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What Smartphones, Ethnomethodology, and Bystander Inaccessibility Can Teach Us About Better Design?

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Smartphones, the ubiquitous mobile screens now normal parts of everyday social situations, have created a kind of ongoing natural experiment for social scientists. According to Garfinkel's ethnomethodology social action gets its meaning not only from its content but also through its context. Mobility, small screen size, and the habitual way of using smartphones ensure that, while offering the biggest variety of activities for the user, in comparison to other everyday items, smartphones offer the least cues to bystanders on what the user is actually doing and how long it might take. This 'bystander inaccessibility' handicaps shared understanding of the social context that the user and collocated others find themselves in. Added considerations and interactive effort in managing the situation is therefore required. Future design needs to relate to this basic building block of collocated interaction to not be met with discontent.
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What Smartphones, Ethnomethodology, and Bystander
Inaccessibility Can Teach Us About Better Design?
Eerik Mantere12
1 Tampere University, Kalevantie 4, 33100 Tampere, Finland
2 Université de Bordeaux, 3 ter Place de la Victoire, 33076 Bordeaux, France
emantere@u-bordeaux.fr
Abstract. Smartphones, the ubiquitous mobile screens now normal parts of eve-
ryday social situations, have created a kind of ongoing natural experiment for
social scientists. According to Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology social action gets
its meaning not only from its content but also through its context. Mobility, small
screen size, and the habitual way of using smartphones ensure that, while offering
the biggest variety of activities for the user, in comparison to other everyday
items, smartphones offer the least cues to bystanders on what the user is actually
doing and how long it might take. This ‘bystander inaccessibility’ handicaps
shared understanding of the social context that the user and collocated others find
themselves in. Added considerations and interactive effort in managing the situ-
ation is therefore required. Future design needs to relate to this basic building
block of collocated interaction to not be met with discontent.
Keywords: Smartphones, Ethnomethodology, Collocated Interaction.
1 Introduction and Background
In United States 81% owns a smartphone [1] and they are routinely used in the presence
of others. How this impacts relationships with collocated others regularly hits the head-
lines [2][3]. Previous research suggests various negative effects. Smartphone use can
be distracting and undermine the benefits of social interactions [4], which have previ-
ously found to be so crucial to psychological well-being [5]. Although often aiming for
connection with distant others, interactions online do not provide the same sense of
social support as collocated interactions [6]. Being distracted in collocated interactions
due to smartphone use therefore seems like an ill-chosen trade-off.
An Australian dictionary jumped on the idea by coming up with a new word for the
phenomenon. “Phubbing” is defined at their marketing campaign’s website site as “the
act of snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying
attention” [7]. Researchers got on board with the term and phubbing has since been
found to reduce communication quality and relationship satisfaction by reducing the
feelings of belongingness and positive affect [8], make both phubbers and the phubbed
to be more likely to see phubbing as an inevitable social norm [9], and be thought of as
badby young people, even if they are doing it themselves [10]. “Partner phubbing”
2
has further been found to reduce relationship satisfaction by creating conflicts over cell
phone use [11] and cause depression in China for couples married more than seven
years [12]. A validated scale to measure phubbing has also been developed [13] and the
capacity to predict phubbing risk has been pursued by forming a model constituting of
communication disturbances and phone obsession [14]. One should not then be sur-
prised then that an article in the New York Times portrayed phubbing as if the term was
developed by psychologists [15].
Not wanting to discredit the previous work, three points should be noted of their
similar methodologies and the gap they fail to fill. First, though they study the social
situation, they do not directly describe it, but rather produce second level constructs of
it [16]. Research participants have produced numeric or verbal accounts of imagined or
previously lived situations. These are then used to make a scientific accountsnow
two levels distanced from the phenomenon they aim to depict. Second, when directly
observing social situations, they rely on a priori chosen qualities of interaction. Re-
searchers observing social behavior then code it in regard to these qualities in order to
use them as indicators in seeking relevance between them and general social categories
like age or gender [25]. Third, none of them spring from a theoretical understanding of
social action. Harold Garfinkel pointed out the problems of theories that rely on inter-
nalization of society’s norms and found ethnomethodology (EM) to study how people
themselves in everyday situations construct meaning and make and interpret social typ-
ifications as relevant. EM has quickly gained more and more ground as the theory of
social action and has given birth to conversation analysis (CA), now considered the
principal way to study verbal and non-verbal interaction alike [16] [17] [18] [19] [20].
Though EM/CA literature covers a wide range of interactive contexts, research on
spontaneous individual smartphone use in social situation is practically non-existent.
One of the most closely related EM/CA studies looked at how smartphone use while
driving is interleaved with traffic light stops. Users were looking for moments when the
affordances of the phone’s interface co-constructed transition relevant places with the
activities of the user. In these moments a possible shift in orientation between
smartphone use and other activities is sequentially made most available. The regularity
in which the interface makes these moments possible was considered a central theme
in organizing multiactivity with smartphone use and other concurrent activities [21].
