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).

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?

Family 2.0 – Communication via technology

Prompts via text message, instant message, or an actual mobile call are considered more expedient than face-to-face communication within the household – mobile technology functions as a domestic intercom unit.

Mobile phones function as a family intercom

My daughter was at a birthday party recently, where she regaled me with a tale of how the family logistically came together for the ritual of lighting the candles on the birthday cake. The 14-year-old birthday girl was having a slumber party with 3 of her girlfriends. Her 12-year-old sister also had a friend stay overnight. As the small party of girls gathered around the birthday cake (a beautifully decorated sponge filled with cream), the younger sister was upstairs in her bedroom with her friend. To alert her youngest daughter of the impending candle lighting, the mother picked up her mobile phone and proceeded to call her youngest daughter to tell her to come downstairs.

There was no attempt to call up to her, nor was anyone ordered to go and tell the younger sister to come down. No raised voices, or potential resentment for having to go and collect the missing party members – just a quick call to be told to come downstairs. The mobile telephone offers convenience – never having to yell upstairs, or across rooms! Of course, had the younger sister not answered her mobile phone, then the (old-fashioned) alternatives would undoubtedly be pursued.

Mobiles keeping us together separately?

My teenage stepdaughters, and many friends (parents included) also admit to using their mobiles, or Facebook to alert each other when dinner is ready, or if they have something to tell each other, but cannot be bothered physically moving into the space where the other sister is.  Prompts via text message, instant message, or an actual mobile call are considered more expedient than face-to-face communication within the household – mobile technology functions as a domestic intercom unit. Is there a reliance on mobiles to keep family members connected within their homes?

There has been some research investigating communication behaviour patterns between parents and their teenage children – with a focus on text messaging as the key method of communication. In 2008, a survey conducted by AT&T and Synovate found that 73% of parents think teens are more responsive to text messages than to other forms of communication, and 56% say it makes their children easier to reach. The mobile phone provides an unobtrusive way for families to stay connected throughout the day for purposes of logistical coordination, sending reminders for activities, or letting family members know they are being thought of. I can only assume that the majority of communication examined here was while family members were dispersed between home and other destinations.

More contact equals less togetherness (and more co-dependence)?

This leads me to ponder about the way family members maintain connectedness, and how connected is connected enough? Susan Maushart asked the same question and wrote a book about her journey. In her family, she observed that “the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to cohere as a family” (p. 6). With the convenience of SMS, IM, email and social networking, we can remain connected with our family members without being with them. On the one hand, this is great – to be able to let family members know what is happening, when you will be home, what’s for dinner or that you are thinking of them. On the other hand, at what point do these messages (examples include: whassup? BBIAB = be back in a bit, E2EG = ear-to-ear grin, where’s the vegemite?) become inane, trivial and irritating? Do these digital exchanges promote loving relationships and enhance family satisfaction? Or do they encourage co-dependence among family members? Also, is the digital contact different for different family structures or contexts? I have noticed (anecdotally) that single parents may inculcate greater dependence via mobile devices as a means for perpetuating contact with their children. The family dynamic (patterns of relating to each other) is different, and as such the technology may be used differently when compared to two-parent households. How does your family maintain  connectedness?

Shiny, bright new things

As we demand to have the next, newest, more shiny brighter version of the thing we had before, (iphone 4, 4G, new generation iPad, Android technology, etc), what are the emotions attached to the ‘old’ thing? Is it contempt or disappointment because it has become slow and obsolete (and so quickly)? Each newer generational ‘thing’ has better inbuilt processing, more power, is smaller to carry, comes in a variety of colours and shapes, and can clean your house and prepare your evening meal (I wish) too! Once upon a time we had the same TV or fridge for over 20 years (okay – I had a Westinghouse fridge that was my parents’ before it became mine, until it imploded at 35 years – a very good innings). Now we seem to replace our technology at regular intervals.

Teens and mobile devices

Children may misplace their mobile phones, and while parents wait a few weeks to see if it will turn up, they are resigned to the fact that it will be replaced with a new one. In my own research so far, all the families have experienced the ‘missing mobile’ by one of their teens. One teen claimed the dog ate her phone! Another 13-year-old teen took her brand new Blackberry to the beach and swam with it. Only when she had to call her parents to pick her up, did she realise that her smart phone was missing (still swimming without her)! Similar instances occur with gaming apparatus, digital cameras, and mp3 players. I have also heard stories from teens about their own desire for newer, better phones and how they purposely ‘misplace’ or destroy their unwanted device in order to get an updated one.

