Where is mobile communication causing social change?


Rich Ling

Telenor R&D



1         Introduction

1.1        Social change and technology

I have told introductory students to sociology that if they are ever in an oral examination and they are stumped for an answer that they should simply say “the industrial revolution.” The though here is that the student will perhaps impress the examiner as to his or her insight into the soul of the discipline.  It might also jiggle a thought loose that the floundering student will be able to form into some sort of a line of reasoning and that will, in turn, save the day.  The suggestion is only partially fanciful.  It can be argued that this is what sociology started with and we are still carrying on with what is basically the same old wheeze.[1] 

The great intellectual motor of the early sociologists was their observations of the turbulence and the profound institutional changes that arose out of the industrial revolution.  If we look to the great upheaval of the industrial revolution there was seemingly social upheaval in abundance.  The period between approximately 1760 and 1840 saw the use of new forms of energy (coal and oil and somewhat later electricity) and other basic materials (iron and steel).  These forms of production transformed the manufacturing process and saw the rise of the factory system of production that in turn entailed the division of labor.  Other impacts were the development of transportation and communication systems.

These changes are a part of the backdrop that are reflected in the various formulations of the early sociologists.  Durkheim had mechanical and organic solidarity; Tönnies had “Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft;” Weber had rationalization in society; Tocqueville examined the effects of industrialization in the US, Max had his analyses of class struggle and so it goes.  Here were the sociological thinkers of the time examining the turmoil surrounding interaction between traditional societies and the rise of a new form of production.  

We can pick almost any of the standard social institution and there was change. We can refer to the list developed by none other than Anthony Giddens in the table of contents to his introductory sociological text.  Among other things he includes such institutions as the family, class and stratification, work and economic life, government and politics, education, religion and the cities.  There is rich stuff here.  The family went from being extended to the more truncated nuclear family and to today’s mix and match version of “mine, yours and ours.”  Class and stratification arose in new forms during industrialization.  There was the Marxian working class and the bourgeoisie.  These, of course reflect in some ways one’s relation to the production process as either one who engages in wage labor or as an owner.  Again, the concept of wage labor and stock based ownership were relatively new concepts, but nonetheless concepts that we still have with us.  The nation state gained its current ascendancy during this period and is still the dominant form.  The system of broad mass education arose in this period.  With the need for a flexibly educated workforce, the need for abstract skills such as reading and math replaced the need for traditional skills that were learned locally.  Religion lost much of the dominance that it early had and the cities rose as the center for manufacture and somewhat incidentally culture. 

In addition to the institutions outlined above, there also has arisen a whole system of culture, rules and laws that supports them.  The role of parents is spelled out in their rights and responsibilities vis-à-vis their children.  The general assumption is that parents will be legally responsible for their children until they reach the age of majority and then – with the occasional deviation – the children are generally on their own.  They are not necessarily bound to be a part of the broader community from which they arose.  Indeed they are often encouraged (both by their parents and by the broader culture) to go out, get an education and to establish themselves away from their parent’s home. 

The question here, of course, is to what degree do information and communication technologies (ICTs) cause social change?  Can their appearance on the scene be compared to that of the earlier industrial revolution?  Will the PC and the mobile telephone reformulate the family, the city, religion, and the other social institutions? 

1.2        The rise of mobile telephony

The mobile telephone is perhaps the first time that we can really speak of personal, individualized electronically mediated interaction.  Previous to this, mediation systems have been collective in one sense or another.  The telegraph was based around a central office with a delivery system of carriers (Standage 1998).  Police, fire and taxi radio have usually been broadcast from a dispatcher (Manning 1996).  Landline telephony is most often centered around a common house telephone (Fischer 1992).  The shift to mobile telephony means that there are new possibilities when considering the ways that interaction is organized, groups are defined and social action takes place.  

This development is taking place in a world where, as with the traditional sociological project, there is a tension between sociation and individualization.  At the same time that we are using individual mediation, our ways of organizing and maintaining social life are changing.  Thus, while it is not possible to assign a causal direction, there is nonetheless something going on here. 

What are the social changes associated with mobile communication?  At the outset, I feel that we can mostly disregard the broader institutional changes as were seen in the industrial revolution.  While there are some adjustments at the boundaries, there are not any real fundamental changes such as those seen in earlier epochs.  Thus, I assert that the family, the church, working life, education and the like are not under any immediate pressure at the moment. 

