[OPR] Oloff: Some systematic aspects of self-initiated mobile device use in face-to-face encounters

On this page you can download the discussion paper that was submitted for publication in the Journal for Media Linguistics. The blogstract summarises the submission in a comprehensible manner. You can comment on the discussion paper and the blogstract below this post. Please use your real name for this purpose. For detailed comments on the discussion paper please refer to the line numbering of the PDF.

This submission is a contribution to the special issue “Public, private, and anonymous mobile media practices”.

Discussion Paper (PDF)

Blogstract of

Some systematic aspects of self-initiated mobile device use in face-to-face encounters

by Florence Oloff

This paper investigates self-initiated uses of mobile devices – mobile phones or smartphones – in video-recorded face-to-face encounters. Exploiting the analytical framework of ethnomethodological conversation analysis, it illustrates when and how participants publicly frame their own device use, and how co-present interlocutors respond to it.

When mobile phones became available on the mass market, various fields in the human and social sciences have been interested in the way private or 1-to-1 communication practices (typically phone calls and text messaging) have been carried out in public spaces. Early qualitative studies have described how participants audibly and visibly manage two concurrent communicative involvements; on the one hand within their immediate physical setting (such as streets, cafés, or public transports), on the other hand related to the remote communication situation mediated by the mobile phone. Mainly based on anonymous, ethnographic observations, these early investigations have often insisted on the possible conflict between public and private communication conduct, and they frequently connected the observed conduct to traditional concepts such as social etiquette or frontstage vs. backstage management. Even in more recent studies, mobile phone use in co-presence of others is treated as a rather problematic activity, as it possibly competes with the on-going social encounter.

This contribution adopts a micro-analytic approach (“conversation analysis”) to mobile device use that is topically unrelated to the on-going social interaction. The text provides a detailed description of how verbal and embodied actions are connected to mobile phone use in social encounters among friends and family members. The analysis aims to emphasize that mobile device use in co-presence is not a priori problematic (or vice versa), but that participants frame this use in different ways according to various features of the respective social situation. These features include the previous and on-going course of the conversation, the participation framework, and the way in which co-participants might respond to the device use.

Based on video-recorded everyday conversations among Czech speakers, the analytic part presents three cases of self-initiated mobile device use, i.e. in which one of the participants chooses to write a text message or to return a phone call. A step-by-step analysis of the multimodally annotated transcripts shows – in the first two examples – that participants publicly frame their device use by initiating so-called “announcement sequences” that provide an opportunity for their co-participants to acknowledge the device use. The participants can manage multiple involvements (with a co-participant and with their phone) e. g. by explicitly formulating their screen-based activity. The third example illustrates how co-participants can respond to the absence of a public announcement of the phone use: rather than actually and simply “disturbing” the on-going conversation, the device-related activity is taken as an opportunity to publicly and jointly sanction the mobile phone user for her conduct. On a more general level, two main conclusions can be drawn. First, even if participants self-initiate some topically unrelated activity on their mobile phone, the timing, announcement and description of the activity reveal that mobile device users are sensitive to co-present others and to the overall social encounter. Second, all the participants orient to a general accountability of secondary, concurrent involvements, i.e. both mobile phone users and other participants formulate and respond to explanations of mobile device use, and they can even claim missing accounts. Further micro-analytic studies are needed in order to reveal if participants have developed other specific social practices for managing the ubiquity of mobile devices in social settings.

