Mobility is a fact of contemporary everyday life. Especially, in big metropolises everyday life revolves around a continuous movement, which serve the need of catching up with the fast pace of metropolitan life. Such mobilities can alter our perception of space and time, leading us to think of distances as shrinking and places becoming closer. This leads to material, social and cultural reconfigurations (Bærenholdt and Granås, 2008) and reinforces the question of distance and proximity in maintaining social and familial relationships. Today, face–to–face social interactions are supplemented with what Urry (2007) calls imagined presence. This imagined presence, or “the transport to a virtual place” is ‘affected through the images of places and peoples appearing on, and moving across, multiple print and visual media’ . This paper discusses what happens to imagined presence when those images are mobile, geo–tagged and shared within a network. Do mobile and locative media practices enhance our sense of place by triggering a “nostalgic ode to home” and displacing us from the co–present situation? Or, do they foster bonding with places by creating a sense of belonging and by enabling us to carry our existing social relationships wherever we go? In order to answer these questions in this article, the relationships among social production of space, mobility, imagined presence and sense of place (place attachment) are analysed drawing on the findings of two studies conducted in 2011 and 2012, in London .
Mobility and place attachment
Imagined presence and the social
‘In a mobile world there are extensive and intricate connections between physical travel and modes of communication and these form new fluidities and are often difficult to stabilise’ . Issues of movement, whether little or too much, are playing a central role in many people’s lives as well as too many, small, large, public, private, or non–governmental organisations . Mobility and mobile communications, in the sense that they allow people travel from one place to another physically or as a means of communication, can be argued to demarcate the lines between urban and rural, public and private, and work and leisure. Nowadays, it is even harder to distinguish Simmel’s (1969) “metropolis psychic life” from that of the rural. Amin and Thrift (2002) argue that ‘if the urbanised world now is a chain of metropolitan areas connected by places or corridors of communication (airports and airways, stations and railways, parking lots and motorways, teleports and information highways) then what is not the urban?’ . So to speak, everyday life has become more connected and more speeded up. As a result, how spaces are constructed, how they are represented and perceived as well as what they may mean to us have also undergone a transformation. This paper follows the traces of modern man’s desire for maintaining social relations while on the move, focusing on location–awareness, place attachment and social construction of space. It seeks to understand and explore how the sharing of locational information and the use of location–awareness in mobile devices contribute to the feeling of co–presence and proximity in maintaining social and familial relationships.
Mobility and place attachment
‘Social and behavioural science has often presumed, and indeed prescribed, a quasi–natural bond — social, cultural, political, psychological, emotional — between the place and its residents. This bond has often been considered to be crucial for individual well–being and for social cohesion, whereas mobility has been regarded as a deviation, associated with uprooted individuals and lacking social integration.’ 
Mobility establishes an important component of the transformation that urban and rural spaces undergo (Amin and Thrift, 2002). As Amin and Thrift argue, ‘cities exist as a means of movement’ . There is a continuous flow of people, goods, and information. As modern individuals have access to many technologies and tools (both local and global in their scope), they can establish social contact regardless of differences in place and time . ‘Modern society is a society on the move’ argue Lash and Urry , and they add: ‘central to the idea of modernity is that of movement, that modern societies have brought about some striking changes in the nature and experience of motion and travel’. Experience of motion and travel is directly related to time, space and presence, which define the physical existence and experience of a sense of belonging.
