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.

10 thoughts on “Rich Ling: The role of mediated ritual in mobile communication”

  1. Martin

    Maybe he means that the handshake is a concrete, physical manifestation of a cultural code,
    like the totem is a manifestation of the spirit or godhead, handshakes are a manifestation
    of friendship in a way that a cell-phone conversation (“just” talk) might, to some people, not be.

    I totally agree on the thing about the closest friends being the ones I sms, not necc. the ones I call, because it’s a way of lowering the barrier for making a communicative gesture. I can
    tell someone whenever I’m thinking of something he or she would be interested in, and we
    involve each other in the day-to-day business of our lives with them. In some ways, you’re not really friends with someone until you’ve done dishes with them, or cooked dinner with them or waited for them to finish shaving in the morning. I would never call someone and say “hey, I was reading
    this book, and I thought about something you said once, and I think you’re right about that”,
    but I might do that by sms. Calling someone feels very formal and serious.

  2. Jill

    “Calling someone feels very formal and serious.” That’s a great line, Martin, and I see what you mean and yet I also see how that doesn’t make sense for a lot of people. I think an interesting corollorary is instant messaging – when I use iChat now I have an built in microphone and video camera (yay for my macbook!) and so do quite a few of my buddies – so I can choose whether to text, audio chat or video chat them. A lot of the time just seeing their icon and name is plenty (I’m online you’re online we see each other we’re friends) but when you do actually make contact, I definitely reserve voice and video for closer friends – not exactly because it seems formal and serious but because it seems presumptive.

    Though I’ve made appointments to do video and/or voice chats with people about work things. That’s entirely OK.

    Oh, and the totems: I asked about that after my laptop battery went flat – Rich said that he’s not sure whether mobile phones are totems – he thinks maybe they replace totems. Apparently totems retain the meaning of a ritual in between teh actual enactments of the ritual -whereas a mobile phone is simply in use all the time. Or not. Does it mean anything when you’re not communicating with it? I don’t really understand the concept of “totem” well enough to know what I think – though I guess I suspect that mobile phones must retain some meaning of the ritual between uses too… don’t you think? Or are they purely functional?

    Interesting stuff, anyway.

  3. […] jill/txt ¬ª Rich Ling: The role of mediated ritual in mobile communication‚Äù “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?” (tags: ritual community communication) […]

  4. Martin

    Right, well in that case, I think that cell-phones are absolutely totems. They, and especially the list of contacts in it, are a symbolic stand-in for your network of friends, aquaintances and associates. It’s a symbol of your extended network and your position in it, and it is present even when you’re not in the presence of any members of your network. So while it is in use I guess it’s a tool, but while not in use it is a symbol or reminder of your own cultural identity. Like when a gun
    is carried around by a security guard or police officer. He doesn’t ever use the gun, but it is a symbol of death and violence, and a threat of the force he could use.

    My cell phone is actually disconnected right now (forgot a bill), and I feel completely useless.
    You should see some of the looks I get when I ask people I know to lend me their phone. It’s a huge loss of status, it seems, having to borrow a phone, and people also seem really nervous about lending other people their cell-phones.

  5. Jill

    Yes, I think I agree with you Martin. Interesting points, too about the personal nature of a phone. Almost like asking someone if you can borrow their toothbrush, is it?

    I felt AWFUL this spring letting students use my personal for work laptop for presentations. After a while I figured out that I needed to create a guest account so there was no way they could accidentally access my files, but even then it felt sort of wrong, you know. Maybe lending mobile phones is similar.

  6. Rich Ling

    Hi, thanks to Jill for her faithful reporting of my talk. I just wanted to add a couple of things about totems.

    According to Durkheim, they are either physical objects or symbols that are often the focus of rituals, or at least have a role in the ritual. Remember that Durkheim was really looking at aboriginal rites. There is often the “bear” clan with its symbol of the bear or the beaver clan that has a beaver tail as its sacred symbol. The point of the totem is that in the process of the ritual it is, in effect, re-energized. In this way, it is an object or a symbol that will bear the meaning of the clan until then next ritual.

    Following Goffman, we do not have these types of ritual longer. They are more everyday types of things, like shaking hands. This makes the totem a little more obscure. There are, however, social totems. The Ipod, the mobile phone etc are all markers of social status and social connection. They are devices that have a real function, but they also have a heavy symbolic function. Thus, they can be seen as totems in that in the object we have a common sense that that they illustrate our youth, our sense of style or our connection to the geitguist, if I can use that term.

    The other point that I am playing around with is that since the mobile phone allows for, what Christian Licoppe calls “connected presence” the form of ritual is changing. There is, perhaps, not the need for the co-present or the co-termporal ritual as with Durkheims aborigineis. Rather, for some groups, like teen girls, there is a continual type of interaction. An ongoing ritual. This may in some sense obviate the need for the totem in the sense that Durkheim discusses it.

    This last bit is just in the “thinking stage” at the moment. I am interested in any comments.

  7. Christian Mogensen

    The Burning Man is the burner’s totem, but the ritual is the destruction of the totem, which makes it a funny carrier of meaning inbetween rituals. But this kind of funny is part of the whole.

    Anyway: I think SMS texting opens up new, asynchronous rituals (i.e. explicitly non-face-to-face) that imply a deference to other people’s time and attention. You text someone “you were totally right about the book” rather than calling them because you realize that the message is important to you, but not necessarily to the recipient; but you still want to acknowledge the recipient and maintain the community.

    Wasn’t there some telenor research in the mid 90s that found that most of the SMSes teens sent were little status checks? Endless series of “Whassup?” “Hanging out in the cafe.” going back and forth. In that sense the phone is mediator of teen rituals (in particular, the “doing nothing” ritual).

    Think about the implications of deleting someone from your phone’s address book. Does it mean you’re never going to call them again? Are they dead to you now? Do you send them an SMS saying “I’m deleting you now” first?

  8. Rich Ling


    Remember that the totem does not necessarily need to be a physical object but rather it can also be a symbol or an emblem. Durkheim talks about the image of the bear for the bear clan etc. Thus, the image of the burning man can be seen as a totem (and not the actual physical object that is burnt out there in the desert.)

    Your other point about asynchronous rituals is a point that I also want to think about. It is rather anti-durkheimian and to a lesser degree anti-goffmanian who were very much in the camp of needing to be co-present and co-temporal. It is an interesting development that is more possible today than it was in their times however.

    Finally, removing somebody from your list is only a ritual on your part. According to the thinkers in this tradition, the ritual needs to have the mutual engagement of all parties or there is not the chance for what Durkheim calls effervesce (it sounds a bit like what happens when you shake a bottle of Coke doesnít it?) Thus, while taking the personís name out of the address book may be a point for some personal reflection, it is not a ritual in the sense that I am using the term.

  9. Jill

    Note: If there’s some disjuncture between comments it’s probably because Rich Ling’s comments were automatically held in moderation because the blog software hadn’t seen him before, so Christian hadn’t seen them when commenting.

  10. Bieke Versloot

    I don’t know if any of you can read french text, but in the context of the totem the French sociologue Michel Maffesoli has posted some interesting thoughts. He supposes a new sort of collectivity, talks about neotribes and their postmodern totems..

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