archiving and so on.
Data analysis reveals that Chinese migrant mothers developed a multi-layered repertoire
of ‘life archiving’ wherein multifarious ICTs in both the Chinese and Singapore contexts
were employed to record, store and share different types of digital materials. During this
process, they became increasingly familiar with technological affordances and feeling
rules of different ICTs, and hence were able to manipulate these digital tools in a com-
partmentalized and contextualized manner to properly balance the requirements of pub-
lic presentation and private data management.
Multi-layered life archiving: interactive sharing, pervasive tagging and
In this study, all the participants, including those who identified themselves as having low
reliance on digital products compared to their peers, were fully aware that they were
increasingly exposed to and influenced by growing amounts of online information.
Specifically, almost all of them reported at least regularly browsing various types of digital
materials posted by both acquaintances and strangers across a range of platforms, such as
photos and status updates shared by friends on WeChat Moments and Facebook, news and
hot issues on Weibo, movies and TV shows on YouTube and so on. Apart from passive
consumption of digital content produced by others, participants were also found to create
Wang and Lim 803
and share contents of their own, with photos and short posts on SNS among the most fre-
quently mentioned items. To avoid being overwhelmed by and to make the most of such
copious information, these mothers developed a multi-locational and multi-layered reper-
toire which juggles a wide variety of digital functionalities and combined mediated prac-
tices of interactive sharing, extensive tagging, as well as backup storage.
These women inhabited a mediated culture that was highly relational oriented, where
the public sharing on social media platforms was usually the foremost consideration of
participants in their handling of digital materials. Specifically, the moment they have any
‘raw data’ at hand, whether it was produced by themselves (e.g. photos taken with a smart-
phone) or encountered online (e.g. a funny video posted by a friend on Facebook), the first
thought that occurred to them was the possibility of sharing the information as well as
where, when and how to share it. For example, Ms Yang shared photos and videos she
took during an activity at her son’s school with her husband and extended family members
on WeChat, and engaged in animated conversations with them around these posts on an
continual basis (see excerpt of content-context diary in Figure 1). The photo-taking and
sharing practices happened at almost same time and on the spot, which served as a quasi
‘live stream’ of life experiences for distant loved ones. Besides extensive sharing with
intimate family members, Ms Yang also updated selected photos on social media plat-
forms with larger networks of friends and acquaintances. As soon as she returned home
from the activity, she began to select from dozens of photos, and embellished selected
ones to post new status on Moments (a social media platform attached to WeChat).
Figure 1. Ms Yang’s sharing behaviours on WeChat.
804 new media & society 23(4)
In a similar vein, Ms Lin shared the link of an article about children’s education in
several chat groups and her Moments updates as soon as she came across the article in a
friend’s Moments updates and highlighted its potential usefulness to many people in her
contact list (see diary excerpt in Figure 2). This sharing practice happened even before
she had finished reading the article herself. After sharing, she checked WeChat frequently
to view and reply to comments from her friends, which she acknowledged, provided her
with a lot of fun in her isolated domestic life.
For both participants, sharing digital contents with a certain range of audiences had
become habitual and unconscious gestures in their everyday life. These sharing routines
in fact also served as a means of data logging and storage since digital materials being
shared were at the same time automatically stored on specific platforms. Participants
could easily retrieve them whenever necessary as long as they could remember piece-
meal clues of their sharing behaviours, such as keywords, location of sharing and
Another prominent data archiving practice of participants was tagging, which was
characterized by the extensive marking of fragmentary digital materials with relevant
functionalities provided by ICT platforms such as bookmarks, liking and adding to
favourites. Tagging behaviours usually happened along with or directly after sharing,
with the purpose of storing useful or interesting contents for their own retrieval. In con-
trast to the highly relational-oriented sharing practices, tagging was more of a hyper-
linked yet private logging behaviour than a public and interactive one. The range of
digital sites for tagging was evidently larger than that of sharing, which not only included
social media platforms but also encompassed a variety of public forums and specialized
websites or applications such as YouTube, blogs and news websites. Some classification
functionalities provided by ICT platforms, such as labels attached to specific digital con-
tents, also allowed participants to carry out preliminary data curation while tagging.