This said, there are some new wrinkles here, however, associated with the interaction within social groups, the rise of individualism and the reforming of the ways in which sociation takes place.  Looking at these three issues, there are ways in which mobile communication plays into our sense of the social capital, the role of individualism and the ways that we form and maintain social groups.[2] 

2         Social capital, individualism and ritual interaction

2.1        The role of social capital

Another, somewhat more diffuse issue is the degree to which the mobile telephone contributes or detracts from the broader sociability of individuals in society.  That is, does the mobile telephone contribute to or erode broader social ties?  This question moves in the direction of that asked by Durkheim, Marx, Weber and Simmel with regards the interaction between traditional society and industrialization. 

Those who have examined social capital provide a more recent take on this issue.  Simply put, social capital is the degree to which a group uses mechanisms such as social networks, trust, reciprocity and shared norms and values to facilitate collaboration and cooperation.  This is a social, not an individual dynamic that plays on the density of the social network and trust.  In some cases there are dense social networks that provide a well-defined context for the individual while at other times, or in other modes of the same network, there are weak ties between well-connected groups that allow innovations to spread more efficiently.  Further there are historical trends in the development of social capital. 

The concept of social capital was developed by Bourdieu who saw it as a social corollary of economic and cultural capital (Bourdieu 1985).  Where the latter two concepts were characteristics of the individual, social capital is a characteristic of the group.  The individual can own economic resources and can be the repository of culture and taste, it is the willingness of the group to help each other out that is described in social capital.  There is a nice Norwegian phrase to describe this, namely dugnads ond. This describes the collective willingness to pitch in and to help each other out without the need to be asked.  This means that if you live in an apartment that you wash the stairs that lead up to your floor.  It means that you keep your own yard clean and also the more public areas nearby.  The American system of barn raising is somewhat similar, that is you help others out and they help you out. 

Coleman described how the density of ties contributes to a robust social capital.  He described, for example, the diamond cutters in New York who are willing to loan uncut diamonds to other cutters for inspection with no need for collateral or economic bonding.  This is because the diamond cutting society is so tightly interwoven with other dimensions of life.  The individuals are mostly members of the same churches, the same free-time organizations, their children are intermarried etc.  Thus, to engage in illicit activities vis-à-vis other members of the diamond cutting community is tantamount to risking a large portion of one’s social life. 

Where Coleman focuses on the importance of tight bonds, Granovetter and Burt focus on the importance of the weak or bridging ties that allow for innovation (Burt 1999; Burt 2000; Burt 2001; Burt et al. 1998; Granovetter 1973).  Thus, in social capital there is a focus here on the tension between being securely tied into a group, but also having access to external resources.  This tension brings up a discussion of the positive and negative aspects of social capital (Portes 1998).  While on the positive side, social capital provides resilience within the social network, the negative aspect can be that it results in xenophobic or mafia like societies that monopolize resources.  Alternatively overly developed levels of social capital may mean that insular and impoverished groups close themselves off from other opportunities within the society – poor rural children never learn of the scholarships that would provide them with an education since there are no links to the other groups through which these opportunities are made available.  This is a theme that will be discussed below in relation to the social networking afforded by the mobile telephone.  Finally, Putnam has placed the discussion of social capital on the map since he suggests that it is a phenomena in decline (1995).  His analysis adds an historical dimension to the discussion, albeit an analysis that has been challenged in various ways (Ling 2004b). 

There is another issue at play here that is an echo of the issue pointed to by the social capital theorists namely the increasing individualization of society.  Following Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, society has moved in the direction of being more focused on the individual.  While not being the Thatcherite individual, Beck and Beck-Gernsheim paint a picture of a society wherein the individual is not explicitly bound to traditional roles.  In the place of these embedded contexts they point to what they call the institutionalization of individualism.  In a kind of mirror trick, there is the assertion that we are bound to individualism just as previous generations were bound to the church or the nation (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002).   Beck also notes that the individual is exposed to new exigencies:

