When ‘wassup?’ can be construed as important communication (or, the magical unicorn text message is meaningful)

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While we may ‘pooh pooh’ what we consider banal and inane digital communications, they provide some of the most connecting and cohesive interactions we can have as human beings. The silly emoticon or joke (that we don’t get); the merged phrase: ‘wassup?’; the outrageous ‘selfie’ taken by your son or daughter showing a new haircut or colour, a nose piercing (ugh), or outfit they are trying on. The affordances of information and communication technologies (ICTs) enables these interactions with such ease, we barely notice them – except when we want the direct attention of our children!

Confronted with kids whose faces are constantly lit up by the small screens in their hands, as parents we tend to describe our kids’ behaviours as ‘banal,’ ‘inane,’ and somehow unimportant in the scheme of things. The paradox is that it is important! The everyday mundane aspect of these techno-social interactions ensures our teens remain connected with their close friends and family members. Of course, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing…

Informal communications is the key here – phatic,* idle, nonsensical communication is the stuff that keeps families connected. It’s not spoken about because it appears to be invisible. Parents are quick to point out that their kids are having inane interactions with their friends, but not so quick to notice their own ‘inane moments’ that keep communication lines open, flexible and fun. Prior to digital devices we did it differently – via the landline, or secret words or phrases for things. It is generally not documented because it is considered a silly, in the moment, almost embarrassing interaction between family members – it is taken for granted and unnoticed.

So, how do we know it’s good? Is it the number of times a day that these interactions occur? Given we are not in our children’s company at all times, is it reasonable to expect communication morning, noon and night? Herein lies the kicker to the paradox – if we expect it, then that ruins (or nullifies) the joy of the impulsivity that the interaction tends to carry with it. It has been identified that we have a number of differing types of phatic interactions* – from acknowledging someone’s presence, simple informing, to a more complex social connection. I know that as a parent of a teenager, I thoroughly enjoy receiving an impulsive, spontaneous message from my daughter that alerts me to the fact that I am in her consciousness – and I am certain that our kids feel the same, as long as we don’t cross the line to stalking or badgering! Depending on where our teenage kids are developmentally, they will be more sensitive to certain types of communication and their delivery. I’m not sure exactly how and when these lines are traipsed over, but it can be a function of being too busy to pay attention. So, the next time you get an impromptu text message with a magical motivational unicorn attached, embrace it for the joy your daughter had in finding that unicorn and sending it your way (I certainly did)!

*Phatic is defined as denoting or relating to language used for general purposes of social interaction, rather than to convey information or ask questions. Utterances such as ‘hello, how are you?’ and ‘nice morning, isn’t it?’ are phatic (Oxford English Dictionary).

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Romancing the Phone

I wonder about the way we communicate as couples – whether it is as a familiar long-time married couple or, a couple in a new aspiring romance. What happens to the quixotic nature of romance over time? Do mobile technologies facilitate romantic moments? What and how does it add to a sense of togetherness for a couple in a family? Can text messages kill romance? I do not purport to know the answer to any of these questions specifically – but I am keen to reflect on them….

In the early days of a new romance, the anticipation of any contact can be anxiety provoking; while at the same time it can lift our spirits to places we didn’t know existed. The mobile phone becomes one of the focal points for romantic interaction – messages of yearning, looking forward to the next date, and letting the other person know that they are being thought of. Years later, when we become ensconced in the routine of family life, and the spark of romance is perhaps not ignited as often – what happens to those ‘sweet nothings’ that were once a rich part of the communication diet? What role do mobile technologies play in keeping romance alive in our relationships? Can information and communication technologies (ICTs) contribute to prolonging the honeymoon period, or in accelerating its demise?

