[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.

4 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

    1. Florence OloffDecember 16, 2020 at 06:13Reply

      Dear Axel,
      I would like to thank you for the thorough reading of my discussion paper and your detailed comments. I will address them in the same order (quoting their beginning). Your minor remarks have also been taken into account.
      “Lines 760-766: when using main activity a reference to Goffman’s notions of main/side involvement resp. dominating/subordinate involvement could be useful…”
      Answer: I carefully read Goffman’s text again, and I have to say that his definitions / descriptions of main/side and dominating/subordinate remain a bit fuzzy, or rather, it is not easy to transfer these concepts to phone use (which is something potentially more absorbing than the manual activities Goffman alludes to, such as humming, knitting or smoking a cigarette). I now used Goffman’s terms to describe again what happens in excerpt 3, although I must admit that I am not convinced that this adds a strong point to the analysis. It mainly adds semantically quite close notions (main/side being a bit more cognitivistic and related to individual foci of attention, but also to things such as e.g. clothing, dominating/subordinate being related to “social obligations”, Goffman remaining quite imprecise as regards agentivity here, I quote e.g. „the activity that dominates him“, ibid. 44, which I find slightly problematic). But as Goffman is frequently referred to, I decided to align with this. I think that thoroughly applying Goffman’s distinctions to phone / technology use in f-t-f encounter would require a more in-depth analysis.
      “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…”
      Answer: I understand your point. It is true that based on this single example, I cannot prove this. But neither can it be proven that it is the call as such and not the absence of an account prior to the call. What can be said in any case is that Pavla has been given a few opportunities to produce a (retrospective) account for the call. I modified my conclusion of these excerpt along these lines: I introduce both understandings as possibilities and state the obvious orientation to an absent account as something that is independent from one ore the other reading. I also mentioned a second, possibly contrasting case in a footnote. However, as phone calls in co-presence are really rare in my current data set, I can’t make more specific analytic claims here.
      ”Lines 789-795: but: The data (analysis) suggests that e.g. a) dyads seems to be more difficult…”
      Answer: You are right; but reading my text again I do not say that this not the case (I agree, cf. the third bullet point “while in dyadic settings, device users might orient to a stronger accountability of the use and seem more inclined to announce and comment on it”). I added a more specific note concerning the phone call to the first bullet point (“a phone call in co-presence potentially requires more interactional work”). Actually my main point here is that this is not an automatic implication, that the type of use does not “define” a certain way to interactionally handle it. It might be more accountable in dyadic settings, but in my opinion, this does not mean that participants systematically account for their device use in an explicit way when there are only two of them. Likewise, even if in a multiparty setting this kind of account might not seem necessary and people could just silently engage with their phone (as there are in theory enough opportunities for co-participants to engage in talk with others), we can also find accounts in these multi-party settings. The main point is: it is not automatic, and it depends on different factors. I tried to adjust the formulation in this sense (see also the introduction to this list: “specific types of uses or specific participant constellations do not automatically define a specific degree of ‘social problematicity’ of mobile device use.”, I added the “automatically” here in order to emphasize my point of view).
      ”Lines 825-830: But: practical issues like availability and sequence organization relates to face work, politeness and moral order”
      Answer: Yes and no, I think it is a matter of perspective. While I now erased the reference to Goffman in the beginning of the text (section 2), I still think it is problematic how quite a few studies (especially the early ones) use Goffman’s concepts to gloss over interactional dynamics that they don’t really look at in detail (because they have interview data, or only observation protocols, or because they do not carry out a full-fledged sequential and multimodal analysis). So, the “moral aspects” mentioned in these studies are mostly triggered in / by interviews and focus groups, and “face” and “politeness” are often used in descriptions of practices and thus rather in a lay than in a technical sense. Of course, one can link sequence organization to politeness, but I think these concepts (such as politeness or face work) usually hint at a different analytic approach and different underlying concepts of social interaction. In other words, why do I need the concept of “politeness” if I can understand what happens based on a sequential analysis? Do I necessarily need the notion of “face” (and the psychologizing descriptions often attached to it) if I want to consider embodied displays of availability and responses to this? Goffman’s concepts are not problematic as such, but the way they are frequently used and understood: as an explanation for showing how we act on individual grounds and motivations, as solo players, rather than understanding the outcome of a specific piece of interaction as the result of joint, concerted interaction and publicly observable and displayed conduct. In the former understanding, the types of smartphone use I’m describing would simply be “impolite” because they are “face-threatening”. I’d like to make the point that this might be a bit too simple, and for this reason I modified this part only slightly in order to be more explicit about this (underlined parts have been added, cf. section 4.): This shows that the framing of mobile device use in co-presence of others is related to the management of recurrent practical issues in social interaction: it is based on the co-participants’ joint negotiation of their mutual availability, and how they jointly treat and acknowledge the public recognizability and sequential implicativeness of the device-related actions for the ongoing encounter, rather than simply being an issue of individuals’ face work or of generally steady, external moral or politeness standards that are consistently and automatically applied.”
      “Lines 837-38: Why pre-announcements?”
      Answer: You are right, this is a mistake. I corrected this.
      “Dyad versus multiparty: the expanded accounting in Ex. 1 could also be an effect of the social asymmetry…”
      Answer: While I mention the dyad vs. multiparty in the above-mentioned list as an important feature (“the participant constellation (dyadic/multi-party,”), I was not that sure about membership categories and how solid this claim is. But as you seem to agree, I integrated it in the list in 3., “specific membership categories”. I prefer however not to insist on that based on one example only, as they do not explicitly refer to these categories (at least I don’t see it here). But this would definitely merit further investigation. In the conclusion (4.), I also added something to the “participant constellation” bullet point: “the form of the accounting (extended, cf. ex. 1, or rather short, cf. ex. 2) being possibly related to specific membership categories and (a)symmetries as well”.
      “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.”
      Answer: I am not really sure how I can address this comment. I do not claim that in cases of mobile device use in co-presence, participants treat all these aspects as relevant, or as always relevant. Rather, these are possible features of the interaction that are intertwined with how the device use is framed, carried out, and negotiated. I added a “can” in order to signal that this list presents some options (“the excerpts […] exemplify that both mobile device users and co-present others can orient to the relevance of:”). However, I would like to keep this list as I illustrate that and how these points are relevant in the following analyses.

