Composite view of Earth at night from the Suomi NPP satellite, Dec 2012

Why We Don’t Unsubscribe from Place: Digital Networks and Mobility

Composite view of Earth at night from the Suomi NPP satellite, Dec 2012

by Josh MacFadyen

Living for two months with six people, no furniture, and only what cargo we could cram into a small white minivan is strangely illuminating. That’s what I did this summer. I moved my family from Saskatchewan to Arizona, and I found the process of inhabiting mainly empty spaces a unique way of understanding priorities and place in our digital world. For the first month our goods and chattels were packed and stored while I waited for the gears of US immigration to turn and release my paperwork. For the second month those boxes languished at the border while I began my new position at Arizona State University. It was a bit like camping in houses.

It was illuminating for two reasons. First, it showed how low most of our stuff is on the new hierarchy of needs. WiFi routers are surprisingly high, and cell phones are just behind that. Small things make a big difference, and they reflect different priorities. Coffee makers and kitchenware are more valuable per cubic inch than shoes. You would trade your family heirloom bookcase for a pillow in a heartbeat. Nine-year-old boys will choose a WiiU over underwear. Every time. And geography matters. In Arizona, air conditioners are paramount, but hot water is unnecessary in the summer months. (I was taking “cold” showers for a few days before I realized that the cold water here is only slightly cooler than the hot.)

But moving so far and so often in the last 3-4 years has also reminded me that places and people come with you, and they travel more easily now than ever. Thanks to the various digital networks we build around us – from blogs to social media to networks like NiCHE – we don’t easily unsubscribe from place.

As routinely as we update our bills and addresses we peripatetic academics unsubscribe from department and other email lists soon after we move to a new town. Maybe me more than most. But we are less likely to unfollow old friends on twitter and social media. Twitter is really about place; my feeds are often about the people and groups at the places I love. The places I’ve left behind.

@joshacfadyen Twitter Following (by City) TweepsMap October 2015

Twitter users followed by @joshmacfadyen (% by City) TweepsMap, Oct 2015


I still get emails from political parties seeking support in many of my former ridings, and I feel like I know more about those ridings than the ones where I cast my vote. Thanks to Twitter I know what local organizations are doing in Charlottetown, London, and Saskatoon just as frequently as I do in Arizona. The first place I go to find out if Canadians are celebrating or hating the Blue Jays is Twitter and Facebook.

Immigration historians will be the first to tell me that these digital networks aren’t exactly new. Emigrant letters and diaries are a fascinating resource for studying the mobile nineteenth century society. Even as a child, in 1980s Prince Edward Island, I remember my parents receiving steady mail from distant relatives who had long emigrated to Boston and other parts of New England. The part that captured my attention was the newspaper clippings and comics my Great Aunt Ruby would send us – surely the twentieth century equivalent of posting a cartoon to someone’s wall.

Other Prince Edward Island expatriates have waxed eloquent on their home province since the first rush of outmigration began in the late nineteenth century. One medium for their network was The Maple Leaf, a magazine launched in California in February 1907. The editor, Michael Ambrose McInnis, emigrated in 1889 and established a printing business in Oakland. The magazine operated until 1947, providing news and opportunities to generations of Martimers living in the United States during a period of steady outmigration. Aunt Ruby and Mike McInnis hadn’t unsubscribed from place either.

One key difference between The Maple Leaf and my digital networks is the absence of an editor like McInnis – although arguably they’re all still controlled by men living in California. For the most part I edit my networks, and my connection to place, both consciously and unconsciously. My networks are currently dominated, of course, by Canadians or at least people who care about Canada. As my local Arizonan networks grow they are displacing some of the northern content and creating no end of fascinating juxtapositions – climatological, political, cultural.

The TweepsMap of people I follow on Twitter suggests that my digital network is centered in the Northeast, and particularly in Ontario, Maritime, and Atlantic Seaboard cities (see above). However, I was surprised to see that the second largest state or province (after Ontario’s massive 26%) was Arizona. This state is already home to 7% of the people I follow.

As a Canadian in Arizona I’m keen to maintain some knowledge of current events as well as the research communities in the north, and these networks have been a useful way to do both. I’m happy to keep my subscription to place and to Canadiana. I may even start sending newspaper clippings to my nieces and nephews.

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I am an Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies and the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. As co-investigator on the Sustainable Farm Systems Project (based at the University of Saskatchewan) I am building on the work of the Great Plains Population and Environment Project, conducting new research in agriculture on the Plains and my own case study of Prince Edward Island. From 2010-2014 I was a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow and then NiCHE project coordinator.


  1. Where is the “like” button for this post?

  2. Tina Adcock says:

    Terrific post, Josh. I really like how you connect notions of attachment and subscription: so true, but something I’ve never considered in that light before.

    I think these “postcards from America” from you and Claire do a really nice job of revealing less-often considered dimensions of place in the practice of Canadian environmental history. That is, what does it mean to be a Canadian environmental historian working and living outside Canada? Most Canadian historians probably expect to be attached to their country, if not their city or region of origin, for much of their lives, there not being much of a market for us outside Canada. I wonder: does being an environmental historian as well, conversant with American literature and with thinking bioregionally, render our attachment to Canadian space somewhat different, or our movement into American space more “natural”? Or perhaps, as you say, we’re just like any other professional expats, relying on digital networks to help us maintain a sense of Canadianness, and/or a connection to Canadian people, places, and issues from afar.

  3. Sean Kheraj says:

    I would also like to “like” this post.

    I found something similar moving between Western Canada and Central Canada. My online social media feeds have two primary time zones, Eastern and Pacific. I often catch up on what was happening late in the day on the Pacific Coast the following morning. I think there is a lot of value, especially for scholars, in maintaining these long-distance networks. To some extent, this was part of what motivated the creation of NiCHE in the first place!

    In recent years, the addition of colleagues from Europe, New Zealand, and Australia have added even more depth to the type of scholarly engagement I have online.

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