. . .against the background of the expansion of education, strong demands for mobility in the labor market and far advanced juridification of labor relationships.  These make the individual – or, more exactly, only as an individual – the subject of entitlements (and obligations).  Opportunities, threats, ambivalences of the biography, which it was previously possible to overcome in a family group, in the village community or by recourse to social class or group, must be increasingly perceived, interpreted and handled by the individuals themselves.  To be sure, families are to be found, but the nuclear family has become an ever more rare institution.  There are increasing inequalities, but class inequalities and class-consciousness inequalities have lost their central position in society.  And even the self is no longer just the unequivocal self but has become fragmented into contradictory discourses of the self.  Individuals are expected to master these ‘risky opportunities.’ Without being able, owing to the complexity of modern society, to make the necessary decisions on a well-founded and responsible basis, that is to say, considering the possible consequences (Beck 1994, 8).

2.2        Ritual and ritual interaction

An essential issue in the analysis of social capital is the question of what holds society together? Further, and more relevant for this paper, what role does mobile telephony play in all of this?  Following from the social capital analysis, the glue is the density of the social network and the degree of trust and reciprocity.  This provides a partial answer.  However, a more specific answer requires that we make the leap to the question of how these ties and reciprocity are developed. It is in this connection that I want to turn to the work of Durkheim, Goffman and Collins who examine the role of ritual in everyday life.  It is in the analysis of ritual and ritual interaction that we can see the ties that bind social groups.

Ritual is a well-engrained sociological and anthropological concept.  In its most literal meaning it is the ordered performance of a ceremony such as the Christian Eucharist.  There is usually the sense that the ceremony has a religious or devotional meaning.  In the sociological literature, the discussion of ritual is often framed around religious observations wherein a liturgy is used as a way to provide a common focus or ideology within a culture. 

The classic analysis of ritual interaction is that of Malinowski the Kula Ring wherein through a complex arrangement of exchanges among the Trobriand Islanders necklaces moved on one direction around an atoll when exchanged for armbands.  The actual value of the items – and indeed the ritual of the exchanges – was more in that they represented a ritual interaction and helped to create mutual obligations among the participants (Malinowski 1922). 

2.2.1          From the secular to the profane

The question now arises as to whether ritual is exclusively the realm of religion – that is, the link of the individual with the metaphysical – or if it can be used as a tool with which to examine social life.  If ritual is indeed only the stuff of religion then it has a more limited potential.[3]  However, if we expand the analysis to include any form of ordered interaction, the concept takes on new use.  Indeed, it provides a framework for the examination of exactly the issues raised in the discussion of social capital.  The concept of ritual allows one insight into how the social residues of life are developed.  According to Douglas and Isherwood, “The main problem of social life is to pin down meanings so that they stay still for a little time.  Without conventional ways of selecting and fixing agreed meanings, the minimum consensual basis for society is missing.  Rituals are conventions that set up visible public definitions” (1979, 43). 

In addition to providing an analytical tool, rituals help to explain the stasis and dynamism of society.  Following from Durkheim ritual interaction is that realm wherein individuals create and nourish their mutual links.   

If the communication established between [individuals] is to become real communion, that is to say a fusion of all particular sentiments into one common sentiment, the signs expressing them must themselves be fused into one single and unique resultant.  It is the appearance of this that informs individuals that they are in harmony and makes them conscious of their moral unity.  It is by uttering the same cry, pronouncing the same word, or performing the same gesture in regard to some object that they become and feel themselves to be in unison (Durkheim 1954, 230)

Durkheim asserts that ritual is a situation in which the participants are given pause in which they can recognize their mutual situation through common obeisance.  In this description of the concept one sees the basic elements of the Durkheimian ritual, i.e. 1) co-presence, 2) focused interaction, 3) a pressure to maintain social solidarity – perhaps in the face of either real or perceived external threat and 4) the honoring of sacred objects (Collins 2004, 23 - 25).  In Collins’ reformulation of the issue – as with that of Douglas and Isherwood and that of Goffman – ritual is drawn out of the religious realm and in principle embraces as secular or everyday ritual as well as those rituals that are found in more formal institutions.   Indeed, Goffman makes the assertion that religious ritual is being replaced by secular versions.

In contemporary society rituals performed to stand-ins for supernatural entities are everywhere in decay, as are extensive ceremonial agendas involving long strings of obligatory rites. What remains are brief rituals one individual performs for and to another, attesting to civility and good will on the performer’s part and the recipient’s possession of a small patrimony of sacredness.  What remains, in brief, are interpersonal rituals (Goffman 1971, 61). 

