Are Smartphones about communication or about control?

I don’t know if this is a generational thing or a technological thing.

My wife works for a University where she is in contact with lots of students.
She had noticed that this age group (very early 20’s) are impossible to catch by phone and they do not use voice mail, and do not respond to email until the very last moment, which often is too late. This is despite almost all having smartphones on a large free wi-fi enabled campus.

They do communicate amongst their peer group by text and social media (mostly Facebook), but as soon as anyone outside their peer group (i.e.: the University) attempts these channels of communication the messages are ignored and even resented.

Also, if asked to do something (like “contact so-and-so and get the blah-blah thing from them”) they will not make a phone call but email a request, even though a phone call will have a result in a matter of minutes, whereas an email can take days. The explanation usually given for this is “I’ve emailed so-and-so”- a statement that means: “I’ve done all I need to do, the ball is in so-and-so’s court, it’s up to them to respond”*

Reading this article started me thinking.

I think all the successful telecommunication innovations of the last 10-15 years (text messaging, email, social media) have been not about communicating but about controlling the information you communicate. A phone call means you have to engage with someone else, whereas text/ email/ Facebook allows you some distance from the other person, and you can decide when and how you reply. I also think this is why video calling has not taken off, as looking at someone conveys so much more information than just speaking to them- you can’t control the communication nearly as well.

Is this because technology has allowed us to be lazy and take the path of least resistance? (‘should I call my boss up to say I will be away sick or should I text?’) or is it a generational thing? (‘young people today/ walk to school in the snow/ national service’ etc.)


  • (this doesn’t seem to be age-related, a lot of this happens in my work too with people of all ages, it appears to be ‘you are a slack worker’ -related).

Sanjy: Great article. Thanks for the link.

Whenever this topic comes up, I’m completely caught by surprise by how very out of touch I am. Anyways…

E-mail should be understood by the way the technology developed. It used to be that one would have to phone up a computer and retrieve their email. This was typically done once a day. They would then read the email off line and probably not send the response until the next day. The benefit was that the users could have a discussion outside of time. The topic could be contemplated and the response fully thought out before it was sent.

The phone was the only form of instantaneous messaging. Today, of course, we do have text messaging and email everywhere and it is on all the time. We’ve forgotten that this isn’t true for everyone though. That’s why phone calls are still important & email is a horrible alternative.

Personally, when I send an email, I sending because I’m assuming that it will be dealt with as a lower priority than a phone call or because I’m sending it to China, where people will be asleep during my work day. I’m assuming that my email won’t be read until 12-48 hours after I send it. If it is, all the better.

However, when I need something right away, I always call. In fact, I hope that the other person thinks it’s rude. That’s how important the topic is to me…that I’m willing to interrupt you to get my response!

With my friends, I try to call. Some friends, I’ve found to never be available, except by email. So, I’ve taken to that for them. However, some friends still enjoy a good conversation, so I call them. I just always preface my conversation with, “are you busy?”. It doesn’t seem that hard…

In a similar thread, my gf is always complaining that she needs to call her friends to organize things, because everyone else just sends unclear emails in place of calling. Emails that tend to not be read until after the event has passed. We both agree that this kind of behaviour leads to feelings that no one cares to be friends anymore. Maybe we should start looking at our methods of communication as a reason for the rise of depression in our society.

It’s about control over communication modes and behavior.

My grandmother is over 90 years old. She has selective hearing.

It’s the same way with communication tools. You can ignore or respond just the same.

Last Friday afternoon I noticed a factory was calling me about a question, my first thought before answering was “couldn’t they have just emailed me.” Needless to say I didn’t have an answer at that very moment and told them I would email them back at the end of the day. Email and text is convenient, but it’s not always the best answer or the quickest.

But one of the things I never liked about the rise of cell phones is you could be having a conversation with someone when their phone rings and it become acceptable to stop your conversation and pick up the phone. With email/text/facebook you can get back to them when you need to.

It’s a very interesting topic, and I relate because I use my phone more for text/chat/facebook then phone calls. Even my parents text me now, and that’s kind of weird.

Talking on the phone is just one of many options now.

This is a very interesting topic. I’ll reply with my immediate thoughts but haven’t yet read the article and want to think over this a bit more.

  1. Email like letters allow consideration of thought in reply. As such there can be more depth in reply, and also potentially less chance of misinterpretation if well written.

  2. Email also provides a record of things. I like to do all business by email so I have a written, searchable record. There’s no chance of “I didn’t say that” coming back to mess things up, when you have it in pixels forever.

  3. Maybe just because I’m in front of my computer all day, and have my iPhone when I’m out, but I do expect email replies to be timely from people and it really bothers me when people don’t reply quickly. I don’t necessarily expect an immediate reply, but I think next day or two days later is reasonable, unless it involves a longer reply or action in which case I would expect a quick reply in 1-2 days, and then an ETD of when to expect a further reply.

  4. As emails are almost (always) delivered, I find it is extremely rude to ignore a personal email. For example, I used to spend lots of time at various trade shows. Meeting people, chatting over my portfolio, leaving them portfolio samples, and trading business cards. When I get home I normally follow-up by email with a personal email and additional link/attachment. 90% of these people I get nothing in reply. Not even a “thanks but no thanks”. That is beyond unprofessional. It lowers my personal opinion of these people, permanently.

