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Social Media & the Phaticization of Culture

April 23, 2012

By Greg Graham

I recently received a message on my Facebook Wall from an unfamiliar name: “hello, my graham. I just stopped in to say hello.” When I clicked on the person’s name, I could tell that we went to high school together because we had several high school classmates in common. When I finally figured out who he was, I returned a message on his Facebook Wall: “hey Jessie, how’s it going?” I haven’t spoken to this gentleman in thirty years, and if I passed him on the street, I wouldn’t know it, yet there we were, trading small talk on the World Wide Web.

Malinowski’s Phatic Communion

Small talk first came into focus through the research of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. After working with the Melanesian tribes of Eastern New Guinea, Malinowski published an essay entitled “The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages” in 1923. In that essay, he coined the phrase “phatic communion” to refer to verbal exchanges that primarily serve a social purpose. He contended that phatic communion, what we today call small talk, is a speech act “in which the ties of union are created by a mere exchange of words.” Words used in phatic communion are not meant to transmit thought or stimulate reflection, but rather to break the silence and “establish links of fellowship, which is consummated only by the breaking of bread and the communion of food.” Malinowski asserted that this is language’s primitive function—a universal speech act common in “savage” and advanced societies alike. Though the term “phatic communication” was eventually preferred by linguists and anthropologists over Malinowski’s “phatic communion,” communion specifically pointed to the relational rather than informational nature of small talk. When I greet the woman at the grocery store check-out line with “How’s it going?” I don’t really want to know how she is doing; I am simply acknowledging her as a fellow human being and eliminating the awkward silence. Per Malinowski, a lack of spoken social intercourse is universally seen as “not only unfriendliness, but directly a bad character.” This is especially true where I live in the southern United States, where a friendly “howdy” to complete strangers is the norm, but Malinowski found some degree of this type of speech act in every culture.

Phatic communion goes beyond mere greetings. As Malinowski put it, “after the first formula, there comes a flow of language, purposeless expressions of preference or aversion, accounts of irrelevant happenings, comments on what is perfectly obvious” (314). We’ve all commented to friends and strangers about how hot it is or how tired we are or how bad the traffic was; we have endless small talk expressions. In today’s digital world, we not only have endless expressions, but we now have a multitude of channels through which this chit chat with friends, family, and acquaintances takes place. That’s why sociologist Vincent Miller, whose scholarly work informs much of this paper, describes our society today as a “phatic culture.” As he sees it, social media have led to “a flattening of social bonds as we move into ‘networked sociality’ (Wittel, 2001), and a similar ‘flattening’ of communication in these networks towards the non-dialogic and noninformational.” Flattening doesn’t sound too good, unless it’s your stomach, but it seems especially undesirable in relationships and conversations.

Social media such as Facebook and Twitter provide the ultimate forum for phatic communion that is “largely motivated less by having something to say (i.e. communicating some kind of information), than it is by the obligation or encouragement to say ‘something’ to maintain connections or audiences, to let one’s network know that one is still ‘there’” (Miller 393). Every day there are fresh opportunities for mediated connection with new or old friends, and a social networker’s number of “friends” is constantly expanding. But I can’t help wondering if the concept of “friend” isn’t getting spread precariously thin. As Miller puts it:

Close members of one’s inner circle sit alongside strangers under the same banner in an endlessly expanding horizontal network, thus compressing social relations and eliminating context. The only context present is the egocentric nature of the network itself. In other words, friends as a whole create the context in which one’s profile sits and from which identity emerges. (393)

Social media promote a communicative practice more interested in making and keeping connections than in telling stories or engaging in vibrant dialogue, resulting in the phaticization of culture.

