XXVII.6 November - December 2020
Page: 52
Digital Citation

How mobile media impacts urban life—Blending social cohesion and social distancing

Petter Bae Brandtzaeg

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When I began this essay, the coronavirus crisis had not yet reached Europe and the U.S. However, the topic—the ways in which mobile media is changing people's lives and the social cohesion of urban life—has become increasingly relevant in the time of Covid-19 and social distancing.


Even before the pandemic, most of us had been dependent upon mobile devices to keep in touch for some time. Many of us have a smartphone in our hand and earbuds in our ears as a default mode while walking the streets or taking the subway. Such habits mean there is much less chance of bumping into others and having a conversation with the fellow humans who populate our worlds. As such, many of us had already been living in a state of social distancing. Hence, the social-distancing interventions we've seen over the past half year are maybe less intrusive in digitally mediated societies.

back to top  Insights


The coronavirus crisis really gives us a glimpse into what it means when more or less all personal connections are digital. Relationships are liypermediated, but they are still relationships. There is no magic place called online. We are all trying to have relationships however we can. But at what cost?

Little is known about the social impact of emerging mobile media habits on social interactions and community formation in more urban public settings; in many ways, the Covid-19 situation may also transform our interpretations of how technologies affect society.

This article explores the impact of mobile media on the relationship between urban residents and social cohesion in urban life, especially in the context of Covid-19. Due to the evolution of 5G mobile media technologies and growing urbanization around the world, understanding the relationship between mobile media and urban life is a matter of great priority. In addition, there is a danger that social distancing could last for many more months—perhaps years—due to the coronavirus, adding further urgency to this inquiry.

Human-computer interaction (HCI) and user experience (UX) approaches offer several approaches to understand how mobile media will evolve and affect inhabitants in urban areas, as well as new ways of designing mobile social experiences. So far, HCI research has focused primarily on scenarios in which a single user interacts with the system and not the extended social context and experiences. Extending our understanding of the social context of use may inform the design of new user experiences, blending social cohesion with social distancing.

back to top  The Social Implications of Mobile Media

Social researchers have indicated that real-life social networks are essential for both individuals and the communities to which they belong. A lack of social interactions can hurt both your physical and mental well-being. And yet communication through mobile media technologies has increasingly taken the place of face-to-face interactions. Contemporary relations are mediated to some degree—the sharing of meaning through media.

For decades, membership in all kinds of groups has declined, while loneliness has increased, even as cities grow. By 2018, the number of cities with at least one million inhabitants had grown to 548 [1]. These people living in cities need to interact in order to create an inclusive and trust-building urban environment. All people, including city dwellers, require social cohesion; social relationships of some kind are a necessity of life. Just as we all need food, water, and sleep to survive, we also need authentic and personal human contact and a feeling of community. Yet there is a fear that mobile technology will undermine that social order. On the other hand, mobile technology is very important for both informal and formal socializing, which has been further highlighted in the coronavirus situation. We are embracing technologies and at the same time avoiding public places, including cafes and restaurants.

Screen time has become the lifeline between people, that at the same time facilitates social distancing to control the spread of the pandemic.

Experiences from New York and Paris. In 2010, I did a field observation of mobile usage in New York City, just before the full adoption of smartphones. Around three in 10 people were occupied with mobile technology on the subway, taking into account large variations. Moreover, user sessions were often short, and headphones were rare to see. Mostly I observed energetic social interaction with a unique social and urban vibe. There was an atmosphere of exuberance. Taking the NYC subway was often fun and full of unexpected experiences and moments of friendliness from fellow New Yorkers. Random strangers would suddenly reach out with a compliment or just make small talk, creating a unique feeling of community. The sense of social distancing was nowhere to be found. NYC and similar cities are based on the constant potential of witnessing unpredictable human actions and experiencing encounters that can enhance the feeling of social cohesion.

Recently, in 2019, almost 10 years after my first field observations, I spent three weeks in NYC for a new field study. With the evolution of mobile media, nearly seven in 10 people used a mobile technology on the subway, including AirPods. The mobile sessions in 2019 were more immersive and longer than in 2010. This is in line with a 2015 Pew research study finding that three-quarters (75 percent) of Americans report that it is generally OK to use a cellphone on public transportation. Hence, my experience was that New York City's energetic urban life had changed—most of the social vibe had in fact disappeared.

When comparing NYC with other big cities like Paris, there are striking differences. Doing informal field studies in Paris in 2020, I could not observe the same mobile usage pattern as in NYC. The people of Paris seemed more reluctant to use mobile devices in public and were more social in their urban surroundings. Hence, there may be important cultural differences to take into account, especially in regard to social and digital etiquette in public settings.

