Rich Ling: The role of mediated ritual in mobile communication”

Liz Lawley told me I had to meet Rich Ling, who’s a researcher at Telenor here in Norway – and indeed I very briefly met him last year when Howard Rheingold was here for Digital og sosial. So of course I’m at his talk today at InterMedia, where he’ll be co-supervising a PhD thesis. Rich wrote a book a couple of years ago about mobile phones’ impact on society.

His entire presentation, The role of mediated ritual in mobile communication, is online – so you can read the slides yourself – there are a lot of useful statistics and touchpoints. Here are some notes.

100% of 16-24 year old women and 100% of 20-24 year old men in Norway have mobile phones. You basically can’t find a teen without a mobile phone. Statistics from the US (recent survey from University of Michigan) show high adoption but at least 20% below Norwegian use. Today 70% of Norwegian ten year olds have mobile phones. That, not coincidentally, is the age at which kids stop going to after school care. Before 2003, only 20% of ten year olds had mobile phones – back then, you got your mobile phone as a confirmation present, when you were 14.

One slide shows that in 1997, far more young men than young women had mobile phones, while in 1999 (1 kr phones, prepaid cards came in) there was no gender difference, and in 2001, women have surpassed men.

If you ask Norwegians between the ages of nine and thirty-four what forms of mediated communication they used yesterday, SMSes are the most used form. They are clearly above email, voice phone. SMS was free until 1998, when teens discovered it and used it so much Telenor had to close the service and put a price on it.

Men fra early twenties and up use voice mobile distinctly more than women or other age groups. More men than women have mobile phones paid for by their employer. If you interview men in their thirties or forties they’ll often say very specifically that they use their phones for talking, nothing else. It’s a collective decision not just an individual one – if Per sends Steinar an SMS, Steinar might complain. Men in interviews tend to say they can’t use SMS, it’s too difficult, or requires too much dexterity, though they laugh while saying this. Young men use SMS as much as young women.

[He points out social reasons not to use SMS – but there are also practical and physical reasons. You can’t send an SMS while driving, but you can talk. You can’t talk while sitting in a lecture and you might be reluctant to in a restaurant or on a bus, but you can send an SMS. And you can keep your communication private although you’re in a public setting. No doubt someone’s studied this…]

Raises Putnam’s book on how we’re becoming less social, and notes that Putnam doesn’t talk much about the Internet and that he barely even mentions mobile phones. The social aspects of mobile phones have been the focus of a lot of European research. The development of “connected presence” – people who are always in contact. Every trivial thing is communicated.

Surveys of Norwegian teens perception of friendship, you find that the more friends they feel they have, the more SMSes they send. (The causality might go either way there).

How tight do you really want networks to be? Shows social network of a high school class, with various kinds of connections between individuals. Loose ties (Granovetter) between cliques, gangs, dyads and groups – these are extremely important. If mobile telephony only strengthens the clique, does that weaken the weak ties?

People with a preference for text were less involved in larger networks – however, preference for text tends to improve existing relationships and leads to more intimate relationship. (Does voice telephony do the opposite? He doesn’t say, I think. If it does, how?)

What holds society together? Durkheim (1957: 230): ritual. Not prayer etc, but everyday social rituals – if I stick my right hand out when meeting you you’ll likely shake my hand. Shows us we’re in harmony with each other. Among other things, it “rejuvenates the totem”, which I’m not sure I entirely understand, but the totem is a thing – so I’m imagining the lecturer’s powerpoint might be a totem, or the mobile phone, although he doesn’t actually say so. His example is instead the burning man in the Burning Man festival.

Goffman (1971: 61) argues that big rituals are in decay, what remains, in brief, are interpersonal rituals. In other words, Durkham was right, but it’s the little rituals that count today. Shaking hands. Doing the oh I’m sorry ritual when you bump into someone with your shopping cart at the supermarket. Telling a joke. Flirting. Saying hello and exhanging small talk. Paying toll in a toll booth. There are formal rituals too: birthdays, weddings, graduations, atteneding a meeting or a lecture, going to a football game.

Can you have a ritual without co-presence? Can you have a cohesive group, a community through only mediated communication? Mediated ritual? Can they be the same? Rich Ling is not sure. But does think that groups with a basis in co-presence certainly develop their communities in addition with mediated communication (e.g. teen girls). (Licoppe’s connected presence, Ito’s lightweight contract) or something.

Teen buzz. Ring tone inaudible to people over 25.

07. June 2006 by Jill

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