Are mobile phones destroying society? We hear dire warnings about the intrusion of the cell phone into the most private spheres—talking on the phone in the public restroom, texting at a funeral. Are mobile phones destroying the common social rituals that bond us as civilized beings? In his 2008 book New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication is Reshaping Social Cohesion, Rich Ling addresses these questions. More specifically, he asks, “Will mediated interaction fray the social fabric, or strengthen it?” (Ling, 2008, p. 45). Focusing on mobile telephony (mobile voice calls and text messaging), Ling methodically develops an argument that concludes with the bold assertion that “Mobile communication is a medium through which we can develop and maintain social groups” (p. 163), a medium that exceeds that of co-present (face-to-face) interaction alone.
Ling’s argument is based on the social theory of ritual interaction, the idea that society is held together by ritual, “a series of actions that help us move through our lives” (p. 7). Ritual is “a social phenomenon used in the process of sociation” (p. 9) and creates social cohesion. Ritual interaction is the interpersonal enactment of the so-called “mundane,” greetings, partings, chit chat, gossip, gestures. Where previous social theory focused on ritual interaction in co-present situations, Ling proposes that ritual interaction applies to mediated as well as to co-present interactions, suggesting that mobile telephony in particular has “the potential to connect individuals in ways, as compared to other mediated technologies” (p. 163).
Ling develops his argument in two parts: the development of ritual interaction in co-present settings and the application of ritual interaction theories to mediated communication. He begins with Durkheim and his development of the idea of ritual as social cohesion, with a focus on the elaborate staging of religious rites. From there, Ling looks at Goffman’s expansion of Durkheim to “mirco interactions” (p. 59), the “mundane interpersonal rituals” (p. 60) of daily life, such as greetings, partings, common phrases, chit chat, gossip, and gestures. Next, Ling engages Collins’ combination of Durkheim and Goffman, “interaction ritual chains” (p. 74), rituals that involve two or more people, a boundary to outsiders, a common focus of attention, and a shared mood, thus connecting the intensity of Durkheim’s large-scale rituals to the mundane of Goffman’s daily rituals. In the second section, Ling logically extends the ritual interaction to mediated (mobile) communication, supporting his argument with an analysis of global quantitative studies on mobile telephony and his own semi-ethnographic collection of interviews and observations of mobile telephony in public places. Ling demonstrates that the practices of mobile telephony meet the criteria for ritual interaction, as mobile phone communicators use voice and text for all of the Goffmanian rituals of the mundane—greetings, partings, chit chat, gossip, romance, humor—and experience Durkheim’s interaction ritual chains of bounded interaction with mutually shared focus and mood.
With this research, Ling provides an answer to the ongoing debate between those who love the connectedness provided by mobile technology and those who believe that mobile phones are destroying co-present communication: it both destroys and builds. He looks at the impact of mobile telephony in two different areas: co-present and mediated scenarios. In the co-present, co-temporal setting, where two or more people are engaged in a face-to-face interaction, the mobile phone can most definitely be a barrier to communication. When “the telephonic and co-present overlap” (p. 105), the immediate result is a disruption of any focused, co-present interaction. Ling observes a situation familiar to most mobile users when a three-person meeting is interrupted by a mobile call that one of the individuals in the meeting chooses to answer. The presence of a mobile interruption forces the party receiving the call to quickly determine which interaction is dominant and which is secondary. When the mobile communication is deemed the dominant interaction, there is very little the other co-present interlocutor(s) can do but wait. The ubiquitous nature of mobile phones makes the possibility and navigation of disruption a constant in co-present communication.
However, just as disruption can destroy an immediate co-present moment, mobile telephony has the potential to have a positive impact on relational maintenance. Study after study demonstrates that mobile communication actually strengthens small group bonds, especially those that begin as co-present relationships. In what researchers Ito and Okabe (2005 as cited in Ling, 2008) describe as “ambient accessibility,” the messaging provided by mobile telephony creates “a shared virtual space that is generally available between a few friends or a loved one, … a sense of persistent social space constituted by the periodic exchange of text messages” (p. 121). Studies from regions of the world as diverse as Japan, Ghana, Korea, and Norway show the same result, that “the major effect of the device is to increase communication within the intimate sphere” (p. 165). Thus the impact of mobile technology is two-fold and somewhat paradoxical: mobile threatens immediate co-present interaction but nurtures and builds ongoing co-present relationships.