Still, mobile media, at least in many parts of the world, has changed our daily routines in both work and leisure. In that regard, many of our routines remain at least partly the same, even with the coronavirus crisis. That is, social distancing through technologies may enhance social cohesion. Checking Instagram and Snapchat stories, I noticed people are sharing images of themselves video chatting on Zoom, Skype, Instagram, Facebook Live, FaceTime, and even WhatsApp. #Zoomlife and #zoomlifestyle are trending on Instagram, indicating the enormous importance of livestreaming applications. Live video streaming is creating a sort of proximity in our digital socializing with family and friends.

In addition, people and groups are trying out various forms of socially distanced meetings, such as virtual yoga classes, virtual concerts, virtual beer parties, virtual church services, and virtual dinner parties. People are trying to build social interaction in a digital environment, when the physical and public environment is out of reach.

Diffusion and adoption of mobile technologies. Even before the coronavirus, the whole process of interpersonal interaction had in many ways been restructured by technological transformations and increasing bandwidth. Mobile media—referring to devices, services, and content accessible on the go—has in a decade rapidly become a part of urban culture, and the habit of using a mobile device in public is only increasing.

In 2020 there are 5.17 billion people in the world who have a cellphone. This means that 67 percent of the world's population now has a mobile phone, and over 45 percent have a smartphone [2]. Moreover, almost half of the world's population spent five or more hours on their smartphones daily in 2017, according to Statista.

The increasing use of mobile media must be seen in relation to how the technology has evolved: from simple devices for phone calls and messaging to multitasking devices for navigation, Internet browsing, podcasts, music, gaming, and instant messaging. In addition to smartphones, AirPods have taken off as the latest must-have mobile gadget. Wireless AirPods were launched by Apple in December 2016. By 2019, AirPods were Apple's most popular accessory product, with nearly 60 million sold. Unlike traditional headphones, AirPods are something you can always keep in your ears, and they do more than headphones or other earbuds. AirPods sync to an iPhone via Bluetooth and have a built-in microphone, which allows users to not only listen to music but also to make phone calls and interact with Siri, Apple's virtual assistant.

The mobile landscape is changing fast. Soon we will see 5G rolled out in big cities. With the 5G future, experiences with wireless technology will be faster and more immersive, and they will also make people more mobile, perhaps changing how they will socialize in urban settings.

With the immersive use of mobile media, social relationships are no longer limited to physical places but rather are distributed through space, which is part of the mobile affordance that new technologies offer. Hence, it is important to understand the social implications of human-technology interactions in cities, as social cohesion in cities is the key to cooperation, tolerance, security, and a feeling of community among residents. On the other hand, in the age of mobile there is no longer a clear delineation between what is termed an online or virtual interaction and what is defined as a real-life interaction.

back to top  Social Cohesion or Social Distancing With Mobile Media

Mobile media has been labeled a symbol of individualism in our transitory society. AirPods and smartphones separate people from their body, senses, and physical surroundings. As such, mobile media threatens the social cohesion of urban life by maintaining social distancing in public spaces. The need to feel close and connected to those who are spatially near may be reduced by our increasing dependence on these devices [3].

Social distancing is new and extremely challenging for many people. Yet mobile media may enhance the autonomy of the user in this context, enabling them to create their own connections. That means people can create social cohesion but maintain social distancing in physical spaces, which is useful during a pandemic.

In a normal life situation, it is the interaction between random people that creates the social atmosphere of urban life, not our individual interactions with mobile media. Can we imagine a seamless interaction between these various modes of individual mediated interaction and in-person community interaction?

Addiction and less face-to-face interaction. Some researchers are convinced that smartphones pose an addiction risk unlike any other. Several reports describe a heavy increase in the time spent on cellphones over the past five years, which may support worries related to addiction and social withdrawal. A review of the literature [4] on cellphone addiction found that the pattern of abuse is greatest among young people, primarily females. Some evidence suggests also a significant decrease in face-to-face interaction among youth. Still, there is a lack of knowledge about cultural and geographical differences and how the use of mobile media affects urban life in various cities.

Yet the age of social distancing may be transforming our view on screen addiction. Even the World Health Organization endorsed gaming as an effective way to avoid spreading the coronavirus. Suddenly, it seems people should stop worrying about children and their screen time. The coronavirus is in this regard transforming how to look at the social implications of technologies. Screen time has become the lifeline between people, that at the same time facilitates social distancing to control the spread of the pandemic.

