Soft coercion: Reciprocal expectations of availability in the use of mobile communication
First Monday

Soft coercion: Reciprocal expectations of availability in the use of mobile communication by Rich Ling

This paper examines how the mobile phone has grown to be an essential item in daily life. It simultaneously represents a gadget that affords us freedom while also tying us to our closest social contacts. The mobile phone provides personal utility via a bewildering number of apps and functions. Through the socially enforced mutual expectation of availability, it ties us to our social sphere while also helping us to create and maintain social cohesion. We are pushed (or coerced) into being in contact via a mobile communication device. This paper draws on qualitative interviews and focus groups from the past two decades to trace the dimensions of this social expectation. The focus in this paper is not on the channel of mediation, i.e., voice vs. chat vs. texting vs. social networking, etc. The focus is on examining the development of the reciprocal social expectation for telephonic availability. The analysis shows how the generalized expectation of availability operates on a daily basis and becomes acutely operative in the case of emergencies such as in the immediate wake of the 22 July Oslo bombings.


The imperative to be connected




The mobile phone is a social paradox. On the one hand, it provides us with amazing personal utility (author), but it also a device that ties us to family and friends. In addition it is a channel through which we are open to life’s distractions and disturbances (Turkle, 2011). The mobile phone is amazingly flexible. It can be used to coordinate our daily lives, just as it is a locus for apps supporting m-health, education, disaster notification, music consumption, gaming, commerce, news distribution, not to mention the thousands of “gag” apps such as the virtual zippo lighter and “Voice changer.”

There is also a very social dimension to mobile communication. It also makes us available to (as well as responsible to) our social sphere. Being available to others is increasingly a reciprocal obligation that is a structural expectation embodied in the mobile phone. Echoing Mead’s (1934) notion of the generalized other, these expectations for mobile availability increasingly embed us into our social networks. Indeed, the very sense of our position in the group is intertwined with mobile access and is in some ways threatened when they are disconnected.

The focus of this paper is to examine how our availability via mobile communication has become a social expectation (Ling, 2014). To not be available is, in a small way, to shirk responsibility to our social sphere. While there is a large body of scholarship on the affordances of mobile communication for individuals, this paper examines this issue from the perspective of the broader social consequences. The device has, in a sense, more completely embedded individuals into their groups.

The mobile phone, and its various mediation channels (texting, calls, Snapchat, Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp, etc.) make us personally addressable. Indeed, it is that mediation technology which we most commonly have on our person. It is clear that mediated interaction can take place via a variety of terminals such as the PC, land-line phone or tablets. However, the PC and to a lesser degree the tablet is not as likely to be with us as we move about in everyday daily life. Because of this, the mobile phone has a special place in the communications universe. In short, the mobile phone has become a direct interpersonal communications link. It is increasingly a quasi-obligatory part of our daily kit. Not having it violates, in some small way, our mutual obligations to one another. We see a somewhat benign example of this when we are unable to, for example, reach our partner when we need to reorganize our daily errands. However, the centrality of mobile communication is perhaps most clearly apparent in emergency situations of different caliber where the mobile phone is a central way to organize the logistics and to check on the welfare of our closest ties (Figley and Jones, 2008; Vieweg, et al., 2008).

Much of the research on mobile communication focuses on how it provides utility and/or generates stress and disruption for the individual user. There is not, however, an adequate focus on how it addresses the needs of the social group. Moving the focus from the individual to the group provides insight into why we are so careful to have the device with us at all times. It also helps us to understand why mobile communication has increasingly become structured into our social lives as it is the locus of both instrumental coordination and expressive interaction within our social sphere.




The dualities of the mobile phone

While our interactions via other forms of technology are also a part of the picture, the mobile phone is different. It is, ubiquitous, and it is personal. It is though the mobile phone that we are continually available to one another. We use it to carry out instrumental tasks such as everyday coordination. It is also a device through which we develop and maintain social cohesion (Ling, 2008; Schroeder and Ling, 2013). More than other information and communication technology (ICT) it is increasingly structured into our everyday lives. Indeed, coordination and logistics are often premised on the assumption that others are available via a mobile device. Agreements are made with the assumption that they can be adjusted via the mobile phone if needed. If we, or one of our meeting partners, forget the phone, or if the battery runs out, we will not get the message that, for example, a venue has been changed [1]. This microcoordination shows how the mobile phone is structured into instrumental logistics (Ling and Yttri, 2002; Ling and Lai, in press). At the same time, it is fundamentally an expressive instrument. We use it to just chat, to tell a joke or to console one another. Indeed, it may be impossible to separate the instrumental and the expressive dimensions of mobile communication in any meaningful way [2].

