Australia’s mobile communications industry has been slower to embrace the convergence of digital communication technology compared to other areas of the Asia-Pacific region, in particular Japan. However, the introduction of new mobile networks and spread of broadband (albeit still limited in some areas) has given Australians opportunities to experience the new technosocial communications. As a result mobile communication resources have become embedded within a sociocultural infrastructure that is at once mobile, personalised and consumerist. This paper examines how the iGeneration (or ‘Internet Generation’, those born in the first half of the 1980s and who were the first to grow up in a networked and communications media driven society) of young Australians have taken up and embraced the mobile technologies as part of their everyday sociability.
This journal issue is concerned to understand the significance of the convergence of mobile media. In this paper ‘mobile’ is taken to refer to the range of digital media that are owned and used by the iGeneration. These can include mobile phones, laptops, computers alongside an array of other digital social software and Web 2.0 resources such as email, Social Networking Systems (SNS), e.g. Facebook, that enable individuals to situate themselves and communicate across their social networks. The discussion that follows will touch on all of these mobile communication resources. It is argued that these should be seen as more than technical tools, as they offer a constant ‘tether’ to personalised and intimate connections (Ito et al, 2005). This in itself is significant because the emphasis is on a digitally mobile and connected sociability rather than any single device or piece of software. It will be concluded that this connected sociability means that for the iGeneration there is a seamless movement across what has been previously depicted as an off/online and disembodied dichotomy.
Researching the iGeneration
The paper draws on the data from 40 in-depth and open-ended interviews with undergraduate students who were in the last term of their first year at University in Australia in 2006. The conventions of anonymity have been followed to ensure that no individual may be identified. All interviews were digitally recorded (with permission) and detailed analysis undertaken utilising AtlasTi. The analysis involved identifying themes and issues as they emerged from reading and re-reading of the data.
This group was chosen as they had established non-university social networks and new connections amongst university peers. The focus on what constitutes one of the more privileged sections of young people in terms of education, if not material resources, is appropriate in a study that seeks to explore those who are likely to be able to take advantage of innovative communications technology. Extracts from the interview data for this paper, are not intended to be representative, but rather are used for illustrative purposes.
The diffusion of communications media has become ubiquitous amongst the iGeneration who are socially, temporally and spatially mobile and likely to immerse themselves in their social connections. This is a generation that has been said to “inhabit a different world” (Muller), where seemingly unregulated flows of information and methods of staying in touch with others ‘situate’ social lives as part of mobile sociability. Part of this more mobile sociability is the crossover between global and localised connections. Indeed, globalisation theorists have emphasised how the world is characterised by the flows of such information. Urry has paid particular attention to the forms of mobility that take place in a society characterised by the exchange and sharing of information and communication practices. This paper has a narrower focus and is concerned with what might be thought of as ‘local’ communicative practices between people situated in the same city and at the same, but dispersed, institutions. Mobile communications technology takes on an increasingly ‘invisible’ sociotechnological power that underlies the structure and shapes the experience of everyday sociability and relationships (Graham). Identified as “Digital Natives” by Prensky these individuals ‘thrive’ on their constant connectivity to one another. The following quote reflects the sentiments of many of the students interviewed:
I would never be without my phone, or at least having some way of being in touch with my friends. People tend to have ties everywhere now and I find that I am always in touch at the click of a button anytime. (Jon)
Key to social interaction for the iGeneration is to be constantly ‘switched on’ and available to others. Significantly, the mediated aspects of mobile technology means that social connections are valued for their ‘liveness’, whereby interactions are expected to take place in ‘real time’. In this way the iGeneration have become both the producers and consumers of ‘live’ content where personal engagements are ‘active’. This ensures that individuals are (and are seen to be) socially and digitally engaged. The new social practices that form part of an ‘on-the-go’ and ‘ever-current’ lifestyle means that to be ‘in touch’ has taken on a new symbolic and social form. All 40 of the students interviewed mentioned that they could not ‘imagine’ being detached from their social networks, or without some form of communication device on their person. The relationship between previously defined on and offline lives, or ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ situations are not separate entities in this context. Instead they are inextricably linked together as the individual is continually socially connected. Individuals are part of a constant present-ness and engagement to what is experienced as a lived or ‘worldspace’, rather than static ‘real’/’virtual’ world duality (Steinberg cited by White). As a result members of the iGeneration have to maintain two active and dynamic social presences, one that is ‘real’ world and the other that is virtual. They are always ‘situated’ in both their embodied and disembodied digital lives, and yet this is a duality that many do not consciously recognise as they move ‘seamlessly’ across different venues for sociability. In order to remain ‘up-to-date’ communication strategies are employed, as one student explained:
Things are changing so fast, like you go away for just one day and you are just so out of the loop, things change continually and it’s nice to be part of that. It’s hard if you miss a message because then you are behind and don’t know what’s going on… you have to continue to make the effort if you want to stay in touch. (Kim)
In Goffman’s classic analysis of face-to-face interaction he revealed the complexity of social communication and the nuanced use of ‘props’ and ‘backstage work’. In a similar fashion the mediated and real time interaction amongst the iGeneration is full of symbolic meanings and rituals. Ironically in what is often thought of as a disembodied sociability, where time and place cease to matter, it is the immediacy or live presence that is valued. Thus social life rotates around the emergence of a set of continually updated communications between individuals. Social relationships are ‘reworked’ as mobile communications introduces a new layer of social connectiveness. The process of communicating with someone is not just about what is expressed, but includes a set of subjective meanings as to the ‘whom’ an individual is and value of a relationship. Successful communication and development of relations through technology require the engagement of the self with shared social conventions and representations. Mobile technology has enabled a whole generation to mobilise relationships and connections whilst ‘on the move’ in a way that strengthen social bonds and facilitates a sense of social connectedness (Wei and Lo).
Getting to Know Each Other
For members of the iGeneration traditional forms of social meetings, and indeed settings, have become modified to take into account constant social connectivity. Students employ technologies to provide new ways of ‘getting-to-know’ others and to develop relationships. In particular, SNS is used to find out about potential new friends by drawing on the profiles and connections that are displayed on resources such as Facebook. Profiles involve the creation of a virtual ‘identity’ that represents an individual and may include digital photographs, music, a detailed self-description, lists of interests and of other ‘friends’ etc. Sites such as Facebook are popular because (at the time the research was undertaken) they require an email address from an academic institution in order to join. Consequently, users trusted the information displayed on these sites and rarely questioned whether the descriptions that they read were accurate (Jones and Soltren). Not only would it be seen as breaking communicative norms to, for example fabricate an identity on Facebook, it would also be a fabrication that would be difficult to maintain across the various media that are in use. Indeed it would be ultimately pointless in terms of a sociability that moves across media and between the virtual and non-virtual domains. Such sites are geared to the student population and it is often taken-for-granted that amongst students that they will have a Facebook profile. Reflecting this university clubs and societies distribute notices of events and so forth through Facebook. Individual profiles may also display mobile phone numbers and other points of contact so that the online descriptions of the self are linked to other forms of connection. As this Melbourne student explains, these resources provide new means of ‘getting to know’ others.
The way in is different now if you are getting to know someone, before maybe you went out a few times and got to know their circle of friends, but now you can check out their MySpace profile, or send them a message on Facebook BEFORE you meet up. Just by messaging each other you know that there’s no awkwardness or danger of gaps in conversation before you get together. (Tom)
In effect the individual is digitally represented in a range of digital spaces so that a stranger can imagine or construct a sense of the ‘real’ person without ‘knowing’ or engaging with them. Such imaginings represent an important means of being on familiar terms with others and the ‘social value’ or individuals ‘place’ within a social network (Gotved). In the early stages of becoming acquainted with someone the status of the individual was related to the how frequently they were contacted and the form of interaction that took place. As noted earlier Goffman’s (1978 ) work is useful as social ceremonies and rules for interaction can be detected although these are often taken-for-granted unless people are prompted to talk about how they communicate with others. They are perhaps best exemplified by the following descriptions from students talking about how they ‘got-to-know’ one another at the beginning of the university term:
When you are getting to know someone it’s interesting to see if they’ll message you or call, then your like ‘oh he’s a caller’ and can go from there. (Emma)
If I don’t know the person well I like to text, I am not good on the phone and so it creates a way to say ‘hi’ without the danger of awkward gaps. Then you find yourself messaging back and forth and can meet up later… (Katie)
You have to play to their agenda otherwise you never hook up. (Stu)
Instant messaging like on MSN or texts or whatever totally helps with getting to know someone. Before you meet up you can find out whether you’ll get on or not and whether it’s worth you while meeting up. Kind of like a filtering process. (Dan)
This mediated process may involve text messages, emails and mobile calls before individuals meet offline. Members of the iGeneration therefore use an integrated set of devices and software resources to initiate and maintain friendship networks. In effect the often-rich descriptions created in SNS reflect a visualisation of what Bourdieu has described as ‘habitus’. This notion of habitus, that can basically be seen as set of acquired dispositions is appropriate, as “when habitus encounters a social world of which it is the product, it is like a “fish in water” ... it takes the world about itself for granted” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 127). This neatly describes how the iGeneration incorporates mobile communications technology into their everyday lives.