In their relatively isolated transnational life, various online platforms and chat groups
were identified by many participants as their major source of information. However, infor-
mation and other resources online were mostly fragmentary and scattered across multiple
mediated sites, which made it difficult to remember and retrieve when necessary. In this
context, many participants formed habitual routines of systematically tagging different
types of information on different platforms. This type of pervasive tagging could happen
almost anytime and anywhere as long as they had a smartphone at hand. For example, Ms
Yuan, a 46-year-old part-time tuition teacher, reported tagging and saving potentially
Figure 2. Ms Lin’s sharing behaviours on WeChat.
Wang and Lim 805
interesting contents for detailed reading during fragmentary free times. Specifically, since
she had to spend considerable time commuting to her students’ homes every week, she
developed the habit of saving articles or videos with intriguing titles or keywords across a
range of platforms, including WeChat, Weibo and Sina Blog, and tracing back to detailed
contents when she was alone commuting (see diary entry in Figure 3).
Besides extensive sharing and tagging of information across various online platforms,
study mothers also engaged in a series of mediated logging and storing practices such as
photo-taking and organizing, diary keeping, and recording of logistics. Compared to shar-
ing and tagging which hinged highly upon interactive social networking, backup logging
was a purely private gesture that mainly emphasized preserving personal and family life
footprints in their transnational life experiences. For example, many participants had the
habit of keeping visual records of everything and every moment that struck them, includ-
ing photos or videos of themselves and their children in various activities, beautiful or
unusual scenery they encountered, and even the most trivial elements of everyday life
such as food they cooked, products they bought, as well as selfies. Apart from fragmen-
tary sharing of these photos and videos online, as shown in the aforementioned case of Ms
Yang, these mothers also enjoyed going through and organizing them together with their
left-behind family members during family reunions. For transnational households, these
virtual records enabled a vivid preservation and reproduction of fleeting experiences and
memories, which made up for their separate time across geographical borders.
Instead of merely storing these ‘backup materials’ in their mobile devices, partici-
pants also reported regularly or at least sporadically storing or synchronizing large
amounts of data in massive storage devices or services, including their home computers
or laptops, mobile hard drives, iCloud or other netdisks. For these mothers, hard drives
or cloud services served as a trustworthy ‘backup storage’ where all kinds of digital
materials piled up, albeit with some semblance of organization, and could be retrieved
Compartmentalized archiving routines: technological affordances, cultural
concerns and potential audiences
In the multi-layered life archiving repertoires developed by participants, each ICT device
or platform has different social, cultural and technological features, thus triggering
Figure 3. Ms Yuan’s tagging behaviours on WeChat.
806 new media & society 23(4)
different implicit feeling rules during the management of digital materials. Faced with
this complicated terrain, decisions of what content should be shared, logged or stored, on
which platform, to whom, in what form and so on became significant challenges that
needed to be tackled through day-to-day trial and error. Participants of this study demon-
strated strong capabilities in identifying relative advantages and feeling rules for differ-
ent ICTs, and strategically compartmentalize their data management practices across
multiple platforms. In general, three features of ICTs stood out as major considerations
in choosing appropriate platforms and practices for handling digital materials, namely
technological affordances, cultural inclinations and potential audiences.
