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80,259 News Articles

News feature: Watching you, using phones

Anthropologists are noting how you use mobile tech

Gorillas and elephants are getting used to hangarounds or, as we call them, scientists.

But, since turf is getting scarce in Africa, the new thing is to watch humans.

Any mobile phone maker these days will employ the services of a people-watcher. They pay somebody with a degree in social anthropology to hang around in public places and see how people actually use their mobile phones or, as they're referred to in Sweden, their 'yuppie teddy bears'.

They couldn't have done that with personal computers. Companies had user interaction labs where they tested new software on volunteers, but as for shoulder-surfing in people's homes, there are laws against that.

But users of mobile phones have no personal integrity, nor do they seem to want any.

Anyone interested can sit on a bus or a cafe and, as Yogi Bear phrased it, "observe a lot just by watching". You even get paid for it, if you're a social anthropologist.

No one puts more energy into this field of research than Alexandra Weilenmann, a young Swedish researcher from the Victoria Institute in G"teborg. She has spent long nights outdoors studying how Swedish teenagers use their mobile phones, and her conclusion is: they're not like adults.

Generation gap

Alexandra Weilenmann and her team have done their field studies on trams, on cafes, in shops and at amusement parks. And they've noticed that to young teenagers, a mobile phone is a collective utility.

In her report, she describes a suit in his 30s, booking an airline ticket to Sydney, Australia, while waiting for the bus. In a loud voice, he gives orders to his travel agent. Everyone can hear him. After a while, he grabs the cord to the earphone to assure his audience that he's not talking to himself. It's a one-man show. He's working. He's working while he's waiting, so he's efficient. And he doesn't care who knows.

This is not how young teenagers use their mobile phones.

Take the phonebook. If you're an adult, you'll probably ask politely if you want to borrow a mobile phone. And you would consider it an intrusion of privacy to browse through the phone book. Not while the owner is watching. You certainly wouldn't make loud remarks on the people that the owner of the phone knows — or doesn't know.

But teenagers have no qualms about that.

From undies to mobiles

Teenagers have been known to check the brand of their friends' underwear, so why shouldn't they check who they might know? Alexandra Weilenmann describes a scene with three teenage girls on a bus. One of them is writing an SMS message on her phone. It's an invitation to a party. She reads it aloud to her friends (and anyone else) while editing. Her friends approve it before she sends it.

Then the phone rings. She checks who's calling and cries "No-o!", hands over her phone to one of the girls and says: "Please, can't you answer!" While talking on the phone, young teenagers keep their friends updated. They'll hand the phone around, they'll look through saved SMS messages together, they'll try out games.

It's much like how we checked out LP collections when I was a teenager. When I visited a friend, I would look through his albums and if I saw something I liked, I'd put it on the record player, and I wouldn't ask permission. If I saw an album I didn't like, I'd tell him.

Actually, I had forgotten how it used to be until I heard Alexandra Weilenmann lecture. So I guess her research is doing some good.

Makers of mobile phones are all modelling their gear after Sony's Walkman. What teenagers really want is a mobile phone modelled after the ghetto-blaster.


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