  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

    1. Florence OloffDecember 16, 2020 at 06:19Reply

      Dear Jessica,
      Thank you very much for your comments that allowed me to refine some aspects of my text and to make certain points more explicit than they initially were! I will also reply to your comments in their original order and by quoting the first bits.
      “Consider being extra clear in laying out the main points of the article (in one sentence is possible), maybe the end of the introduction….”
      Answer: This might be due to the fact that the abstract is separated from the actual article in this journal. I agree that this is lacking here, and I added three sentences in the first paragraphs of section 1. in order to sketch the main points of my contribution.
      “It would be helpful to see more engagement with Goffman, which feels a bit tacked onto the end of section 2.1….”
      Answer: It is still striking how many early studies refer to Goffman’s basic concepts, however often without any more fine-grained sequential analysis (as a more recent example see the work by Ictech 2019 whom I also added to the references). I have the feeling that the dichotomy of two different interactional scenes (or the presupposition of it) simply lent itself very nicely to Goffman’s often dichotomic conceptualisation (cf. especially his dramaturgical model, front- vs. backstage), and that this was then used as an explanation for the observable conduct. As I do not intend to go into any details about Goffman in this contribution, here I decided to delete the comment on how his concepts are used according to my understanding (I nevertheless briefly refer to him in the later analysis of ex. 3, cf. also Axel’s comments regarding Goffman and my reply).
      “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…”
      Answer: You are right, I should have foreshadowed this earlier. As you recommended, I have now dedicated a part of section 2.3 to the discussion of announcements relating to mobile device use (I decided to add it to 2.3 and not to 2.2, as in my opinion this point refers more clearly to more recent studies and directly relates to my analysis in 3). I present some of the observations that have been made concerning this phenomenon. I also state that these have not been described in a systematic way, that they differ from CA-typical “announcements” (or rather previously described announcements), and that this will be considered in the analysis and in the discussion.
      “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…”
      Answer: As you recommended, I now also mention announcements in the introduction. In my understanding, online commentaries are quite different (they accompany a manual activity on screen, consist in reading text on screen, and orient clearly to both the opacity and the temporality of the device use, they therefore allow the co-participants to “keep track” of what is happening with / on the device. As regards the requests for permission, I’d say that announcements are simply not formulated as such: they do rather describe the device use than seek for an explicit permission. Also, the responses they receive do not really grant permission, they seem to do other and various things, e.g. request more information (ex. 2), and/or challenge (ex. 1). This might relate on the one hand to the structural difficulty to actually grant permission to a (structurally / lexically speaking) description of a projected mobile device use (what would be a type-conforming answer to this?), on the other hand, it could also relate to the acknowledgement of the phone users‘ autonomy (it is their body, their phone, and thus primarily their line of action –  not recognizing this would potentially challenge their integrity and autonomy as fully competent participants – but this is analytically more difficult to grasp). But in any case, a more consistent collection would be needed to make a well-grounded claim about these differences.

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