2 Replies to “[OPR] Oloff: Some systematic aspects of self-initiated mobile device use in face-to-face encounters”

  1. Axel SchmidtJanuary 31, 2020 at 13:14Reply

    The article investigates self-initiated use of mobile phones in face-to-face encounters. Two possible usages of mobile phones in co-present encounters are considered: writing a text message and making a phone call. All uses of mobile phone discussed in the article are individual uses and are not part of a joint project (divergent in contrast to convergent uses). The article focusses on how participants publicly frame their individual use of the mobile phone and how co-present others respond to it. The article aims at describing recurrent patterns of public mobile phone use during focused interactions. Early studies on the use of mobile phones emphasized the socially problematic aspects of mobile phone use in public, mostly on the basis of assumed social norms. In contrast, the present article understands mobile phone use as a public and accountable practice focusing on the participants‘ practical problems of managing diverging orientations and activities in co-presence.
    Methodologically the article follows a multimodally extended EMCA approach. Accordingly, the article is interested in the multimodal resources and their detailed temporal coordination which participants deploy in managing their mobile phone use in face-to-face-interaction.
    Chaper two discusses prior research on mobile phone use. Early studies perceived mobile phone use mainly as a new practice in public which seem to blur the boundaries of privacy and public. Accordingly, notions of intrusiveness and conflicting orientations were predominant. Interactional and micro-analytical approaches, in contrast, are interested in the multimodal resources participants adopt to manage and coordinate their mobile phone use during face-to-face-encounters. Previous studies mainly focused on convergent uses (e.g. watching photos on the phone together). The few studies that investigate divergent phone use suggest a need to describe the double involvement of phone users more extensively.
    Chaper three presents the analysis of altogether three excerpts of mobile phone use in co-present interaction. Two cases are dedicated to writing a text message, one case represents a phone call. Data stems from private and public settings recorded between 2013 and 2016. The language spoken in the presented excerpts is Czech. Transcripts are multimodal following conventions formulated by Mondada.
    The analysis will show that participants orient to the relevance of a) the technology, b) the topical and sequential fittedness, c) the participant constellation, d) the opacity of what is done and e) the possible opacity of how the device use is multimodally framed. These aspects are at the same time the basis to formulate more general implications.
    Ch. 3 is divided in three sub-chapters. The first deals with writing a text message in a dyadic interaction, the second with writing a text message in a multiparty interaction and the third with making a phone call in a triadic interaction.
    In extract 1, presented in chapter 3.1., a daughter and her mother are engaged in a conversation when the daughter self-imitatively starts to write a text message. After having prepared her device use in parallel with the ongoing conversation, the daughter announces her device use verbally at a sequentially appropriate place. Only when she gets a go-ahead response from her mother, she finally disengages from the current conversation and starts writing the message. During writing she is voicing her writing to let her mother participate in what she is writing. Thereby she minimizes its opacity for the mother. After finishing the writing a new topic is initiated and the conversation continues. Thus, in this case multiactivity (being engaged in a conversation and writing a text message) is sequentially rather than simultaneously organized. The extract also shows that the activity of writing a text message during a face-to-face-encounter is accountable in two ways: First, the user itself announces the activity and delivers accounts before starting to write a text message; secondly, the partner pursues further accounts and finally gives permission. In this way, an announcement sequence precedes the actual writing of the text message.
    Ex. 2, presented in chapter 3.2, shows writing a text message in a multiparty setting. In contrast to dyadic settings in which mobile phone use suspends an ongoing conversation, the accountability of visible device use in multiparty settings is reduced as individual participants can disengage from the ongoing conversation without causing a suspension of it. However, the extract shows that the accountability of the device use depends on the co-participants‘ monitoring. Its use alone is not a priori accountable. Only when the device user realizes that he is monitored he produces an account. As in ex. 1, accounting leads to an announcement sequence in which the account of the device user acts as a first pair part and the co-participant‘s response(s) as a second pair part providing a go-ahead for using the device.
    The announcement itself follows a specific pattern: It contains a) a description of the activity, b) the name of the person written to and c) elements related to the accountability of the device use (such as giving reasons).
    Ex. 3, presented in chapter 3.3, focuses on making a phone call in co-presence. In contrast to writing a text message, making a phone call cannot be conducted silently and, thus, potentially competes with ongoing talk. The excerpt illustrates this problematic potential of making a phone call during a face-to-face-encounter. The participants treat the phone use as long as unproblematic as it does not imply longer stretches of talk. But the more the device user engages in talk, the more the phone call is treated as a disturbing parallel activity by the co-participants. This is signaled mainly by a marked suspension of the main activity (the conversation) and by monitoring the phone user. This disturbing character of the phone call is, however, only negotiated verbally after the actual sequence has come to an end. This shows an orientation of the participants at sequence closing and transition relevance places.
    A negotiation implying sanctionable and moral aspects of the phone use is done afterwards in a rather silent and implicit manner by the co-participants (constant monitoring by gaze, non-responsiveness, ironic comments). It shows an orientation to the disturbing nature of speaking on the phone during a conversation and the responsibility of accounting for doing so.
    Chapter 4 summarizes the findings and draws conclusions. First of all, the study has shown that participants do not relate to mobile device use as a problem in general. Rather they do relate to mobile device use as a matter of accountability under specific conditions. In addition, specific types of uses/participant constellations do not cause specific degrees of social problematicity; rather participants orient to situational parameters and affordances (as e.g. participant constellation, channel (audible/visible), opacity of the medium) and adapt them to situated relevancies. Therefore, how mobile phones are used during face-to-face-encounters relate to practical issues rather than to issues of individual face work or a (hidden) moral order. A prevalent practical issue for the participants is the management of the device-related double involvement, especially in case of the investigated divergent forms of use. Announcement sequences are one possible practical solution how to manage and account for a parallel device use.
    Critical remarks