In addition to the instrumental/expressive axis, the mobile phone also illuminates a tension between personal utility and social responsibility. The mobile phone provides us with seemingly unlimited personal utility. At the same time it makes us perpetually available for social interaction, whether welcomed or disruptive (Middleton and Cukier, 2006). A factor analysis among teens in the U.S. underscored this tension [3]. The primary factor showed the device provided personal utility including items such as “It gives me more freedom.” However, the second factor pointed to weight of personal responsibility embodied in the mobile phone. It included items such as “It is a lot of trouble to keep my cell phone with me all the time” and “I get irritated when a call or a text message interrupts me” (Lenhart, et al., 2010). The items in the second factor describe the expectation of telephonic availability. Thus, there is a duality to the mobile phone. On the one hand it is useful and at the same time it also means that we are necessarily mutually accessible. We feel the urge to have it with us, but it is also a bother.

The weight of mutual expectations

Being available via the mobile phone becomes embedded in our sense of mutual obligation [4]. Our sense of needing to be available to others via the mobile phone can be seen through the lens of Mead’s (1934) “generalized other.” According to Mead we use the generalized other, that is a internalized sense of the shared expectations, to understand our role within a given situation. This is done by being able to see our position from the perspective of the other participants and place ourselves into the flux of the situation as it develops. According to Mead “It is through taking this role of the other that he is able to come back on himself and so direct his own process of communication.” [5] The generalized other not only guides/constrains the individual, but it also facilitates broader cooperative activity. Indeed, the very organization of social interaction rests on a general ability of people in a society being able to take the perspective of others. Our internalization of the generalized other is a fundamental organizational principle of society.

Tying this to mobile communication, the technology changes the context, scope and the reference group underlying our internalized sense of who the “other” might be. As Fortunati (2002) reminds us, the mobile phone extends the number of places and spaces where an individual can engage in social interaction. It mediates and extends the situation and thus the geographical and temporal sphere of the generalized other. As suggested by Ito and Okabe (2005) the mobile phone means that we are continually at the disposal of our social sphere. There is the expectation our calls are taken, that text messages are promptly answered and that Facebook/Snapchat /WhatsApp postings are quickly recognized. To shirk this responsibility is to ignore the generalized other. Being in this position is socially awkward. Wurtzel and Turner (1977), for example, found that people felt it was “frustrating,” “uneasy” and they had lost some sense of control when, due to a long term service disruption, they were without land-line telephony for several weeks [6].

The expectation of continual reciprocal availability represented by mobile communication becomes element in the legacy of trust between partners. It can simply be a latent expectation, or it can be actualized when confronting the ebb and flow of daily events. However, not treating this mutual obligation seriously violates the mutual sense of social obligation. For partners in serious relationships, mobile communication translates to the expectation of short response times. Further there are fewer legitimate excuses for not answering a call or responding to a text. Members of the intimate sphere — the group that is characterized by high levels of trust, support and reciprocity — are the most common mobile interlocutors. Indeed 50 percent of all calls and texts go to approximately five individuals (author). Within this close group Lasén (2011) describes how the mobile phone facilitates “relational discipline” between partners. In some particularly inflamed situations, if a person does not answer their partner’s call/text it may signal that they have found another locus for their affections. This is what Hall and Baym (2012) call mobile maintenance expectations that can also lead to a sense of dependence and guilt.

The insistence on other’s availability can take the form of social pressure to be available. This soft coercion can be in the form of complaining to an intended interlocutor that they were not available. Further, this pressure to be available can be internalized as a dimension of the generalized other. Thus there are clearly elements of the generalized other in the notion of soft coercion. Our self-reflection with regards having (or not having) an operative mobile phone are the result of this type of internal psychological process. However, soft coercion extends the notion of generalized other several ways. First, the relatively short period in which we have had the mobile phone means that this internal process is only forming as a self-generated expectation. Externally generated cues underscoring the need for having an operative device are clearly a part of the enforcement regime that goes beyond the situation for other parts of the generalized other. In addition to our own self-admonition, not being available for a call from another also evokes their reproach. That is, the coercion is not completely internalized, but it is also supplemented by others’ actual comments.

In addition, unlike internalized abstract norms, mobile communication is a technical system. Even if we have internalized the norm of needing to be available via the mobile phone, this is not always technically possible. The telephone system might fail, our battery might run out, we might lose our device [7], it might be ruined, etc. The effect of these technical glitches is that we are not able to fulfill the social norm. We are no longer individually addressable via the mobile phone system. This type of lapse is not an issue in the notion of the Mead’s generalized other [8]. In these cases, we may feel the guilt of not being available to others, and we may also be subject to their censure when we next meet.

