Last June Sherry Turkle spoke at the Media Ecology Association symposium at Manhattan College about her book "Alone Together; Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other".
Since the late 70’s, Turkle’s work has examined the way we interact with digital technologies, and how it has changed our behavior and re-defined who we think we are. A major theme of “Alone Together” looks at the impact of wireless devices, and what it means to be always on a network, and to have the network “always on” us.
At one point she illustrated her talk with a transcript of a SMS text message “conversation” between teenagers. It was a seemingly dis-jointed stream of single words, fragments of phrases and acronyms; “Whassup?” “Whr RU?” “K” and so forth. Her point was that this was communication without significant substance - connection purely for the sake of connection.
“In this group there is near consensus that one of the pleasures of digital communication is that it does not need a message. It can be there to trigger a feeling rather than transmit a thought” (pg 198).
Turkle sees these teenagers as discovering or inventing a new social protocol, entering the undiscovered country of a new medium for which “the rules” have not yet been written.
I recognized it immediately as something else – the revival of an extremely ancient mode of communication – the contact call.
Having worked with a number of animal behaviorists and primatologists over the years, I have encountered this concept many times. Among most “social” animals (those that live in troops, herds or flocks) contact calls serve an important function – coordinating the behavior of the group, assessing the general mood and sense of security of the individuals, and alerting the group to internal tensions or external threats.
If they could be transcribed into English, most contact calls might look a lot like Dr. Turkle’s transcription of teenagers;
“Hey, how R U? ... I’m OK over here ... You OK over there? .... Good leaf munching over here – Wait, what was that? A predator? ... Never Mind, ... OK ... Hey, how R U?
Here’s an example of some contact calls, in an excerpt from a training video I did years ago on studying baboon behavior. You can hear contact calls, accompanied by lip smacking, and visual cues like the curious eyelid flipping that is a signaling behavior typical of this species.
As teenagers, we experience the strong urge to feel “connected” with our peer group as we do in no other phase in our lives. From my perspective, SMS texts and IM and social platforms like Twitter and Foursquare have been so seductive for teenagers because they stroke an ancient need - a primate “itch” we have to feel connected to our “troop” with simple signal-based “gestures”.
Texting is addictive because, like a digital form of a back scratcher, it is a technology that finally allows us to scratch an itch that’s been bothering us ever since we climbed down from the trees, stood up right and started walking and talking.
Back at NYU, every time I tried to use a concept from biology to explain a social phenomena, Jay Rosen, (the only surviving member of my long defunct doctoral committee), used to call it “cheating” or a bit of a cop out.
In response, maybe I can offer this McLuhan-like “tetrad” on texting as contact calls. (Marshal McLuhan’s Tetrad was a set of four questions which McLuhan drafted which can be used to approach an examination of any new medium, tool or technology.)
1. What does the medium enhance?
2. What does the medium make obsolete?
3. What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
4. What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes?
I would answer them this way:
1. SMS text enhances signal and “gesture” over discursive content.
2. SMS text makes the awkward teenage boy-girl phone call obsolete.
3. SMS text retrieves “primate contact calls” enabling more “primate troop-like” behavior to teenage social life.
4. When pushed to extremes Text, (& Twitter and the like) can flip into Smart Mobs, Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring, ... push it as far as you like.
You know, since contact calls are also common among most colonial-nesting bird species, I always thought it was ironic that it was called “Twitter” – it never occurred to me that they were being that literal. When Twitter was originally launched at South By South West in 2007, its power as a "contact call" was immediately apparent when big clusters of these first time Twitter users were "flocking" at one bar or party or another driven entirely by the tweets they got from each other. Are we all one big flock now?
For more on Turkle's observations of life lived "always on", here's an excerpt from a talk she gave at the London School of Economics in 2011.