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Does online co-presence increase spatial flexibility? On social media and young people’s migration considerations

La co-présence sur Internet augmente-t-elle la souplesse géographique ? Sur les réseaux sociaux et les idées de migration chez les jeunes
在线共存(online co-presence)是否会增加空间灵活性? 关于社交媒体和年轻人的移民考虑
Eva Thulin et Bertil Vilhelmson


Internet facilite de nouvelles pratiques d'interaction sociale à distance en permettant la co-présence en ligne et en relâchant éventuellement les contraintes sociales liées à la mobilité géographique. En conceptualisant le rôle de la co-présence en ligne, nous examinons dans quelle mesure et comment les contacts sociaux sur Internet pèsent sur les décisions des jeunes en matière de de migration. De manière empirique, nous utilisons des données d'enquête portant sur 750 jeunes adultes suédois et une étude de suivi comprenant 24 entretiens approfondis. Les principaux résultats suggèrent que la migration interrégionale devient de moins en moins coûteuse pour l'individu en termes de vie sociale. Les données de l'enquête indiquent que la fréquence des contacts en ligne atténue chez les répondants le besoin perçu de proximité géographique de la famille et des amis. En revanche, l'étude qualitative distingue les implications de la co-présence en ligne : pour certaines personnes interrogées, l'interaction en ligne incite davantage à la migration – tant permanente que temporaire – et augmente la perception de flexibilité géographique et de choix. Pour d’autres, cela ne compensera jamais véritablement la proximité géographique de la famille et des amis.

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Notes de l’auteur

Funding: This work was supported by the Swedish Research Council and Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation.

Texte intégral


1This article examines whether intensified online interaction with family and friends affects young adults’ spatial flexibility, here understood as the perceived opportunities to move to other places. Several factors indicate the emergence of such a connection. One is that online social networking likely affects young people’s conceptions and awareness of other places, which are important in the initial phases of a migration decision process (Tabor and Milfont, 2011; Thulin and Vilhelmson, 2014). Another is that ‘insider information’ about the local advantages of other places affects migration (Fischer and Malmberg, 2001), and that such information is effectively distributed through online social networks (Dekker and Engbersen, 2014). Online contact and information also facilitate moves, practically as well as emotionally, when they are decided on (Hiller and Franz, 2004; Komito, 2011; Tabor and Milfont, 2013).

2Of related concern is how increased opportunities to stay virtually connected may prompt spatial flexibility in social life, as the Internet, at low general cost, facilitates new practices of instant, spontaneous, and regular social interaction at a distance. As proposed by media and mobility researchers (e.g. Licoppe, 2004; Rheingold, 1992; Urry, 2007), such practices establish a virtual or connected presence vis-à-vis family and friends in other places, promote mutual awareness and engagement, and make it possible for people to experience ‘being there together’ (Schroeder, 2006). Arguably, it becomes relatively less important for people to live near family and friends, at least for limited periods of time or at certain lifecycle stages, such as young adulthood. This might encourage thoughts of moving to other places, promote lifestyles associated with intensified mobility, and increase flexibility and choice in decisions on when and where to move (Frändberg, 2014).

3Against this background, we aim to examine to what extent online social connection influences the migration decision process by relaxing social constraints on moves. More specifically, we explore whether the online co-presence enabled by the Internet relaxes a perceived need to live near family and friends. As we concentrate on the potentially reduced role of geographic nearness (due to intensified online contact), we take on a broad operationalization of migration that includes all kinds of long-distance moves, interregional as well as international, and regardless of purpose, so we do not differentiate between different motives for migration.

4We focus on young adults for several reasons. Importantly, this age group is in a period of life when thoughts of migration often arise: their actual propensity to move to other places (permanently or temporarily) is comparatively high and has been increasing in recent years in Sweden and elsewhere (Cairns, 2008; Frändberg, 2014; Lundholm, 2007). Furthermore, young adults are in general very experienced Internet users with highly developed online practices and skills, as indicated by the fact that Swedish young adults spent an average of over two hours per day online at home in 2012 (Findahl, 2012). Previous studies also demonstrate that Internet-based practices are increasingly integrated into people’s prospective migration considerations and planning, and that the Internet plays a crucial role in producing images of new possibilities, lifestyles, and places, images that fuel initial aspirations and desires to move (Burrell and Anderson, 2008; Tabor and Milfont, 2013; Vilhelmson and Thulin, 2013; Thulin and Vilhelmson, 2014).

5Empirically, we use survey data on 750 Swedish young adults and a follow-up study comprising 24 in-depth interviews. We apply a mixed-method research design, and thereby contribute to a literature hitherto based on qualitative studies. To detect and explore population-level relationships between intense online social contact (with family and friends) and the perceived implications of such contact for spatial proximity to social ties, extensive survey data were collected through a questionnaire. Guided by the initial survey findings, and recognizing the limits of such an approach, this survey was then combined with an intensive study employing in-depth interviews. The latter focused on the underlying meaning and causality of the survey-based general observations, adding a nuanced view of possible spatial implications.

