The ritual qualities of texting

December 17, 2002

As the traditional peak period for buying mobile phones begins, potential advances in the features they offer may prove a turn-off to customers, warns a new report sponsored by the ESRC.

The phenomenal success of text-messaging, for instance, has been largely due to its limitations, say researchers from the University of Surrey, who found that making the system more complex may prove misguided.

A team led by Dr. Geoff Cooper and Professor Richard Harper looked at the social significance of mobile phone usage and its implications for development of the technology. They argue that any predictions about the uptake of new features need to be based on proper consideration of how mobiles are actually used. Young people for example, use mobiles to widen and strengthen their social networks, even from the isolation of a room in their parents' home. Texting and voice calls can be used to create limits for friends and parents, and cope with the demands various groups may make on them.

Moreover, the researchers argue that a large part of text messaging by young people has ritual properties, and can be described as a form of 'gift-giving'.

Dr. Cooper says: "These properties have implications, still largely unappreciated, for industry plans to enhance the functions available on the mobile."

He says that factors in the success of SMS text-messaging include being able to view or forward messages directly by storing them in the phone itself, without having to call them up from a remote server. And he points to how a special short form of language has been created by users to get round a technical limit on the total of letters and numbers available.

Dr. Cooper cautions: "The assumption that future services should do away with these limitations by using remote storage and allowing any number of characters may be misguided."

Looking at potential future developments, the report says the way people now use mobiles suggests that the merging of mobile phone and various computer technologies may not happen as envisaged. People's attention levels when using mobiles are much lower than they would need to use complex computer-based features.

Basic considerations, such as the need to answer the phone quickly, and the gaze, body movement and gestures people need to adopt to feel comfortable with those around them whilst using the mobile, have implications for call forwarding, answering services, and having a live phone connection at all times. This, the report points out, is to say nothing about the extreme difficulties for those communicating with video links.

The development of future location-based services to supply useful and relevant information based on the user's geographical whereabouts will have to deal with certain problems which are already evident in existing technologies.

For example, the usefulness of current vehicle navigation systems, which provide automated information based on the location of the driver, can be limited in the absence of information about the intended route, purpose and length of the journey, says the report.

The mobile phone has changed a normally private activity into a public one, and disturbed the general tradition of silence in 'public' spaces, but the researchers found that most users recognised their obligations to others. It also enables more flexible forms of social coordination: the report notes the key role of the mobile in organising European industrial action over fuel costs in 2000.

Productive forms of communication about work are now possible at times when previously they were not, and mobile operators have an interest in developing services to support this. However, advantages such as these may be offset by an expectation of perpetual contact in which people feel obliged to respond, leading to a sense of being under surveillance.
For further information, contact:
Dr. Geoff Cooper on 01483-686976, e-mail: or Professor Richard Harper on 0117-903-1148, e-mail: or Iain Stewart or Lesley Lilley at ESRC, on 01793-413032/413119.


1. The research report 'The Socio-technical shaping of mobile multi-media personal communications' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Vodafone, One2One, Orange, BTCellnet and Granada Media Group. Dr. Cooper is at the Department of Sociology of the University of Surrey, Guildford GU2 7XH; Professor Harper, formerly at Surrey, is now at The Appliance Studio, University Gate East, Park Row, Bristol BS1 5UB.

2. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It has a track record of providing high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £53 million every year in social science research. At any time, its range of funding schemes may be supporting 2,000 researchers within academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences thereby nurturing the researchers of tomorrow. The ESRC website address is

3. REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at

Economic & Social Research Council

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