This article was published on July 8, 2012

How technology has transformed communication for expatriates

How technology has transformed communication for expatriates
Jon Russell
Story by

Jon Russell

Jon Russell was Asia Editor for The Next Web from 2011 to 2014. Originally from the UK, he lives in Bangkok, Thailand. You can find him on T Jon Russell was Asia Editor for The Next Web from 2011 to 2014. Originally from the UK, he lives in Bangkok, Thailand. You can find him on Twitter, Angel List, LinkedIn.

It was with great anticipation that I’d look forward to my grandma’s packages in the post. They came once a month, without fail, and always contained a piece of home that no money, luxury shopping mall or, in fact, anything on the island could ever give to me.

It was then that, at the tender age of six, I began to appreciate what it means to communicate and how precious getting a message to a person is. My grandma’s cassettes were very much the first phase in that learning experience.

We’d spend just two years in Hong Kong, but the time left a lasting impression on me, and not only because I relied on my cassette player (and the books that would accompany them in the post) for a bedtime story from a very special person. Living in the then-British colony was not hugely different from a more cosmopolitan (and obviously much hotter) version of England; most people spoke English, for example, but when we headed down to the markets, we met a language barrier that fascinated me from that young age.

Back in 2008

Fast forward 20 years and I returned to Asia, this time to Thailand, in an entirely new era of communication.

I arrived in 2008 — cheating as I brought my English-speaking spouse with me — but the local language divide and long distance divide are two trends that play out across the country, and my own experiences, on a daily basis.

Gone are the long waits for Grandma’s cassettes, the culmination in weeks of waiting replaced by a constant, always-on communication that brings with it a different kind of relationship with those at home.

Like other expats across the world, I’m able to keep in touch with friends and family using a vast range of services, apps and other technology goodness. Even in the last four years, since I first arrived in these foreign shores, things have evolved rapidly.

The Facebookization of the Internet and early tech

In today’s world, Facebook has become The Internet for so many. That’s to say that everything, and everyone, is routed through it. For birthday reminders, weddings photos, party planning, pictures of the kids, even the mundane items like arranging a night at the pub – Mark Zuckerberg’s social network has a stake in the ground like no other.

Back in 2008, however, that revolution hadn’t quite arrived and, for us overseas, email was probably the main communicator. That’s not to say that a lot of folks weren’t using Facebook, but the older generation was not yet ‘social networking’ like many are today. Getting the message across is very much about meeting the other party half way and, if your parents are anything like mine, getting them to try something different, from thousands of miles away, is more often than not an exercise in failure.

For the curious-types four years ago, going beyond the PC-to-PC limit of Skype, VoIP calling services like Jajah were an interesting option that allowed free user-to-user calls, with the sole requirement that credit was topped up regularly.

Enter the smartphone revolution

Nowadays, I laugh in the face of such a business model. Great though it was at the time, the growth of smartphones and free calling apps have evolved the model even further – who doesn’t like the cost of free?

Most members of my family and friends have moved to the iPhone, meaning that they can be reached via Skype almost anytime, and any place. Then there are the messaging apps, SO many messaging apps! At the last count I had 10 installed on my phone, some of which offer free, unlimited user-to-user calling with no requirement of credit, top-up or spending whatsoever, but each offers an always-on messaging system for contacting people in an instant.

Let it not be forgotten that there is also the glorious simplicity of Apple’s free SMS service iMessage and FaceTime calling – both of which make staying in touch as simple as, well, a phone call or text message.

Then there are the other social networks. While admittedly my parents are still barely using Facebook, they are regularly emailed all kinds of things using a variety of social networks that I happened to be using at any given time.

For example, photos will arrive via Instagram, videos via YouTube, voice clips via Bubbly, images via Dropbox. Those of us with kids have even more reason to keep in touch with family, near and far, and the real beauty is that these very services are used by expats and those residing at home too.

When it comes to being in a foreign country, apps and technology do wonders in helping people to communicate. The Internet is full of information and these services help foreigners learn new tongues and alphabets to help us improve the way we communicate with locals.

The future

Today’s communication has truly evolved from the past, giving us so many ways to keep in regular touch with family and friends overseas. That allows us to find a service that suits us (and our loved ones), in many cases that means using different sites, services and social networks to connect with various different types of people.

While my parents are strictly Skype and email — and have been for years — younger relatives and friends pop up across a range of different places including IM service BlackBerry Messenger, WhatsApp, Line, social networks like Facebook, Twitter, apps like Bubbly, Instagram, SocialCam, Viddy… the list can (and does) go on.

Being connected is quite incredible. It helps families stay in touch, kids develop relationships with grandparents and friends stay updated, but it is not without some loss.

I can’t help but crave the pure excitement of fumbling with a cassette back in the glorious 1980s. Maybe I’ve been hit with a dose of nostalgia and rose-tinted glasses, but it is easy to get complacent when something is a given…and keeping in touch regularly is fast becoming that given.

No Skype call, Instagram photo, email, or anything, can compare to the rush of the long-awaited arrival of a package back in the offline days. That equivalent in the modern day is the face-to-face meet up.

Yes, technology is bringing us closer together, but there’s no chance that it will ever replacement person-to-person, physical relationships. While my cassette player has long been put out to pasture, my passport and airport travel tolerance is my new mechanism for getting my long-awaited gift – connecting with the folks from home in the flesh.

Technology is quite incredible and I often feel that as an expat, I’m in a real position to take advantage of finding friends via Twitter and interesting places to visit via blogs, for example. Certainly my life would be different without it and, as someone with kids, I would honesty reconsider my plans to keep my young family overseas were we cut off like the old days of Hong Kong.

Image credit: Raincity | Flickr

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