  • 1 Previous papers concern how online information search practices about jobs, education, housing, res (...)

6Data were collected as part of a larger research project investigating the influences of new media on people’s migration processes. In the project, we analyse the influences in two respects: a) due to the radically increased access to information enabled by the Internet – information about jobs, education, housing, residential areas, and environments in distant places; and b) due to the profoundly improved conditions for social contact and interaction with family and friends on other places. In previously published papers, we focus on the role of information.1 In this paper we turn to the role of social contacts and interaction for migration decision making.

Theoretical framework

7Online social contact and spatial mobility – Internet use radically changes how young people communicate and stay connected with family and friends in various places. Most evidence indicates that being virtually mobile facilitates the spatial extension of social networks and intensifies long-distance social interactions without reducing local ones (Dekker and Engbersen, 2014; Hampton et al., 2011; McPherson et al., 2006; Mok et al., 2010). Whereas the frequency of traditional forms of contact, such as land-line phone calls and travel to face-to-face meetings, generally decreases with distance, the frequency of Internet contact is found to be unaffected (Kestnbaum et al., 2002; Mok et al., 2010; Tillema et al., 2010). Also, the Internet routinizes previously infrequent long-distance social interactions. Keeping in contact with friends and family in other cities, regions, and countries by using social networking sites, e-mail, and texting has become a normal part of daily life, among younger generations in particular (Larsen et al., 2006; Thulin and Vilhelmson, 2005; Tillema et al., 2010). The Internet thus intensifies strong ties to family and close friends as well as weak ties to less close friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and former classmates. The implications of the Internet for the ability to maintain long-distance ties after migrating are particularly apparent (Boase et al., 2006; Quan-Haase, 2007).

8An issue less addressed in research concerns the potential implications of increased ICT-based social contact for young people’s pre-migration decision making. This is somewhat surprising, since established migration research concludes that social relationships and contacts significantly affect people’s motives to relocate (e.g. Morrison and Clark, 2011: Niedomysl, 2010). Theoretically, intensified and spatially extended patterns of online social contact would influence people’s migration decisions in several ways. Social migration motives could be strengthened and, for example, interest in moving nearer friends and family living elsewhere might be reinforced (Tabor and Milfont, 2011). Spatially and socially extended virtual networks of friends, family, and acquaintances could also advance people’s understanding, awareness, and curiosity regarding other places, broadening their spatial horizons and the world within attainable reach (Bakardjieva, 2005; Thulin and Vilhelmson, 2016). As insider knowledge of places and their local advantages are crucial in migration decision making (Fischer and Malmberg, 2001), for example, providing help in finding an apartment or a job, online social networks are particularly valuable in facilitating the migration process both practically and emotionally (Hiller and Franz, 2004; Komito, 2011; Dekker and Engbersen, 2014). There is also evidence that the Internet is increasingly interwoven into the various phases of the migration decision process (Thulin and Vilhelmson, 2014; Tabor and Milfont, 2013; Dekker et al., 2016) and that Internet-based information about labour, housing, and education opportunities in distant places enhances the inclination to move (Stevenson, 2009; Vilhelmson and Thulin, 2013).

9Online co-presence and spatial flexibility – A closely related issue – not yet examined in migration research – is whether improved opportunities to stay virtually connected weaken young people’s place-boundedness (or spatial fixity) in relation to their social life and thus relax social constraints on desired mobility. Normally, social ties strongly restrict interregional and transnational mobility and increase people’s propensity to remain living where they are, partly because the social costs of moving are perceived to be too high in terms of distance and the risk of losing contact and place attachment (Fischer and Malmberg, 2001; Mulder and Cooke, 2009). In contrast, increased opportunities to stay virtually connected may induce spatial flexibility – understood as relaxed constraints on migration and other forms of spatial mobility – in social life, as social media, at low general cost, facilitate new practices of instant, spontaneous, and regular social interaction at a distance. As proposed by several researchers (e.g. Licoppe, 2004; Rheingold, 1992; Urry, 2007), such practices establish a virtual, or what we here call an online, co-presence in relation to family and friends in other places, promote shared awareness, time, and commitment, and make it possible for people to experience ‘being there together’ (Schroeder, 2006). The flow of mediated interaction is believed to strengthen distant social relationships and blur the distinction between being present with others and being absent. Hypothetically, due to increased spatial flexibility enabled by ICTs, it could become relatively less important for people to live near family and old friends, at least for limited periods of time or at certain lifecycle stages, such as young adulthood, the empty-nest period, and after retirement. This might encourage thoughts of moving to other places and promote lifestyles associated with intensified mobility, for example, multi-local living and distributed family lives.