  5. Facebook messaging is stupid.

  6. Younger people do text a lot. I don’t really understand it when it takes 10 texts back and forth to say what you could do by voice in 30 seconds. I’ve heard a lot of the reason is that texts are usually unlimited and kids have limited voice minutes.

  7. Yes, calls are immediate, but also interrupting the other person. Is this rude? If it’s not something immediate, perhaps.


I wrote a paper on this while getting my masters degree. With the sensors in today’s smartphones it would be possible to collect an amazing amount of data on you. GPS means most of your exterior movements could be tracked and the accelerometers could track whether you were standing still, walking or running.

Since we don’t know who is currently monitoring such information we may already be tracked. I wonder when info from a smartphone will be used to test alibi’s in court cases. if that happens we know big brother is watching.

I read something about insurance companies putting stuff like this in your car, so you get a discount on your premium because it can record bunny-hops, rapid braking, bad gear changes- the idea is that if someone can tell that you are thrashing your car you will be less likely to do so.

Absolutely agree, but where I work this is done to the point of paranoia- an email will contain every FW and RE from 20 different people, each adding a tiny bit to the main thrust of the email, so the subject line has no relevance anymore to the topic, and it requires a major detective operation to work out what is required.

Yes. If you are in a shop in a queue and the phone rings, it is quite acceptable for the caller to be dealt with next- this wouldn’t happen if someone came into the shop and shouted at the top of their voice “RING RING ME! ME! ANSWER ME! I’M NEXT!”.

Yes. If you are in a shop in a queue and the phone rings, it is quite acceptable for the caller to be dealt with next-

This is a major, MAJOR, phukup on the part of a retailer for me… and out the do’ he go… … (me that is). The equivalent of the merchant asking the person behind me what they need.

Proper response: I have lots of customers waiting at the counter. May I call you back?

Let’s add “call waiting” to the list of truly annoying features of modern telephonic communications. Classic example; we live in California, my wife’s sister lives in Indiana. Wife gets to travel back to see her sister only once every year or two, but tries to call her every Sunday afternoon. A busy life the sister must have because she seldom answers her Blackberry or returns a voice mail from my wife. Invariably when they do connect the call will be interrupted by one of the sister’s 30+ year old daughters calling from across town with an urgent question about how to boil water or some such nonsense. The sister always defers to her offspring and that ends the call to my wife; she never calls back.

No longer viz-a-viz, our “manners”, as a culture, have degenerated to a certain extent don’t you think? Would you tolerate a six-year old interrupting a conversation? I don’t see much difference really.

I agree with the statement that there are some obvious, overall trends in communication behavior:

  • one’s expected to check his emails regularly and respond to them (as far as the receipient is addressed directly)
  • phone calls are considered disruptive/annoying and should be reserved for priority stuff . (No, your stuff is not important just because it’s you) :sunglasses:
  • text chat and social media are often used to waste time intentionally (or subconsciously) :laughing:

All of the real weird kinds of behavior you have described in this thread are rather signs of individual disrespectfulness than overall trends. The magic bullet to handle that kind of people, especially students: set up your operational sequences on a “debt to be collected at the debtor’s residence”-basis. In German we say “Holschuld” to this: Never carry someone else’s arse after him.

New York Times has an article about the same subject, phones and their changing usage. Don’t Call Me, I Won’t Call You - The New York Times

I don’t even want a smartphone anymore, I want a dumb simple one, the iPad goes everywhere with me and does the smart stuff better.

I have the behavior you’re talking about, but I think it’s so stupid. To start with your university example, I tend to see emails from my profs kind of as homework, they kind of all fit into one big procrastination bucket. Especially the administrative stuff. But for the administrative stuff, I prefer emailing to phone just because I get a record of stuff, I got screwed one time too many with the university bureaucracy. I had a prof last year who’d didn’t give us his email during his first lecture but instead gave us his phone number (and the guy is in his 30s) and said, don’t bother emailing, you’ll get stuck in my mailbox and explaining things over ping pongs of emails is just way too long, call me, you’re important to me.

Wow, we all thought, and it makes so much sens! But yes a lot of it is control, you tend to get intimidated by profs and typing it is much easier.

But I think that has much more to do with maturity. As I’m getting closer to finishing my bac, I’ve either grown balls and/or profs respect me more as I tend to get stuff done.

I intend to edit this post to add about telecom not just in an academic perspective, but I have to go to sleep.

Disrespectful, absolutely, but I thought generational as at face value it appears to be very early 20’s behaviour. I heard a radio interview with Hara Estroff Marano (editor of Psychology Today) who says there is a crisis of depression in Universities amongst students who have been ‘babied’ (for want of a better term) and are falling apart at the first hurdle that their parents won’t save them from- they have been brought up so the easiest option is always taken. Is smartphone technology being driven by this behaviour or is it driving it?

Can you explain “debt to be collected at the debtor’s residence”? I think I get it- don’t give options that allow avoidance.

Can you explain “debt to be collected at the debtor’s residence”? I think I get it- don’t give options that allow avoidance.

Exactly. “You don’t care - I don’t care, too. And it’s your disadvantage, not mine.”

Lmo wrote:
All of the real weird kinds of behavior you have described in this thread are rather signs of individual disrespectfulness than overall trends. The magic bullet to handle that kind of people, especially students: set up your operational sequences on a “debt to be collected at the debtor’s residence”-basis.

I didn’t write that… …

Sorry about that- the ‘quote’ function has stuffed up a few times for me.

When can we stop calling them “smartphones”? They are the norm now. The new smartphone should only be able to make phone calls.