Kimberly Hassel

Assistant Professor, University of Arizona
Faculty Adviser: Amy Borovoy

Mediating Me: Digital Sociality and Smartphone Culture in Contemporary Japan


"Mediating Me: Digital Sociality and Smartphone Culture in Contemporary Japan" examines the relationships between Social Networking Services (SNS), smartphones, and shifting notions of sociality and selfhood in contemporary Japan, especially among youths. This dissertation is situated within Japan’s historical status as a pioneer in mobile communication during the 1990s, the rise in SNS usage following the Triple Disaster of March 11th, 2011, the start of the Reiwa era, and the heightened digital mediation necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The rapid evolution of mobile communication and digital technologies vis-à-vis ongoing shifts in Japanese society motivates the research question that drives this dissertation: How can the digital serve as a lens in observing change and continuity in Japan, especially with regards to gender and identity? This dissertation is based on fieldwork conducted in Japan between August 2019 and August 2020, and remotely between August 2020 and October 2021. Through an integration of interview data, media analysis, and ethnographic vignettes called “Mediations,” this dissertation elucidates how perceived norms and moral standards centering on the embeddedness of the digital in everyday life are constantly (re)negotiated. Each chapter explores how digital platforms are used and imagined in different ways by different users, ranging from schoolgirls to Black Japanese youth activists. As each chapter demonstrates, the uses and imaginations of smartphone ownership and SNS usage are contingent on various factors, including but not limited to life stage and crisis. As a contribution to the burgeoning field of digital anthropology, this dissertation also highlights the indispensability of digital ethnography in an increasingly digitally mediated society—both prior to and during pandemic times. Although centering on Japan, this ethnography of smartphone and SNS usage contributes to broader understandings of digital sociality, digital embeddedness, transnational digital networks, and digital ethnographic methods.