You are here:   Home  →  Research  →  Projects  →  Public and private in mobile communications

Public and private in mobile communications

Summary

A crucial question concerning mobile communications is the status of images captured by cell phones, within the larger context of the messages that are diffused and circulate through online social networks and other digital platforms, and regularly expand to mass media.

There is a range of situations where recording and diffusion involve complex questions linked to privacy, denouncement, notions of legitimacy to expose others, power relations permeating social interaction, and ultimately to a potential surveillance of everybody all by everybody else through images. Questions, also, that arose in previous generations of media theorizations about visual media as technologies that favour the blurring of frontiers between public and private behaviours.

The goal of this project is to identify how the uses and the cultural, ethical and political attitudes towards mobile and online communications do articulate with notions of public and private in distinct generations; namely in what concerns to the production, diffusion and reception of messages by the publics, including especially iconic messages.


State of art

A crucial question concerning mobile communications is the status of images captured by cell phones, within the larger context of the messages that are diffused and circulate through online social networks and other digital platforms, and regularly expand to mass media.

This question is located within a deep transformation of the relationships between everyday life and the uses of media. Where we had only some specific professional groups systematically carrying devices for symbolic production, we now have large numbers of individuals (in some societies, most of the population) disposing of permanent means of production and diffusion. Due to cell phones equipped with photographic cameras and video recorders, mechanisms of symbolic production became ubiquitous in our societies (Davis, 2010).

Special events previously awaited or programmed are still captured in images by mass media professionals and institutions, and even common people tend to do it with more sophisticated and specific technical devices (photo and video cameras). But when events are unexpected or unreachable to specialized media professionals, the ubiquity of cell phones as democratized devices of symbolic production emerge as a starting point for a general dissemination of messages, implying considerable changes in traditional distinctions between public and private (Groening, 2010; Humphreys, 2005).

In such a way that the uses of these means has already inscribed itself in the recent visual history, since terrorist attacks in the London underground in 2007, to repression of demonstration in Teheran in 2009, through shootings in American schools or earthquakes in all continents.

Besides situations with obvious public character there is also a range of cases that interrogate the frontiers between private domain and publicity, and where questions of cultural, political and ethical nature are at stake. Saddam Hussein’s execution is a famous one. Many others, distinct in character, come from everyday life, and in Portugal the focus has been pretty much around adolescence: examples abound, such as images of aggression diffused by video (in May 2011) or several classroom videos showing controversial aspects in relationships between teachers and pupils. These are situations which recording and diffusion involve complex questions linked to privacy, denouncement, notions of legitimacy to expose others, power relations permeating social interaction, and ultimately to a potential surveillance of everybody all by everybody else through images (Foucault, 1991). Questions, also, that arose in previous generations of media theorizations about visual media as technologies that favour the blurring of frontiers between public and private behaviours (Meyrowitz, 1985).

But there is a third level: the capture of images from a more banal everyday life, the so-called ordinary life. Images, in the first place, individuals take and store at any moment for personal memory or for interaction at intimate or restrict circles (Ling, 2008). But also images from themselves and everyday life that are voluntarily diffused at put in circulation under variable modalities of access: as material for interpersonal communication; within limited groups of people; or virtually becoming public, universally accessible – and, from that point onwards, reproducible by others or even used and transformed into different contexts of communication. Practices that evoke, here, notions of aesthetics, mediated interaction, personal identity, and particularly the field of gender, where visual culture has for a long time articulate with the representation of social roles of seeing and being seen, seduce and being seduced (Goffman, 1976; Kress and Van Leeuwen, 2004).

In this context, the project “Public and Private in Mobile Communications” does not aim to research cell phones through the perspective of evil threats over public ethics or through any other lens of moral panic, or “mobile panic” connected to adolescence and youth (Goggin, 2006).

Instead, the project aims to understand its uses taking into account the attitudes and cultural values held by social groups, and looking at the meanings individuals attribute to technologies.

Thus, the general goal is:

To identify how the uses and the cultural, ethical and political attitudes towards mobile and online communications do articulate with notions of public and private in distinct generations; namely in what concerns to the production, diffusion and reception of messages by the publics, including especially iconic messages.