Connected Presence

In his book The Transformation of Intimacy, sociologist Anthony Giddens observes that late modern people live increasingly “disembedded” lives, meaning we are less connected to contexts of tradition, history, and space. This disembeddedness kindles the longing for the affirming presence of others. As Giddens puts it, “late modern subjects gravitate toward relationships which engender trust through constant communication” (qtd. in Miller 389). Technological advances have made these relationships possible through what Christian Licoppe calls “connected presence.” A professor in the sociology of technology, Liccope identifies a changing social landscape, where common practice is “the ‘connected’ management of relationships, in which the (physically) absent party renders himself or herself present by multiplying mediated communication gestures up to the point where co present interactions and mediated communication seem woven in a seamless web” (135). In other words, today it is possible for people to always “be there” for one another via various electronic devices (connected presence), thus filling in the gaps when they are not physically together (co presence). For instance, after waving goodbye and watching a loved one drive away, one might send an affirming text message: “love you,” “take care,” “drive safely.” The departing friend might then send out numerous electronic messages to a list of friends updating them on any interesting sights he takes in on the road trip home. So, even though they are apart, in one sense they are still very much together. What was space-age fantasy only twenty years ago has now become a reality.

Today’s young people are growing up in a world where constant phatic communion is the norm. Their lives are filled with online instant messaging, social networking through websites such as Facebook and MySpace, text messaging with cell phones, and Twitter. Twitter can serve as a powerful networking tool around serious subject matter. After all, it played a prominent role in recent political movements in the Middle East, Moldova, and the United States. However, for most users (especially teens), Twitter primarily serves a phatic purpose. A microblogging service started in 2006, Twitter combines elements of social media, blogging, and text messaging. Participants use their cell phones or the web to constantly post brief messages – often devoid of substantive content – that simply update their social network about what they are doing: “going to the store,” “feeling overwhelmed with this paper,” “enjoying the beautiful day.” The purpose of this kind of “tweet” is primarily phatic; participants simply want to stay connected to one another. Similarly, Facebook has a distinctly phatic feature called the poke. “The poke is an inbuilt function that was created by Facebook ‘without any specific purpose’” (Vetere, Smith and Gibbs 9). The idea behind the poke is to simply let the recipient know you are there and thinking about him or her. Facebook also has a chat feature, which works much like other instant messaging applications. Again, the typical language used in a chat conversation is brief and shallow. Though it can be used to convey information, the most common function of online chatting is a phatic one.

The most prevalent mediator of phatic communion is the mobile phone. Research indicates that cell phone calls are shorter and more frequent than landline conversations (Licoppe 142). Though these conversations sometimes serve the purpose of conveying information, quite often their use is purely phatic. Again quoting Licoppe:

Rather than constructing a shared experience by telling each other about small and big events during the day and the week, interlocutors exchange small expressive messages signaling a perception, a feeling, or an emotion, or requiring from the other person the same type of expressive message. In the case of a very close relationship, these calls tend to be as frequent as possible because the more that this presence maintained over a distance through mobile phones is continuous, the more reassuring it is in terms of the link. (147)

Text messaging takes us one step further down the phatic path. Nokia boldly proclaims “mobile messaging is the modern way to communicate. It’s instant, location independent, and personal” (qtd. In Reid and Reid 1). It is hard to dispute Nokia’s point. Through text messaging, people maintain a contextless sense of immediacy with their closest friends. In research done with two groups of undergraduate students at Bond University in Australia, Lacohee, Wakeford, and Pearson found that text messages between students were “low in information, but high in ‘social grooming,’ i.e. letting someone know that you are thinking about them” (qtd. in Horstmanshof and Power 47). Horstmanshof and Power also found that young people often fill empty time by sending out multiple text messages, counting on the likelihood that at least one of the hooks they have put in the water will get a bite (46).

Are we more connected, or less?

In 2008, sociologist Richard Ling published a book entitled New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication Is Reshaping Social Cohesion. He asserts that mobile communication enhances the connection between a participant and her friends and family, but this is sometimes at the expense of interaction with those who are in the same room (3). In other words, a young lady who is constantly exchanging text messages with her boyfriend while out with the girls might be doing a good job at maintaining her connection with her boyfriend, but she is robbing her girlfriends of her full attention in the process.

