America Untethered

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As they sat on a train headed toward Washington, D.C., two women called home on their cell phones and were struck by the same thought. On a Virginia highway about 200 hundred miles south of their location, a 30-year-old man picked up his cell phone to set up meetings and had a similar epiphany. Thousands of miles away in San Francisco, a man long reluctant to carry a cell phone stopped to ponder the same question: How did we ever live without cell phones?

Since the early days of the Dick Tracy comic strip, Americans have envisioned a world of anywhere, anytime communication. That vision came to life when the first commercial cell phone hit the market in 1984. Almost two decades later, slightly more than half of all Americans — about 150 million people — tote mobile phones, feeding a $94 billion industry (not including hardware) that's growing 15 percent each year. But the telecom business isn't the only area revolutionized by America's wireless transformation. As cell phones reach deeper into our lives, they're beginning to create a deeper impression on the American psyche. To hear researchers and ethnographers tell it, wireless communication is beginning to have a notable impact on our social behavior — one that could have a long-lasting effect on our society and the world around us. “We're at a transitional point where a lot of new rules are being set,� says Robbie Blinkoff, principal anthropologist and managing partner at Context-Based Research Group in Baltimore. “The basic metaphor of the phone is changing. What [it] does today is connect you to an informal network.�

At least four ethnographic studies in the U.S. and Europe released in 2001 and 2002 have detected signs of changing habits due to wireless communication. Thanks to mobile phones, the researchers found, Americans and Europeans may be becoming more independent and spontaneous. But they may also be growing prone to planning at the last minute and arriving at meetings late. They're sharing more of their personal lives in public but are also forcing a redefinition of basic etiquette. This increasing accessibility is allowing work to impinge even more on family lives even as it enhances social lives.

What makes these empirical findings important now is the sheer numbers of people who have cell phones in this country. By the middle of 2002, the legions of Americans carrying cell phones were each spending an average of $53 a month to talk 442 minutes on their mobile phones — about 100 minutes more per month than they did in 2001. All in all, Americans log more than 53 billion minutes chatting, getting directions and letting someone know they will be a little late. (See sidebar.)

Ethnographers and social scientists had long wondered what the portability of cell phones would engender, but they didn't have much data to go by. Until recently, most studies about wireless phones focused on design and technology issues. The latest ethnographic studies, however, have yielded significant clues about cell phone users' communication habits. Almost all observed changes in how cell phone customers form relationships and define a sense of time and place. Whether here in the U.S. or in other countries, the clearest changes were in the social networks people were creating.

One of the first of this new crop of studies, conducted in 2000 by Leysia Palen, assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, focused on new cell phone users. Palen's team followed 19 people in Colorado who had never owned a cell phone but had recently ordered one. The researchers watched newly wired users at work and play, and found that one of the biggest differences was that they became more accessible to their social network. Palen and her team observed that mobile phones supported entire social networks and relationships. The researchers interviewed participants regularly and watched their habits change over a six-week period. Consistently, Palen found participants more flexible in how they arranged their schedules and gradually more willing to speak on a cell phone in public.

Take “Matthew,� a study participant and full-time pastor who began managing his social network between Sunday services with his mobile phone. His congregation leased meeting space on Sundays only, requiring him to be on a flexible schedule and accessible outside of regular working hours. “Having programmed all 60 of his parishioners' numbers into his phone, Matthew calls anyone and can be reached anywhere,� Palen notes. “A mobile telephony benefit implied in this account is the ability to manage multiple roles simultaneously, possibly keeping one's location ambiguous.�

Palen also found that mobile phones help sustain social ties for purely psychological and emotional value. For instance, “Elizabeth,� a meteorologist in Colorado, began to use her mobile phone to maintain social ties with her large family. The phone's portability and the financial advantages of her family calling plan made it possible for her to stay in close contact with them, Palen writes. Moreover, by regulating who had her mobile number, Elizabeth knew that incoming calls were most likely from a relative or good friend, and she no longer had to screen her calls when the phone rang.

  • The Wireless Lifestyle

    That same kind of active participation in wireless life was a central theme in an ethnographic study by Context-Based Research Group released in January. Blinkoff and his team of ethnographers found mobile phone users integrating wireless into their lives. Ironically, the more they integrated it, the more juggling they had to do.