10Several recent studies focus on the role of ICTs in spatially distributed social networks, particularly in transnational contexts and among transnational migrants in the post-migrant period (e.g. Burrell and Anderson, 2008; Chen and Choi, 2011; Dekker et al., 2016; Panagakos and Horst, 2006; Wilding, 2006). Online social media (e.g. emails, chat-rooms, text messages, and Skype) are then frequently used to maintain distant social ties, encourage social support and a sense of shared space and time, and make spatial separation and isolation easier to cope with. Mok et al. (2010) and Komito (2011) argue that the heavy increase in the use of social networking sites and video calls creates a kind of constant background awareness of others that supports community building among individuals in spatially dispersed social networks. However, to what extent online social connection also reduces spatial needs and constraints in pre-migration processes and in contexts in which moves are considered self-selected (or voluntary) remains largely unexplored. This advances our research question for further exploration: Does the online presence promoted by the Internet increase spatial flexibility and relax young people’s perceived need to live near family and friends?

Data and method

11Analytical strategy – Empirically, we concentrate on the non-local migration decision making of young adults living in Sweden. To grasp both overall patterns and underlying meanings, we used a mixed-method approach combining survey data with in-depth interviews. Quantitative survey data were first used to examine the statistical association between online social contact broadly defined and perceived spatial flexibility. Qualitative interviews were then undertaken to get behind the correlations and the ‘at-a-distance’ observations to obtain further details on the meaning and implications of spatial flexibility enabled by online media of various kinds.

12Survey – In autumn 2009, a postal questionnaire was sent to 2000 individuals randomly sampled from the total Swedish population aged 20–29 years. Young adults were chosen as they are experienced Internet users with highly developed online practices and skills, particularly in social media use (e.g. Thulin and Vilhelmson, 2005), and because their revealed propensity to migrate is comparatively high and increasing, at least in Sweden (Lundholm, 2007). To get information on individuals with recent internal migration experiences, the target population was divided into two groups – one group of recent “movers” and one of longer-term “stayers” – from which stratified random samples were drawn from the Swedish Register of the Total Population (RTB). “Movers” were defined as people who had changed their municipality of residence in the 12 months before the study began. “Stayers” were defined as people who had lived in the same municipality for the previous five years. According to the RTB, the target population consisted of 20% movers and 80% stayers. To include a sufficient number of movers, the stratified sample consisted of 1,000 movers and 1,000 stayers.

13A total of 756 people completed the questionnaire, for a response rate of 38%. A comparatively low response rate might threaten population validity and the analysis of statistical relationships. For example, recent migrants might be more inclined to participate in the survey than non-migrants. However, the response rate was the same for both recent movers and stayers, and was also consistent across other known total population characteristics such as age, marital status, living region, and income. The response rate was slightly lower among men than women and among foreign-born than native-born respondents. Summary survey statistics are found in Table 1.

Table 1. Summary statistics of survey data – independent and dependent variables

Surveyed population,

(n = 756)

Per cent

Background factors (control factors)








Country of birth

Born in Sweden



Foreign born



Migration experience

Recent mover (has changed the municipality of residence in the 12 months before the study)






Family situation

Single, no child



Single, with child



Cohabiting, with child



Cohabiting, no child






Living region




Town; small/medium



Rural area







Elementary/high school



University level < 3yrs



University level >=3yrs







Job seeking









Age, 20-29 years




Std. deviation



Income per year, 1 000 SEK




Std. deviation



Online social contacts (research variables)

Contacts family online

Hardly ever/never






Very often






Contacts friends online

Hardly ever/never






Very often






Online social connections and the perceived impact on spatial flexibility (dependent variable)

Approve the survey question/ account: “Online social connections (of high quality) reduce the need to live close to family and friends.”

To a very large extent



To a large extent



To a small extent



Not at all






  • 2 In both the survey and in-depth study, we chose not to provide any predefined criteria as to what c (...)

14The main research variables of the study concern people’s use of the Internet for social purposes. The respondents were asked about their use of the Internet in terms of frequency of social interaction with family and friends (see Table 1).2 ‘Online social contacts’ include any type of Internet-based communication that respondents are using (e.g. social networking sites, virtual communities and forums, blogs, messenger and chat services, and e-mail). Unlike much research into Internet habits and use, which often differentiates between users and non-users only (White and Selwyn, 2013), we used a four-point scale to describe the intensity of online social connections. About half of the respondents (53.6%) used the Internet very frequently to keep in contact with friends and a quarter (27.0%) used it frequently for the same purpose; when it comes to online contact with family, the corresponding shares were 14.2% and 35.7%. Only about one fifth (18.1%) of the respondents claimed that they rarely or never contacted friends online, compared with half of them (49.2%) when it comes to family members.

