A Conversation with Your Cellphone

Digital media use can sometimes graze the edge of social acceptability, but as digital and analogue life become evermore integrated, the protocols get blurry.
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My digital media use can sometimes graze the edge of social acceptability. I might reply to a text during dinner or download music while a friend monologues. Yet there are some transgressions that make my insides seethe -- a friend interrupting our conversation to tweet that hilarious thing she just said, or sitting silently with someone involved in an endless, banal BBM chat, when they could be sending endless, banal messages to my in-flesh face.

Some of these things are obviously rude. If you're irritating the person you're with, you have probably tripped up in the Kabuki of modern etiquette. But as digital and analogue life become evermore integrated, the protocols get blurry.

Why is not replying to a text less rude than taking a moment out of a conversation? Why is leaving someone lingering on Skype more or less rude than answering a phone call?

A simple answer is that one interaction is more "real" than the other, and the breathing organism should always take precedence over the bits and bytes. But the "real" and "virtual" divide is tricky. Firstly, we may all live in the Matrix, and everything both real and virtual is just the doodling of a malevolent cyber-intelligence. Secondly, the "virtual," in these cases, are also real people in real places with real thoughts and feelings. In some instances, like with Skype and the phone call, our competing interactions are both "virtual" in the sense of no one being physically present.

"Liveness" is perhaps a better barometer. The more "live" a person is in relation to you, the more attention they deserve, and the more promptly you should reply to their message.

If the message is an e-mail, give yourself a day. If the message is "what's up?" and he or she is sitting in front of you, give yourself two seconds.

But "liveness" is also a slippery creature. As a concept, it only sprang into existence with the birth of mediating technologies. Before that, "liveness" was just life. It wasn't even the invention of sound recording that spurred the human mind to construct the categories of "live" and "mediated." The difference was obvious: one was life, and one was a 78 rpm shellac disc revolving on your gramophone.

It was the birth of broadcasting that fundamentally jumbled the distinction, with no way to know whether those EM waves radiating from your receiver originated at a plucked string, or a plucked string in a recording studio that was now a disc spinning on the station's turntable. It was in the desperation to make sense of this difference that "liveness" was finally born.

Coined by the BBC in 1934, "liveness" became a nifty discursive distinction when an ontological one didn't really exist. As Phillip Auslander writes in "Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture," "liveness" never really referred to co-presence in space and time. The word instead evolved with emerging technologies, so that today phrases like "live broadcast" and "recording live" are meaningful and not paradoxical jibberish.

"Liveness" is experienced more as a feeling or an affect than an objective reality. But with such a flimsy definition, who's to say Gchat is more or less "live" than the guy sitting next to me on the subway?

Skype, for example, is very "live" for my mother. Too "live," in fact. But Facebook? She could go for weeks without checking. This is not a "live" experience for her; it's about occasionally dropping by, getting overwhelmed, signing off, and sending me an e-mail a few days later criticizing one of my photos.

"Liveness" is a very subjective thing.

Mushon Zer-Aviv, the designer and media activist, has invented a far more concrete framework by which to judge our social existence: content vs. conversation.

To define content, he uses metrics devised by Danah Boyd: persistence, replicability, searchability and invisible audiences.

When you tweet something, that tweet lasts forever (persistence); it can be easily retweeted, tweaked and retweeted, or slapped on a t-shirt (replicability); it can be found with some speedy Googling, and if deleted, scooped up from the darkweb (searchability); and no matter who you think your followers are, that tweet may eventually end up on the interface of an employer, creepy dude, or your born/unborn children (invisible audiences). If your communication fulfills some of these criteria, it's probably content.

Conversation, on the other hand, is ephemeral, unreplicable, unsearchable, and your audience is known, often right in your field of vision.

Why is conversation better than content? There's a lot of schmaltz I could spread for an answer -- that conversation is more authentic and less performed, more intimate and less displayed, magical in its fleetingness, and more existentially affirming in the ability, on occasion, to actually make eye contact.

It is in the world of conversation that ideas are really exchanged, opinions shaped, and laughing out loud makes a sound. These kinds of conversations may take place in chat rooms or on comment threads, but if nothing else, the existence of a Caps Lock key will forever doom many exchanges to CONTENT!!!!!

As Zer-Aviv rightly points out that in this framework Chatroulette qualifies as conversation and a parade of genitalia probably shouldn't qualify as anything. But there is something in the essence of Chatroulette -- two strangers serendipitously matched for a small spell of time -- that has the glimmery feel of conversation, even if one of those strangers takes off his pants.

Facebook and Foursquare, like video games, may be more instantly gratifying in the way that they dole out hits of rewards. Content can also be creative and socially valuable. But conversation, "real" or "virtual," "live" or "mediated," may be able to offer something even better than the Mayorship of your local discount liquor store.