Romance pre-Internet and mobile phones:
Before the mobile phone and Internet, what rituals were in place to facilitate the deployment of romantic messages? I recall flowers being sent with a message on a card, handwritten messages or letters declaring affection and illuminating positive attributes about the recipient. Other gestures include: handwritten poetry, a ‘mix-tape’ of favourite songs, post-it notes on the fridge, or a love letter in the lunchbox. Chocolatiers and florists were important in the earliest phase of romance. The old-fashioned answering machine attached to the telephone also provided a means of leaving a message for your loved one to hear (but you had to manually rewind the tape on the machine as remote message access was not available). We used to live in an age where the majority of households did not have telephones – and to pursue an intimate tête-à-tête with a loved one, private calls would be made in public telephone booths (though the smell of urine and vile graffiti was highly incongruent with the feelings of romance associated with such a call).

Communicating in the age of mobile connectivity:

A survey conducted by AT&T to gain insight into how text messaging is being used in the modern dating scene, found that 68% of texters admitted to sending a love note via text messaging, 67% have used text messaging to flirt, and 28% text at least three times a day with their spouse or significant other. Also, 52% of texters stated that “thinking of you” messages are the most common text types received from a date or partner.

Here is a list of the most common text message expressions of affection:
• I LUV U
• MISS U
• THINKIN BOUT U
• DINNER 2NITE?
• HEY BEAUTIFUL
• UR CUTE
• XOXO
• MUAH!

Simple? Yes. Eloquent? Well… something seems to be lost in the brevity of text-speak, but perhaps I am old-fashioned? Though I must admit, I utilise the mobile phone for the purpose of letting the recipient know that I am thinking of them: my daughter on her first day back at school; my partner at his new job; friends that I have not had any contact with for a while. It gives me the illusion of the benefit of immediacy – a shorthand version of a quick conversation that I don’t have time to make. I say ‘illusion’ because the receiver may not get (or read) the message immediately (and there have been times when ‘said message’ claims to have been sent by my phone, but does not make it to the inbox of the intended beneficiary)! However, when all technologies, interactions, time and space issues conspire successfully – a feeling of ‘connectedness’ or ‘cohesion’ with a loved one ensues.

Mediated interactions and connected presence:

Researchers and theorists acknowledge that these little communiqués are part of a tapestry of mundane interactions of which social (or family) cohesion is constructed and preserved. Erving Goffman introduced the idea that we extemporise our everyday sense of social order via small individually authored interaction rituals. These ‘mediated interactions’ using the mobile phone facilitate everyday connectedness and a sense of familial cohesion. Rich Ling argues that social cohesion is advanced by mobile communication due to enabling interactions beyond copresent situations by supporting ‘virtual connected presence’ (in other words, we don’t have to be physically present to be ‘present’). In terms of new technologies, mediated communication and relationship development, there have long been conflicting schools of thought. It is contended that new technologies have ‘double lives’ of positive and negative consequences – where on the one hand computer-mediated communication (CMC) is viewed as shallow and superficial, and on the other, it frees relationships from the confines of physical locality by changing the locus of communication and interaction. Given estimates that over 5 billion text messages are sent via mobiles per day – it is clearly a part of our daily interactions.

Once upon a time (in the age prior to mobile devices) we walked alone in the world – without any technology enabling perpetual contact. When I talk to research participants now, especially older teens, the prospect of being without their mobile is outrageous – many keep their phones on them at all times. In fact, the look on their faces when I ask them if they ever turn off their phone is one of incredulity – how could I even consider asking? Why would we ever need to turn it off? Ruth Rettie asserts that conceptually the mobile phone is linked to the idea of connectedness – and that this is the paradigm of mobile phone usage.

In terms of my original questions regarding mobile technologies and romance, it seems that there is a case for the affirmative – mobile communication provides a channel of interaction that:

  • facilitates degrees of micro-coordination – organising dates, times, meeting places
  • enables expressions of affection and phatic communication – by exchanging endearments at strategic times of the day; or text messages in anticipation of an event
  • and it can extend the interaction between lovers – according to Rich Ling, actual interaction and anticipation extends beyond copresence, and plays out over a longer time period (before and after the core event)
  • fosters increased impulsivity in calls and messages, which can nurture  intimacy, spontaneity and excitement

Of course, there is a flip side where these positives can go awry due to misunderstood messages, or unexpected events…. What do you think about mobile communication and romance?