Archive object:
A publicity photo of a woman on the phone, 1972, TCB 473/P 11212, © BT Archives
The online public
Clara Searle



I got very used to a routine in London over the last months of 2019 and the first two and a half of 2020. The types of places I’d go to, who I’d spend time with, what I’d buy and what I’d eat. My awareness of this routine did not sprout from any ambitions to live my weeks this way, but rather through the archive of thousands of images I have on my phone. I questioned using the word ‘lifestyle’ over ‘routine’ in the opening of this piece but quickly decided, ‘well, I don’t live like that all the time – I can only afford it by spending most days of the week at home focussing on work and cooking my own more affordable meals’, but then again, through the social narrative I expressed through my phone via all these images, perhaps to those viewing it, this is what they understood my lifestyle to be.

As someone who would so publicly share their life, or a curated version of it, through my phone, I was quite startled by how quickly the way I used it changed when social isolation meant a disruption to my routine. Whilst this more literal block from creating content on my phone existed, I was quick to learn that this was not what shifted the relationship with my phone. After all, the majority of my Instagram feed was carefully thought out and styled selfies, all taken in my own home. It was the way I interacted with myself that created the new dynamic. When daily routines keep you busy, you can’t keep checking your phone. Even when you are working, you can’t do much else than obsessively refresh emails and be bombarded by endless messages and news. I’d be receiving floods of information that part of me needed to know, but other parts just needed space from. My usual capacity for endless content quickly became overloaded, and the only way to cope was to purposefully leave my phone in a different room. It’s no longer a constant companion to every action in my everyday life. My focus on my own health and happiness has also meant not dressing up or wearing makeup in the way I used to, as I consciously left my makeup and most of my clothing behind when I travelled back home to self-isolate. At first, I’d look into the mirror and feel that what I looked like wasn’t what I wanted to be socially associated with. This was something else that soon began to shift.


I began to think more deeply about what I’d post online and how it might come across. I noticed that posts I may have posted publicly before were now being posted to my ‘close friends’; I didn’t feel the same need to share content publicly, and also didn’t want people to misread what I was posting. This also highlighted that I am aware of at least more than one meaning to my posts and how they may come across socially; does this awareness mean I’ve never truly just thought ‘oh this looks nice, I’ll post it’? I’ve been highly aware that I am using my phone to broadcast social statements about who I am (or perhaps more likely, who I want people to see me as).

I’ve also realised just how little a majority of people actually care about seeing me on social media, and how little I really care about them seeing me, unless they’re my friends. When I post to my friends now, there is a direct link or message specific to them I am sending. The content revolves around a relationship as opposed to a broadcast of who I am socially. And how I present myself to them visually does not matter as long as I am comfortable. In some ways, I feel that my relationship with telecommunications has returned to that of the woman sat on her bed chatting to her friend via a landline phone. I’m referring to the intimate nature of telecommunication within our homes where the conversation is neither heard nor witnessed by others. Whilst I have kept my ‘private’ social interactions to myself, my social feeds have been inundated with phone screenshots and pictures taken of video calls. Much of the time the latter has also been taken on a mobile phone which is visible in the original poster’s webcam preview. This element relates much closer to that of the direct image of communication, and its tools, being used within the home. It is arguable that these self-published displays of communication serve as social signifiers, as they demonstrate the poster’s belonging to a specific group or community. As someone who is currently living in the times of lockdown, however, I also understand it to be a means of coping by feeling more in touch not only with our close circles, but also the wider world. Perhaps my introverted nature prevents this from being such a need.


With my constant need to leave my phone rooms away, and the recognition that the foreseeable future may see a regular alternation between isolating at home and resuming a more ‘conventional’ way of living, should ‘mobile’ phones lose their mobility in the home setting and have their own hub? We can also ponder whether this hub would be reminiscent of traditional landline phones, or if it would fit into the more futuristic visions of the phone acting as a key for a home technological network. We’ve already seen this with voice activated home systems, and phone apps which control elements of our house. Rather than opening up a conversation about whether we want HAL 9000 in our homes, my reflection poses a forecast in which the importance lies in the ability to keep the phone stationed and in its own place within the house, allowing the overwhelming nature of these devices to be dimmed. A sense of defined place may prevent that lurking presence that follows when we constantly carry it around in our hands or pockets. As a communication design researcher, reflection has allowed me to understand and explore both my practical and emotional engagement with my phone, and I believe designers engaging with future telecommunication devices should utilise this method to develop devices which exist beyond technological feats and conspicuous consumption, and more fully recognise the mental toll mobile phones can currently inflict on us. Separation and choice to engage or disengage with the outside world is something the future of telecommunications must consider, both through devices themselves and the cultures they create around them.