15Regarding the dependent variable in the analysis (see Table 1), addressing the issue of spatial flexibility, the respondents were asked to assess, using a four-point scale, whether the possibility of staying connected online enhanced a sense of ‘nearness’ and reduced the need to live near family, relatives, and friends. Logistic regressions were then used to explore the relationship between Internet use and the perceived importance of spatial proximity to family and friends, controlling for several sociodemographic variables.

16In-depth interviews – To further investigate the perceived links between online social connections and spatial flexibility, in-depth interviews were carried out in spring 2011 with a smaller group of young adults. We wanted to capture individual reflections on mobility and associated virtual social practices, and therefore needed to select respondents with active intentions or plans to move in the near future. For this purpose, all students who had graduated from the University of Gothenburg in 2006–2010 with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in human geography were contacted. This population consisted of 167 individuals. Sixty of these were approved to participate in our in-depth interview and 39 of them claimed to have plans to move within the next two years. Finally, 24 of the 39 were interviewed by one of the authors. The remaining 15 were removed from the sample because of difficulties either contacting them or finding time for an interview.

17The final sample consisted of 24 young adults, 14 women and 10 men aged 24–30 years, all born in Sweden. Their life situations and spatial contexts were quite similar at the time of the interviews. All interviewees had previous experience of non-local migration, having moved to another city in Sweden and/or abroad (after the age of 18). They were in a socially comparatively unconstrained period of life and only a few had families with children. Having recently graduated from the university, most of them still lived in the urban region of Gothenburg, while a few had moved to other large cities in Sweden. Most were gainfully employed, while some had moved on to advanced studies at other universities. Their plans to move encompassed cities in other regions in Sweden, and in six cases also included moving abroad, that is, they considered internal as well as international moves as options. No differences in this regard could be singled out concerning their views on online co-presence in the pre-migration process. Migration motives were often complex in that the interviewees discussed a combination of reasons for planning to move. Finding a job relevant to their university education was important, as was a change in environment as a goal in itself (and an important life experience). Some of the interviewees also had social motives for moving, such as moving ‘back home’ after a period of university studies in Gothenburg. All interviewees were experienced Internet users in terms of habitual online social interaction. They all had spatially dispersed social networks, as several of their connections were with people living in other cities in Sweden or abroad. The Internet played a vital role in maintaining these relationships.

18Interview themes and questions were strictly focused on the interviewees’ experiences and considerations in relation to actual migration processes, that is their current plans to move and also sometimes in relation to recent migration experience. This was highly important in order to avoid collecting ‘general opinions’ on the subjects discussed. The in-depth interviews were semi-structured and the interview guide focussed on the following main themes: i) migration intentions and experience, ii) virtual practices related to migration desires and plans, iii) the use and role of the Internet and various kinds of online communication in distant social relationships, and iv) the perceived importance of online social connections for future migration plans. Respondents often referred to various migration plans (e.g. plans for short- versus long-term moves), actual recent moves, or upcoming decided-on moves. The interviews were transcribed and entered into a computer program for qualitative analysis. In a first step, the interviews were coded and analyzed thematically with a particular focus on Internet use and experience when communicating with people in other places and on the perceived implications of online social connections for future spatial priorities and migration plans (i.e. whether and where to move). Conceptions of online co-presence and spatial flexibility were found to be especially important. Then, in a second step, the analysis focused on distinguishing and portraying a typology of the various perspectives on the relationship between online co-presence and spatial flexibility found among the interviewees.

19It is important to recognize the limitations of the in-depth study approach focusing on a small and quite homogenous group of young adults. Although in-depth findings as regards practices, experiences and considerations related to social media and migration are also likely to be found in a wider population, we cannot generalize as to their extent and variation. Our findings are biased as regards not including experiences from other groups of young Swedes for example, not having a university degree, having an immigrant background or live in rural areas.

Survey findings

20One question on the survey specifically concerned how the Internet is perceived to affect the individual’s spatial flexibility in relation to social ties (Table 1, last row). The respondents assessed whether the opportunity to stay connected online reduced their need to live near family and friends: almost one third agreed strongly (to a large or very large extent), almost another third completely rejected, while the rest agreed to a small extent with the statement.

21We then analyzed (using logistic regression) whether stated online contact frequency is associated with perceived spatial flexibility using the response to the above-mentioned question on whether online social connections reduce the need to live close to family and friends as a proxy (Table 2). Several socioeconomic and spatial background variables were controlled for. We initially examined online contacts with family and contacts with friends in two separate models (models 1 and 2), as we considered them somewhat different in character, and here regard them as proxies for strong and weak ties, respectively: contacts with family likely include many strong social ties, while contacts with friends and acquaintances are likely to include many weaker ties as well. The importance of this distinction is supported by results from our qualitative interviews. In addition, there is a moderate/strong positive correlation between the two variables (r = 0.44; p ≤ 0.01), indicating a multicollinearity problem.