Emergencies as special events in the career of the group

As noted above, there is the tacit expectation that members of our closest social sphere are, in effect, on call via the mobile phone. While there are various expressive and instrumental motivations governing this accessibility. An important reason is their availability to eventually help deal with the larger and smaller emergencies of daily life, or what Goffman called “fateful events” [9], that disrupt our daily life (Ryan and Hawdon, 2008). These can range from acute medical emergencies, to being marooned because of car problems, to simply needing help to work through an everyday problem (Ling, et al., 1998).

When confronted with a minor, or not so minor, mishap the mobile phone has become the first-line method with which to reach out for help (Parks and Floyd, 1996; Parks and Roberts, 1998). In turn, according to Collins, the response of the group to these crises can generate solidarity within the group [10]. The urgency of dealing with an emergency within the intimate sphere increases what Collins calls the “ritual intensity” and unifies the group around a common focus [11]. This, in turn becomes a part of the small group’s legacy. It can take on symbolic meaning in the lore of the group. It can become an element in the framing of their mutual bond and their commitment to one another.

Coming back to the theme of this paper, these links are increasingly activated via the mobile phone (Sundsøy, et al., 2012). Thus, our availability to our social sphere via mobile communication is dramatically underscored in these situations [12]. Not being available to our closest friends and family in these situations can cause stress and anxiety. The mobile phone, and now the smart phone has added resilience to disaster relief (Pfefferbaum, et al., 2013) and provided a channel for personal contact (Kavanaugh, et al., 2010).




The qualitative material for this analysis comes from a series of focus groups and interviews carried out over several years in both Norway and the U.S. These include studies from as recently as 2015 and ranging back to work done in the late 1990s [13].

A major portion of the data comes from a series of focus groups carried out in 2005 in Oslo. These examined 24 dual and single parent families in the greater Oslo area. The motivation of these studies was to understand how parenting was being affected by the influx of mobile communication. In addition, there is also material from focus groups in Norway that were held in 1995, 1997, 2000, 2005 and 2015. The earlier studies were focused on charting the early impact of mobile communication on society as it moved from being a business tool to becoming an instrument of the social sphere. The groups in 2005 were among single and dual parent families. The 2015 focus groups examined how teens and young adults were using smartphones in their daily lives. The analysis also includes material from focus groups carried out in cooperation with the University of Michigan and the Pew Internet and American Life project in 2009. These took place in Ann Arbor, Denver, New York and Atlanta and included teens in both middle and high school. Finally, there is qualitative material that was gathered in 2011 in the aftermath of the 22 July bombing in Oslo. While the specific themes of the original purpose of the studies diverged, the legacy of two decades of commentary is a rich resource.

The data also covers more recent use of smart phones, and mobile-based social networking, as well as material from when feature phones were common. It is important to note that the focus is not on the channel of mediation, i.e., voice vs. chat vs. texting vs. social networking. Rather the focus in the analysis was on the issue of how people conceived of being available to others via a mobile communication device. It is clear that there is different functionality associated with asynchronous text-based SMS than with asynchronous photo programs such as Snapchat or with synchronous voice interaction. The focus of the analysis here, however, is on personal availability afforded by mobile communication and a resulting web of expectations. The review of the material used this lens.

All told, there were more than 26,000 utterances in the corpus. It was analyzed using a text-based coding application implemented in MS Excel similar to that described by Meyer and Avery (2009). This allowed the marking of emerging themes and cross-referencing of the themes across the interview/focus group situations. The theme of mutually expected availability was one of many that arose from the data, particularly as there was greater diffusion of devices. Indeed, the sense that one should be available to others or the sense that one was missing important activities comes out in these various discussions. In all cases, the names of the participants have been changed.




The expectation of availability

A theme that has gone through the various focus groups and interviews is the tension between being continually available and the stress that that can bring. The mobile phone allows us continual access to others. With smartphones we can gather various types of information on the fly (Bertel, 2013). The personal utility of the device, however, is purchased at the cost of being always accessible.

The early begrudging acceptance of continual availability

This tension is obvious for early users of the device who had the perspective of remembering the unavailability of the pre-mobile era. An informant, Kjell in the 1995 focus groups, noted almost with a sigh that the mobile phone “had come to be.” He understood that the mobile phone provided security and that it facilitated his work that involved traveling by car between locations and thus it facilitated coordination. However, he summarized his resignation by saying “Actually, I don’t have anything against the mobile phone. I have accepted its ugliness.”

The position of the mobile phone had changed by new millennium. Kjell’s remembrance of a more detached life was less central. Rather the device was seen as a link with the social group and a way that one was integrated into the flux of social interaction. This is seen in the comments of young adults from the interviews in 2000.

