HCI and the challenges of mass communications

XI.2 March + April 2004
Page: 63
Digital Citation

What recreational telephone conferencing can teach us about the future of mass communications

Darren Reed

back to top 

By paying attention to the relationship between communication technology and meaningful everyday behavior, we can present valuable lessons for those developing communication media. Specifically, we present a moment of co-evolution of the telephone and its purposeful use, in the development of the recreational telephone conference, made possible by the everyday pervasiveness of the telephone.

When thinking about the future of the mass media we tend to imagine its constituent elements as print, radio, and television, forgetting all about the telephone. Arguably the truest communication medium, the telephone is less easily incorporated into the mix. When the telephone is viewed as an instrument of mass communication, it is difficult to talk about content, and there seems little chance of understanding what gets communicated to whom. The discussion here is based on a small-scale interview and observation-based study of a recreational telephone conference scheme that provides support for isolated elderly individuals. The findings are understood in relation to the notion of "associational telelogic" communication and the uses and gratifications theory of mass media consumption.

Ball-Rokeach and Reardon [2] proposed a three-part model of mass communication that emphasizes communicative rather than technological form: monologic, dialogic, and telelogic communication. The last of these, unlimited by time or geography, involves message interchange over great distances. The authors point out e-mail as the prototypical form and assert that the telephone is its ancestor. According to Ball-Rokeach and Reardon, the third form is characteristic of all emergent communicative media. Along with exchange and debate telelogues, which extend the propensities of the monologic and dialogic forms, they predict the development of associational telelogue. This consists of "two or more individuals communicating with each other with a shared focus upon establishing, maintaining, or embellishing their relationship" (p. 154).

Telelogic communication allows people to "communicate with anonymity while still developing an intimate relationship in terms of revealing private thoughts and feelings" (p. 154). This idea complements comments about the telephone as allowing "intimacy at a distance" [4]. Ball-Rokeach and Reardon's focus on communicative form allows a shift away from considering only media content toward seeing communication as purposeful social activity.

Although the introduction of various technologies of communication (from the first writing instrument) has brought new communicative forms, recent changes and future developments remain less dramatic than one might think. Indeed, the notion of "emergent" communicative forms addresses the connection between how people already communicate and the new ways they find. Communicative purpose may change over time, but it is largely in small increments that exploit the potential of current technologies. Thus, when we think about the development of technology, a relevant question might involve the range of communicative social actions and purposes currently in play.

The uses and gratifications model of the mass media is premised on people's active consumption of media and media content. It does this by determining people's motivations for using particular media. Motivational categories are determined through the factor analysis of responses to attitudinal and use questionnaires [3, 7]. In the use of the household telephone, Keller finds intrinsic (social) and instrumental (task-oriented) motivations. To this, Dimmick et al. add the motivation for "reassurance" [3], and O'Keefe and Sulanowski [7] find an "entertainment function" in people's responses, noting the need to recognize a "fun" motivation for telephone use (p. 923).

Table 1. Uses and gratifications of the telephone.

A question is whether these categories can shed light on the use of recreational telephone conferences by providing a lens through which to comprehend motivation and action.

The Befriending Scheme, organized by Hackney Borough Council in London, England, brings together isolated elderly individuals in recreational telephone conferences. The research was a week-long study, which constituted listening to three calls and interviewing 12 participants individually in their homes. What was immediately apparent was how taken for granted the telephone is as a piece of technology. Living conditions for some were impoverished (one participant, for example, had no carpets and little furniture), but each person had a telephone. In conversation, it was difficult to draw participants into commenting about the technical aspects of the telephone. None of those interviewed had a problem with using the telephone except that prolonged calls might become uncomfortable because of the need to hold the telephone receiver.

Another clear finding from the study was that the telephone brought social contact. For example, Elizabeth, a participant, remarked, "Everyone likes it when their phone rings" because it's a form of "mental contact." Before each call, which she characterizes as a mix of "idle chat" and support, Elizabeth makes herself comfortable in a particular chair with a cup of tea. To her, "It's like waiting for someone to visit."

For those enduring isolation and shyness, the telephone brings exactly the level of contact they require. A participant named Colin says he feels more confident on the phone, where people can't see each other. However, a photograph of each participant might be good "so you can see what sort of person he or she [is]." Interestingly, he imagines he is talking to a room full of people rather than separated individuals and conceptualizes the experiences in terms of visualizing people on the radio. The telephone may bring an emergent form of communication to these individuals, but it is made understandable for people relative to other experiences and knowledge.