Table 2. Likelihood that online social connections increase spatial flexibility, respondent’s opinion; logistic regression analysis of answer to ‘Online social connection reduces the need to live close to family and friends’ (0 = not at all/to a small extent; 1 = to a large/very large extent), (n = 615)

Model 1

Model 2

Model 3










Online contacts

Contacts family online

Hardly ever/never (ref.)





.392 ^



Very often







Contacts friends online

Hardly ever/never (ref.)








Very often

















R2 (Nagelkerke)




Note: Controls are age, gender, income, education, income, family situation, living region, occupation, country of birth, and migration experience (omitted from the table).
Significance levels: ***
p ≤ 0.001, ** p ≤ 0.01, * p ≤ 0.05, ^ p ≤ 0.10

22The results indicate that perceived spatial flexibility is positively associated with online social interaction intensity with family (model 1) and friends (model 2), even when various socioeconomic and geographic background factors are controlled for. For example, model 1 shows, other things being equal ,the probability to believe that ‘online social connections reduces the need to live close to strong ties’ is 3.9 times higher for people who have very often online interactions with family than for people who have hardly ever or never such online interactions. Factors such as being born in Sweden and living in small or medium-sized towns also have a positive impact, while background factors such as gender, age, income, education, and occupation do not significantly affect the perceived spatial flexibility. Recent migration experience also has no significant effect. The results remain robust when both social contact variables are included in one model (model 3). Overall, these findings indicate that many urban young adults who make intense use of social media think that social relationships can be sustained at a distance. This also indicates the increased role of virtual connections in relaxing social constraints on people’s interest in migrating and ability to do so.

In –depth study results

23Online co-presence in social life – Our in-depth interviews deepened the understanding of how increased opportunities to stay connected online might influence young adults’ long-term spatial priorities and migration intentions. The basic interview results indicate that virtual connections played a regular and multifaceted role in the interviewees’ daily lives. Various types of Internet-based communication (e.g. emails, chat, Facebook messages, blogs, and Skype) were used and often perceived as necessary for maintaining social relationships at a distance, for example, in the event of moving to other cities in Sweden or abroad. Online practices were particularly important because they permit intense, everyday interaction. They were described as the normal and expected way of staying connected with friends and family in other places. Thresholds for making contact online are much lower than for other means of communication (e.g. telephone calls) and it was acceptable to make contact for no specific reason. In particular, we find that the use of social networking websites (e.g. frequent status updates, posts, and messages on Facebook) has added a new dimension to spatially distant online social connections. It has increased day-to-day understanding and awareness of the lives and activities of spatially absent family members and friends (e.g. what they are doing at this moment and how they are feeling today). This expanded everyday awareness was perceived, in turn, to encourage even more intense online communication:

With Facebook it is of course possible to get these short little messages, that people had a bad day at work and things like that, but also if something more important is happening. The Internet definitely makes them a bigger part of my daily life, because phone contact wouldn’t be nearly as frequent as the contacts I have online. That’s the way it is. (‘Martin’)

24Results indicate that online connections indeed play an important role in developing a sense of co-presence with people living in other places. Instant and frequent online contact reduces the sense of distance and the loss of physical closeness. ‘Anna’ provides a typical example of this, being in daily online contact (mainly through Skype and Facebook) with two close friends who have lived abroad for two years; she described how these contacts create a feeling of almost being in the same place, despite the great distance:

My two closest friends, who live in the USA and England, are part of my everyday life. … For about two years now we have been doing this. It feels like you are so close together. This absence of physical closeness, it disappears a bit when you know you can always get hold of the person online. And when you do it every day, then it is almost like seeing each other [face-to-face] every day, even though you are not. It feels a bit like you are in the same place because the contact you have is so direct. The sense of distance and being in different places is less apparent in some ways, it disappears a little. (‘Anna’)

25Staying closely connected online was perceived to reduce the risk of drifting away from friends living in other places: interviewees claimed that the Internet expands one’s ability to maintain personal connections, although the connected parties cannot see each other as often as before. Because of the increased insight social networking sites (Facebook in particular) give into the daily lives of others, their use was perceived as especially important. Another typical example is that of ‘John’, most of whose close friends now live in various cities in Sweden. He described close and frequent virtual connections as vital to maintaining these friendships:

It has been almost two years now since we lived in the same place. But still when you get to see each other [face-to-face] you already know most of what they are doing. It’s this feeling that you aren’t drifting apart in the same way as you might have if you were forced to pick up the phone each time you had something to say. [On Facebook] you write things, like, very directly, about the feelings you have right at this moment. That’s a big difference from asking ‘well, how is school’ like on the telephone. Then you get an overall statement that perhaps covers the whole of last month. But here [on Facebook] you get a feeling of how things vary and that it perhaps is not perfect every day. (‘John’)