He also notes:

The rules of conduct which bind the actor and the recipient together are the bindings of society . . . What ever the activity and however profanely instrumental, it can afford many opportunities for minor ceremonies as long as other persons are present [one would also hope that this includes mediated presence].  Through these observances, guided by ceremonial obligation and expectations, a constant flow of indulgences is spread through society, which others who are present constantly reminding the individual that he [sic.] must keep himself together as a well demeaned person and affirm the sacred quality of others.  The gestures which we sometimes call empty are perhaps in fact the fullest things of all (Goffman 1967, 85).

Thus we have the same general form as described by Durkheim, i.e. that space in which we recognize our mutual situation through common obeisance.  In addition, we see that there are the elements of co-presence, focused interaction and the maintenance of solidarity and the honoring of the common ceremony.   However, there is the re-application of ritual from the religious realm to the profane.  By doing this, it allows the researcher to evaluate a variety of mundane situations in a new light.  We can see why certain artifacts or processes gain an iconic significance.  We see this when observing the gang of football supporters singing the same song or wearing particular clothes, the teen girls using the same type of lipstick, greeting each other in the same manner or wearing the same style of socks.  Just as with the liturgy of a religious service, these observations are central to the group definition.

2.2.2          From the macro to the micro

Another shift beyond the movement from the sacred to the secular is the movement from the macro to the micro social.  Goffman made the shift away from seeing ritual as exclusively the realm of large-scale formal religion but also as applicable in vulgate situations.  In addition – and this is critical – he moves from the macro/meso scale to the micro.  Goffman is not necessarily concerned with the chanting of a large mass and their fusing into a single focus as in the celebration of the Eucharist.  For Goffman, ritual can just as easily be observed when seeing a person quickly putting out a cigarette when another person comes into the room or when they take a quick look into the mirror before going out the door in preparation for their meeting with society in general.  That is, ritual and the nearly existential recognition of our shared status can be seen in the way we readjust and care for our façade. 

To illustrate this I will to draw on an observation used in an earlier paper (Ling 2002).  This observation was actually more of a sensitizing exercise.  I was interested in the collection of what one might call natural use of the mobile telephone.  To carry this out, I needed to learn how to observe situations as they arose.[4] 

Observation: Two women are walking shoulder to shoulder in the cafeteria area of a small shopping center. They approach a passage where, because of the lunch crowd, there is only room for one person to pass. As they approach this bottle neck, the woman on the left takes a slightly longer stride with her left foot and plants it, while at the same time drops her right (inside with reference to her partner) shoulder and extends her left (outside) arm in a gesture to her partner to pass. As her partner comes abreast, the woman on the left uses her right arm to “guide” the woman on the right through the passage. In this guiding gesture, the right arm of the woman on the left follows the partner through the passage by placing the hand near the small of her back without actually touching her. Through these maneuvers, the woman on the left came slightly ahead of the woman on the right but instead of rushing ahead, she paused slightly and used the space to “usher” the woman on the right through the passage. The woman on the right complements the maneuver by slightly dipping her left shoulder and knee slightly, a quick bowing of her head and by increasing her pace slightly so that the partner to the left never really needs to stop completely. The gesture of the woman on the left seems to impart a sense of generosity and largess in miniature while the body language of the woman on the right imparts a type of deferential gratitude for being ushered through the passage and perhaps a sense of subservience. The whole operation takes approximately one to two seconds.

Without meaning to, I have recorded a whole set of basic rituals.  One can see this in the adjustment of stride so as to facilitate the passing of another person, the dropping of the shoulder and the use of the hand to escort to the partner through the passage.  The other person also plays out the ritual interaction in that she bows her head and increases her stride so as to more successfully come through the ever so slightly difficult passage. 