The biggest takeaway for users of mediated communication is the awareness that we are experiencing a “recalibration of social cohesion” (p. 173). Ling explores the fears of Putnam and McPherson that individualization is threatening social capital and the very fabric of social cohesion. However, he counters with the suggestion, supported by his detailed research, that we are experiencing a new variation on an old concept, ritual interaction, and that the transition from geographically bounded mediated communication (the land line, the letter) to the individually-focused communication platform (the mobile phone), is creating a transition period in which there is “a recalibration of how social cohesion is being worked out in society” (p. 186). As we grow more acclimated to this transition, all evidence is pointing in the direction of “a tightening of the local group…not necessarily at the expense of involvement in the broader flux of social activity.” Rather than fear the mobile phone, we can benefit from the ability to grow closer to our small groups of family and friends without the bounds of time and space that past generations have faced. Further, as conscientious communicators, we can more actively use the tools of mobile telephony to foster social cohesion in our small groups.
An idea worthy of critique is Ling’s struggle with his own ideas regarding the benefits to those who use mediated communication in close relationships versus those who do not. Every time Ling presents research or reaches a conclusion that indicates the strengthening effect of mediated communication, he repeats a version of this idea: “With marginal exceptions, all other forms of mediated interaction pale in comparison to the power of co-present interaction” (p. 118); however, his own research shows that this is not necessarily true. For example, he devotes several pages to the early stage of romantic relationships. His research indicates that the asynchronous aspect of mediated communication allows for a greater comfort level in these early interactions. He reports on the trend of so-called “Cyber emigrants” (Tong & Walther, 2011, p. 108), couples who meet in-person but use mediated communication to become better acquainted, and often use mediated channels to decide whether or not to pursue a long-term relationship. While the co-present meeting establishes the initial chain in the interaction, “the mediation of the information via other channels can also influence the establishment of a more serious relationship” (p. 126). I would suggest that these examples are more than “marginal exceptions” to the co-present-as-better rule. And current computer-mediated communication (CMC) theory suggests the same. Hyperpersonal CMC Theory proposes that “CMC may facilitate impressions and relationships online that exceed the desirability and intimacy that occur in parallel off-line interactions” (Walther, 2011, p. 460). Ling might need to allow that the quality and power of mediated relationships are also in transition, with the potential for mediated communication to be the better channel more than a rare exception to a given rule.
With a publication date of 2008, Ling was just ahead of several important technological developments, including the widespread availability of broadband mobile and the explosion of Facebook as a global platform. Broadband mobile and a decrease in the cost of Internet-enabled mobile phones has led to a merging of social media and mobile. Ling’s observation about the intimacy of those who can reach a mobile user via text or voice has changed with addition of Facebook and Twitter apps to mobile phones where now thousands of “friends” have the potential for the equivalent of text access. Ling is predictive of the rise of the photograph in interpersonal communication. He briefly suggests that “it is conceivable that electronically based photographs will allow us to vastly expand our ability to include illustrative photos in normal conversation.” In 2014, not only has the “photo on the phone” surpassed the photo in the wallet, apps such as Instagram, Snapchat, and Vine are overtaking the more text focused Facebook and Twitter for social media engagement, all made possible by cameras on mobile phones.
In New Tech, New Ties, Ling gives compelling evidence that mobile telephony qualifies as a mediated form of ritual interaction and thus contributes to social cohesion. Through social theory and real-world research, Ling demonstrates how the persistent contact made possible by mobile voice and text strengthens small group bonds. So next time you’re bothered by the loud, over-sharer on the cell phone in the waiting room, or find it rude that a member of your team checks for a text message, rather than bemoan the destruction of the fabric of society, you can celebrate the mediated ritual interaction in the maintenance of close interpersonal relationships.
And just to put things in historical perspective, here’s an Internet meme popular on social media right now:
Ling, R. (2008). New tech, new ties: How mobile communication is reshaping social cohesion. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Tong, S. T., & Walther, J. B. (2011). Relational maintenance and computer-mediated communication. In K. B. Wright & L. M. Webb (Eds.), Computer-mediated communication in personal relationships (pp. 98-118). New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
Walther J.B. (2011). Theories of computer-mediated communication and interpersonal relations. In M. L. Knapp & J. A. Daly (Eds.), The Sage handbook of interpersonal communication (4th ed.) (443-479). Sage Publications, Inc.