26As also indicated in the above example, online social contact can be perceived as qualitatively different from more traditional forms of interaction, such as traditional phone calls, in ways that affect the experience of being absent from family and friends. The extended awareness and importance of knowing about people’s day-to-day activities, feelings, and states of mind was particularly emphasized in this context. Our results indicate that such online social practices play an important role in establishing a sense of virtual presence with those at a distance. Furthermore, the interviewees’ long-distance virtual interaction generally included many types of social relationships, ranging from very close or ‘strong ties’ (e.g. with close friends and family members) to a variety of more distant or ‘weak ties’ (e.g. with relatives, colleagues, former classmates, and people met at parties). However, the implications of online social practices for the perceptions of the presence of and proximity to people in other places predominantly concern strong ties, that is, contacts with close friends and family members.

27Online co-presence, spatial flexibility, and migration plans – Many interviewees emphasized the role of virtual connections in relaxing the need for spatial proximity to social ties. About two thirds believed that having online connections with friends and family was significant for their interest in migration. Furthermore, our results reveal a differentiated perspective on how long-term spatial priorities and migration intentions are affected. We find three types of interviewee responses: that online social interaction supports permanent moves, supports temporary moves, and, on the contrary, encourages people to stay where they are.

28A first group of eight interviewees believed that frequent online social connections actively support plans to make a permanent move to another place, as online co-presence enables ongoing social life at a distance. Knowing that one can easily maintain social ties to friends and family online was perceived to reduce the social costs of moving. Intense virtual connections were described as enablers of future migration plans. ‘Eric’, who was planning to leave the city and move to the countryside, described how opportunities to stay virtually connected on Facebook would ease such a move ‘away from everyone’:

If I think about it from a longer-term perspective, it’s also a thing that facilitates the decision to move to the countryside … I wonder sometimes why I think Facebook is so much fun, or why I use it. But I see that it plays a huge role because it really helps me keep track of everyone, and also to have discussions about our daily lives. If I choose to make this move … I can really feel that, through Facebook, I won’t need to feel so alone. That feeling of loneliness won’t arise in the same way as it probably would have five years ago, when I had never heard about it [i.e. Facebook]. So it has become easier, because I see that my social life, to a large extent anyway, can take place there. (‘Eric’)

29Online social interaction, however, was not described as a perfect substitute for regularly visiting and seeing friends in real life. It was viewed as ‘partly replacing, partly compensating’ and a ‘real comfort’ that makes times of absence easier to handle. Furthermore, online social connections support a sense of not having so much to lose by moving somewhere else. Fears of loneliness and social isolation in a new and unfamiliar place are reduced when one knows that friends are always ‘nearby’ on the Internet. ‘Sebastian’, originally from Stockholm, has extensive recent experience of moving to different cities within Sweden and abroad. He explained that staying connected online (through email and Facebook) in this way created the freedom to be on the move and be more spatially flexible:

It creates a freedom to move a bit as you like, really. I, anyway, feel that it has become easier. It was easier to move from Sweden, and leaving Stockholm the first time was also easier. It was easier to just move around a bit, for example, when I moved to Dalecarlia [a Swedish county], and then back to Stockholm, then to Japan and then back to Stockholm again and now to down to Gothenburg. … And I don’t think I would have done all this without the Internet. (‘Sebastian’)

30Among these interviewees, it seemed that spatial proximity to friends and family was not considered particularly important when planning future moves, as they largely expected to have social lives in which many close friends and family members live far from each other. This attitude was reinforced by the ability to stay in close contact online, combined with considerable physical travel. Regardless of where one lives, one can still maintain all the social contacts one wants and needs – in any case, one cannot live near everyone, they noted. The new opportunities to stay connected online also enabled interviewees to put more emphasis on migration motives other than social ones when thinking about their future. More emphasis could be put on job-related mobility, seen as necessary to future working life and to getting a professional job. A stronger focus could also be put on the ability to choose an attractive residential environment.

31A second group of seven young adults thought that Internet-based social contact primarily supports plans for temporary migration and facilitates shorter periods of absence from family and friends. These interviewees had plans for transnational moves, to study or work abroad for a limited time (e.g. six months or a year). Such moves were often motivated by a need for a change of environment – to get away, try something new for a while, and obtain valuable life experience. In this context, the role of the Internet in staying connected to family and friends was perceived somewhat ambiguously. Being on one’s own and leaving behind one’s everyday settings and social life for a while were often mentioned as important elements of this experience. At the same time, the interviewees described the possibility of maintaining close online connections with people back home as also very important in this context, and as a factor actively promoting their plans to move abroad. Thoughts and plans were developed much more easily and decisions became less dramatic, uncertain, and unsafe.