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece, Thomas Friedman reflects on a recent trip to Paris. He laments that he never actually talked with the driver who picked him up at the airport and taxied him to his hotel room (they were together for one hour). The driver was on his cell phone the whole time, while he was on his laptop and had his iPod in his ears. Friedman wonders if the journalistic tradition of getting good quotes from local taxi drivers is waning, then worries “that technology is dividing us as much as uniting us.” This certainly appears to be the case with taxi drivers, as New York City is currently considering implementing a system that will disable cell phone use in the front seat of taxis. Apparently, their constant chattering on cell phones is a safety concern and a “nuisance to passengers.” One cabbie responded that they should put cell-phone blockers in the back seat instead (Martins and Donohue). Divided indeed. Horstmanshof and Power come to a conclusion similar to Friedman’s:

In the past, a journey, particularly a journey to the other side of the world, would be seen as an opportunity to take another perspective, and to be influenced by new contacts and to make new friends. However, if, via the mobile phone and inexpensively through SMS, people are able to remain in constant contact with friends already known, travel may not be so broadening. (44)

Indeed, the capacity for continuous mediated interaction has not only begun to blur the boundaries between absence and presence (Licoppe 136), but Grant & Keisler and Green have also identified a collapsing of distinctions between private and public spheres of life (qtd. in Mazmanian, Orlikowski and Yates 4). Green identifies this blurring

as a “kind of spatial and temporal boundary rearrangement” (Green, 2002, p. 287), finding that the use of cell phones encourages the embedding of “public” activities and responsibilities into private time and space (e.g., the home), as well as the integration of private commitments and relationships into the public sphere… this potentially fragments both “public” and “private” interactions, “collapsing each into the other.” (qtd. in Mazmanian, Orlikowski and Yates 4)

A fifth grade teacher, for example, recently told me about a colleague who had cancelled a field trip due to inclement weather. “The weather wasn’t really that bad,” she said, “but the teacher commented that parents are not much help anymore because they just stand around talking or texting on their cell phones.” In each of these examples, connected presence supersedes physical presence; mediated communication prevails over face-to-face interaction; virtual reality wins out over personal relationship.

Where do we go from here?

In a chapter in a forthcoming book entitled Awareness Systems, Frank Vetere examines emerging phatic technologies and applauds how they sustain sociability. Numerous studies have chronicled the increased flow of information through ubiquitous computing, but only recently have researchers considered the significance of new media technology as a channel for phatic communion. Vetere and his colleagues at the University of Melbourne, Australia, are among a growing number of specialists from a wide variety of disciplines who are enthusiastically pointing the way toward achieving “a feeling of ongoing connectedness” via technology (5).

The authors mention “wasting time” with a loved one as a valuable expression of caring. They also point to the improvement in health that aged people experience when they interact with their grandchildren. More than a simple phone call, Vetere et al. say that “studies have shown that a more personal, richer context, such as play activity, is required.” (6) However, Vetere et al. are uncritical proponents of emerging phatic technology that promises to virtually provide personal, richer play between grandparents and grandchildren, as well as phatic tools that will encourage intimacy between loved ones. Not only are they lauding this type of technology, they are promoting their own products! Need more intimacy? There’s SynochroMate and Hug-over-a-distance, a couple of handheld devices designed to be the next best thing to being there (Vetere, Smith and Gibbs 8). Want to bond with the grandkids? There’s an interactive touch-screen based display called “Collage” (Vetere, Smith and Gibbs 9).