Tonja 22: Sometimes you forget your mobile when you are in the bath. Then you go to the kitchen to make food. Then my boyfriend called 16 times and was angry because you don’t answer and needed to be picked up. 16 times!
Pernille 22: Yeah. You put it down and you get a thousand calls.

In some cases, this type of interaction, while perhaps well intended, is also seen as being overly controlling.

Nina 23: I feel like when I am at a party, he can send a lot of messages, and then I would be asocial to look at all these messages. [It is] a little controlling. I think that he means well but it is just that you don’t want to sit there at a party.

Tonja 22: My boyfriend does not call me too much, but when I am at a party, then I have to call. “Have you drunk too much?” And if he tries to call and does not get an answer, I know that he is irritated. Then he starts texting.

The story from the boyfriend’s point of view reveals intertwining of care and control:

Andrew 21: There have been some situations when she has been too drunk, then I am concerned and I try to keep the conversation going [back and forth], not constantly, but some snaps just to show that everything is ok. But if they stop, then I get concerned.

The comments of the respondents indicate that having a mobile phone is often directly equated with being available, which can be both a good thing and something that is stressful or awkward. The degree to which it is controlling or caring is one point in these citations. Beyond that, however, these comments show how in a short time the mobile phone was being used for this type of interaction. Its use had become a routinized (and often mutually expected) a part of the social landscape.

Embracing availability

When asked about the most important contribution of the mobile phone in 2005, many parents noted that it made them accessible for their families. Indeed, availability had become a part of their responsibility to others. A Norwegian single mother of two children, Gerd, said, “I am always available [for the children]. It is maybe a little dangerous, you become dependent on it. It is that you are available all the time.” Another single mother, Mona, also noted “It makes is so that you are always available, or that you feel you always have to be available.”

While, as noted by Gerd, there was the potential that use of the device can turn into a dependency, that was the price these women were willing to pay. Often the issues that needed to be resolved were smaller adjustments in the broader project of dealing with everyday life. Karoline, a mother of two who was married to an executive in an airline said:

He has a job where he works all through the day and night since he is working with people around the whole world. And sometimes there are crises at work and you have to get in touch with him because then I have to get the children (at daycare or school) when it is not my turn. That has happened. And then you know if I had not had a mobile I would not have been available [...] it is clear that (the mobile phone) makes it easier [...] We have not had anything very dramatic, but because of his job.

By 2005 the informants did not often discuss the ambivalence noted by Kjell. For Karoline, there was a sense that the device facilitated the common project of organizing the family. There were perhaps elements of stress or the fear of dependence on the device, but, on the whole, it was seen as a tool with which to organize everyday activities.

Stress vs. stress relief

While there is increased flexibility in planning, another theme is that that the accessibility afforded by mobile telephony leads to more stressful lives (Thomée, et al., 2011). This was also clear in the material examined here. For example, Mads, a 40-year-old Norwegian father of two children aged 10 and 13 interviewed in 2005 said “Increased accessibility means increased stress, you know.” His sentiment is echoed by many and is indeed a part of the lore of mobile communication. However, as noted by Mads’ wife Kari, there is a complexity associated with this line of discussion. Kari said:

It is stress in one way, because you always have to be available. But in another way it is worth it. I remember specially one time when the children were younger, that I thought that I would not make to the daycare on time. There was a traffic jam. I could not stop to call or nothing. I thought, ‘Darn it, I don’t have a mobile phone.’ I was stressed from that. In situations like that it helps to know that you can leave a message. So it helps but it also stresses.

In Kari’s estimation, the mobile phone was a Faustian bargain. As she notes, “it helps but it also stresses.” By having a phone, we expose ourselves to the demands of others, but we also can use it to navigate through our daily errands. As with the interaction between Tonja and Andrew, Kari is working out the specific role of the device.

The need to be available is felt more keenly by some than by others. This is seen in the comments of the Norwegian couple Siri and Søren (both aged 36) in 2005, who have two children aged two and four.

Interviewer: Do you think that the mobile gives you more security?
Søren: No, not for me.
Siri: I will say yeah because if I have the children and I am driving to Tønsberg for example, or driving someplace else, then if something happens along the way, then there is generally coverage and you can use the telephone and leave a message that this and that has happened. Or be called. Or you can leave a message or whatever.
Søren: [...] I don’t plan or don’t think about it, that it is security. If I am going to go on a walk in the forest alone, or with the children, I often leave the telephone in the car, or it is turned off.