The approach of this general question will take into consideration several aspects that imply with the relationship between public and private and media culture, namely:

  • The theoretical reflection about the distinction and the articulation between public and private spheres, drawing on social and political thought.

  • The culture of mediated exposure present in forms such as the publicity of private “celebrities”, television genres such as reality shows, and journalistic coverage of common people and domestic spaces, and informal spheres of opinion production.

  • The long term tendency to evaluate political life based on aspects of political actors private lives (Sennett, 1992).

  • The reflection about the importance today given to public deliberation within the context of communication and information technologies, particularly the discussion of the concept of virtual public sphere through online social networks and mobile devices (Davies, 2009).

  • The analysis of strong communicative tendencies that see the use of cell phones and other mobile devices as a key element of the reconfiguration of traditional professions in the field of communication (Gilmour, 2004; Glasser et al., 2009).

  • The societal movements towards the privatization of resources, goods, spaces and forms of social regulation (Judt, 2011) or eventually the movements of resistance to those tendencies.

  • The uses of new media and the reshaping of historical memory and, consequently, social identities, including the gender dimension.


Methodology and expected outcomes

The project will develop a set of empirical methodologies:

  • A representative survey of the Portuguese population (especially taking into account dimensions of generation and gender) aiming to map practices and attitudes towards the use of mobile devices (particularly the capture of images by cell phones) and values connected to notions of public and private.

  • A set of interviews aiming to understand in depth the motivations, meanings and judgements involving public and private uses of everyday life images among (a) adolescents and youngsters, (b) adults using cell phones to capture images, (c) journalists and editors of mass media institutions.

  • Case studies of situations where images primarily captured by common people through cell phones turned out to be publicly diffused.

  • Analysis of online social networks concerning messages (especially iconic ones) produced by users and their diffusion.

The expected outcomes are the following:

  • Output in scientific knowledge through (a) the edition of two books; (b) the edition of a thematic number of the academic journal Communication Studies; (c) publication of articles in academic journals with peer review system; (d) organization of an international conference; (e) participation in national and international conferences in specialized academic areas within social sciences and humanities

Knowledge dissemination to society and economy through (a) conferences in schools and other institutions linked to educational areas; (b) divulgation of the project and its results in online platforms; (c) articles and other journalistic genres in the press and other mass media.


 

References:

 

  • Davies, T. & Gangadharan, S. P. (2009) Online Deliberation: Design, research and practice. Stanford: CSLI Publications.
  • Foucault, M. (1991) Discipline and Punish: The birth of prison. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
  • Gilmour, D. (2004) We the Media: Grassroots journalism by the people, for the people. Sebastopol: O’Reilly.
  • Glasser, T. , Christians, C., McQuail, D., Nordenstreng, K. & White, R. (2009) Normative Theories of the Media: Journalism in Democratic Societies. University of Illinois.
  • Goffman, E. (1979) Gender Advertisements. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Goggin, G. (2006) Cell Phone Culture: Mobile technology in everyday life. London: Routledge.
  • Groening, S. (2010) From ‘a box in the theatre of the world’ to ‘the world as your living room’: cellular phone, television and mobile privatization. New Media & Society, vol. 12, 8: 1331-1347
  • Humphreys, L. (2005) Cell phones in public: social interactions in a wireless era. New Media & Society, vol. 7, 6: 810-833
  • Kress, G. and Van Leeuwen, T. (2004) Reading Images: The grammar of visual design. London: Routledge.
  • Ling, R. (2008) New Tech, New Ties: How mobile communication is reshaping social cohesion. Cambridge: MIT.
  • Meyrowitz, J. (1985) No Sense of Place: The impact of electronic media on social behaviour. New York: Oxford University.
  • Sennett, R. (1992) Fall of Public Man. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Judt, T. (2011) Um tratado sobre os Nossos Actuais Descontentamentos. Lisboa: Edições 70.

 

 

Support:
Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia
União Europeia
Quadro de Referência Estratégico Nacional
Programa Operacional Factores de Competitividade
Universidade da Beira Interior