Elizabeth comments that the other participants are not "bosom buddies ... more like people you meet on holiday."

In this case, the recreational telephone conference is viewed as a type of associational telelogue, with intrinsic sociability and reassurance as primary motivations. For participants, it would not be worth designing for tasks or entertainment, but rather for sensitivity to what participants currently find important is most beneficial.

Even with a group of individuals who are so far removed from the early adopters of new technology, the social telephone conference provides a valuable form of social mediation. This attitude is largely based on the taken-for-granted nature of the telephone.

Abowd, Mynatt, and Rodden discuss a methodology of design based on the "coevolution of human activity and novel technologies," which involves a "delicate balance between predicting how novel technologies will serve a real human need and observing authentic use" [1, p. 56]. They noted that one issue hampering such methods is the slow deployment of so-called "ubiquitous devices" in the home and look forward to the establishment of "living laboratories." They miss, however, the continued deployment of a long-established pervasive communication device, the telephone.

A number of authors have remarked on the pervasiveness and potential of the telephone for wider communicative ends [7, p. 922]; yet, it remains one of the least studied communication media [3, 4]. Compared with television, the telephone is viewed as a "background medium" [3] or an "ontological orphan," falling between interpersonal communication and the one-to-many model of mass communication [3]. Many recent innovations are nevertheless based on the telelogic form (e.g., text chat), and it is the next generation of mobile telephones that most requires research insight.

In many areas, technology is a taken as a granted feature of everyday life. This is evident in our small-scale study of elderly individuals. In fact, purposeful consumption is possible because of the telephone's everyday pervasiveness. Historically this formed as its (instrumental) technical nature was forgotten, resulting in its (intrinsic) use as a way to socialize [6] and its understanding as a way to support others (reassurance), and, more recently, as a source of entertainment and fun. The invisible extension of the technical properties of the telephone to include multiple talkers was thus a moment of purposeful coevolution, and similar developments in the acquisition of media forms rely on the space provided by and representative of everyday pervasiveness.

With this way of thinking, online publishing is seen as a form of telelogic communication and should be understood in terms of its exchange, debate, and associational features. No longer can mass media simply provide information; it must provide a space for debate and contend with the purposeful associational aspects of its (now telelogic) heritage. At the same time, mass media must view its own development as a coevolution of established purposeful users and technological change. Typically we concentrate on the latter; it is the underlying theme of this article that we should prioritize the former. Not only does the concept of coevolution provide a precept on which to base rich methodological endeavors, it also provides a rationale for developing technologies for groups normally considered inaccessible.

However we view the current status of communication technology, the most important point is that design does not stand alone, and it is intimately related to purposeful use. We may currently be in a moment of enormous technological change, but our reasons for communicating carry the weight and history of culture. The mass communicator should never forget this.

back to top  References

1. Abowd, G.D., Mynatt, E.D., and Rodden, T. The human experience. IEEE Pervasive Computing (January 2002).

2. Ball-Rokeach, S.J. and Reardon, K. Monologue, dialogue, and telelogue: Comparing an emergent form of communication with traditional forms. In R.P. Hawkins, J.M. Wiemann, and S. Pingree (eds.), Advancing Communication Science: Merging Mass and Interpersonal Processes, Sage, London, 1988.

3. Dimmick, J.W., Sikand, J. and Patterson, S.J. The Gratifications of the Household Telephone. Sociability, Instrumentality, and Reassurance. Communication Research 21, 5 (1994), pp. 643-663.

4. Fielding, G. and Hartley, P. The telephone: a neglected medium. In A. Cashdan and M. Jordin (eds.), Studies in Communication, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1987.

5. Hopper, R., Telephone Conversation. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1992.

6. Keller, S. The telephone in new (and old) communities. In I. Pool (ed.), The Social Impact of the Telephone, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1977.

7. O'Keefe, G.J. and Sulanowski, B.K. More than just talk: Uses, gratifications, and the telephone. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 72, 4 (1995), pp. 922-993.

back to top  Author


I am indebted to the Community Resource Group, London, for its generous support and to the ESRC's PACCIT program.

Author's Bio

Darren Reed is a Research Fellow for York Usability Research, a group in the Department of Psychology in the University of York. His work concerns the social aspect of communication in the technological domain. His doctorate, acquired from Loughborough University, addressed the communication patterns of text based Internet communication.

back to top  Tables

T1Table 1. Uses and gratifications of the telephone.

back to top 

©2004 ACM  1072-5220/04/0300  $5.00

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2004 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

No Comments Found