First of all, different technological affordances were emphasized for enacting different
data management practices. For instance, for the purpose of backup storage, the prioritized
consideration of participants was data security, especially when it came to the burgeoning
cloud services. During the research, many participants expressed concerns about the poten-
tial information leakage of private data like photos of family members and significant
documents. Their vigilance against potential privacy risks of these online services was
mostly derived from world-famous accidents of information leakage such as private photo
leakage of Hollywood celebrities. In this context, they tended to regard the Internet as an
unstable warehouse which was only suitable for storing in the ‘cloud’ non-private, non-
sensitive and memory-intensive contents such as movies, novels, scenic pictures. For con-
tent that would be tagged across various platforms, the nature and richness of the content
was the foremost consideration in choosing suitable ICT platforms. Typically, participants
tended to habitually classify digital materials according to their formats and expected
modes of consumption, and compartmentalize them correspondingly on platforms that
offered the most effective widgets for data management. For example, during browsing
updates on SNS, a participant might download beautiful photos into her smartphone, add
links of interesting stories to her collections for later reading, and at the same time search
and tag songs recommended by friends on mobile music applications.
In light of the relational-oriented culture inherent in social media, the participants’
digital data management was not merely determined by technological features, but
increasingly shaped by a variety of sociocultural factors including peers’ language pref-
erence, explicit or tacit etiquettes of peer interaction, and composition of members. In
particular, as international migrants who straddle distinct cultural contexts, these moth-
ers displayed acute awareness of different cultural inclinations and corresponding feeling
rules on ‘Chinese media’ versus ‘foreign media’. In the contemporary Chinese context,
since many globally popular websites (e.g. Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter,
WhatsApp) are blocked in China, the Chinese are usually more familiar with and emo-
tionally attached to the Chinese counterparts of these platforms (i.e. Baidu, WeChat,
Weibo, Renren). Among study mothers in this research, some adapted fairly quickly to
the media landscape of the host country, while others, especially those who resettle at
relatively older ages, tend to remain wedded to their previous habits. Regardless of dif-
ferent levels of adaptation to the changing media landscape, all of these mothers fostered
strategies, either consciously or unconsciously, to compartmentalize their mediated life
in response to different cultural inclinations.
According to the participants, language was the most salient and fundamental cultural
concern in their mediated communication practices across different platforms. Limited
Wang and Lim 807
English proficiency not only constrained the range of contents they could access and
exchange but also affected their expectations of and behaviours on different platforms.
For example, Ms Lei was found to share her travelling experiences on Facebook and
WeChat Moments in different languages and with varying regularity (see diary excerpt
in Figure 4). In view of the perceived preferences of English language on Facebook,
which she called an ‘English media’, as well as her difficulty in phrasing English posts,
she gradually formed the habit of updating Facebook in a relatively infrequent and brief
manner as compared with the extensive mode of sharing on WeChat. Be that as it may,
the importance of maintaining social connections with her English-speaking local net-
work motivated her to persist, albeit in a fashion she was comfortable with.
Geographical difference is yet another standard for study mothers to compartmental-
ize their data sharing, searching and tagging practices. For example, when she sought to
search for information about potential American universities and Scholastic Assessment
Test (SAT) for her daughter, Ms Mao relied more on Facebook and English forums than
Chinese platforms such as WeChat and Weibo (see diary excerpt in Figure 5). As shown
in the diary excerpt, although she had difficulty understanding complicated English con-
tents, Ms Ma still preferred to resort to these foreign websites over Chinese websites to
acquire updated information.
The degree of intimacy and emotional distance with potential audiences is yet another
major consideration during the multi-locational archiving process. Specifically, when
making decisions about what to share, on what platform, with whom and in what forms,
participants evaluated their relationships with potential audiences, and tactically adjusted
their practices and contents of sharing according to feeling rules attached to the given
relationships. For example, Ms Yang in the aforementioned case sent unadulterated pho-
tos of her son’s school activities with her husband and extended family members on an
ongoing basis, while updating only one post on Moments with elaborately embellished
photos after the activity (see Figure 1). This kind of compartmentalized choice had
become part-and-parcel of her everyday life, which were taken for granted and remained
inconspicuous to her before the researcher asked her about it. Reflecting on her different
practices with different audiences, she explained her understanding of ‘appropriate’
behaviours in the mediated world:
Figure 4. Ms Lei’s sharing behaviours on Facebook.
