When I was a teenager growing up in Tokyo in the '80s, telephone cards, pay phones, and urban landmarks were the technologies that coordinated our action on the street. We would begin with a set time and place, usually a major landmark like Hachiko Square in Shibuya crossing, or the Almond Café at Roppongi crossing. I remember hours spent at these teeming street corners, sweating in the heat, shivering in the cold, making forays to a pay phone to check on latecomers or for messages at home.
Now I leave home with my tiny keitai (Japanese for mobile phone) tucked in my purse, calling out to my husband that I will call him later about where and when to meet for dinner. As I run from street to train station, I notice fewer and fewer pay phones in the urban landscape...
On the train, I punch in a quick e-mail message to my colleague telling her I am running a bit late. A few moments later my phone vibrates and I see a message saying that she will be later still, and she will phone me when she arrives at our rendezvous spot. I send her an e-mail message when I arrive at the appointed place, and run errands in the station building until my phone rings, announcing her arrival. We stay online until we converge in the same part of the station. I wave to her to catch her eye, and cut the line. No apologies are in order for the delay, as neither of us has wasted time. If either of us had left our phones at home, that would be a different story, one of frustration and recrimination and failed attempts at contact.
One college student I spoke to described leaving one’s phone at home or letting the battery die as "the new taboo." Teens and twentysomethings usually do not bother to set a time and place for their meetings. They exchange as many as 5 to 15 messages throughout the day that progressively narrows in on a time and place, two points eventually converging in a coordinated dance through the urban jungle. To not have a keitai is to be walking blind, disconnected from just-in-time information on where and when you are in the social networks of time and place.
The changing dynamics of meeting-making are only the tip of the iceberg in the changes that mobile media bring to how we coordinate, communicate, and share information. Parents worry that they can’t keep track of their children’s friends anymore, since the home phone is no longer a site of incidental intergenerational contact.
Our initial findings are that keitai e-mail is replacing voice telephony as the dominant mode of telecommunications between teens and twentysomethings. Before initiating a call to a keitai, they will, almost without exception, begin with a text message to determine availability; the new social norm is that you should "knock before entering." By sending messages like "Can you talk on the phone now?" or "Are you awake?" text messagers spare each other the rude awakening and disruption of a sudden phone call.
One teenage couple that participated in our study exchanged 30 text messages over the course of three hours as they watched television, ate dinner and did their homework, before engaging in a one-hour phone conversation. This voice contact was followed by another trail of 22 messages that kept them in contact until bedtime.
Keitai-wired youth are in persistent but lightweight contact with a small number of intimates, with whom they are expected to be available unless they are sleeping or working. Because of this portable, virtual peer space, the city is no longer a space of urban anonymity...