The transformations of urban and rural spaces, as well as of everyday life as a consequence of mobility, has been questioned and analysed in many disciplines. Among many critiques, mobility in general, and communication technologies in specific, had been blamed to lead to accelerating erosion of place (Augé, 1995; Meyrowitz, 1985; Relph, 1976) and ‘associated with a lack of connection and commitment’ . Although mobility is actually not an opposite of place (Simonsen, 2008), it used to be represented as the opposite of place. However, rather than being opposites, the relationship among place, mobility and mobile communications are interdependent on each other. For instance, the proliferation of communication technologies has led to decreasing levels of physical travel, as in some ways; it can be substituted by communicative/virtual travel (Urry, 2003). On the contrary, mobile technologies can also trigger physical mobility. ‘Physical travel continues to increase as these communication devices have become much more widespread’  and mobile. Also, ‘travel is more easily managed as distant places seem less strange and less dangerous and as contacts with those “back home” (or anywhere) can be maintained wherever we roam’ . In an article where Lewicka (2011) had reviewed several hundreds of empirical and theoretical papers and chapters on the relationship between mobility and place attachment, she concluded that ‘depsite mobility and globalization processes, place continues to be an object of strong attachment’ . Hence, attachment, commitment and connection to places, and sense of belonging always exist no matter how mobile our everyday life and social interactions have become. Also, as had been discussed by Bærenholdt and Granås , mobility is also ‘a way of finding meaning and ways to places and belonging’.
Imagined presence and the social
‘Distance awakens longing; closeness is belonging.’ — O’Donohue (1998)
Today, most of everyday activities revolve around different mobilities of people, goods, and information as ‘societies are built up of different socialities that necessitate often extensive forms of mobility’ . As argued by Urry (2003), these socialities somehow still require specific co–present and face–to–face interactions. However, multiple forms of co–presence (actual presence) and imagined presence, together, ‘carry connections across and into various kinds of social space’ . In such an urban space where we are surrounded by synchronised communication technologies and practices, how we establish and maintain social relationships have also been altered. According to Urry , ‘social life is full of multiple and extended connections often across long distances, organized through certain nodes or hubs, with which social life is formed and reformed’. The social life that Urry (2003) had defined, ‘involves continual process of shifting between being present with others and being distant from others’ . Hence, in a mobile world where social life revolves around being present and absent, communication technologies, especially mobile communication, gain fundamental importance in everyday life. On the other hand, although we can now manage to travel virtually and be present in another location on an imaginative level (see Urry, 2003; 2007; Buescher and Urry  for a detailed discussion on imagined presence/imaginative travel, virtual travel and communicative travel), we can’t still be in two places at the same time. As acknowledged by Meyrowitz , ‘no matter how sophisticated our technologies are, no matter how much we attempt to multi–task, we cannot be in two places at the same time’. Therefore, ‘(social) presence is thus intermittent, achieved, performed and always interdependent with other processes of connection and communication’ . In particular, mobile telephony offers new ways of interacting on the move, or of ‘being in a sense of present while apparently absent’  which can also be conceptualised as absent presence (Gergen, 2002). Or put in other words, ‘we may be mentally outside, even as we are physically inside’ .
Elliott and Urry (2010) define virtual travel as ‘often in real time and thus transcending geographical and social distance’ and communicative travel as ‘through person–to–person messages via messages, texts, letters, telegraph, telephone, fax and mobile’ . Therefore by sharing locational information with significant others or social environment, we can, for some, to some extent, feel as if we are — in a sense — travelling to those places, and thus feel more connected. Based on this framework, it can be argued that the sharing of locational information and the use of location–awareness in mobile devices, as being directly related to one’s physical (but at the same time, virtual) presence, have started to be used as a way of both establishing new relationships and keeping in touch/maintaining already existing ones.
In order to understand the ways locational information is shared and used for the purpose of establishing and maintaining social relationships, I conducted 30 in–depth interviews and seven focus groups in London, in 2011 and 2012 respectively. There are various methods through which imaginative and virtual travel could be explored (Buescher and Urry, 2009), and the interview and focus group study presented here were designed to explore different experiences of locational information sharing/use in relation to constructing and maintaining social relationships via imagined presence and meanings of places. The samplings for both studies were inspired by Trost’s (1986) and Gustafson’s (2001) studies using “non–representative sampling“. This helped me to receive ‘variation in the respondents’ experiences of place, place attachment, and mobility’ . During seven focus groups, 38 participants (all of whom were mobile communication technology users), from different parts of London were asked to draw a map of London (each), showing “frequently visited places”, which they then presented to the group. Then I asked them to add more places that had particular importance for them (in whatever sense they liked) on their map. I also made sure to remind them that the maps they drew did not need to be geographically accurate, but rather should show London as they experienced it in their everyday lives. I was therefore anticipating that they would create a selective representation, a version, of their ‘cognitive map’ of London. As each workshop progressed, after the initial stages of drawing sketch maps, and as the participants started talking about their maps and memories of London, they would typically mention and discuss their use of locative media in relation to different memories, associations and meanings of places in London .
