Update (22.03.2023): The Open Peer Review for this submission has been completed. Based on the Open Peer Review, the article has been approved for publication in the Journal for Media Linguistics and is available at: https://doi.org/10.21248/jfml.2019.21.
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This submission is a contribution to the special issue “Public, private, and anonymous mobile media practices”.
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.