Nostalgia for the old?

It seems that there is little or no nostalgia associated to our technological gadgets. Marketing departments perpetuate the need for the new – and yet, some of the old stuff does become valuable (eventually). Our children have enormous influence over our purchase decisions, and this has an impact on the moral economy of the household. We are encouraged to dispose of our unused technology (for the potential harm caused to the environment) – there is no room for nostalgic mementos in this context.

This sparks a memory associated with a Dr Seuss story: The Lorax, where the Once-ler developed the “thneed” which is a fine something-that-all-people-need! It’s a shirt. It’s a sock. It’s a glove! It’s a hat! But it has other uses, yes, far beyond that. You can use it for carpets, for pillows, for sheets, for curtains! Or covers for bicycle seats!

“I meant no harm. I most truly did not.

But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.

I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads.

I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads

of the Thneeds I shipped out. I was shipping them forth

to the South! To the East! To the West! To the North!

I went right on biggering … selling more Thneeds.

And I biggered my money, which everyone needs.”

And again it seems that history repeats…………

Family 2.0 Communication

‘Family version 2.0’ is utlising omnipresent media and technology to enable the management of busy households, and to negotiate and mediate between traditional and modern family values.

Research commissioned by Yahoo and OMD in 2006:  It’s a Family Affair: the Media Evolution of Global Families in a Digital Age investigated how family life is enhanced by today’s technology. The research project combined results from polling more than 4,500 online families in 16 countries with in-home interviews and scrapbooks tracking media and technology usage by families in seven countries. Consistent global themes include a revival in traditional values, and an acknowledgment that the “always on” nature of technology emphasises the need to also focus on low-tech activities such as playing board games and dining together. Does this mean that families might be doing more activities together, albeit at times separately? Even traditional board games are available as ‘apps’ on the iPad or smart phones – you don’t need to be in the same room to make your moves on the board. In fact, I noticed a young man (late teens/early twenties) with his girlfriend, while waiting for a take away meal (to have dinner with my family) take out his Iphone from his back pocket intermittently during the 20 minute wait. I was sitting beside him and saw that he was making a move on a Backgammon board via his screen – clearly playing a game with someone else. It has been some years since I last played Backgammon – and was delighted at the idea that it is still being played electronically (though I can’t imagine rolling the dice via a phone is nearly as exciting as the real thing – but I’m old fashioned that way)!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Technology enhances communication
The Yahoo study found that parents and children, far from being divided by technological advances, were actually taking control of that technology and simultaneously integrating it, using it to increase control of their own lives. Seventy percent of respondents said that technology allowed them to stay in better touch with family. Mobile phones are a means of communication for 29 percent of families, and instant messaging for 25 percent.

And in my own research this finding is being echoed – that mobile devices aid communication in the family context. These devices are also increasing the amount of activities that we are doing at any one time.

The 43 hour day

By combining previously individual pursuits such as watching the TV, surfing the internet, using email and listening to MP3s all in the same room at the same time, the survey claims that families are reporting up to 43 hours of daily activities in each 24 hour period. Multi-tasking extends our daily activities – we pack a lot more into our time (whether this is quality time spent will be discussed in a future blog).

The Yahoo/OMD study was conducted 5 years ago, and a lot can happen in that time.  The picture of Family 2.0 is a paradoxical portrait – where it seems families are more connected due to technology, but spending time apart doing things together. I will provide greater detail to that picture in future blogs.

Taking our technology from home and on holiday

Once upon a time information and communication technologies (ICTs) were unfamiliar and mysterious to us, simultaneously exciting and threatening. Over time, and with experimentation, our experience and confidence with it has increased. Now technology is like a family pet – a ‘domesticated animal’ and part of our everyday lives. It is familiar to us, it no longer holds exotic appeal, and is just a part of the mundane family routine.