    “Consistently, we can say it's a lifestyle, and point after point, we see people changing their lifestyles because of [mobile phones],� says Blinkoff. “But a lot of time people are also using [wireless] as a crutch.�

    The new study is a follow-up to a 2000 survey in which Blinkoff and his team spent time with mobile phone users in Europe, Asia, Latin America, New York and San Francisco to get a picture of the cultural dynamics of wireless life. Back then, the Context researchers found Americans still new to wireless communication, tending to have “device fascination� but not knowing how to use the phones to their full extent. When they returned to many of the same locations last summer to study 144 phone users in seven cities, the researchers observed changes in how the subjects related to mobile life. In the U.S., says Blinkoff, people were far more concerned with wireless as an enabler than as a toy, and they had learned to use the wireless features they needed while ignoring those they didn't.

    To be sure, Context's sample cell phone users tend to represent a far more technology-savvy bunch than other researchers have chosen. Even in the U.S., for example, they chose to study several Europeans who were more familiar with mobile phones than the average American. “We weren't necessarily looking for average Americans — we were looking for people who are mobile and invested in the lifestyle,� notes Kit Waskom, project director at Context.

    Nonetheless, Context's researchers concluded that most mobile users give a taste of things to come. Their findings, including the predilection of cell phone users to be late and to micromanage time, mirrored those of other researchers.

    If wireless is encouraging people to gab, it's also giving them newfound spontaneity. With cell phones in hand, both Palen and Blinkoff's research subjects could change their plans at the last minute more easily, deciding to meet at a different location, say, or inviting others to join their group. “Pietro,� for example, an engineer in Italy for whom wireless is his lifeblood, was among those who were chronically late. Blinkoff and his team noticed that Pietro's frequent calls to say he would be delayed dramatically eased his relationships with clients and colleagues.

    In Brazil, Australia and the U.S., cell phone users repeatedly admitted that they now often call friends and colleagues to tell them they're running behind schedule. In turn, being late is becoming more acceptable than it used to be, Blinkoff and Palen conclude. “Mobile technology is starting to remove a strict adherence to a schedule. It's a loss in respect for calendar time,� says Palen. “And that's happening across the board in all sorts of interactions.�

    Indeed, a 2001 study by Rich Ling, a researcher at Norwegian telecom firm Telenor, and by Leslie Haddon, a research associate in the media and communications department at the London School of Economics, found “micro-coordination� to be the backbone of mobile phones. Unlike the traditional telephone, the mobile phone has none of the strictures of location and therefore “softens� time, enabling people to merely suggest a time and place to meet, and to pin down a location as they approach the meeting time. Perhaps not surprisingly, as users of mobile phones leave more planning to the last minute, they also tend to overshoot the final arrival time as well.

    Palen and Blinkoff both found that greater accessibility has brought work even deeper into the home — where it's often least wanted. For many recent wireless subscribers, that is often the greatest concern, though workers are growing increasingly used to the change. Blinkoff says that at least some of the concern is overblown.

    “As the new mobile technology pervades life, it's more difficult to separate work from personal life,� Blinkoff says. “The reality is that work and home have been overlapping faster anyway, but what the mobile phone does is highlight the effect.�

  • Public and Private Lives

    What the mobile phone has really demarcated is the shifting boundary between public and private lives. Discussing private matters in public has become a habit in Europe and the U.S. For years, Americans have complained about cell phone users who gab in public. But Palen found that as people acquired cell phones, their resistance to chatting in public ebbed and they often found themselves guilty of the same act. Because of their portability, phones now appear in places they never did before. But because cell phones are relatively new, social norms about their proper use, especially in public, are just being formed. Palen, for example, found most of her newly unwired subjects gradually accepted using their phones in public.

    “[Mobile phones] are a cultural menace. People are talking all the time, and they obviously aren't saying anything,� one respondent told Palen. Yet just weeks after decrying the practice, the same respondent ventured outside with his phone and saw the value of talking on the go. He soon admitted to being less judgmental about how important people's public calls were.