Well, of course you think a bit, about your family and things like that. You know that you still will be able to … I will still be able to put up a webcam at my sister’s place and watch her little daughter anyway, even though I’m gone for a year. Of course that makes it easier, it is a bit easier to move, because I know I will still be involved. (‘Jenny’)
It also makes you more open to moving because you know that it still is so easy [to keep in contact].
You can feel homesick, and it will still not be a problem. They are still there. (‘Moa’)

32In essence, the interviewees argued that online social interactions create opportunities to leave, while still remaining involved in one’s life at home. Or as one interviewee put it, ‘with the Internet you can have both’.

  • 3 This respondent initially reported having plans to move (and was chosen to participate in the in-de (...)

33While most interviewees argued that expanded virtual connectivity and the reduced social costs of living at a distance support future plans to move, we also found rare examples of the opposite. One interviewee argued that his intense use of the Internet was significant, because it supported thoughts about not moving after all.3 All his friends had recently moved to other cities in Sweden. However, because of the possibility of easily staying connected with everyone online, it had become less of a problem for him to stay in the city where he presently lives.

I can still enjoy living here, even though all my friends have moved. They have gone to Stockholm and places like that, because they grew tired of Gothenburg. But we still stay in contact, we meet up and we talk on the Internet and stuff like that. So, I still like living in Gothenburg and … it has really become less important where you live in that respect. (‘Daniel’)

34The limitations of online co-presenceApart from encouraging migration interest among certain groups, it is also possible that the social use of the Internet may not exert any influence. Our results confirm that one third (i.e. eight) of the interviewees did not believe that the increased opportunity to stay virtually connected was important for their migration plans and priorities. Spatial proximity to family and friends was considered a prime factor when they think about and plan for the future, and the Internet is not considered as really reducing the need to live nearby. Their main argument concerned the social limitations of virtual interaction: having the opportunity to see each other in real life on a daily basis can neither be replaced nor compensated for by online interaction. You can never really ‘have a life together’ online, one interviewee maintained:

Well, you still need to see each other – that’s the way I see it … It is that business of meeting up somewhere – you go and work out together, you have a life together – that you cannot really have on the Internet. You can never work out with people online! So no, I really don’t believe that. (‘Sara’)

35A related argument is that, while the Internet may be very useful for maintaining less significant social relationships (i.e. weak ties), in the long run, it is no real alternative when it comes to maintaining very close friendships and family relationships. One still wants to have such strong social ties nearby, to facilitate convenient meeting in daily life. Finally, maintaining a social life at a distance supported by online co-presence probably also entails considerable travelling. Although possible in theory, some interviewees were very much against such hyper-mobile lifestyles for environmental reasons. Regardless of the opportunities afforded by new social media, they were not options for a sustainable future life, they claimed.

Concluding discussion

36Our study conclusively demonstrates that many young adults perceive that social media and active online social interaction influence their future expectations to move from the place where they currently live. The internet then facilitates a sense of online co-presence that partly complements and partly replaces physical contact, allowing for increased spatial flexibility and choice.

37The survey results indicate that extensive online social contacts reduce young adults’ perceived need to live near family and friends. From a theoretical point of view, and although the causal mechanisms underlying this relationship are difficult to assess from cross-sectional data, this implies that socially active internet users feel more spatially flexible, less place bounded, and more mobile than do less active users. Our results thus add to the emerging literature on how current virtualization affects the initial pre-contemplative (Tabor and Milfont, 2011), or inspirational (Thulin and Vilhelmson, 2014), stage of the migration process. The findings also challenge the traditional weight attached to social motives in explaining interregional migration behaviour (Lundholm, 2007; Mulder and Cooke, 2009; Niedomysl, 2010); other migration motives and spatial preferences of individuals, regarding, for example, residential environments and leisure activities, housing, and work, might be of greater relative importance.

38The results of our in-depth study provide further details on the meaning of spatial flexibility in the context of individual considerations regarding whether to move, contributing to the ongoing research debate on how ICT use is changing patterns of social interaction in time and space (Dekker and Engbersen, 2014; Larsen et al., 2006; Mok et al., 2010; Schwanen and Kwan, 2008; Tillema et al., 2010). The interviews illustrate how online social media not only intensify and maintain long-distance social relationships, but also enable a background day-to-day awareness of the activities, happenings, and states of mind of absent others, contributing to the perception of an online co-presence. Feelings of distance and loss at not being physically close are reduced, and online contact provides reassurance that one is not drifting apart from acquaintances, particularly in the case of strong social ties to close family members and friends.