808 new media & society 23(4)
With family members, I say whatever I want to say. I show them our [she and her son] real life,
good or bad. There is no need to care about my image or whatever . . . On Moments it is
different. It is a public place, so you have to follow the trend. Nowadays the ethos is like this,
you know, everyone embellishes photos. Actually I’m really lazy about this. But if I don’t, I
will look strange . . . If you share too much [on Moments], people [friends on Moments] will
get annoyed and block you [LAUGH].
Clearly, Ms Yang was keenly aware of the distinct feeling rules that should be followed
in different contexts of information sharing. With family members, she was able to entirely
‘be herself’ and share whatever she liked without concerns about the appropriateness of
contents and her sharing behaviours. In the presence of distant acquaintances on social
media, she chose to follow the prevalent feeling rule of being a well-groomed and consid-
erate person who was willing to disclose her life experiences yet not inundate her friends
with too many personal issues. For Ms Yang and other study mothers alike, ‘Chinese plat-
forms’ (e.g. WeChat, QQ, Weibo) were likely to provide an ‘emotion-work-free’ terrain for
reinforcing intimacy with families and close friends, while ‘English platforms’ (e.g.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) indicated more emotional negotiations and thus were more
often used to establish and maintain weak-tie relationships.
Emotional labours in nomadic data management: performative self-
presentation, context collision and memory chaos
Although the nomadic lifestyle of multi-locational life archiving bestowed many advan-
tages for managing the proliferation of digital materials, it introduced burdens and dilem-
mas too. In this study, most participants had experienced circumstances where digital
data management became an emotional undertaking that took its toll, creating confusion
and chaos in their everyday life.
One prominent burden that was frequently brought up by participants was the per-
petual pressure of appropriate self-presentation. Specifically, in the midst of a hyper-
linked and networked environment, they had to reshape their mediated expressions and
behaviours on an ongoing basis to cater to feeling rules of specific platforms and the
expectations of respective audiences. As Ms Yang’s case demonstrates, although she was
actually tired of embellishing photos for Moments posts, she forced herself to conform
to the implicit feeling rule of ‘sharing only perfect photos’, so as to display a well-
groomed image in front of networked friends on WeChat (see Figure 1).
Figure 5. Ms Mao’s online information searching.
Wang and Lim 809
Similar emotional burdens of performative self-presentation were also prevalent dur-
ing information exchange in online chat groups. For example, Ms Chen, a full-time
mother who identified herself as an unsociable person, were found to regularly browse
conversations happening in several chat groups and provide useful information to others
whenever possible. During the observation, she shared her past experience of her US
tourist visa application where she saw a discussion about the success rate and difficulties
of online registration (see diary excerpt in Figure 6). According to Ms Chen, her partici-
pation in such discussions was more of a painstaking effort to gain recognition from
peers than a pleasant pursuit of emotional support and companionship. Specifically, she
was well aware of the inherent feeling rules of reciprocity within online communities –
people should always provide assistance, or at least willingness to help, before trying to
seek favours from others. In order to establish this virtuous cycle of information exchange
and acquire useful information in the future, she chose to adhere to this feeling rule by
performing the role of an enthusiastic friend, even though this could bring about undesir-
able workloads and burdens at times.
Emotional burdens not only existed in self-presentation on specific digital platforms
but also emerged from alternating daily between multiple platforms. As previously men-
tioned, different platforms have different cultural inclinations and potential audiences,
thus engendering different feeling rules of data sharing and logging. In other words,
expressions and behaviours that are accepted and welcomed on one platform might be
seen as annoying and impolite on another. In this context, people have to familiarize
themselves and be prepared to assert multifarious identities on each platform, and at the
same time, be able to quickly cycle through various platforms. Many participants encoun-
tered moments of ‘context collision’ (Davis and Jurgenson, 2014) when they got con-
fused about feeling rules of different platforms and unconsciously introduced seemingly
inappropriate habits of one context to another.