Two social geographers in neighboring New Zealand were unable to control their excitement about “digital sociality” when they proclaimed that “the machine and the human, in a cyborgian sense, meld to develop new and complex workings of space and the social which suggests mobile technologies are not as damaging to young people as many have suggested and calls for preventative approaches to this technology might need therefore to be rethought” (Thompson and Cupples 95). Thompson and Cupples interviewed numerous teenagers and found that a meaningful bond has been established between teens and their phones (101). Mobile phones have become an irreplaceable extension of teens, enabling social achievements heretofore unattainable. The bottom line for Thompson and Cupples is that teens and technology “entangle themselves and each other in a hybrid network” (104). We might as well accept it, they seem to be saying, and embrace the new “digital sociality.”

Going one step further, Ralph Schroeder of the Oxford Internet Institute envisions a future where Shared Virtual Environments (SVEs) are an end-state—“a purely mediated relationship in which the user of the SVE technology experiences co-presence with others in a fully immersive environment.” In other words, he is asking us to consider a future in which users could live together (though not in the same physical location) completely immersed in a virtual world (Schroeder 438). Schroeder asserts that “purely mediated inter-personal relations” should not be regarded as inferior to face-to-face interaction; they should be viewed as simply different ways of being together (451). From that perspective, all phatic communion is equal; thus, all phatic technologies can be uncritically embraced.

I realize that these proponents of phatic technologies see a wonderful opportunity for engendering new levels of phatic communion. They might even think of these products as mitigating the disembeddedness of late modern society. But the evidence seems to point to the need—at the very least—for a critical evaluation of these new technologies and the quality of phatic communion they implement. Many enjoy the feeling of being always connected, but there are a variety of negative responses as well: resentment, resistance, and rebellion. In an interview about the use of cell phones, three male college students expressed their resentment about the demands being placed on them for “social grooming.” One picked up his cell phone and exclaimed “Really, this has made my life hell!” (Horstmanshof and Power 43). Another of the students did not replace his lost cell phone because he “was concerned about losing control over his time and his own agenda” (Horstmanshof and Power 41). Thomas Friedman tells of a friend who didn’t replace his stolen cell phone. When Friedman asked him why, he said the phone was constantly breaking his concentration. As a matter of fact, the friend quipped, “the first thing I do every morning is thank the thief and wish him a long life” (Friedman).

I have personally witnessed my thirteen-year-old son swimming in a virtual soup of digital phatic communion. Sitting in front of the computer screen with a cell phone in his left hand and a mouse in his right, he conducts one or two text messaging conversations while scanning his long list of “friends” on Facebook. Some are “poking” him, while others are greeting him through the chat application. He soaks in it, pleased with every ping and beep that tells him he is being thought of, even wanted. And I have to ask myself if this is good for him, if this “connected presence” is helping or hurting his relationships with his friends and family.

The late modern pursuit of the ultimate “connected presence” has led to one amazing technological development after another; but the question remains: are we more connected, or less? Or, as Malinowski might ask, are we enjoying one another more, or less?

Works Cited

Friedman, Thomas L. “The Taxi Driver.” The New York Times 1 November 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/01/opinion/01friedman.html .

Horstmanshof, Louise and Mary R Power. “Mobile phones, SMS, and relationships.” Australian Journal of Communication (2005): 33-52.

Licoppe, Christian. “”Connected” presence: the emergence of a new repertoire for managing social relationships in a changing communication technoscape.”   Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2004): 135-156.

Ling, Rich. New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication Is Reshaping Social Cohesion. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. “The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages.” Richards, C.K. Ogden and I.A. The Meaning of Meaning. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1923. 296-336.

Martins, Andrew and Pete Donohue. “Taxi and Limousine Commission mulls cell-phone blockers to keep cab drivers from using mobile phones.” Daily News 14 April 2009: Local Section.

Mazmanian, Melissa, Wanda J. Orlikowski and JoAnne Yates. “Crackberrys: Exploring the Social Implications of Ubiquitous Email Devices.” EGOS. Bergen, 2006: 1-26.

Miller, Vincent. “New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies (2008): 387-400.

