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Mobile Technologies of Social Mediation

It's Wednesday, probably, and I've arrived in Colorado for the 2013 Association of Internet Researchers conference in Denver. Today, though, I've made my way to Boulder to meet with the fabulous Project EPIC research group around Leysia Palen, who have done a great deal of leading-edge research into the use of social media in crisis communication.

The first speaker at our impromptu research symposium today is Rich Ling, though, who is interested in the changes brought by mobile technology to our ways of communicating. Mobile phones have made a real impact on how social ties operate - there's now a kind of bounded solidarity, Rich says, which builds on a number of foundations: rituals which are catalysts social cohesion (but traditionally have required co-presence); everyday ritualised interactions, which are more collectively determined and operating on a small-scale, interpersonal basis; the transition from direct to mediated interaction with the growing role of online interactions in recent decades; and the distinction between failed and successful rituals (the former of which destroy rather than generate social cohesion).

Bounded solidarity is built on ritual interaction, then, but drawing especially on the affordances of mobile communication which make us always available to the people in our intimate social sphere. Large-scale research into mobile phone interactions (calls and text messages) has found that some 50% of calls are to only two or three people; half of all SMSes we send are to about six key contacts. This is also variable by age: teenagers' interactions are with a slightly larger group of people, but this declines with advancing age (and girls' social circles are slightly larger than boys').

Beyond the personal utility of mobile tools, they've now become a necessity: we can't conduct our personal lives without our mobile technology any more. Mobile phones have become a social fact, in Durkheimian language (like money or language, for example, which we cannot do without if we seek to interact socially). Another way of seeing this is that mobile technology has become an iron cage, in Weber's terms - an inescapable necessity.

How can we identify such technologies of social mediation more generally? Key requirements are critical mass, a supporting ideology, changes in the social ecology, and reciprocal expectations of use. Timekeeping is a social mediation technology, for example - a coordinated universal time system came to be widely accepted and led to conventions and expectations of punctuality, and its disappearance would fundamentally disrupt much of society.

Mobile communication is beginning to fulfil most of these criteria. There is critical mass, social legitimation (even if there remain critiques and challenges), and even expectations that everyone is contactable through mobile technologies - the absence of people from the mobile network for whatever reason is now a problem for their contacts, and a disadvantage for them themselves.

After the terrorist attack in Oslo happened, for example, local users almost immediately called their closest contacts in their networks through their mobile phones; they followed up with the next most important connections just after this. This demonstrates how much the mobile phone is structured into the expectations of availability within our social networks today. And this goes not only for people in the immediate disaster area in Oslo, who would have been more likely to have been affected, but also for people well outside the city.