Defining the context: ‘It is hard to break into social circles in London’
When the experience of a certain place is thought of, the place comes into mind not only because place is the centre of meaning constructed by experience, but also because it has a time component in it. ‘Our experiences, and therefore our memories of those experiences, are located in both time and place. Mobile technologies clearly have the potential to affect this process of memory and meaning–making, as they offer new ways to store and share information and reflections’ (Ozkul and Gauntlett, 2013). Yet, in the new mobilities paradigm, places themselves are mobile and dynamic (Sheller and Urry, 2006). ‘Places are about relationships, about the placing of peoples, materials, images, and the systems of difference that they perform’ . Consequently, it is still the first thing that comes into mind when we talk to each other on their phones: “where are you?” 
As for London, which is described as overwhelming, hectic and cosmopolitan by the participants, it is seen as a city of transit. As stated and discussed by the participants in the study, it is easy to think of people who now live in London will one day move to other places right after you meet them, meaning that everything and everyone belongs to somewhere else. ‘So, it’s kind of hard to break into social circles or to maintain relationships also because people here come and go very quickly. Although you make friends here, they’re transient, or they’re like me that they travel a lot‘ (Anthony, 35). In such a transient and international context, how people use mobile and locative media is also affected by feelings of belonging and care for the loved ones.
Analysis of the interview study with smartphone users reveal that creating the feelings of being present and belonging through locational information sharing were among the most common motives for using mobile and locative media. During the interview study it was also noticeable that the respondents started to use metaphors and even perform how they use their phones (such as taking their phones out of their pocket and running the applications on their phones) in public places to better explain the ways they interact with places, people and the technology itself. Therefore, after transcribing and analysing the interview data, I decided to design another study, in which the respondents could create their own representations of places in London and talk about how they use locational information and mobile communication technologies accordingly, reflecting on those individual representations. Although there were some overlapping themes that emerged from the findings of the interview study and sketch–mapping focus group study, data from the analysis of the latter was more in–depth as participants freely drew their own representations of London, which included frequently visited places or places with special meanings for them, and reflected on their use of mobile and locative media in relation to different constellations of those places. In this paper, I present and discuss one of the common findings from these two studies, which explains the use of locational information on mobile communication technologies for social interaction, imagined presence as well as place attachment. In order to analyse the findings I use Scannell and Gifford’s (2010) tripartite organizing framework for place attachment. In their framework for place attachment, Scannell and Gifford (2010) see place attachment as a ‘bonding that occurs between individuals and their meaningful environments’, which involves cultural background, group and communities, individual experiences, social and physical places as well as affects, cognition and behaviour (including memory, knowledge meaning of a place, proximity and reconstruction of a place) . In terms of social and physical place attachment, much of the research has focused on the social aspects; ‘people are attached to places that facilitate social relationships and group identity’ . Hence, the following discussion of the research findings is based on place attachment on the level of social relationships, through mobile locative media use.