A typical scenario of context collision was the occurrence of misunderstanding due to
the use of unexpected language in particular circumstances. For international migrants
like study mothers, decisions about what language to use potentially indicates target
audiences of content they presented, which is likely to trigger alienation among other
potential audiences. For example, Ms Li expressed frustration and fatigue when her
English post on Moments was perceived as ‘showy and boastful’ by an old friend in
China (see diary excerpt in Figure 7). Her English post, which was initially created to
conform to language preference of Facebook, served to promote interactions with local
friends who are directly relevant to the content of the post. However, the same content
backfired the moment it was presented on WeChat, where Chinese was perceived as the
‘appropriate language’ of information exchange.
Apart from emotional undertakings of identity performance across various platforms,
the multi-layered and multi-sited data archiving routines also brought about occasional
memory chaos and loss of data among participants. In particular, since different forms of
digital materials were stored, tagged or shared in a hyperlinked manner and scattered
across multiple technological locations, it was difficult for them to systematically record
and organize all the materials for expedient retrieval. As a result, they often fail to locate
specific data they had archived when they needed it, even though they could vaguely
remember some fragments of clues. In these situations, logging everywhere was no
810 new media & society 23(4)
better than logging nowhere since data that could not be retrieved was tantamount to
being permanently lost.
For example, during a casual chat, Ms Hu wanted to show the researcher photos of a
wedding she attended a month before. She first checked ‘collections’ on WeChat, where
she remembered saving several nicely-shot photos when she browsed Moments updates
of the bride. Failing to find the photos in her collection file, she sought to trace back to
the source of data, namely Moments posts of the bride, but found that only three days’
updates could be viewed. She then searched through the Weibo account of the bride and
chat history of a WeChat group since she had a vague impression that she had seen some
photos there. Faced with failure in all these trials, she finally had no choice but to show
several photos in the album of her smartphone which she had personally taken but
Figure 7. Ms Li’s sharing on Moments and communication with a friend.
Figure 6. Ms Chen’s participation in WeChat groups.
Wang and Lim 811
deemed ‘not clear enough to reflect the beauty of the bride’. For Ms Hu and other moth-
ers alike, while the multi-platform habit of data archiving granted her the possibility of
marking any content with several simple clicks, it also dramatically increased the risk of
losing important data due to memory failure.
Discussion and conclusion
In this study, Chinese study mothers being studied were found to engage in a multi-layered
and multi-sited ‘life archiving’ process where they leave footprints of everyday life encoun-
ters through a combination of interactive sharing, pervasive tagging and backup storage
across various ICT devices and platforms. In accordance with previous research, these
migrant mothers relied heavily on ICTs to stay in continuous contact with left-behind loved
ones and remain updated on latest news in their homeland (Lim and Pham, 2016; Madianou
and Miller, 2011; Uy-Tioco, 2007), at the same time to also forge new social networks and
acquire pragmatic information in the host society (Li and Chen, 2014; Lim and Pham, 2016).
Instead of utilizing merely one or several specific ICTs, participants tended to systematically
deployed a wide range of digital devices and platforms to fulfil heterogeneous needs in their
daily engagement with and management of digital contents (see also Madianou and Miller,
2012, 2013). The integrated repertoire of ICTs, each providing different affordances and
guided by different feeling rules, created unprecedentedly diverse and copious digital mate-
rials for them to manage, while also enabling increasingly convenient and compartmental-
ized approaches of acquiring, storing, organizing and sharing these materials.