To decompose this, it is interesting to turn to Giddens who says that ritual is tradition enmeshed in practice.  Further he notes that ritual is separate from the “pragmatic tasks of everyday life” (1994, 64).  Looking at this specific instance it is clear that the ritual is taking place on the micro-level.  There are also functional bits in the interaction (the longer stride to come slightly ahead, the complementary quickening of the other’s step, etc.)  There are, at the same time, a sequence of gestures that show a respect of courtesy and manners (the “ushering” gesture of the first person and the deference shown by the other).  Habitual micro scale rituals are being worked out here.  The two are showing their mutual respect and in doing this they are refreshing the social order in a small way.  In addition, they are doing it in a type of taken for granted interaction (Lash 1994).  Indeed if one were to only do a portion of the gesturing or none at all, it would be seen as a breach in the situation. 

In all likelihood, the whole interaction described above is now forgotten by the two participants.  They have not noted it down in their diaries nor has any institution – aside from civil society – arisen that has its purpose to replicate this interaction.  Unlike a religious ritual as described by Durkheim, there is no liturgy or formal ordering of the situation.  There is the simply engrained courtesy afforded to another individual as they move through a crowded space. 

Following from Goffman and Collins, however, it is increasingly in these interactions that one finds social bond being used and maintained.  The ritual of the small gesture is what we have.  In such simple interactions the individuals recognize their common situation when confronting the need to move through a constricted area while at the same time maintaining their interaction.  So again, the participants are located in their mutual situation, albeit in a series of fleeting gestures.[5]  It is, however, in these gesture sequences that we are can find the contemporary use of Goffmanian ritual.

2.2.3          From the co-present to the mediated

The next issue that stands in the way of ritual and mobile communication is Durkheim’s and Goffman’s more or less implicit and Collin’s explicit instance that ritual is a co-present activity.  Collins notes that in co-present situations there is “a physical atonement: currents of feeling, a sense of wariness or interest, a palpable change in the atmosphere” (Collins 2004). 

If we first take a quick historical turn, much of the thinking on these issues was done before the development of today’s individualized mobile communication technology.  In the case of Durkheim the only truly mediated communication in his lifetime was the telegraph.  Goffman lived during a period when there was telephony, television and other forms of mediated interaction.  However, he held his focus almost exclusively to co-present interaction.[6]  Collins, of course, is contemporary and this is dealing with an interactional landscape that is perhaps somewhat more open.  Collins asks if bodily presence is necessary.  He goes through a series of arguments to support the idea that ritual and by extension solidarity requires physical co-presence.  While allowing for mediated ritual, he posits the rhetorical question  “Can formal rituals be carried out via telephone?” His answer is yes, but this arrangement would lack feedback and diminish the sense in which the individual is participating. 

One must accept that in many cases, mediated participation in a ritual encounter allows only a portion of the total impact.  Collins suggests the thought experiment wherein we assume a “satellite” person participates with a remote collected group.  A remotely placed person listening to or watching a family marriage would clearly not have the same experience nor would they share in the event as fully as those who are there.  There may be a selective sensory depravation (no sound, no image) that results in a less complete experience.  In this case the non-present person will clearly not be as drawn into the interaction as the others.[7] 

These are good points. Nonetheless, the categories are slippery here. It is perhaps too simple to say that rituals can only be carried out and that bonding only occurs in face-to-face situations.  It is clear that it is difficult to develop the same type of intensity of feeling via mediated interaction.  However, there are many different forms of collective interaction ranging from the dyad to the mass movement and also ranging from exclusively co-present interaction (as in a rural village) to exclusively mediated interaction (as in some internet chat groups). 

At the most extreme level, some mediated events form the basis for a broad sense of nation.  In the US, the broadcasting of the events surrounding September 11 can be seen in this context.  Other less dramatic events such as a dramatic Super bowl victory.  We can also think of for example, the broadcasting of Orsen Welles’ The war of the worlds or the last episode of Friends or Steinfield.  Such events can also provide the foundation (however vicarious) for a common sense of identity. Other oft noted example of strongly mediated interaction is the occasional Internet marriage.[8]

Moving to a more common variation co-present/mediated interactions, a feeling of common identity can be developed in a face-to-face situation and be enlivened again via subsequent mediated interaction.[9]  Indeed, this is perhaps the most common form of social groups in modern society.  Couples carry on their lives with ample doses of co-presence that are also the locus of mediated interaction.  Mediated communication can, and often does, play an important role here.  It can allow for the group to coordinate its meetings, it can give the individuals a channel through which they can share and embellish their sense of the latest meeting.  Mediated interaction can allow for arguments to flower, or flirting to commence.  In general it can be a central part of a groups’ social life.