Maintaining social relationships by ‘virtually being there’
With increasing rates of physical mobility, the need to access means of communication has also increased. Also, the more mobile we become, the more concerned we are about significant others and keeping in touch with them. ‘Human beings are interested in other people [...] they want to know whether the significant others are far or near with respect to themselves and to each other’ (Tuan, 1977). Today, especially in big metropolises such as London, the use of locative features of mobile communication technologies are woven into everyday social practices. It can sometimes be hard for people to meet and connect because of the fast pace of everyday life. Such motivations to share locational information are not only practical but they also serve the purpose of maintaining existing social relationships: ‘When people communicate about their whereabouts and availability for mutual actions, they do not just state precursors for practical arrangements, but also establish and maintain their social relationships’ . During the interview study, one of the participants, Randy (22), explained how one can use locational information to connect with the social environment:
‘You can’t shout in a way... “I’m at Paddington!” well you can’t do that!! But virtually, you can tell your friends, you can tell your family, you can tell your relatives, you can tell “I am at this place” but anyone might not see you physically at that place but by saying you’re virtually there they might come and say “Hi”, that’s the good use of it!’ (Randy)
Randy told me that by checking in at the Paddington Station, he managed to meet with his friends, whom he usually could not see because they were living in different parts of London or in suburbs. Hence, the importance of Paddington Station, not only as a hub for physical mobility, but also as a hub for mobile and social connectivity is enhanced by the sharing of locational information. Similarly, in one of the focus groups, Rosie (21) and Jim (23) talked about a similar use of locational information to connect with people and to maintain social relationships. They were both users of an application on their smartphones called RunKeeper and while they were explaining their different uses of the same application, it was apparent from Rosie’s use of locational information (Figure 1) that she uses it the way Randy uses it on Foursquare. Although running in a city is an activity that most people prefer doing alone, it could be turned into a social activity by simply using the locational features of a smartphone application. Hence a usual running route maybe be reconstructed as a social space:
‘I’ve got an app that did that. I used it once and I never used it again, like “who cares!?” I wouldn’t look at anyone else’s, so I didn’t share. I don’t see why you’d care about my route here. I felt like I was doing it to show off!’ (Jim).
‘Maybe some of your friends, or people on your network can join in!’ (Rosie).
Figure 1: Rosie’s map of London showing her running route by the River Thames.
On the other hand, because users of such applications can also see other’s routes or recommendations, experiencing urban spaces becomes a part of an algorithm based on social relationships. They can affect each other’s daily routes.
Rosie, talking about sharing photos in relation to specific locations, pointed to another use, this time more practical, hence contributing more to the spatial practice:
‘It can keep you away from a really bad traffic somewhere. I used to do that sometimes, when I was living with my friends and we all went to LSE. If there were lots of traffic, I’d take a photo of the traffic and send it to them so they would wake up earlier. So if I see something interesting, I’ll take a photo of it and send it to my friends’ (Rosie).
During another interview, Sarah (21) pointed to a contradiction between sharing locational information and trying to maintain social relationships:
‘It is more important to be with people you actually are, rather than telling people where you are’ (Sarah).
Hence, in some ways, our imagined presence can affect the ways through which we maintain our existing social relationships and also can encourage face–to–face interactions (such as experiencing a different running route or a new place together). In such cases, sharing locational information can foster social engagement in urban spaces. Another participant, Kate (21) (Figure 2), also revealed such social elements while talking about her map and her use of locational information. She drew Hampstead Heath and Leicester Square and recalled some memories associated with those places, which mainly involve social activities:
‘Basically that’s me, my boyfriend, Mark and another person, we went to Hampstead Heath and watched the fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Also, I spend a lot of time going to King’s Cross, going into London and out of London. And that’s where I went ice–skating’ (Kate).
Figure 2: Kate’s map of London showing Hampstead Heath, Leicester Square and King’s Cross Train Station.
In her map, when asked to highlight the places associated with mobility and mobile communications, she circled and shaded the places she mentioned, i.e., Hampstead Heath and King’s Cross. Hence remembering our social environments and trying to maintain relationships with them somehow became dependent on mobility and mobile communication technologies, at least for some, to some extent. Kate continued explaining why she circled and shaded King’s Cross:
‘It normally, rather be either on the phone when I’m on the train, or through my laptop, I just post and say “I’m at King’s Cross”. Or, I say, “just arriving”, or “leaving”. And then people are going to see it, and say ”ok, when are you going to be free?”’ (Kate).