While these nomadic life archiving routines offer considerable dividends in effective
digital data management, they also brought about emotional burdens and memory chaos
among the study mothers. Previous studies have revealed that people tend to engage in
intensive identity work and deliberate self-presentation to seek acceptance and prestige in
mediated groups, which is likely to engender emotional labours and tensions in the nego-
tiation of the self (Marwick and Boyd, 2011; Turkle, 2011; Vitak et al., 2015). Similar
emotional labours were also identified among participants of this study, but their decisions
of performative self-presentation were driven more by pragmatic purposes of long-term
information acquisition than the mere pursuit of symbolic status. Moreover, the multi-
media environment forced participants into a lifestyle of ‘multi-lifing’ (Turkle, 2011) in
which they had to be familiar with feeling rules of each mediated context and perform a
range of social roles. In particular, as international immigrants who straddle technological
and cultural milieus of both home and host society, these mothers were vulnerable to con-
text collision and identity confusion when they switch back and forth between platforms
of different language preferences, cultural inclinations and potential audiences.
Underlying the prevalence of nomadic life archiving are two general trends in the
changing rituals of digital data management. The first trend is the highly hyperlinked and
fragmentary habits of accumulating, organizing, storing and retrieving various digital
materials. In the past, digital data tended to be regularly classified and stored in its origi-
nal form on one or several fixed locations for massive data storage (e.g. home computer,
mobile hard drive). With the increasing decentralization of digital contents, data manage-
ment has become a nomadic and networked undertaking across diverse ICTs. Instead of
acquiring and storing contents themselves in a tangible device, people are more inclined
812 new media & society 23(4)
to save or mark hyperlinks or clues about possible locations of contents, ranging from
traditional storage devices, specialized websites, to social media platforms. Moreover,
the previously stable routines of systematic data curation have also been replaced by
ongoing and extensive logging and tagging of fragmentary information.
Another trend behind these nomadic archiving routines is the blurring boundary
between public and private management of digital materials. With the worldwide preva-
lence of social media, public sharing of everyday life experiences and practical informa-
tion with networked friends has become part-and-parcel of people’s quotidian routines.
For many people, extensive sharing is at the same time a process of data management in
which various types of digital contents are logged or tagged the moment they are pro-
duced or consumed, and stored on specific platforms for future retrieval. In such circum-
stances, data management is no longer a private matter, but a public display of the self
which is shaped by social discourse and involves a wide range of familiar or unfamiliar
audiences. Since digital contents are often deliberately selected and embellished to cater
to cultural preferences of specific platforms and their respective audiences, people’s
memories are also unconsciously formed and reshaped in the process.
Building on previous research on the management of digital data with various ICT
affordances, this study provides an in-depth investigation into the multi-media routines
of data accumulation, storage and exchange by Chinese study mothers. The innovative
ethnographic method of ‘content-context diary’ cum participant observation served to
contextualize participants’ mediated practices in their everyday life situations, and there-
fore effectively capture cultural nuances underlying their strategies, and potential dilem-
mas of digital data management. A discernible limitation of this method is the relative
short period of observation with each participant, which might not be enough for the
researcher to comprehensively capture all the contextual nuances in their quotidian ICT
use routines. Nevertheless, considering the intrusive nature of ethnographic fieldwork
and the relative sensitive topic of research, two full-day observation is already the maxi-
mum bonus we could win from ongoing negotiation with participants. Another limitation
of this research is its exclusive focus on a special group of Chinese migrant mothers,
without referring to data management practices of people with different life experiences.
In view of this, further research should pay attention to ICT users of diverse demographic
and sociocultural backgrounds, and shed light on their different mediated behaviours and
emotional negotiations in managing various digital materials.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship and/or publication of this
Yang Wang https://orcid.org/0000-0002-7781-5641
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Yang Wang is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities,
Singapore University of Technology and Design. She obtained PhD in Communications and New
Media at National University of Singapore in 2019. Her research interests include ICT domestica-
tion, transnational communication and social impacts of new technologies.
Sun Sun Lim is Professor and Head of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the Singapore
University of Technology and Design. Her research seeks to uncover the intricacies of the relation-
ship between technology and society. She pays particular focus to the factors that influence how
people domesticate technology, where her principal work delves into the home setting.