The comments of this couple show that people have different estimations of the need to be available. Siri is conscious of the need to be available and to also keep others informed. For her the phone allows her to leave a message. Importantly she also recognizes that having the phone nearby allows others to call should something arise. Søren is less motivated by these concerns. While it is not stated by the two, it is tempting to read a gendered perspective into their comments with Siri commenting on the need for a link just in case “something happens” while Søren does not share this perspective.

Mobile-based availability as a social expectation

Unlike Søren, others generalized the idea that having a mobile phone makes them socially accountable. Oddvar, a 36-year-old engineer from Norway, said “You get irritated when people do not have their mobile turned on when you know they have it [...] when you know that they have a mobile and now everyone has one.” According to Oddvar, not answering a phone is, in a sense shirking a portion of our social responsibilities. In contrast with Søren who was happy to leave his phone behind, Oddvar’s comments suggest that a tacit part of having a mobile phone is a type of social contract. Owning a phone not only includes the personal utility afforded by the device, but it also includes the idea that we have implicitly made ourselves available to others. Indeed, he generalizes this idea when he notes that, “everyone has one.” This implies that, at least for Oddvar, there is a generalized assumption that the phone is an assumed tool with which to maintain the web of social ties. When others do not share this estimation it is a frustration and, in a sense, an annulment of a tacit social contract.

The same idea can be seen in the words of Lone, a 34-year-old single mother from Norway. Rather than being frustrated if she cannot reach an interlocutor as in the case of Oddvar, she expresses annoyance if she does not receive an anticipated call. “If you are expecting a ‘good night’ message. If that does not come. Well then! (expressed as faux indignation) You expect to get that.” Again, there is the expectation of using the mobile phone to maintain social contact. This echoes the finding of Ito and Okabe (2005) and also Lasén (2011) who found that there were more exacting ritual communication expectations for romantic partners. Both Oddvar and Lone suggest that having a mobile phone implies acceptance of a social contract. Oddvar and Lone reacted to the situation when an anticipated interlocutor does not fulfill his/her obligation. They operate on the assumption of a common responsibility to be available to one another; most often practiced in closest social sphere where we have stronger bonds (Ling, et al., 2012).

When parents have the expectation that their children are available, but cannot reach them, it can cause stress. That is, rather than being stressed by being called too much, informants reported being stressed when they could not contact others.

Birgitte, a 47-year-old mother of three teens said “The mobile gives you the expectation that (Mikkel her son) can answer right then and there.” So long as she feels that her son is available, then everything is satisfactory. It is when this assumption is violated that there is uncertainty and stress. If Mikkel is not available, it prompts her to think that something untoward has happened. The same can be seen in the situation described by Erika, a 43-year-old mother of two teens.

You get stress symptoms you know. That happened with me yesterday. I tried to call [Thea]. I knew she was going to be done at school at 1:30 or so and I called six times without getting an answer [...] and I thought that that was not right because she was going to be at the hair salon at 2 and I thought that something had happened on the way home. So I called again and again and then I was completely crazy you know. But then I called to one of her friends and (our daughter) was there decorating the gymnasium and they cannot have their mobile on at school of course. So it gives you stress symptoms sometimes that are not healthy, especially when they are out in the evening in the weekends. It gives you stress actually.

The situation showed that while there was a legitimate reason that Thea was not available, Erika’s miscue resulted in anxiety. In a broader sense, the comments of Erika indicate that being continually available via mobile communication has, with time, become structured into the expectations between Erika and Thea as seen in Erika’s stress. This was a minor glitch in the in the broader scheme of things. Nonetheless, the episode was remembered. Not being able to reach another person we think should be available results in stress.

The problems of dropping off the grid

The assumption of accessibility is set into relief when for some reason the mobile phone is inoperable. This can mean we lose access to our network (Grant and O’Donohoe, 2007) a situation that interviewees experienced as problematic. Stan, a middle school student from Denver interviewed in 2009, broke his phone and reported that it was “the boringest week of my life [...] like, where did all my friends go, like I moved or something, because no one knew my house number, so I just sat there.” The problem was compounded since it was during the summer break so that he could not coordinate with his friends during school.

Losing access to use mobile communication disrupts the threads of our social interaction. There are, to be sure alternative access points such as PC based interaction. However, loss of a mobile phone can be the source of anxiety since we become unsure of whether others are trying to contact us [14]. This is seen in the comments of Monika, a 38-year-old Norwegian single mother with two children, aged six and 16. She said:

[The mobile phone] gives me better control and I feel safer in relation to the children. I have control of my children. I have control over who sends me messages. The people who want to get in touch with me and give me important messages can reach me. I have a mobile and I am available [...] It is easier to organize things when it is available. [...] There is something that is missing if I don’t have my phone with me. You are stressed and afraid that there are some messages that you cannot respond to.

