18 September 2007

The French and their mobiles

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The French and their mobiles
A few days ago, I translated an article from the French newspaper Le Monde about new French research on “collective mobile phone use”.

The French Association of Mobile Operators now published the full study (pdf, 630 kb, 156 pages), as well as a three-page press release/synthesis.

For a number of reasons I decided to spend (quite) some time translating the report synthesis:
– The study is strong and the results insightful, refreshing and highly innovative;
– Little is known internationally about anthropological research on mobile technologies in France;
– There is a barrage of coverage coming from the Anglo-Saxon world, and only a trickle from elsewhere.

Translating the study itself is unfortunately beyond my capacity and I can only hope that the French Association of Mobile Operators itself will one day make the study available in an English translation – feel free to put some pressure on them by contacting them at info@afomobiles.org.


The French Association of Mobile Operators (AFOM) asked the Discours and Pratiques studio to conduct a study on the mobile phone in the French society in 2007.

Five researchers in information and communication sciences [sociology, information sciences, communication sciences, philosophy and literature], all members of GRIPIC (the research group of the CELSA school), worked on the study for six months, conducting about one hundred in-depth interviews, as well as anthropological observations in various locations (Paris and its suburbs, Marseilles, Strasbourg, Creuse and various ski resorts) and various situations.

The researchers tried to understand the ways of “doing and being” that go with the use of the mobile phone on the street, cafe terraces, restaurants, public gardens, train stations, apartments, vacation homes, companies, libraries, and transportation means, and this without falling back on traditional social categorisations. And to really cover the symbolic dimension of the mobile phone, the research also covered areas that up till now were not covered by research: the movies, television shows and literature.

The study was lead by Anne Jarrigeon and Joëlle Menrath, two researchers who were already involved with a previous GRIPIC study on the mobile phone in French society, conducted in 2004 and 2005.

The main points of the 2007 study are:

1. The mobile phone is no longer just a personal device. In 2007, the phone is integrated within collective practices both in the family and between friends.

Mobile phone are increasingly objects that circulate within a group. The owner of the mobile phone is no longer the only one to touch it, check it and use it.

Mobile phones can allow for exchanges based on the amount of credit left before the end of the month and on the range of hourly allowances when calls are free. This can also lead to a collective choice of operators, of discount plans and of prepaid cards, with the sole aim of optimising cost within the group.

Within the family, mobile phone reinforce the asymmetric role and character of the parent-child relationship: whereas parents do not think about money when calling their children, the children themselves try to save money by “beeping” their parents, in order to be called back.

The mobile of the child is a jointly managed tool and a transaction device. It is experienced by the parents – and mainly by the mothers – as an opportunity for exchange with their child and as a way for children to learn to manage a financial budget.

Within a group of friends, mobile phones serve to define roles and affinities. One can find the expert, and the user with difficulties, the “banker” who always has some credit, and the “borrower” who always asks for text messages and minutes (without ever giving them).

Beyond these roles, the mobile phone created relations of exclusivity with those whom one calls most often based on the tariff offers and their compatibility.

2. The French have ambivalent and changing relations with their mobile phone. In 2007, the mobile phone goes from being personal to transitory, from intimate to visible.

If the mobile phone is a “signature object” that one gets emotionally attached to and reflects the identity of its owner, it is also a “transitory object” that one can easily detached from, because it’s after all a device that young users see as something that will in the end be either replaced by a new model, or end up broken, lost or stolen.

If the mobile phone is an intimate “black box” where one stores the archives of one’s life (contacts, SMS, photos…), it is also:

  • for adults, the album that unites all the photos previously kept in the wallet and the object where one keeps its secrets from intrusion (partner listening to messages or checking on call history…),
  • for teens, the place where one keeps personal collections (images, ringtones, …), that one shares and shows like a museum.

3. New social conventions are being established around the mobile phone.

A mobile phone call can easily be interrupted (“I have to go now”, “I can’t hear you anymore”, “I am out of battery”, “I just arrived”). With a mobile phone, ending a call is allowed without this being considered impolite.

Calling someone on a mobile means living it up to him/her to answer or not. The mobile phone is increasingly seen as a non-intrusive tool of reachability.