The same type of locational information use was also mentioned by another participant, Sally (29), during an interview:
‘I don’t post things like “I’m bathing, I’m eating, I’m sleeping”, kind of updates, on purpose, because I find it quite boring when other people do that. I post a lot about when I am travelling, where I am travelling and when I am coming back. Not this year, but few years ago I was travelling every month, people know that I was in town so they could get in touch. I always do that’ (Sally).
These kinds of locational information usage can explain how locational information can be used both to spatially practice an urban space and to represent it on mobile platforms.
‘You feel like... I’m kind of there, you are more part of it’
Another use of locational information is related to feelings of belonging and longing for the past as a result of immigration or relocation. Hence, this use is more on an affective, cognitive and behavioural level since it reveals our investments in a place, mostly based on social and familial relationships.
‘Not that long ago, a move from one city to another was marked by a loss of, or at least major changes in, contact with family, friends, and the overall texture of daily experience. However, as more of our interactions and experiences have become mediated through radio, TV, telephones, email and other devices, we can now transport most of our nexus of interactions with us wherever we go. To the extent that people, using phones and e–mail, construct individualised social networks [...], the “community of interaction” becomes a mobile phenomenon’ .
In this category, rather than simply checking–in at a place (using location–based social networking applications such as Foursquare) and sharing locational information with the broader public, some of the respondents stated that they prefer to send photos to each other in the form of text messages, making the place (and the moment) special for only those who are emotionally close to them. This type of use creates a representational space, which is ‘directly lived through its associated images and symbols’ . During the interview, when explaining her smartphone use and how she manages to maintain close relationships with her family, Nigella (32) said:
‘My father is in India, my brother is in Ottawa, I’m in London, my sister is in Washington... and sometimes you don’t have the energy to talk on the phone, so it makes you feel a lot more connected!’ (Nigella).
Sharing a moment with significant others through locational information adds to feeling connected by creating a sense of co–presence. Hence, for some, it becomes a major motive for interacting both with the technology itself as well as with the ones we care. Nigella continued to explain how she and her brother sometimes feel as if they are physically together in Canada, or in London, when they use their smartphones to communicate and share locational information with each other.
‘Yesterday he did send me a photo of a very nice coffee, and I said “where is that?” because I didn’t recognize it from the cup, or the setting, “I’m in Montreal!” I said “Wow!”, like when my father told me that “your brother is on Montreal”, it is different. You feel like... I’m kind of there, you are more part of it. Like this is happening right now so you kind of feel like a bit more connected’ (Nigella).
Therefore by sharing locational information and supporting the feeling of presence, participants do feel more connected; co–present. Such feelings of “being together” can be hidden within the shared symbolic and imaginary meanings associated with places, as well as within the shared memories and history (such as living in Canada with the family and/or having been to Montreal before, as in this example). Hence, (although sometimes implicitly) sharing locational information through a photo can reveal all these associations with and within a place. On the other hand, again in the example of Nigella’s use of photos with her brother on their smartphones, it had removed her from her current “situation” in London, where she might be actually ignoring the co–present others.
There was also a similar pattern of assigning familiar meanings to places we inhabit in the focus group study. Some of the participants talked about the similarities between London and their hometowns, or home countries, which also reveal their attachment to different places and their need to keep in touch with significant others, mostly via mobiles (Figure 3):
‘My first drawing was the River Thames. I see the river as a natural landscape and also it structures the whole city as the South and it is quite unique. We have many many cities in the world, all great cities but there is no city like London. Curved by the very famous river, and I feel the river... Thames is very important in London. I was born in China. My hometown in China is also centred by a river. I think a river is the centre and the spirit of a city’ (Vicky, 42).
Figure 3: Vicky’s map of London showing the River Thames.