For Monika, the mobile phone was that channel of communication that facilitated her daily life and that gave her control. She has embraced the idea that the mobile phone ties her into the ebb and flow of children’s lives and that it is a tool with which she can “organize things.” Some of the same is seen in the comments of Sophie, a high school student from Ann Arbor. Losing her mobile phone underscored how she had grown to depend on the device. It left her in uncharted territory.

[...] I never consider myself a person who is constantly on the phone, but then when I lost it for a couple of days I felt, I felt really exposed, I felt like I was missing a lot. [...] Um, like, you’re like, what if my mom was in an accident, what if she’s not going to pick me up, what do I do then? I don’t know what to do. And so even though I’m not constantly on it, without it, it is a little unnerving.

Losing her phone gave wings to Sophie’s reflections on her own vulnerability. She saw herself as being marooned should her mother be hurt. This unsettling thought experiment alerted her to the fact that she did not have a plan with which to deal with either eventuality. Her comments are a fascinating commentary on the degree to which she had linked the expectation of availability to the device.

Coercing availability

Beyond the issues of personal utility, there is also a reciprocal dimension to ownership and use of mobile communication. As suggested by Oddvar, (the engineer cited above), it can be problematic when our hoped-for interlocutors are not available. Liz, a high school student from Ann Arbor who broke her phone said, “And so people would call me and it would go straight to voice mail and like everyone thought I was ignoring their calls and they got really mad at me.” Their anger at not having access was felt by Liz who could read it as the urging (or coercion) that she should make herself telephonically available. Other teens interviewed in 2009 also reported that their parents vented anger when they were not available.

Zoe: My mom gets so mad if I don’t pick up when she calls me. Like, I’ve gotten grounded before.
Caleb: [...] My dad probably thinks I’m ignoring him, because I probably am. [...] He won’t really do anything; he’ll just go on a long rant about it saying I have this phone so I can keep in touch da-da-da-da-da.

Zoe and Caleb report on their parents’ insistence that they be available. Indeed, Zoe’s parents employ strong-arm tactics to insure her availability. This is the flip side of the anxiety experienced by Erika (the mother of two teens cited above) when her daughter was unexpectedly unreachable. Zoe and Caleb seem to see their parents’ insistence on availability as more of a bother. Indeed, some teens banked on the idea that being available to parents via the mobile phone was more important than the threat of disciplining them by taking away their phones. Brayden, a New York City high-school student said:

They always needed us, they always needed me to have it more than I needed to have it. Like, my mom always needed to reach me, so she would never take away the phone as punishment, because it was more useful for me to have it than for her to take it away.

Brayden’s comments underscore just how profoundly mobile communication has been structured into the family’s need for a communication channel. His parents understand that they would lose a channel of communication, and perhaps an element of control, if he did not have a mobile phone. In addition, taking away his phone would leave him at risk should he need to call them. The fact that their parents relied on the device for accessing their children underscores how it had been structured into mutual expecations. When contrasted with Kjell, who in 1995 who had recently left behind his mobile-less phase, there is indeed a contrast. Where Kjell had accepted the “ugliness” of the device, Braydon, and also his parents, interviewed a decade and a half later, arranged their daily lives such that the mobile phone was an assumed element. Indeed, Braydon’s comments show how it was somewhat unthinkable not to have one.

Emergency communication

In most cases inability to contact others was perhaps the cause of some small anxiety or perhaps a logistical inconvenience. However, it is possible to see how central the mobile phone has become when examining both large and small-scale crisis situations. The mobile phone has also been a part of the response to various types of accidents and emergencies. Indeed, the reciprocal obligation of the mobile phone that is described above is perhaps put into its sharpest relief in these situations. Sandra, a 28-year old Norwegian single mother with two daughters aged five and one, discussed how she had had car problems. She said “Once I had borrowed my mother’s car and it overheated. It was good to have a mobile. I was able to call her immediately.” Other focus group participants had seen traffic accidents and were able to call for help.

Moving to somewhat more serious Goffmanian “fateful events,” we can consider situations that require a more urgent mobilization. When a child falls and breaks an arm, the mobile phone is used to marshal/inform a circle of people and to mobilize resources. It might be that they call professional help such as an ambulance or it might be that they are friends, family and acquaintances who can help out in various ways (Rainie and Wellman, 2012). The mobile phone is a link that facilitates coordination of the various parts. Further, in these situations we most heavily rely on others’ telephonic availability.