Mobile devices represented great opportunities before the pandemic, facilitating useful services and making data more accessible, enhancing the quality of urban life. The well-known mobile phone researcher Rich Ling has proven how important mobile phones are for the micro-coordination of various activities in people's busy lives. Mobile devices help us manage life and offer us a sense of safety; they can help people be more efficient and blend their private and professional lives [5]. Moreover, mobile devices can be used for the social good by helping people be sociable and improving human interaction. They are adaptive to human habits and can change with changing social and urban contexts.

AirPods and the Walkman effect. Apple's wireless earbuds in combination with smartphones have impacted the social vibe in NYC. Busy with their mediated reality, people are generally unwilling to interact and engage in reciprocity with others. When people walk the streets while wearing AirPods, they keep others and their surroundings at a distance. People wearing AirPods are giving a visual signal: "Sorry, I don't want to talk to you. Stay away from me. Do not disturb," expressing their desire to withdraw from social surroundings and creating a personal or private space in public. In the literature, this behavior has been described as creating symbolic fences.

Since the introduction of the Walkman in the 1980s, headphones have represented a desire to be alone and cut off from the world. The Japanese professor Shuhei Hosokawa [6] described private media experiences in public as the Walkman effect, detailing how users of headphones gain more control over their environments: the "ultimate object for private listening" [6]. But approximately four decades later, people are superconnected, living a techno-social life with AirPods in their ears and a smartphone screen in front of their eyes.

Attention has in some way shifted from social to more individual moments, but mobile media is also social, in a more eclectic way. City life with cellphones and AirPods does not require us to divide our time between being present and being on a screen. Studies also indicate that city inhabitants are complaining about "loud talk," the "ringing," and the "widespread discourteous uses" that blur the boundary between public and private behaviors.

back to top  Consequences of Mobile Media in Urban Areas

People are spending more and more time staring at their mobile screens while also using AirPods. There is a personalization of public spaces that may collide with social norms and collective action. Or are these norms and collective actions just changing?

This fact holds true in many large cities on the planet, not just NYC. This is also exemplified by a new form of urban accident. Heavy use of mobile media is rendering people both blind and deaf in traffic. People do not see signs, traffic lights, people, or cars when focused on screens and cut off, through their AirPods, from the auditory input of the outside world. The number of pedestrians who are injured or killed while distracted in this way has risen sharply in recent years. In the U.S., a record number of pedestrians were killed in 2017, according to National Safety Council data. This is a new kind of accident that we do not quite know how to deal with. In some cities, such as Antwerp, people have tried to create their own sidewalks for mobile zombies. In Germany, traffic lights have been installed on the ground at two pedestrian crossings. In Honolulu, pedestrians are prohibited from texting or looking at a mobile phone while crossing the street. Hence, usage of mobile technologies in public presents as many challenges as it does opportunities.

Whereas the city used to be a highly interactive and social stage on which the public played out a variety of creative experiences, people now play more of a passerby role, moving along and through on their way to more personal experiences. It seems that mobile users have entered what some researchers have labeled a walled community, in which they interact only with those in whom they are interested. Mobile media has transformed etiquette and traditional social interactions in public. Hence, there is a need for a greater focus on how mobile media can facilitate proximal awareness and sharing via social practices that make urban places meaningful. The coronavirus has helped us to see how digital tools also can help strengthen our real-world ties when used in the right way.

back to top  Conclusion

The question of social cohesion in the mobile age should motivate researchers and developers in HCI to not only treat mobile media technologies as separate devices that function independently from their social context. With the coronavirus and the need for social distancing, there is also a strong need to understand the interplay between users in varied social and public and urban settings to reveal how we can blend both social cohesion and social distancing at the same time.

back to top  References

1. United Nations. The world's cities in 2018; https://www.un.org/en/events/citiesday/assets/pdf/the_worlds_cities_in_2018_data_booklet.pdf

2. GSMA real-time intelligence data. Jan. 2020; https://www.bankmycell.com/blog/how-many-phones-are-in-the-world

3. Misra, S., Cheng, L., Genevie, J., and Yuan, M. The iPhone effect: The quality of in-person social interactions in the presence of mobile devices. Environment and Behavior 48, 2 (2016), 275–298.

4. De-Sola Gutiérrez, J., Rodríguez de Fonseca, F., and Rubio, G. Cellphone addiction: A review. Frontiers in Psychiatry 7 (2016), 175. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2016.00175/full

5. Ling, R. The Mobile Connection: The Cell Phone's Impact on Society. Elsevier, 2004.

6. Hosokawa, S. The Walkman effect. Popular Music 4 (1984), 165–180.

back to top  Author

Petter Bae Brandtzaeg is a professor in the Department of Media and Communication at the University of Oslo and a chief scientist at SINTEF Digital in Norway. He is an expert in mobile and social media usage. Brandtzaeg has published widely on how people use and are motivated by new media technologies. petterbb@uio.no

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