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Mobile phone culture - machine gun fire and moan-tones!

By Gerard Goggin - posted Friday, 22 April 2005


Around the world, more people have mobile cellular phones than they do fixed phones. This is true of Australia too, where there were 16.5 million mobile phone services in operation as at 30 June 2004. Just as tellingly, perhaps, there were some five billion text messages sent in 2003-2004.

As communication devices, mobiles have become an important social technology, supporting what has been called “perpetual contact”. They offer new ways for communication to occur in different kinds of places; by different groups of users too. The mobile is not just a social technology. At the present time, it is also coming-of-age as a central cultural technology.

Mobiles and culture

In its two or so decades of consumer use, important mobile phone cultures have developed, with the use of mobiles for starting and maintaining relationships, displaying identity and belonging, claiming membership of a social group, and emphasising status. It builds on, but far extends, the important and often overlooked cultural dimensions of its predecessor technology, the telephone.

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Mobiles are becoming a crucial element of culture generally. The catalyst is developments associated with the sending and receiving of text, image, audio, and video over the phone. With its neat size, portability, computing data capacity, potential for customisation, and potential for connecting to other devices and networks (through the Bluetooth protocol, for instance), the mobile now jostles with other media - television, newspapers, film, music, the Internet - to bring us our culture and place us in it.

Person-to-person, or peer-to-peer (p2p), short message service (SMS) has led the way - with users popularising a technology seen as an after-thought by its designers. Mobile text has become a widely used kind of writing. SMS is now also commercially widespread, being used for information, alerts, competitions and voting on television programs.

Multimedia content, including multimedia messages, has become a massive area of consumption and marketing. Popular services include ringtones, pictures from camera phones, wallpapers, games, and video downloads. Mobile phone carriers offer their customers services from their own proprietary portal and sites. A premium rate mobile services industry has sprung up. Use of the Internet via mobile devices is finally taking off, whether via the much-maligned Wireless Access Protocol, the avid use of Blackberry, or other portable devices. Even third-generation mobile services, offering videotalk, are slowing gaining customers.

Artists, film-makers, cultural and new media producers are also engaging with mobile as cultural site and technology. As well as rethinking their work for these new modes of consumptions, they are experimenting with the possibilities of small screen culture.

Mobile citizens

It is not clear yet what users make of these overlapping, messy, but rich developments in mobile technologies: what they will love or hate, or ignore. What is really surprising is that the cultural implications of mobiles are not being widely debated.

As a society we discuss at great length the issues for citizenship regarding transformations in digital television; radio broadcasting and democracy; entertainment genres across media forms and what this signifies for participation, power, and pleasure; the future of national (read Australian) content and cultural diversity in our media; the pressing questions of open platforms or creative commons in the Internet.

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But what about the stakes for cultural citizenship in our mobile media? How do cultural producers gain access to mobile networks for distributing their content? What are the relationships between mobiles and cultural expression? Should we encourage the development of certain types of content, programming, or information for mobiles? Do we need to insist on the availability of communications or entertainment through mobile devices? Where do mobiles fit into our cultural policies and imperatives?

Policy and pornography

For the past two years in Australia, there has been protracted government consideration of the regulation of mobile content. Not surprisingly, for connoisseurs of media history, the prime optic of this dilatory policy exercise has been censorship. Mobile phones have been the subject of much fascination and many fears - to health through radiation; to safety through driving while talking or text; to sociability with using mobiles to communicate to others rather than those one is with. The latest fear is of those mobile-obsessed young people and minors gaining access to porn and other inappropriate content through their phone. Like the moral panic over porn on the Internet, and the countervailing effort to make the online medium safe for families and children, the mobile phone needs to be tamed.

Of course, it needs to be acknowledged that there are important issues here. Such services are not just erotic images, pornographic video, adult dating, or sex services. They also include audio services pitched at mobile cultural practices, such as “moantones”, ringtones that feature the sounds of orgasm, or ringtones that include machine-fire. Because the mobile is not just tethered by wires to the household or office, the possibilities for offending or alarming others in a range of public and private places cannot be under-estimated.

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