The demand for availability is seen with local accidents in the family, but it is also seen in broader happenings that affect a large number of people. The events of 22 July in Norway help to show how the mobile phone has become an important way to stay in touch with near family and friends. On 22 July 2011 at 15:26, a radical right-wing Islamophobe, Anders Behring Breivik, ignited a bomb at the administrative center of the Norwegian government (“rejeringskvartalet”), in Oslo, Norway killing eight people. This was followed by the shooting of 69 people participating in a Labor Party summer camp.

Upon hearing the bomb, itself, or hearing of the bombing, the immediate reaction of many Norwegians was to use their mobile phones to call their closest family. Analysis of network traffic shows that there was more than a 300 percent increase in calls in Norway, not just Oslo, in the immediate wake of the explosion (Sundsøy, et al., 2012). The situation of Emilie is typical. She was driving with her husband near their cabin far outside Oslo. They had not heard about the bombing before her daughter Maria, who was in Oslo, called. Emilie said:

Our daughter Maria called. Her first words were ‘Mamma, I am ok. Ingrid (Maria’s friend) and I are on the way home.’ They were on a bus going downtown. She said that there had been an explosion and Ingrid’s dad had called to demand that they return home.

This pattern of close ties calling one another is characteristic of many informants’ comments. In many cases, people first heard about the explosion via a call from near family or friends. Indeed, research has shown that people generally called their strongest ties within minutes of the time of the blast (Sundsøy, et al., 2012). This pattern is seen in the comments of Christina who was at her summer cabin. She reported that she first heard of the explosion via an SMS from her son and followed by relaying the news via SMS to her husband. Others told of getting the message from more distant connections. Eirun said “I was at a family party in Kristiansand (Norway) and had not heard the news before my American sister-in-law called from Arkansas and wanted to know what had happened and if we were all ok.”

Beyond interacting with near ties, people reported using smart phones to access the Internet to gather news and to add this to the flow of information. A particularly intricate information flow is seen in the comments of Kenth who lives in Oslo.

I heard a boom far off and thought it was thunder. [...] Then my wife called. She was at the hair salon. [The hair dresser] had received a call from his sister who said that there had been an explosion in rejeringskvartalet and my wife relayed that to me. After we had talked I looked at the news on my mobile and saw that they reported an explosion. I called back to my wife to tell her what I had read. After we talked I checked the news on my mobile and I am not sure if people were talking about terror, but it was serious. [...] After that there were some calls back and forth to hear if our family and friends were ok.

Kenth’s comments point out the intertwining of interaction with people’s closest ties supplemented with bits of news gathered, in the case of Kenth, via a mobile phone. The material shows people interacting with one another and various mobile-based information sources weave together a common sense of the events.

As noted the traffic volume within Oslo and between Oslo and other parts of the country increased several fold almost immediately after the blast with so called “safety and welfare checks” (Palen, et al., 2009). As with other such emergencies (Figley and Jones, 2008; Kavanaugh, et al., 2010; Palen, et al., 2009; Vieweg, et al., 2008) the first wave of calls were to check on the welfare of people. Many of these calls were, as noted by Kenth “to hear if our family and friends were ok.” They were often to those living in the city, or they were people living in the city calling out to others to report in on their status.

Perhaps most interestingly, there was a doubling of the telephone traffic between people, neither of whom lived in Oslo. That is, people in towns and villages around Norway were simply calling their neighbors to check in. It might be that these calls were to ask after mutual friends that might be in Oslo. However, the material also shows that these calls and texts were also simple acts of sharing news and giving comfort to one another in an unreal situation.

Picking up on the discussion from above, mobile phones were the channel through which people could immediately contact their closest friends and family. The individual addressability afforded by the device meant that they could contact them directly. Further, the fact that they called one another became an element in the legacy of the relationship. This was obvious in discussions with people from Oslo several months after the bombing. They remembered clearly who they had called and who they had been called by. This sharing and caring had become a part of the lore of the relationship.

Moving the scene from the events in Oslo, to those on Utøya brings the role of the mobile phone into focus at a different level. Madrigal (2012) describes the scene after the shootings had ceased and Breivik was arrested. In the chaos people had dropped their phones as they fled or were killed. Madrigal describes a chorus of “chirping and buzzing and snippets of pop songs [...] (and) tiny lights flickering on, then off, then on again, like fireflies.” These were mobile phones ringing with no one to answer them perhaps portending a tragic loss.

The events of the 22 July are an extreme illustration of how the mobile phone becomes an crucial social link. This link has been built up in the gradual yet persistent use of the mobile phone daily life. It has been built up in the innocent sharing of emoticons, jokes and alternative spelling that we share with our closest family and friends. It is also built up with the chiding and scolding of others when they are not available. The importance of this link is its latent potential to facilitate connections with others.