In certain situations, mediated interaction can also be itself the origin of ritual interaction.  A face-to-face interaction may lead to mediated interaction that in turn, takes on its own ritual forms.  Mediated interaction can develop unique forms into which we apply meaning.  To take one possible form, para-language is available in writing, telephone conversations and even, among those who know it, Morse code (Marvin 1988; Parks 1996; Standage 1998; Walther 1993).  It seems that we have the capability to make use of the communication channels that are available to meet our purposes and needs.  Indeed these ritual forms need not even be a feature of the face-to-face world. The work of Saks, Schegloff and Jefferson shows that, when looking at the micro level of interaction, our ways of greeting and parting over the telephone have a ritual dimension that is unique to that context (Saks et al. 1974; Schegloff and Saks 1973; Schegloff et al. 1977). 

Another variation of the same has arisen among Norwegian teens that send SMS messages.  This is seen in the use of the word koz as a closing in text messages.  The word is a variant spelling of the Norwegian word kos or hug.  Its use can be seen in the following examples.

hei :) ja jg kan møte dg kl 1700 snakkez! Koz m___

hi :) yes I (abbreviated) can meet you (abbreviated) 17:00 o'clock (abbreviated)! We will talk! Hug m____


Har dokker fæst ennå? Koz :) (female 15)

Are you having a party yet? Hug :)


Heisann. Ka du gjør?? Koz  (female 13)

Howdy. What are you doing?? Hug

In these citations there is the use of the word Koz.[10] The use of the word clearly draws on the culturally familiar word kos (hug) that is used in a variety of situations, though almost never as a closing in a traditional handwritten letter or as a closing utterance in a conversation – though to give a hug can be a closing strategy among intimates.[11]  

Among older persons, there is the sense that closing a letter with a word such as kos is far too intimate.  An analysis of an SMS corpus however (Ling 2003) shows that it is almost exclusively teens who use this formulation, and it almost goes without saying that they have a different sensibility in such areas.  The specific spelling can be interpreted as a type of speech representation since the "z" sound slightly draws out the pronunciation when spoken.  It may indicate a wish to metaphorically draw out the leave taking.  There is a sense that the spelling imitates a lingering hug, as for example squeeeeeze might indicate a lingering squeeze.  Since the word is used in a leave-taking situation, the teens may be playing on the word in order to give it a type of poetic.  Further, the spelling may reflect the ambiguity with which teens treat intimacy.  The substitution of "z" for "s" may be a way to establish a type of ironic distance (if there is such a thing).  That is, using the traditional spelling – kos – with a potential boy/girl friend may be too intimate or forward.  However, in what well may be a careful calibration, if the sender stylizes the spelling and uses what can be interpreted as a funny ending, they protect themselves.  If they are called into account, the sender can laugh about it and say it was a joke.  At the same time they are indicating a type of linguistic camaraderie.

Another area in which ritual interactions are played out using mediated communication is that of courtesies and manners.  The mobile telephone has meant that the rules of being in public spaces have been adjusted.  The use of the mobile colonizes portions of the public sphere.  Thus, it makes obvious the implicit ritual dimensions of social interaction in this co-present sphere (Ling 1997; Ling 2002).  Looking beyond this, however, one sees that mobile telephony has impacted on the way that we make and adjust meetings.  The mobile telephone allows us to call ahead when we are late and to progressively negotiate social inter actions.  The ideology supporting these courtesies makes explicit the status of the various participants.  Our scheduling of appointments and our coordination via, for example, the mobile telephone is ritually imbued (Duncan 1970, 266 see also; Geertz 1972, 290; Gullestad 1992, 165).   Again, it is a way in which we mutually recognize out common situation.  The key point in this analysis is that this type of micro-coordination is mediated.  In this way, mobile telephone supported coordination is a form ritual interaction

Drawing the discussion back to the broader issue of ritual interaction, the openings and closings described by Saks, Schegloff and Jefferson as well as the use of SMS only locutions may point to the same small scale Goffmanian rituals that we saw in the dance of gestures describe above.  These situations seem to open up for the possibility that, while in general co-presence is integral in the development of social solidarity, there is room to consider its use and even its creation in mediated interactions.  

