Migration and the rapid rise of digital media and communications are arguably two of the defining features of our contemporary age, says Dr Naomi Wells a postdoctoral research associate at the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR).

 While individuals and groups migrating across borders is not a new phenomenon restricted to the present day, we are undoubtedly seeing new patterns of migration and mobility. In particular, digital technologies support and encourage new ways for individuals and groups to maintain and create communities and relationships in both new and old homes.

Our two-day conference on 6-9 June, will invite leading researchers from a range of disciplinary perspectives and who have conducted research in sites around the world to explore this subject. We aim is to encourage greater dialogue across disciplinary boundaries to develop a richer understanding of the role digital technologies play in creating and sustaining diasporic connections and communities within and across national borders. At the same time, we want to highlight how migrant groups and individuals use and potentially transform these technologies to serve their own creative and practical purposes.

While an undeniably vast and wide-ranging subject, we are particularly interested in the role of language and culture as central to the migration experience and in relation to how and why people use digital media and technologies. To offer some examples, in my previous research on migrant communities in Bologna (Italy), some younger members of these communities interested in finding out more about their own or their parents’ countries of origin would watch and even copy YouTube videos of local dances or music. While still relying on older relatives or community members to deepen their knowledge, cultural traditions were also circulated through these new technologies, highlighting how seemingly ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ digital cultural practices were closely intertwined.

Research on social media platforms including WhatsApp and Facebook has drawn attention to the multilingual digital practices common within families and communities of migrant origin, as people draw on and mix languages to express their group and individual identities, or to practice, maintain or learn old and new languages. To maintain cross-border relationships and connections, transnational families and communities may use different forms of digital media. Equally, online spaces such as diaspora web forums and websites can play a crucial role in local community organisation and for gaining wider support and recognition in a new country of residence. As these new cultural and linguistic community spaces open up in the digital sphere, we are also keen to explore the role of digital and web archives in recording and maintaining digital diasporic heritage and cultural memory for the future.

At the same time, this is not to paint just a positive picture and attention to the role of the digital in relation to migration. It also means paying attention to its potential to be used for surveillance purposes by the state or other bodies, particularly in contexts of forced migration. While large-scale digital migration data may have the potential to support humanitarian efforts for example, we must remain critically aware of the potential misuse and abuse of such data. The conference will address these vital ethical concerns, both in relation to how we conduct our own research with digital data and how we remain alert to its use by other public and private bodies.

As these examples highlight, the relationship between migration and the uses of digital technologies represents an extremely rich area of study which varies hugely within and across communities and contexts. While not seeking to generalise or flatten out such differences, the conference intends to open up new ways of working across disciplines and to confront the complexities of this contemporary age of new technologies and new patterns of human, linguistic and cultural mobility.

Digital diasporas: interdisciplinary perspectives is an international conference taking place at Senate House, 6–7 June 2019. Led by Dr Naomi Wells (IMLR) and Professor Jane Winters at the School of Advanced Study, it is part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded Cross-Language Dynamics: Reshaping Community project (a strand of the Open World Research Initiative). The organising committee also includes Francielle Carpenedo (IMLR), Dr Saskia Huc-Hepher (Westminster) and Dr Dong Nguyen (Alan Turing Institute).

Dr Naomi Wells, a postdoctoral research associate at the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, is employed on the AHRC Cross-Language Dynamics project. She has a book under contract with Liverpool University Press on her research in Bologna, entitled Transnational Lives and Transcultural Encounters: Negotiating Linguistic and Cultural Diversity. The research was part of an earlier AHRC project, Transnationalising Modern Languages: Mobility, Identity and Translation in Modern Italian Cultures.