Paul Budde Communication. Report Information. 20 February 2008. 27 April 2009 <http://www.marketresearch.com/product&gt;.

Puente, Maria. “The popularity of Twitter has some relationships in a twist.” USA Today 17 April 2009: Lifestyle.

Reid, Donna and Fraser Reid. Insights into the Social and Psychological Effects of SMS Text Messaging. Research Paper. Plymouth: University of Plymouth, 2004.

Schroeder, Ralph. “Being There Together and the Future of Connected Presence.” Presence: Teleoperators & Virtual Environments (2006): 438–454.

Thompson, Lee and Julie Cupples. “Seen and not heard? Text messaging and digital sociality.” Social & Cultural Geography (2008): 95-108.

Vetere, Frank, Jeremy Smith and Martin Gibbs. “Phatic Interactions: Being Aware and Feeling Connected.” al, P. Markopoulos et. Awareness Systems. London:    Springer-Verlag, 2009 (forthcoming). 1-12.

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6 Comments
  1. “virtual reality wins out over personal relationship.”

    I see this stark duality expressed often by technophobes, but ‘virtual’ does not imply ‘impersonal’. When we limit the idea of “relationship” to a F2F meeting, I think we severely limit the collective power of ideas to change the world — we limit the quality of human experience to locality. I see great benefit to humanity in combined virtual and F2F relationships. I don’t see one “winning” over another (as this essay implies). Rather than being mutually exclusive, I see them working together as the new normal in the way we define ourselves as human.

    • Thanks for the comment. Though I agree that F2F and virtual provide complimentary learning opportunities (such as the one provided in our exchange), my point is that many of the values inherent in technology (speed, efficiency, etc) are in conflict with age-old practices used on the path to becoming better humans (reflection, humility, etc).

  2. I hesitate assigning “inherent values” to technologies, but am open-minded. Seems more likely that, wrt technology, values follow intentionality. A microprocessor is nothing until an individual turns it on and decides how to use it. I tend to agree with Kevin Kelly’s analysis of net benefit – there are a lot of unhelpful uses of technology today, but overall, I see a world becoming less fragmented, less blind to political and religious abuses, more open to new ideas (almost by default), more participatory, more aware of suffering, etc., etc.. Greg, I wonder if “flattening” isn’t a net good thing, in context of tribes, political borders, religion, and general global empathy.

    • It seems pretty clear to me that modern technologies, dating back at least as far as the telegraph and train, have been all about speed and efficiency. In a free market system, speed and efficiency equals success; slowness and inefficiency equals failure. The best thing I have read on this topic is Tyranny of the Moment: Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age by Thomas Hylland Eriksen.

      I recognize the beauty of the participatory aspect of the internet (like this conversation we’re having). However, rather than ushering in McLuhan’s global village, the evidence indicates an increase in what Zygmut Bauman calls nichification and tribalization. For example, a person I’m very close to was once very open-minded toward people who were different from him in his community as he interacted with them in business and local politics. Now this person spends most of his time online with people who mostly think and look just like him. In the process, he has become more close-minded than before. Reality, I’m afraid, is much different than the dream.

      • Efficiency, yes. I think most would agree that the wheel and fire have been a net positive. But it’s deeper than mere efficiency and speed. I would suggest that the creation of technology is less about utility and far more about innate human creativity. Trying to limit creatives from creating may be like trying to alter the creative energy of the universe. I think we are all part of a grand creative continuum. It’s not just what we do, it’s the essence of who we are.

        Interesting (and somewhat sad) story about your friend. My experience has been profoundly different.

      • Friend (wish I knew your name) I have no doubt that your experience has been different. One of my contentions regarding the impact of digital media is that the ones doing the analysis (thinkers, academics, intellectually curious) fail to view the experience through the eyes of the rest of the population. I’m working on a piece that points to the problem of being “Inside the Discourse,” thus having difficulty imagining the experience of those on the outside, particularly children.

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