Messaging, Phatic Overhead, and the Right to Connect

There’s a number of articles, none of which I’ve read, that propose (or assume) that SMS messaging is used as a phatic system.

Under this analysis SMS is like the chatter of the monkeys in trees, a chatter which is primarily used to say

“Are you still there?”

“Yep. You?”

“Yep. Still here. How about now?”

And if you look at the way kids use it, that sounds about right.

It’s interesting to me that I tend to use it for the opposite reason: it cuts through all the phatic garbage and assumes you have the right to connect.

Meaning here’s what asking someone to come out for a drink looks like on the phone:

Phone rings. (Phatic – establishing connection)
Someone picks up. “Hello?” (Phatic – connection established)
“Hi, Ben?” (Phatic – identity check)
“Yeah. Hey Mike” (Phatic – identity confirmed)
“How’s it going?” (Phatic – is channel open, is this a good time?)
“Pretty good. You?” (Phatic – channel is open, go ahead)
“Not Bad. Hey, I’m heading out to Lab and Lager tonight, 5:30, you interested?” (FINALLY… the conative/referential)
“OK, well, see you then” (Phatic – closing channel, OK?)
“Yep, see ya. Bye.” (Phatic – channel closed)
“Bye.” (Phatic – channel closed)

Here’s what it looks like when texting:

“Heading out to Lab & Lager, 5:30. You interested?”
“Definitely. See you there.”

What’s interesting to me is how devoid that is of any channel talk. There’s a couple of reasons for that.

  1. The addressee can choose when to take the message, so there’s no channel talk regarding making the connection or on whether this is a good time.
  2. Identity is clearly established through technology, so that channel talk about who’s who dissappears
  3. With those hits removed, there’s no need to explicitly close the channel either. Checking before you close the channel only makes sense if there’s a hit to opening it.

Of course, the absence of phatic machinery in the conversation can be read the other way as well — a connection not explicitly opened or closed can be seen to be (or felt as) permanently open. And this perhaps leads to the related behavior the articles mention — trading low value information as a means of confirming the openess of the channel.

All of which reminds me of an interesting comment some of our students made in a focus group we had about how the college administration should communicate with them. Most felt that texting was more personal than phone calls and felt the college might be overstepping their bounds if we texted them. I mean, couldn’t we call or email instead? Texting them was just kind of … creepy.

To some, that may seem odd at first glance. We tend to think of written communication as less intimate than verbal communication.

But when seen in terms of channel, the intimacy makes some sense. The way these students are modeling the media goes something like this:

Email: No channel open. Each message a one-off, self sufficient.
Phone: Temporary channel open, explicit permission asked, granted, etc. Closed at end.
Texting: Channel always open. Right to connect pre-established.

At least, that seems to be something like the model. (Us older folks very often use email in a similar style to that of student messaging –kids that have grown up around SMS messaging are more likely to marry the medium with the style in their mind, and move these back and forth exchanges to messaging. To many of them, email resembles publishing more than conversation).