There are ritual sayings in social interaction. Having come from a high-context culture (E. T. Hall, 1976, Beyond Culture), I am interested in ritualised conversations, particularly conversational openers and closers. In Korea, for example, one says “Let’s have a shot of soju sometime soon (조만간 소주나 한 잔 하자)” instead of “Bye”. I have somewhere seen an Ig Nobel kind of study having calculated the statistical probability of two people actually meeting each other and drinking soju within the coming weeks after saying so, which was lower than that of Korea making it through to a semi-final of the FIFA World Cup. We once did it, by the way.
A generally loved closer is “Keep me posted”. I was very amused when a friend said to me “Keep me texted” instead a couple of days ago. I have then realised I myself often say something like that to others, too. I have also realised that it is not only I say so but also I exchange quite a few aimless messages with others in the course of a day. I consciously avoid the word ‘meaningless’ here as I don’t want to discount the importance of the act of exchanging such texts, which is probably one of the most essential features of mobile phone communication.
Last April, I had a chance to attend a talk titled “Discussing the Meaning of the Mobile Phone” by Leopoldina Fortunati at LSE. I couldn’t have nodded more vigorously in agreement when she pointed out that we overcommunicate these days ‘thanks to’ our mobile phones, in the we-do-because-we-can sense. An example from her observation, which I share, was that from the moment of landing to the moment of walking through the airport gate, passengers keep calling or texting, simply in order to tell those on the other end of the phone where they are: “I am still in the queue for passport control”, “I have just picked up my luggage”, et cetera, et cetera. Likewise, when I was doing a group research project about the language of text messages during the DEA programme in Grenoble, one of the most frequently appearing text messages among those collected from 39 questionnaires was “T où? (Whr R U?)”. Speaking of which, an interesting attempt to understand this phenomenon from an ontological perspective was made in the form of the book, T’es où ? : ontologie du téléphone portable by Maurizio Ferraris (Nov 2006), which I am waiting to read.
When I was young in my PhD, I wasn’t quite convinced that I should discuss Internet communication and mobile phone communication strictly distinguishing one from the other. However, as I look at both more attentively, their inherent differences are quite obvious. The uniqueness of the mobile phone lies in the fact that it has gone beyond its original duty as a telecommunication tool. Like James Stewart wittily composes, mobiles phones are cigarettes for the 21st century. Moreover, according to a study reported in BBC news (22 July 2004), users tend to cuddle their mobiles – a possible replacement for pets? Indeed, technologies have almost always been appropriated by users in the ways that their inventors wouldn’t quite have imagined, haven’t they?