New rules are also developing about money, with regards to “limit expenses”, or “pick up the tab” such as in a restaurant, or on the impoliteness of extending a conversation because the call is free anyhow.

4. The use of the mobile phone is governed more by example than by rules and prohibitions.

Nowadays there are many rules that prohibit the use of the mobile phone, be it at work, in public spaces or at school. Very often these rules are not followed.

In many contexts that were observed (office, train, waiting room…), use is self-regulated in terms of what people consider to be tolerable and appropriate.

At school, the mobile phone is added to the series of tools of those that are not interested in a class or have fun at creating some disturbance, something that more “traditional” tools were used for before. It becomes another challenge for the teacher to manage during his class.

Confiscation seems to be most effective sanction in school even if the user of the confiscated phone is no the owner (because phones often circulate in groups) and even if parents are opposed to this sanction because it prevents them from reaching their children (including – for some – during classes).

Because rules are usually not followed, example behaviour is often more effective than prohibition. When someone decides not to use his/her phone when on holidays, at dinner, during meetings or while with the family, this is often the best way to dissuade others from using it.

However such example behaviour requires constant vigilance because any use of the mobile phone quickly becomes a breach that others quickly take advantage of.

5. Several dominant sociological and philosophical lines of thought are consistent with the behaviours that were observed and the results that were obtained during the study.

While the mobile phone is often presented as the token of an individualistic and atomised society, in reality one observes collective and collaborative behaviours around the mobile in the family and between friends.

While the mobile phone is often thought of as creating a bubble around the people engaged in the call, excluding them from their immediate environments, in reality one increasingly observes conversations where those around the “caller”, allow themselves to intervene, to interrupt the caller or to speak to him/her about something else.

While the mobile phone is often portrayed as filling a void or a lack, one increasingly observes situations where the phone provides resources to act and react, allows to capture what one experiences et to bring an “extra value” to what one experiences that can be described with wellbeing or pleasure.

And while the mobile phone is often, also outside of expert research, mentioned in current discussions on improper behaviour the people that were interviewed do not speak about this and one observes increasingly less signs of exasperation or of cases of embarrassment in public life.

6. The mobile phone is seen as a “average medium” that renews amateur photo and film practice.

Mobile phone images are viewed as precarious images, often of uncertain quality, not to be printed and not be shared between devices. These images always call up a description of something one should see. They serve to create memories and to prove that one really was present at the event one is talking about (e.g. a concert, a celebrity passing by …).

Mobile phone images are integrated within several reference frameworks that preceded the phone: the journalism of the everyday and one’s own life, spontaneous family images as opposed to fake happiness, the sensationalism that comes with having to set up brief, clear, efficient and striking acts.

More spectacular scenes can raise the challenge by bringing in the grotesque, the playful, the macabre, even violence. This is what lead to the videos gags, the MTV Jackass and the so-called ‘snuff movies’. The aggressions filmed on a mobile phone are one of the most recent expressions of this (although the expression ‘happy slapping’ was not used by any of the people interviewed within this study).

Our friends from InternetActu, who also report on this study, highlight that the authors of the study conclude that “the mobile phone of 2007 is no longer exactly the same phone as it was in 2007:

“Its current massive and seemingly irreversible presence in all spheres of life would make one think that its uses would become trivialised or neutralised. None of that can be observed. […] Whereas the conventional uses of the mobile phone are more stable now than they were in 2005, they are now shared with new uses that are either linked to innovative technologies that are appropriated by users, or created by themselves in daily practice.

[…] What struck is, is that the mobile phone hasn’t ‘bursted’ under the effect of the successive additions of new functions, but continues to make sense to people as a “phone”, even though they use it in manifold ways. It goes even further than that. The mobile phone is no longer fully conceived or ‘experienced’ as a Swiss Army knife of aggregated functions but instead reinvented with each use as a ‘fully conceived object’: a machine to write text messages, a photo camera, a voice mail system… It is an object that is endowed with the capacity of metamorphosis. When seen in the context of the other devices it relates to, the mobile phone seems today to be part of an augmented collection [or ‘ecosystem’] of communicating devices, including the devices of others […]. Research on the effects of the phone on others therefore seems more relevant today than an investigation on how to optimise the performance and complementarity of the different tools.”

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