Social Practices and New Media (Mobile)

The cartoon above seems to get straight to the heart of much of Lee Humphrey’s research on social interaction in today’s wireless era. When we interact with others whether face-to-face (as in the case of the man and chicken above), via computer mediated communication (like in Hancock’s study on butler lies in Instant Messaging) or by telephone (as in Humphrey’s study of caller interaction), we are constantly looking for ways to avoid awkward situations, feelings of vulnerability or having our private space violated. This is particularly true when two individuals are dialoguing face to face and are suddenly interrupted because one individual receives a phone call.

The Situation

This past Sunday I was hard at work assisting an entrepreneur I’ve been in touch with for some time now with some basic product development. My two housemates, Tim and Andy, had just returned from a dinner run with subs and chips and were munching away at their sandwiches while having a heated debate over where we should all go for our next break. Suddenly, Tim received a call from his cousin. The phone conversation lasted approximately five minutes during which time Andy increasingly became more and more uncomfortable. At first he simply gnawed away at his sandwich while pretending to ignore the phone conversation. After a few minutes of restlessly rapping his knuckles on a coffee table Andy flipped on the television set in the room and started watching ESPN until Tim finished his phone call.

Analysis

Before Tim’ received the call from his cousin, he and Andy were both withs. As such they had been giving their full attention to each other and the debate at hand: vacation plans. Together they had a common identity or purpose which helped them avoid feeling vulnerable despite the fact that they were in a public place. However, the moment Tim received the call from his cousin on his cell phone, the relationship changed. Andy quickly became a single and Tim became a “with” with his cousin who was on the phone.

As a result, Andy began to feel awkward and vulnerable. Because of these feelings of awkwardness and vulnerability, Andy tried very hard to do several things. First, he tried to pretend that he was not listening to Tim’s conversation. This could be seen by the fact that he oriented his body away from Tim in an effort to give James more privacy. The second thing Andy did was to attempt to appear occupied. He first preoccupied himself by ravenously downing his sub and then moved on to watching television. Both of these actions were attempts to appear occupied and socially adept.

 Applicability of Identified Social Practices

In her work on social interaction in the wireless era, Lee Humphreys identifies a number of social practices—many of which still apply today. Caller hegemony—or the idea that the person making the phone call has power over the call recipient is still prevalent. This is primarily true because the caller has all the information on why the call is being made and what the topic of discussion is going to be. Nevertheless, the rise of caller ID has taken away some of that power as the recipient now at least has an idea of where the incoming call is coming from.

The rise of texting is an even larger break from the social practices identified by Humphrey. It is becoming more of a social norm to carry on a text message conversation while interacting with someone completely different face to face. This is a result of the fact that text message conversations require less time and energy on behalf of the texter relative to a phone-to-phone converser. Thus, an individual can potentially be a “with” with a face-to-face entity and a CMC entity simultaneously. This is especially true if one is good at multitasking.

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