    Lines 760-766: when using main activity a reference to Goffman’s (1963: Behavior in public places) notions of main/side involvement resp. dominating/subordinate involvement could be useful;
    In addition, using Goffman’s terms, the picture gets more complex: When P makes a phone call she is changing her focus of attention; doing a phone call is temporally, at least for her, her main involvement (the conversation becomes, for her, a side involvement); this distinction is based on the factual behavior as displayed by the participants; nevertheless the conversation remains the dominating activity/involvement and the phone call the subordinate one; this distinction is based on social norms which surface in the example when the co-participants complain; the ironic comment (by H in line 42: we didn’t want to disturb you) jokingly inverts this relation (by pretending the phone call is the dominating activity); perhaps it is helpful to use Goffman’s terms to describe what is happening in this case;
    Lines 766-771: It is difficult to conclude on the basis of this single case that it is the absence of an account rather than the phone call itself to which the negative assessments refer; a reference to a contrasting case where an account occurs but no complaints would be helpful; in addition: the ironic comment rather points to the call as the target of the complaint (not so much to the absence of an account); the same holds for the conclusion that an orientation to an announcement sequence is a routine element of making phone calls in co-presence; other practices are conceivable/possible: e.g. leaving the focused encounter / interactional space for the time of the call; from the data it is difficult to proof whether the co-participants expected an account or something else (like e.g. leaving the situation for the time of the call); the ironic comment is more likely to suggest the latter;
    Lines 789-795: but: The data (analysis) suggests that e.g. a) dyads seems to be more difficult to handle / more problematic than multi-party interactions, b) making a call is more problematic than writing a text message (at least if a conversation is the dominating activity);
    Lines 825-830: But: practical issues like availability and sequence organization relates to face work, politeness and moral order;
    Lines 837-38: Why pre-announcements? Up to this point, only the term announcement was used. The comparison is confusing because the announcement sequences in the data contain announcements and pres but not pre-announcements. It would be helpful for an understanding to clarify these relations;
    Dyad versus multiparty: the expanded accounting in Ex. 1 could also be an effect of the social asymmetry (mother/daughter); this is mentioned in the article en passant; perhaps this an additional parameter that is relevant for how participants manage their use of mobiles in face-to-face-encounters;
    It is questionable whether the aspects listed in lines 302-309 are all oriented-to-phenomenon or at least to what extend this is the case.

