Nov 2, 2009

Culture Matters!

Whenever people herald mobile technology and texting as the social revolution tool of the future, I feel like a grandma. Despite having had my own cell phone for several years, and even recently adding a texting plan to it, I've yet to become fully comfortable with texting as a meaningful medium of discourse. While my best friend regularly maxes out her texting inbox with everything from serious conversations with her boyfriend (10-20 texts back and forth) to quick, casual observations (1-2 texts), I'm still struggling to figure out when and how I'm supposed to respond to the most insignificant of messages. If a friend texts, "Such a gorgeous day today!", is it for me or for her? As in, is she messaging me to let me know that it's a beautiful day, or does she want me to participate in the experience with some kind of text back, perhaps a "Yes!" or ":)"? Whereas others seem to send and respond to texts without so much as batting an eyelid, I'm sitting there staring at my phone, typing a response, only to delete it and start over again three or four times, or maybe re-reading the message a few times to figure out just what the best, concise, yet not overly trivial response might be.

That said, I'm not entirely anti-texting. I, too, can see the utility of texts as a convenient and efficient way to convey simple, direct information. "Meet me at 6 pm." "I'm waiting outside." "Want to see a movie?" It's especially effective for someone like me who doesn't always have the energy to sustain the social niceties of an actual phone call. I've also found that it's good for proposing plans with less of the awkwardness associated with rejection. No need to assume a cheery bravado despite the fact that no one wants to go to dinner with you. No need to intone a feigned disappointment in shucks, just not being able to make the monster truck derby this Saturday.

Personal use (or non-use) of texting aside, what especially struck me about both the Castells and Bennett readings were their balanced tones. Both acknowledge that mobile and new media technologies have facilitated grassroots communication and extended democratic political participation in the form of protests and demonstrations to levels previously unseen. Yet rather than proclaim the death of significant personal relationships and traditional methods of communication, they note that these new technologies must still navigate the social structures and cultural contexts that have always defined personal communications and political participation. Use of these new technologies alone is not enough to guarantee success; rather, as with any other technology, the benefits of the technology must match up with the goals of the message in order to translate into an effective campaign.

The failures of mobile technology to captivate a population explored by Castells provides a nice counter to our previous reading, "Convergence Culture in the Creative Industries," wherein Deuze's admiration for viral marketing campaigns seemed a little too optimistic for my taste. Castells's anti-technological determinism stance is a welcome rational voice amidst the flurry of centralized interests (usually corporate companies) trying to jump on the "viral" bandwagon. Every large company (and increasingly government agencies) is creating a Facebook page, setting up a Twitter feed, enticing you to sign up for their text alerts, download their iPhone app, etc. Yet half the time, when you actually look at the service they are trying to provide, it's just the same information in different packaging. They are not actually harnessing the unique characteristics of these technologies so much as trying to recapture the "viral-ness" that they observe in other campaigns. Obviously to some extent these efforts are simply the new business standards for "keeping up with the times". But as mobile and new media technologies continue to transform our every day lives, it's improtant to remember that social structure and culture still matter.

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