The imperative to be connected

This paper has examined how our availability via mobile communication has been transformed into a social expectation that we in turn have also made into an internal imperative. To not be available is to shirk our responsibility to our social sphere.

The mobile phone gives us unimagined level of personal utility. But it also a profoundly social device that ties us into our social networks. The point of this paper is to examine the social embeddedness of mobile communication. While at once facilitating social interaction, it also increasingly ties us into a network of social expectations wherein we experience reciprocal expectations of accessibility. Our internalization of these expectations resonate with Mead’s notion of the generalized other in that in our minds our understanding of our position within the group is tied to mobile access.

The material examined in this paper shows how an internalized ‘soft coercion’ to be available via the mobile phone came upon us rather swiftly. The early wariness of the device quickly gave way. Within a short time, users saw how it facilitated access and eased the organization of everyday life. What started out as an engaging (or perhaps ugly) gadget that facilitated logistics then became a necessity, an expectation and then a part of our internalized sense of what is correct. While the metaphor is overly dramatic, there are elements of Weber’s (1930) light cloak becoming the more rigid iron cage. Thus we now accept the personal utility of the device while also conceding the obligation of being accessible to our social sphere.

Was there a fundamental change in social interaction brought on by the mobile phone? It is also possible to see from the material that we use the device to fulfill many of the same social expectations that we have carried with us since before the adoption of mobile communication. We use it to check in our ongoing project of developing and marinating social ties. The mobile phone affords a more direct and individualized link with which to work out our schedules and to arrange our affairs. We do this in a more fine grained and individualized way. However, the concerns are broadly the same. Marinating contact with our social sphere. Particularly when there is an immediate need.

Thus, there is the continuance of sociation while at the same time there is also a new tool with which to enact the hopes and worries of this project. In the process, we have developed shared social norms that enforce the position of mobile communication. Taking this one step further, like Mead’s generalized other, these norms have become internalized. The mobile phone is then a touchstone for negotiating interaction and accessibility in the social sphere. Taking the long view, we can see how people adopt, use, and internalize mobile phones into their quotidian lives. We can also see how the mobile phone has been woven into social relations with members of our closest social sphere. End of article


About the author

Rich Ling is the Shaw Foundation Professor of Media Technology in the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
E-mail: riseling [at] gmail [dot] com



1. For some people it is the only phone they have as of the beginning of 2011, about 40 percent of U.S. children and 32 percent of U.S. adults live in a home with wireless only service (Blumberg and Luke, 2011).

2. In addition to interpersonal availability, there is also an issue of more institutionally based surveillance in mobile communication (Qiu, 2007; Albrechtslund, 2008). This article focuses in the interpersonal dimension of this issue.

3. Based on the data collected in Lenhart, et al. (2010).

4. Licoppe, 2004, p. 143; Ling and McEwen, 2010.

5. Mead, 1934, p. 254.

6. Wurtzel and Turner studied the effects of a fire interrupting land-line telephony to approximately 94,000 residents of Manhattan for over three weeks. Looking at shorter term non-use of mobile phones, Lee and Katz (2014) studied a group of college students who voluntarily went a weekend without using their phones while at a retreat. In this case the students reported that they did not miss their phones, though the ability to plan the situation, inform friends and family that they would be out of touch and the fact that the retreat took them out the flux of daily life and the need to plan moderate these findings.

7. Chang, 2009, pp. 95–100.

8. Mead, 1934, pp. 152–163.

9. Goffman, 1967, pp. 218–226.

10. Collins, 2004, p. 55.

11. See also Simmel, 1971, p. 77.

12. Before the spread of mobile telephony, it was not possible to call others from disaster areas. Kai Erikson, (1976) described the problem of communication associated with the 1972 Buffalo Creek flood in West Virginia. Mobile phones were not common and the landline system was destroyed. This meant that it was difficult to organize relief and it was not possible for families to contact one another to afford them instrumental or expressive support.

13. The Norwegian material examined here was gathered by the author under the auspices of Telenor Research.

14. This issue is also felt by other groups. According to Chang (2009, pp. 95–100) female factory workers in China rely on their phones for staying in touch with their social networks. If the phone is stolen, as is often the case, they lose touch with eventual new jobs and social contacts. Chang notes that the mobile phone is the surrogate village for these women.



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Editorial history

Received 1 July 2016; revised 19 August 2016; accepted 19 August 2016.

Copyright © 2016, Rich Ling. All Rights Reserved.

Soft coercion: Reciprocal expectations of availability in the use of mobile communication
by Rich Ling.
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 9 - 5 September 2016

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