    Minor remarks
    – Transcript 2, lines 14/15/16 are not clear concerning overlapping stretches of talk, the same holds for line 19, 21 (no closing square bracket in the translation line)
    – Schegloff 1996 is missing in the references
    – 840: don’t à do not
    Overall comment
    The article deals with a current topic that has hardly been researched with respect to the detailed manner of how participants manage their device use within an ongoing interaction. The focus on interactional and multimodal details provides insights beyond more general notions of social problematicity and intrusiveness of mobile phone use in public/in interaction. Especially the focus on divergent uses is productive. The article is clearly written and structured. It draws on and discusses relevant literature and recent studies from different disciplines concerning mobile phone use in public. Claims about the use of mobile phones are systematically developed from empirical observations. Conclusions are plausible, but tend – at least at some points – to be over-generalizing (cf. comments above).
    Acceptance with minor revisions

  2. Jessica RoblesJuly 8, 2020 at 16:45Reply

    This is an excellent and relevant discussion of initiations of mobile phone use in public spaces. I agree with the fine analytic points and think the surrounding literature and discussion are by and large sufficient. There are a few places I suggest could have more framing or explication to more fully support the ultimate conclusions and central concerns. Also I have no pedantic urges but there were some surprising uses of punctuation (commas, semicolons), which is just something to consider as it may trip some readers up on the syntax of particular sentences. Otherwise the paper is well-written and convincingly argued. 
    Section 1
    Consider being extra clear in laying out the main points of the article (in one sentence is possible), maybe the end of the introduction. This would accommodate the following (the accuracy with which *I* am restating your point can be taken as an interpretation of what you are doing, so revise accordingly if I have missed it!): 1) the focus on initiating phone use in public with co-present others, 2) a sequential/multimodal emca analysis of video-recorded and transcribed face-to-face encounters in Czech, 3) covering activities such as texting or making a call, TO SHOW THAT 4) participants may account for divergent mobile phone uses with an announcement sequence (can you preview any of this or the referred-to conditions under which accounts emerge?).
    Section 2
    It would be helpful to see more engagement with Goffman, which feels a bit tacked onto the end of section 2.1. It’s not clear how the use of Goffman is primarily what’s informing people’s assumptions about the politeness dimension of public phone use. Indeed, I’m not sure I agree it is–Goffman can be used in many ways to support different arguments, and some prominent writers on technology and sociality (e.g., Turkle) don’t typically cite Goffman at all. It could be that you have an interesting point to make here that I have not considered, but it’s not explained. 
    I am a little curious about why you have decided to analyse the main action as announcements–I don’t disagree but I think it could use a bit more framing, sooner, in terms of more fully explicating the action at the heart of this analysis– a) since it is so central and b) since it is developed in its complexity (and non-canonicalness!) in the discussion. I’ll come back to this, but it seems a central challenge of the data is what is the action being deployed to account for projected phone use (action formation) and that could be dealt with, perhaps in the lit review (maybe in section 2.2 on concurrent involvements?) so it is not surprising in its unusual (non- “news”) function by the time we get to the analysis. 
    As previewed regarding the analysis, the main thing that struck me was the question “what makes an announcement, an announcement?” It’s a great question and worth considering in the discussion, but it was a distraction when I found myself asking it during the analysis. My understanding (and echoed in your discussion) is that announcements are usually about “news” whereas this is not; and as you also point out, it doesn’t receive the usual preferred response (assessment). If you want to help us rethink announcements as part of the analysis, then that’s fine, but I think it needs previewing in the introduction, in that case; and there should be some consideration (perhaps in the discussion) about what distinguishes this from other actions that could also be ascribed here. For example, why is it not a request for a permission? Or even an expanded form of online commentary or metacommunication? I think if you can anticipate that people will have questions about this before you acknowledge (some of) them in your discussion, the overall point will be stronger by the conclusion. 
    Suggest minor revisions

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