3         Conclusion: the specter of virtual walled communities

Up to this point I have focused on the broader issue of ritual interaction in society and how we might approach social interaction as researchers.  Mobile telephony, and the social consequences of mobile telephony has been hanging in the background, but now I want to turn the focus on this issue.

In the earlier part of the paper, I made passing reference to several social consequences of mobile telephony.  These included safety, micro-coordination, identity development for teens and the device’s disruptive impact on the social sphere.  These are all consequences that have been discussed elsewhere in some detail (Ling 2004a).  In this concluding section, I wish to bring together the discussion on social capital and ritual, and to look at in in terms of the mobile telephone. 

As noted in the introduction, the mobile telephone is perhaps the first time that we can really speak of personal, individualized electronically mediated interaction.  This unprecedented potential for access means that there are likely changes in the way that social networks interact.  Indeed, research carried out in the IST e-living project has shown that mobile telephony use has a relatively strong co-variance with informal social interaction (Ling et al. 2002; Ling et al. 2003).  That is, the more one engaged in an active leisure life of informal social activities such as café visits, theater etc, the more one used SMS and voice mobile telephony.  Put into the context of this paper, this seems to point to a strengthening of at least the local social group (read: social capital) and, if indeed ritual interactions are amenable to mediated interaction, I can assert that the various interactions between the involved individuals play on, maintain and perhaps engender ritual.

The broader issue here is the degree to which this type of ritual social interaction gets played out in the broader scheme of things.  One issue in the social capital literature is the situation in which the bonds are too well integrated (Portes 1998).  Bringing the mobile telephone into the picture, the extremely personal nature of the device and the fact that it lowers the threshold for interaction means that social groups will likely use the device to strengthen already strong ties.  The teen girls mentioned above who have the same type of lipstick who wear the same types of socks and who greet each other in the same manner will have an enhanced ability to develop the connection.  If this is taken beyond some point, there will not be enough time or social energy to take other “weak-tie” interactions into account.  Thus, the clique might not get information about various opportunities (jobs, parties, library opening hours, new guys in town, etc.) since the network is too tightly bound.

In this connection it is interesting to examine the work of Christian Licoppe and his concept of connected presence.  Licoppe and his colleagues at France Telecom research have examined the contrast between what they call the conversational and the connected modes of interaction.  The former is a style wherein the telephone call is routinized as in, for example, the weekly call to one’s parents.  The call is a part of the regular interactions between persons.  It generally happens on a particular day and perhaps even at a particular time.  The ideal type of this call is made from the same location (usually a landline telephone) may also have the same general content, form (perhaps a summary of the week’s activities) and duration.  According to Licoppe, these calls are generally longer and take place between family and friends (Licoppe 2004).

The conversational form of interaction is contrasted with another ideal type called the connected form of interaction.  In this form, the interaction between individuals takes place in short sessions through the day perhaps using a variety of media (phone, SMS, e-mail, IM, etc.).  Rather than being the type of information dump that takes place in the conversational mode, the connected form is a continual feeding of small interactions.  The individuals update each other on their progress through the day and perhaps make small requests and provide small bits of interaction and gossip.  Rather than giving themselves over to a long involved interaction as with the conversational style the individual interactions may seem piecemeal, but the whole complex of interactions means that the partners have relatively detailed and updated knowledge of the small comings and going in each other’s lives.  There is a fine-grained insight into the other’s life and situation that is encouraged in this mode of interaction.  Indeed some of the smaller incidents that are reported and considered in the connected style may not have survived the vetting process that in involved in the conversational form of interaction.  The conversational mode, by contrast, takes the form of summary information wherein the small incidents are dropped and only the more general gloss is presented – either by design or because the smaller incidents have dropped from consciousness.

Another dimension is that the connected form of interaction represents a type of gifting economy.[12]  Following Mauss, gifting and the web of reciprocity associated with gifting is one of the ways that a group maintains a sense of itself (Mauss 1961).  The sense here is that, at some level, the calls and messages that one sends have an informational component, but they are also small remembrances or gifts (Johnsen 2000).  Indeed some SMS messages such as the seemingly obligatory “good morning” and “good night” messages sent by teens have no discernable function other than a form of reciprocal gifting. 