An Etiquette for Mobility
The ‘rules’, attitudes and expectations, that come into play as part of these new mobile communication practices continue to remain tied to a recognised and preconceived social ordering. Indeed, one of the most important aspects of this kind of mobile communication is the adherence to a set of social rules through which individuals continually control the process of interaction itself. This includes for example, the pace of communication, when to text, to make a voice call, or to email, and so forth. Galloway has argued that there is a “decidedly playful” aspect to mobile interaction. However, a range of communicative strategies underwrites this ‘play’ as periods of non-contactability have to be ‘justified’ or explained. If such episodes are not explained these can become problematic, generate misunderstandings or cause anxieties within networks and emergent relationships. Indeed, the “simple fact of carrying a mobile phone generates in the carrier the expectation of being immediately available” (Licoppe and Heurtin 100). For this reason a sense of disappointment, or cause for concern, may be experienced if an individual receives for example no text messages for a period of time. Amongst those students who were in regular contact with one other a set of what can be thought of as ‘communicative regimes’ is negotiated. These arise out of social practices for connectivity that are part of virtual and face-to-face meetings. Such negotiations may be largely implicit but occur out of a shared sense of ‘knowing’ the other. Actions or non-actions such as not answering a voice call or responding to a message straight away can be seen as a social distancing. For example, a student talked about how he always immediately returned a text message to his housemate because “it was expected” and to delay a response without an explanation would not be seen as an appropriate response to a “close mate” (Riley). Consequently communication regimes are developed around relationships and may be layered in terms of status within a peer group. For the iGeneration such practices reflect what in pervious times would have been thought of as etiquette. It is interesting to note that at the time of writing this paper there were 11 global groups with some 2,870 members on Facebook dedicated to what is described as ‘Facebook etiquette’.
A purpose of this paper is to suggest that recent changes in the provision of information and communications services in Australia have created new opportunities for an iGeneration to incorporate the technologies within their everyday lives. There are similarities here with the practices found amongst young people in Japan, South Korea and other counties that have some of the most advanced publicly available communications infrastructures (Ito et al). It is worth noting that 3rd Generation mobile phones, and video technologies are less common in Australia, hence future convergence remains open to speculation and dependent upon improved network infrastructures and marketing. The emphasis in Australia is on the seamless use of different mobile communications technologies and the embedding of these within broader social practices. The convenience and ‘pocketability’ of communications devices has become one of the most important innovations for an iGeneration that desires communication, information and entertainment accessible in the palm of their hand, a first step “towards a digital paradise” (Standage). However, care has to be taken to differentiate between media and marketing hype and actual social practices.
Commentaries and research in the early days of the Internet tended to focus on the possibilities it offered to escape the fleshy body through the screen into new identities, genders and bodily forms (Turkle; Haraway). While there are resources such as Second Life that provide a means to escape form the embodied self the main concern of the iGeneration is to promote sociability across the digital and real worlds. One reinforces and reflects the other so that the virtual self is always anchored in the embodied self. It is the convergence of the self through such representations that whilst not exactly embodied in a physical sense refer to a ‘real’ physicality and presence. This suggest that in terms of social practices for the iGeneration the virtual/place dichotomy is unhelpful and as Daniel Miller and Don Slater note “we need to treat Internet media as continuous with and embedded in other social spaces” (5).
The convergence of mobile communicative resources highlighted in this paper and their embodiment into social practices suggests that users may have little more to gain in terms of sociability from, for example, streaming video on mobile phones. The emotive experience of being ‘in touch’ with one another remains a fundamental amongst the iGeneration who draw upon a range of mobile media and social software to form and sustain interactions. Such connections are conducted through a more or less nuanced set of communicative regimes that move across what for them is a seamless landscape of mediated and off line resources and relationships.