Another participant from the focus groups (Jane, 37) described how mobile communication technologies have become important elements in her life and for keeping in touch with her children in her hometown. Although the emphasis here is not necessarily on locational information (but on the general use of mobile communication technologies to stay connected to home), in her sketch map of London (Figure 4) it is observable that the places she drew and assigned special meanings to were the ones which represent and refresh her memories of the times he spent with her children:
‘It is my connection with the home, and if they [her children] can’t phone me or anything 20 times a day, I will think of going back home. I have to have this connection with my children’ (Jane).
Figure 4: Jane’s map of London showing significant places for her, such as the Legoland, London Eye and Aquarium, reminding of her children back home.
Thus, as long as we have some sort of synchronous communication that would enable us to communicate with significant others wherever we are, we feel more connected, and on a cognitive level, co–present. Physical travel and distance become more easily managed since this type of connection helps us carry our social and familial relationships wherever one may roam. It also reveals that no matter how much physically mobile we become, we somehow are still attached to places. ‘Nevertheless, maintaining proximity to one’s place is not constantly enacted by the securely attached individual; one may be highly attached to a place, and yet depart from it regularly’ .
Based on the findings of the above mentioned two studies conducted in London in 2011 and 2012, it can be concluded that locational information use, either explicitly as in Foursquare or Facebook check–ins, or implicitly as in taking photos and sharing them either via text or instant messaging, reveals the individual meanings associated to places and social attachment to places. Those meanings are created in time, via social interactions, as space is a social construct (Lefebvre, 1991). On the other hand, locational information has always been an important element in our daily lives from establishing spatial knowledge of the surrounding environment and learning how to navigate in a city to revealing our memories within and about places. Therefore, it is not only locational features of mobile communication technologies, i.e., locative media, that improves our social attachment to places, but also the act of sharing such locational information as part of keeping in touch with people who matter to us. Today, just by checking–in at a train station using Foursquare, as part of a daily spatial practice, one could communicate the messages “I am going back home” and “I will be able to meet you when I arrive”. Similarly, by sharing a photo of a cup of coffee, one could convey the message “wish you were here” and show that one cares for those significant others by sharing a moment. Additionally, by calling and talking to the loved ones almost 20 times a day, one could feel a lot more connected and present even though one may be miles away physically, implicitly sharing the locational information. Hence, within the field of mobile communication, in addition to analysing different uses of particular mobile and location–based applications by different groups of users, employing a holistic approach towards the understanding and analysis of locational information sharing would be beneficial for future scholarly works.
About the author
Didem Ozkul is a Ph.D. candidate at the Communication and Media Research Institute at the University of Westminster, U.K. Her current Ph.D. research concerns people’s use of mobile communication technologies in urban spaces, particularly focusing on spatial perception. For her research she engaged in participant observation, in–depth interviews, focus groups and creative methodologies (sketch maps) in order to explore and visualise the transformations in perception of urban space, and whether mobile media have an affect on those transformations. She has also worked as a research associate and network coordinator for the U.K.’s Arts and Humanities Research Council funded research network project entitled Digital Transformations: Community–powered Transformations, which explored digital transformations in the creative relationships between cultural and media organisations and their users. Details about her study and list of publications can be found at www.mobilenodes.co.uk and didemozkul.com.
E–mail: ozkul [dot] didem [at] gmail [dot] com
Thanks to the editors of this special issue of First Monday, Matteo Tarantino and Simone Tosoni, for providing valuable advice throughout the construction of this paper. Also, thanks to Lee Humphreys for sharing the call for papers and helping me come up with this article.
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2. These studies are part of Ozkul’s Ph.D. research at the University of Westminster.
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Received 20 October 2013; accepted 27 October 2013.
Copyright © 2013, First Monday.
Copyright © Didem Ozkul, 2013. All Rights Reserved.
‘You’re virtually there’: Mobile communication practices, locational information sharing and place attachment
by Didem Ozkul.
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 11 - 4 November 2013