Licoppe’s point is that this form of interaction is becoming pervasive.  Rather than occurring at a specific time and place, in relatively large doses, it is happening everywhere, at all hours and in homeopathic doses.  There is a type of perpetual presence within the group. 

Thus, in some ways, the connected style might remind one of a move from the Durkheimian organic solidarity of modern society to a mediated form of the mechanical solidarity.  That is, it may represent a move away from the more contractual forms of interpersonal interaction that we experience on a daily basis towards a more personal style of interaction.  Thus, there is the assertion that one returns, in a disembodied sense, to a situation in which the members of a group are somewhat continually aware of each other’s situation.  Before a teen girl leaves home in the morning she knows that her friend Jenny will be wearing a red sweater, that Marta is done with her math homework, that Mona has had an argument with her boyfriend and that Kristine is over her cold.  None of these is a direct co-present interaction.  However, each is a referent, or an updating of interactions in other spheres that she is carrying with her and which will color her approach to the day. 

In addition, just as the two persons described in the observation above engaged in a set of nuanced gestures that, according to Goffman, make up the rituals of life, the interactions of the teen girls in their messaging and calling employ these formulations and thus reinforce their mutual situation.


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[1] This paper is inspired by and indebted to the paper presented by Christina Sandvig and Harmeet Sawhney entitled “Approaching yet another communications technology”  (Sandvig and Sawhney 2004).

[2] At a meso level, mobile communication has changed our sense of safety and security, the way’s in which we coordinate interaction, the emancipation process of teens and the way that we carry on in the public sphere (Ling 2004a).  In each case, mobile communication has resulted in noticeable changes.  While these changes are not on the scale of those described during the industrial revolution, they are nonetheless, slight rearrangements of our everyday lives.

[3] The breadth of the ritual is variable.  My teacher Howard Higman said along these lines that a ritual based ideology shared by many is a culture, an ideology shared by a few is a cult, an ideology shared by two is love and an ideology shared by one is psychosis.  In each case, with perhaps the exception of the latter, the ideology is made obvious through the performance of a type of ritual.

[4]  I had decided to not use video equipment.  This is because I felt that it was too cumbersome and intrusive.  By the time that I had observed something going on, turned on the camera, swung it around and started filming, the incident would have been over.  In addition, the use of this equipment might well have changed the dynamics of the social life around me.  Thus, I felt that simple observation aided by pen and paper was better adapted to my purposes.

[5] We need to be careful, however, not to simply assume that the rituals are the same as courtesy.  Courtesy is a kind of ritual and there is an overlap, indeed there is a large overlap here.  However, rituals are different from etiquette in that these binding rituals can be more local in their origin. 

[6] An informal review of Goffman’s oeuvre indicates that he only really referred to mediated interaction at one point, this occurring in Relations in Public in the chapter on Tie-Signs when he discusses ruses associated with the use of the telephone (Goffman 1971, 220 - 222).

[7] Another argument that Collins makes here is that, in the case of highly dramatic events wherein there is a rapid and perhaps unexpected resolution (the come from behind goal scored in the closing seconds) there is seemingly a need to immediately share emotion with others who are also co-present in a type of feedback loop.

[8] Standage also describes “telegraph marriages” wherein the meeting and courting were carried out via the telegraph (1998).

[9] Courtship among contemporary teens sometimes follows this path where there is a preliminary meeting at a party or gathering that is subsequently developed via text messages, telephone calls and eventually a second face-to-face (perhaps literally) meeting (Ling 2004a).

[10] Alternative spellings include Kooooz or Koooozy.  One can speculate that the spelling comes from the graffiti milieu and thus the spelling carries a slight outlaw illusion.

[11] The word kos (coziness) has a central role in the Norwegian culture.  To say that one has a cozy home or that it was a cozy conversation is a good complement.  Kos can also be use to indicate a hug.  For example, children are encouraged to give their grandparents a "kos" as a leave-taking gesture.  This is the cheek-to-cheek gesture that is the Lutheran version of the more expansive southern European greeting and parting routine. Thus, the concept, in its broader meaning, has a well-recognized position in the society with quite well defined nuances.     

[12] The conversational form of interaction also has this dimension.  However, the degree to which one is gifting is on a larger scale and it happens more infrequently.