  • Kids Speak

    By far the clearest effects of wireless are being seen in kids, a naturally media-savvy group whose lives are being shaped by this technology. Kids are the fastest-growing mobile demographic, with half of all teenagers between 12 and 17 carrying cell phones in 2002, according to a study by Frank N. Magid Associates. By the end of 2002, 29 million kids were expected to be toting cell phones. Much of that growth is being driven by parents who are giving their kids phones so they can keep tabs on them. Yet three studies found kids gaining more independence and developing new ways of connecting once they became wireless. “For parents, [cell phones are] a matter of security,� says Jay Melican, senior research associate at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Design. “For kids, however, it's a matter of coming of age.�

    Melican's research entailed observing and filming cell phone users in Chicago, London, Shanghai and Recife, Brazil. In each city, the team of filmmakers and ethnographers met with families in their homes, followed them to work and school, and recorded the impact of mobile communication on their everyday lives. Melican was at first interested in the work/home segmentation issues of cell phones. But he says the team soon realized “that we were hearing equally interesting stuff from our younger subjects. Of course, few of the teens we spoke with have jobs, but they are confronted with their own interesting boundary issues — issues involving their roles as members of a family, their emerging social identities and their interactions with their schools and with school officials.�

    Consistently, Melican and other researchers found that cell phones offer kids privacy and independence while serving as primary connectors to their community. Kids can use these phones without being monitored by snooping family members. The ease of accessing friends with cell phones makes them an ideal community builder. And as with a driver's license, the cell phone has become a rite of passage. “You turn 16, you get a car and now a cell phone,� says Andrew Pimentel, marketing director at wireless community portal and marketing firm Upoc.

    Kids told Melican and Blinkoff that talking on a cell phone is a more personal form of communication. “It's like your own personal belonging. It's like your diary,� said one teenager interviewed by Melican. And even as parents grow more accustomed to their children being reachable, the cell phone is becoming a symbol of independence. “I can get in touch with [my parents] more and I talk with them more, but in a way, it doesn't really help bring us closer together because it enables me to … get farther away,� another teenager told Melican.

    Similar reactions were uncovered by University of Surrey professor Nina Wakeford and Annenberg Research Fellow Nalini Kotamraju in a study done in late 2001. Kotamraju and Wakeford found that kids treat their cell phones like watches — always keeping their mobile phones within reach. One 17-year-old girl said she sometimes wears her cell phone around her neck when she sleeps.

    If the cell phone helps kids get farther away from parents, it also helps them get closer to friends. In several instances, the researchers found kids organizing impromptu parties thanks to their cell phones. The cell has also become the first point of contact in dating, offering privacy and a certain level of anonymity. And when kids want to introduce themselves to someone new, Blinkoff's and Magid's research found, they're increasingly turning to text messaging.

    Yet surprisingly, young people communicate with their parents as often as they do with their friends, Kotamraju and Wakeford discovered. Teens in the U.S., especially, expressed little resentment with the seeming “family surveillance� of parents checking up on them. As one 16-year-old boy in the U.S. explained it to Kotamraju, “She's my mom. I have to [answer] her calls, or if I miss her call, then I'll call her right back.�

  • Making the Pitch

    Opportunities for businesses exist because of these new habits, as countless marketing firms have realized. Never before have businesses had a chance to reach so many people individually and in context. Unlike idle Web surfers, cell phone users are out in the real world. And their increased tendency to be spontaneous could lead to sales when they're near a store, for example.

    There's been a lot of dabbling with wireless marketing schemes, such as sending customers coupons and offering special wireless promotions over their cell phones. Stores and theme parks have experimented with wireless ordering and payment systems. At one golf course in Georgia, golfers can order food and beverages using their mobile phones and have it all caddied straight to them. At some Schlotzky's Deli locations, cell phone users can order and pay for food directly over their phones using “digital wallets.� And AvantGo, a Hayward, Calif., provider of mobile software, is hoping to turn its successful PalmPilot city guides into wireless portals supported by advertising. “Wireless allows a more targeted approach to reaching people,� says Scott Searle at Lockstream, a Bellevue, Wash., developer of security software for wireless services. “But it's a different way of thinking.�

    So different that so far, it has been a nonstarter for most marketers. For all the opportunity, businesses continue to search for ways to reach wireless customers without annoying them. That, in part, has to do with the fact that Americans pay for calls they make as well as receive. Understandably, most consumers have resisted the idea of paying for messages from marketers.