 Our homes are filled with a plethora of technological devices including multiple television sets, personal computers, digital music players, fixed and mobile telephones, fax machines, DVD players and electronic game consoles – the family home is a communication hub, enabling family members to perform many activities in a variety of times and spaces. In many cases, the home is better equipped than our offices and work places! The Australian Media and Communication Authority (ACMA) has published numerous reports supporting the notion of ‘media rich’ family homes. It has been found that socio-economic and demographic characteristics, such as household income, parent education, whether we are couples, or single parents, or where we are located, are not barriers to accessing electronic media (at least in Australia). Some of the statistics and trends include:

  •  As at June 2010, approximately 89% of Australians aged 14 years and over were estimated to have used the Internet as some point in their life (ACMA Communications Report 2009-2010):
  • Of those Australians using the Internet, the home and work environment remained the most common sites of Internet use, with 95% of Internet use being at home, and 46% of Internet use at work (ACMA 2010)
  • Teens and young adults are the heaviest (online more than 15 hours per week) Internet users
  • We are increasingly accessing the Internet via mobile devices
  • Technological advances make new technology affordable and available – and families adapt and transform these technologies to meet their own purposes
  • Technology inhabits numerous sites in the home and in multiple quantities, pervading every nook in the domestic realm

 It is clear that our homes are embedded with technological devices – from the humble TV to complex home theatres; a dinosaur desktop computer to small laptops and tablet technology. Communicating, research, shopping, banking, entertainment and distractions are a click or finger swipe away.

 What happens when we leave the comfort of home? In our everyday lives we have access to wireless mobility via smart phones and other portable devices. Is this having an impact on how we spend our time? Could it be changing our habits and behaviours when we take a family outing or holiday?

 The summer holiday period has recently come to an end – a good time to reflect on what we did, how we did it, and what we managed to live without! I was able to take a few days away in Queensland (before the floods) and spend a few glorious days on the beach at Labrador. I am one of those people that prefer to be as unencumbered as possible when at the beach – so you generally won’t be able to contact me via mobile phone when I am enjoying the sun, sand, and surf. However, I wonder if I am in a minority – many people appeared to have their phones with them at the beach. Given that our mobiles are multi-functional devices, this is not surprising – we can take a photo of a great moment, keep in touch with loved ones, and send our bosses emails too (although that idea tends to negate the concept of being on holiday). However, remaining ‘connected’ via mobile devices on family outings appears to affect the quality of our interactions.

 What I observed in this beach environment were groups of mothers with their toddlers arranging themselves to have instant access to their Iphones or Blackberries (or other smart phones). Some of the mum’s did not let go of their phones for the duration of their beach stay. They were either talking on their phone, texting, or scrolling through information. At no point did they enter the water, or appear to play with their toddlers – always maintaining one hand and full eye contact with their smart screens. One toddler begged her mother for attention while the mother kept one hand on the phone, eyes locked on the screen, and the other hand was waving beckoningly in the air as if to convey “see, I am paying attention…watch the hand.” There were other parents that were more involved with their children, engaging in water play, sandcastle building and the locating of hermit crabs. Mobile phones were not in-hand, but when a ringtone was heard, play would be paused for the call to be answered, until the call was over. Reports in the media are surfacing about the ‘chronic media distraction’ that parents are suffering from by being stuck in the Blacberry zone  or continuously plugged in. Whilst at the beach, are we searching, scrolling and sending rather than slipping, slopping and slapping?

 I also spent some time on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, meandering my way through the foreshore of Rye and Rosebud. I walked through the camping grounds and saw some amazing setups that were the campers’ equivalent of the Taj Mahal. Many sites had their own TVs (that were left on, while the campers were out – same media habits, different location); most had radios/CD players, some had DVD players, laptops and numerous portable digital devices. The comforts of home can still be enjoyed while camping. Many holiday destinations offer wi fi connectivity – so we never have to miss out on Facebook updates, emails or our favourite TV shows. The mobile phone offers a great alternative to the baby monitoring device (though our babies are now teens – and they do not always respond to our prompts for information or attention)!

A lot of interpersonal interaction is being displaced by instant messaging (IM) or phone text-messages (SMS). This means that our intimate family conversations have a digital afterlife – I do not know what the implications of this phenomenon might be – other than the prospect of having traces of past conversations cut and paste to create new meanings in different contexts. Will we censor ourselves more? This is an entirely different topic that I will pursue in a future blog. In the meantime, I simply wanted to share some of my observations (and some of the photographs I took associated with them). It would be great to hear what other people have seen, heard or experienced in relation to family interactions, technology and being on holiday.