39The interview results also reveal a differentiated perspective on how spatial conceptions and priorities are affected by social media, confirming that the use of information and communication technologies is far from homogenous, and that users take action in various ways (Wajcman, 2014). One group perceived frequent online connections as supporting plans for permanent moves, as online social contacts encourage a sense of having little to lose by moving and enable new ways of spatially organizing life. Another group expressed the more limited belief that temporary migration, for limited periods of spatial absence, is supported by online social media, as it becomes easier to experience places far away while continuing to be highly involved in social life at home – an aspect also highlighted in research into transnational migration and the development of transnational families (D’Haenens et al., 2007; Paragas, 2008). However, as pointed out by a third group, increased online co-presence might also work in an opposite, sedentary direction, making it easier to stay where one is and not feel forced to move. In addition, some interviewees emphasized the limits of virtual presence in social life and that online interaction can never really compensate for regularly seeing friends, associates, and family in real life. For them, spatial proximity to family and friends continued to be a crucial factor when making plans for future living arrangements.

40A potential weakness of our data is that they do not cover the period after 2010 when tablets and smartphones increasingly become common platforms for internet-based search and social contact. For example, there is an instant sharing of photo’s, selfies, informing distant friends about everyday activities. And any downtime may be filled with smartphone use including browsing the internet, even in preliminary information searches regarding migrating. However, the amount of time spent on ICTs stationary (at home) does not diminish as access to mobile devices increases. Annual surveys of internet use in Sweden (period 2012-2016) clearly show that the time spent on mobile platforms has not replaced stationary use, but added to it (Davidsson & Findahl, 2016). Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that instant and mobile ICT use aligns with, and probably reinforces, the main tendencies of spatial flexibility and migration interest found in this study rather than the opposite. For further studies, it would be beneficial to detail the implication for spatial flexibility by various forms of online social interaction, for example, distinctions between online oral contacts (such as Skype) and online written interactions (Facebook comments, chats, etc.). The costs and benefits could be very different since it is easy to feel close to a good friend on Facebook by following every posting; but it might be difficult to uphold strong ties without talking to him or her from time to time.

41Yet it is important not to overgeneralize and homogenize the role of the Internet in migration decision making. Our results are valid for young people in a socially comparatively unconstrained period of life, when only a few have families with children, for example, and in the context of a Nordic welfare state where migration is often considered voluntary, driven by attraction rather than force (Lundholm et al., 2004). Further, our in-depth findings are biased as regards only including urban young adults with a university degree and predominantly born in Sweden. An important focus for future research pertains to the role of online social contacts in migration decision making among young people with various socio-spatial constraints, links, and resources (particularly in terms of the number of life choices available where they live), and with different cultural norms and demands concerning their expected mobility trajectories (as discussed by e.g. Cairns, 2008; Dekker et al., 2016; Frändberg, 2014; Haukanes, 2013). This also concerns the importance of gender and being foreign born, factors associated with slightly lower response rates in the survey. Furthermore, the results of the interviews, although not of the survey, are biased towards the conceptions of people having more or less active plans to move. This means that the voices of individuals not so geared towards migration – and the role of the Internet in the (non)decision to stay where one is – are largely ignored. With these constraints in mind, our main findings suggest that interregional mobility is becoming less costly to the young individual in social terms as a result of increased virtual connectedness, making migration decisions less overwhelming and dramatic.

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1 Previous papers concern how online information search practices about jobs, education, housing, residential areas, etc. in distant places, affect migration plans and decisions of young adults. In Vilhelmson & Thulin (2013) we demonstrate how online information search practices encourage migration interest, influence migration intentions and planning, modify the relative weight of migration motives, and increase the spatial range of possible destinations. In Thulin & Vilhelmson (2014), we detail how Internet-based information supports at different stages of the migration process. Four phases are distinguished: inspiration; sorting and screening; practical and emotional preparation; and post-processing after settlement. In Thulin & Vilhelmson (2016), we concentrate on the inspirational phase and characterize how Internet-based information influences the spatial, social, and temporal horizons of migration decision-making.

2 In both the survey and in-depth study, we chose not to provide any predefined criteria as to what constitutes a family, leaving the interpretation of this to the respondents. From a young-adult perspective and in the Swedish context, a family typically consists of ‘nuclear’ constellations of individual partners, children, siblings, and parents. Similarly, how ‘friend’ was defined was left to the respondents to determine.

3 This respondent initially reported having plans to move (and was chosen to participate in the in-depth study accordingly). By the time of the interview, however, he had fundamentally reconsidered his migration plan.

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Eva Thulin et Bertil Vilhelmson, « Does online co-presence increase spatial flexibility? On social media and young people’s migration considerations », Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Espace, Société, Territoire, document 836, mis en ligne le 17 novembre 2017, consulté le 15 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Eva Thulin

Department of Economy and Society, Human Geography Unit
University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Bertil Vilhelmson

Department of Economy and Society, Human Geography Unit
University of Gothenburg, Sweden

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