    Still, some firms think they have an answer to this dilemma. New York-based Upoc has focused on the community aspect of cell phones to let marketers tap in to various demographics. The company builds subscription communities, allowing users to instantly contact each other through their phones, primarily through text messaging. People can sign up for communities like Killer Mike, about the latest happenings in music, or the Alias Channel, for the latest scoop on the popular TV program ##em##Alias##/em## and to keep in touch with other fans wherever they go. Customers can also vote in polls and take part in special offers. They have been known to immediately contact each other whenever they spot stars or to get together with each other at events. Upoc offers up the agreeable communities to marketers for targeted messages.

    Meanwhile, a service called Zingy enlists companies to advertise in an unusual way: by sending jingles as ring tones for mobile phones. Pepsi, Atlantic Records and Columbia Pictures have all used the service. In one instance, Zingy released rings based on singles from Wu-Tang Clan's Iron Flag and Mobb Deep's Infamy albums some weeks before they were released, to build buzz. According to Zingy, several hundred thousand fans chose the sound bites from these artists for their cell phones.

    To be sure, there is a risk in going for gimmicks. But at least one critical lesson can be learned from marketers who have been successful on the Web: Give people what they want. “All this means that now's the time to create what people need,� says Context-Based Research Group's Blinkoff. “People need mobility in their lives and are willing to accept certain sacrifices to get it.�

Mobile Phone Universe

Boomers account for about 40 percent of cell phone yakkers.

Age Number of users
12 to 17 12 million
18 to 24 16.5 million
25 to 29 23.8 million
35 to 54 51.3 million
55+ 29.6 million
Sources: UPOC and Frank N. Magid Associates, November 2001

Equal Opportunity Gabfest

Just a few years ago, the average cell phone user was likely to be wealthy and white. Today, women, African Americans and teens are the hot markets.

Cell phones were once all business, but these days, they're all in the family. In a 2002 survey of 221 Americans between the ages of 18 and 64, conducted by Knowledge Networks, the vast majority of respondents underscored family as the top reason to go wireless. Respondents — the young ones more so than older ones — cited reaching friends as their second leading reason to go wireless. They ranked work-related calls the third most important reason to have a wireless phone.

And though the world of wireless is split 50-50 between men and women, men tend to make more calls on cell phones than women, and they tend to use them for business more than women do, according to Knowledge Networks, a market research consultancy in Cranford, N.J.

On average, men made or answered 8.3 calls per day, while women said they made or received about 5.5. Although both put family first, women were more partial to calling friends than men, whereas men were three times as likely to use their phones for work.

But the real story behind mobile phones is the demographic shift that has occurred as prices for service have fallen and providers have added more features. Just a few years ago, the average cell phone user was more likely to be wealthy and white. These days, African Americans and teens figure far more prominently. In 1999, Knowledge Networks found 37 percent of African Americans and 32 percent of Hispanics had cell phones, while 42 percent of whites had them. By the spring of 2002, however, 65 percent of African Americans had cell phones, compared with 62 percent of whites. Hispanics remained well behind, with just 54 percent penetration.

Kids, too, have gone mobile fast. By February 2002, half of all teenagers between 12 and 17 had cell phones, according to a study by UPOC and Frank N. Magid Associates. In 2000, an estimated 11 million cell phone users were between the ages of 12 and 24; by the end of 2002, that number was estimated to be closer to 29 million. Here again, African Americans have taken the lead: According to Magid, almost three-quarters of African Americans between 12 and 34 now tote mobile phones, compared with 57 percent of whites and 56 percent of Hispanics.

There are crucial reasons to pay attention to cell phone users. For one, cell phone penetration has surpassed Internet penetration in American homes. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, while 59 percent of Americans were logged on to the Net, 62 percent were punching the buttons on their cell phones. That could have major implications for cell phone providers racing to add Internet and data functionality. And just as important, there are strong correlations between the adoption of wireless and of other high-tech gadgets and services. According to Pew, cell phone users are more likely to have broadband cable access: 16 percent of all wireless users have broadband, compared with 12 percent of the general population. And though wireless Internet use is just a trickle today, 44 percent of wireless Net users have college degrees, versus about one-quarter of the general population.

— HF

Send a Message

This year, 33 million Americans (21 percent of all U.S. wireless subscribers) will use the sort message service feature — also known as text messaging — on their wireless device, but by 2007 nearly 100 million individuals (51 percent of wireless users) are expected to use the service.

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