Mobile Phones, Ritual Interaction and Social Capital
By Howard Rheingold, Thu Apr 21 09:00:00 GMT 2005

One scientist who observes the way people use mobile phones suspects "mobile telephone communication seems to be better at developing the social fabric than does PC-based Internet interaction." But, he cautions, the new fabric might be too tightly knit in some ways.


Rich Ling spends hours in public places, noting in minute detail how people act when using their phones, as well as interviewing and surveying hundreds of phone users. Ling, trained as a sociologist, was conducting research for Norwegian telephone operator Telenor at the historical moment when teenage girls transformed SMS from an obscure engineer's tool into a new social medium. Ling turned to a more recent notion of "social capital" as a tool for examining the role of mobile phones in social change.

Ling uses Robert Putnam's definition of social capital as "the degree to which a group uses mechanisms such as social networks, trust, reciprocity and shared norms and values to facilitate collaboration and cooperation." Social capital can't be hoarded by an individual the way economic or cultural capital can; it is valuable only because it circulates.

In some instances, closely-knit relationships create social capital -- like the diamond cutters of New York who trust each other with valuable uncut jewels because their web of social, religious, community and interpersonal interaction is so dense that thievery would damage the thief's financial, religious and social life.

Social capital derives value from loose networks as well as dense ones, however. Sociologist Mark Granovetter pointed out a different kind of social capital that is valuable precisely because the web of social ties is not densely interconnected: the "strength of weak ties" that enables people to get news and opportunities that are often not available to more limited and tightly bound groups.

You look to your most closely knit, deeply tied network of intimate friends and relatives for support in a crisis; you look to your most loosely knit and far-flung network of acquaintances when you are looking for a job or a mate. We all need, and use, both kinds of networks. The stage is now set to ask the question that motivated Ling's research: "What holds society together, and what role does mobile telephony play in it?"

One of the social adhesives that sociologists and anthropologists agree is essential is ritual: stylized social behaviors that are repeated frequently, and which establish and maintain social bonds and boundaries. In previous centuries, the solemn rituals of church and state were the exclusive focus of social science investigations, but Malinowski, Durkheim and Goffman introduced the rituals of daily life as instruments for social cohesion. Ling's close observations of some of the first users of the SMS medium -- Norwegian teenagers -- quickly uncovered uses of texting that can only be described as ritualistic. Ling began to wonder about what kind of social norms and values SMS rituals support and ask whether these rituals create or dissipate social capital.

Ling points to Malinowski's observations of gift rituals in the Trobriand Islands early in the twentieth century: a complex series of ritualized exchanges kept shell necklaces and armbands moving in circles around an atoll. The interactions and mutual obligations engendered by the ritual in the participants was the real value, the social capital, generated by the ritual -- not the material exchange value of the necklaces and the armbands. Ling suspects that the social utility of teenage gifting of SMS messages, which many save in their phones or in special scrapbooks, serves a similar function, and the ritualized goodnight message is a token of reciprocity that is valued for the mutual attention it mobilizes.

Ling zeroed in on the way mediated encounters might change the ways social networks interacted. Ling and other researchers for the European Union's multi-country, multi-disciplinary e-living project showed that "mobile telephony use has a relatively strong co-variance with informal social interaction. That is, the more one engaged in an active leisure life of informal social activities such as café visits, theater, etc, the more one used SMS and voice mobile telephony... This seems to point to a strengthening of at least the local social group (read: social capital) and, if indeed ritual interactions are amenable to mediated interaction, I can assert that the various interactions between the involved individuals play on, maintain and perhaps engender ritual. The broader issue here is the degree to which this type of ritual social interaction gets played out in the broader scheme of things."

Roving youth cliques who stay in touch throughout their waking hours via voice calls, SMS messages and photostreams are weaving tightly knit social networks. The problem, "in the broader scheme of things," might be the importance of the weaker and wider social ties Granovetter wrote about, which require connections between networks. While the personal and always-on nature of mobile media makes it easier for smaller groups to strengthen their social ties, that local strengthening comes at the cost of at energy and time that must be subtracted from more global weak-tie interactions.

Ling's intriguing assertions and conceptual frameworks are meant to provoke further research. Grad students looking for significant research related to media and society might consider delving into the matter of mobile communication rituals and social capital.