What role does cost play in shifting usage from one communications
channel to the other? "Cost does play a role, but it's not absolute,"
says Stefana Broadbent, an ethnologist working for Swisscom Innovations.
She cites as evidence the fact that we use cell phones from home
although it's more expensive and we have alternatives available. The
cost is offset by convenience.
Cell phone users spend lots of time talking into their devices, but
they generally communicate with very few people. Just how few? Would
you believe four?
It's one of the surprising recent findings of a study carried out in
Switzerland. In the last few years our communication environment has
been expanding at a very fast pace. The lone fixed-line telephone has
given way to multiple fixed and mobile phones, e-mail, instant
messaging (IM), text messaging, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)
free (or near-free) telephony and videoconferencing, and other
interactive channels such as blogs and wikis.
This expanded communication environment raises some questions: Are
people "specializing" their use of different communication channels?
For example, do mobile-phone, fixed-line, and e-mail users
differentiate their usage of those tools in terms of content,
communication partners, and habits? Are new channels affecting how
existing channels are used?
Stefana Broadbent, an ethnologist working for Swisscom Innovations, a
division of Swisscom, Switzerland's largest telecom operator, says the
answer to each of these questions is yes.
Broadbent studies the economic and social aspects of
telecommunications. In recent months she and her team have closely
observed and studied a few hundred consumers in their interactions
with technology -- interviewing them, mapping the location of
communication devices in their homes, collecting timelines and usage
schedules, and asking users to keep detailed communication logs.
And, she says, what this has revealed is that people "are very good at
choosing the best media for each situation."
What would that be? "SMS is to tell you I miss you, e-mail is to
organize our dinner, voice is to say I'm late, and IM is to continue
our conversation," says Broadbent half-jokingly. Here is how she
explains it in more detail:
The fixed phone is the collective channel: "a shared organizational
tool for the whole household," with most calls done in "public,"
because they are relevant to other members of the household. Only 25
percent are done "privately," from one's bedroom or study.
Mobile voice is "the micro coordination channel": It is "the preferred
channel for last-minute adjustment of plans or updates on where people
are and what they are doing." Surprisingly, "80 percent of all
exchanges are with only four people."
SMS, or short messaging, is "for intimacy, emotions, and efficiency.
Only the most intimate sphere of friends and family are contacted by
SMS, and the content of the messages is often related to 'grooming'
and emotional exchanges."
E-mail is "the administrative channel," used to support online
activities such as travel reservations and shopping, for coordination
with extended social groups (clubs, friends, acquaintances), or for
exchanging pictures, music, and other content with close social
IM and VoIP are "the continuous channels": "users open an instant
messaging channel for the day and then just keep it open in the
background while they do other activities; they multitask -- and step
in and out of a conversation." This starts to apply to VoIP as well
Blogging is the broader networking channel: "Personal pages are often
primarily a center of communication with friends and people online in
Some of these findings are very surprising. In particular, I asked
Broadbent how certain she was that 80 percent of mobile voice calls
are with only four people. She answered that she's "quite sure of it:
maybe we're talking about five people, but it's consistent across
studies," including research done in other European countries such as
France (where, as in Switzerland, the penetration of mobile phones is
much higher than in the United States, nearing 100%).
So do new channels affect how existing channels are used? According to
Broadbent, yes. Each new channel or media that appears slowly
redefines the uses of the older existing media, she suggests: IM is
currently redefining usage of short messaging; blogging is redefining
the usage of e-mail; VoIP is changing the nature of a phone call. New
patterns of communication emerge slowly, stabilize for a period, and
then change again when new channels come along.
What role does cost play in shifting usage from one channel to the
other? "Cost does play a role, but it's not absolute." She cites as
evidence the fact that we use cell phones from home although it's more
expensive and we have alternatives available. The cost is offset by
convenience: With phone numbers stored in a cell phone's memory, it's
more practical to take the device out of our pocket and push a button
to place a call.
Even if it is just to call the same four or five people over and over.
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