Another study of using public transport found gaze shifts away from the phone to be
organized in relation to the sequential progression of the activity with the device. Be-
ginning stages of phone use were suggested to be especially sequentially engaging but
the methodology used and the level of granularity of the analyzes lacked the possibility
to describe the interactive practices of in their sequential contexts [22].
A study focusing on the use of a map applications found people sequentially organ-
izing their phone use with actions like unilateral stopping, turning, and restarting, while
walking together in public places. Again, phone use was found to have its own sequen-
tial progression which, then was interleaved with that of the concurrent social activities
of the physical environment [23]. The most relevant EM/CA work on smartphone use
and collocated interaction addresses phone use in pubs [24]. It does introduce and ex-
plore the topic but does not exhaust neither a single episode of interaction, nor describe
any putative practice taking place in various interactions, to a satisfactory degree from
3
the point of view of CA. Similarly, it does not make real use of the theoretical offer of
EM. I encourage looking at smartphone use in social situation with a viewpoint rooted
in EM, and adding in CA analysis, in order to understand how phone use may be con-
structed as unacceptable, and to find inspiration for more socially acceptable design.
2 Social Theory and Indexicality
Goffman [25] defined the social situation as an „environment of mutual monitoring
possibilities, anywhere within which an individual will find himself accessible to the
naked senses of all others who are ¨present,¨ and similarly find them accessible to him.“
All speaking and gesturing in face-to-face interaction takes place in the social situation
and he emphasized the importance of the physical setting in any analysis of them. Even
more than Goffman, Harold Garfinkel saw the context of interaction to be central in
what the interaction itself means [16] [18]. Let us consider the following example:
I’m sorry
The phrase seems to clearly convey an apology. We might imagine that the person ut-
tering the words feels regretful and elucidate how each of the words, I am sorry,
convey something that together constitute an apology. We might reflect on how it dif-
fers from the more casual “sorry ‘bout that”, and we might even say that this apologiz-
ing seems humble and empathetic. But what if we added a context:
I got my diploma from the University of Honolulu
I’m sorry
Now the phrase “I’m sorry” doesn’t seem so kind. This example shows how the same
practice of “apologizing” can be used to do different thingsone of them teasing. As
the immediate social context changes, the meaning of the action changes too. Before
Garfinkel, ‘indexicality’ was considered as a character only of words like “this”, “here”
or “now”words that point, or index, a context in acquiring their meaning. Garfinkel
planned a series of breaching experiments to claim that actually all human action is
understood as indexing the context it takes place in. If people encounter behavior that
is not designed in relation to the commonly shared situation, they feel awkward and
severely challenged in knowing how to proceed. Whatever is done, through words or
otherwise, always gets interpreted through what is seen as the shared understanding of
the situation that the action takes place in [16] [18].
Garfinkel further proposed that this understanding was not only his, but people con-
ducting their everyday lives actually orient to each other as accountable in entering
social situations with the assumption that it is common knowledge [18]. This
knowledge is not rooted in detached reflection of the deep nature of social action. He
does not suggest that all members of society passed sleepless nights in understanding
4
the core concepts of ethnomethodology. Rather, in interacting with one another, a gen-
eral thesis of interchangeability of perspectives is at work. To put it simply, people
assume that what they see as relevant in a situation is seen relevant by others in the
same situation. This is crucial for being able to trust to the shared understanding of the
social situation as “good enough” for interaction to be meaningful. If we could not trust
that we and another person have at least “good enough” match in understanding what
is going on, we could not trust that anything we say or do in the situation would be
understood as we would like it to be understood.
3 Bystander Inaccessibility
The participants of a social situation who start to use a smartphone, to a large extent
stop giving hints of the goals of their actions to collocated others. Others can less often
than is the case with other devices, infer from the posture and movements of the user,
or from the shape and state of the smartphone, what the user is currently doing. The
lack of visual and auditive cues to the bystander, the mobility of the device, bigger
amount of variation in the types of actions possibilitie, than is the case with any other
device, and the varied temporal organizations of the different smartphone activities are
responsible of keeping some crucial aspects about the smartphone user’s activity hidden
to the person in their immediate vicinity:
I. Phase of action (e.g. preparatory phase, execution phase, or being already close to
terminating the action)
II. Category of action (e.g. entertainment, work, information seeking, or communi-
cation)
Not knowing what the activity of the smartphone user is, the other participants in the
social situation are also in the dark about the “good enough” knowledge about nature
of the situation as a whole. I call this bystander inaccessibility (BI). Imagine you want
to ask something mundane of your partner, let’s say, if she has gotten the mail. The
mailbox is just outside, and you could easily check it yourself, but you would prefer
not getting out of the house in vain. You see your partner sitting on the sofa, absorbed
in their phone. Now if you would know that they are responding to an important work
email, you might leave them alone and check the mail yourself. But if they were just
scrolling a friend’s Facebook feed, you might feel at ease to interrupt them. Being in
the dark about the activity they are engaged in, you are also unable to know what your
planned communicative action, “have you checked the mail?”, would signify to them.
It works the other way around as well. This is exemplified in the following data
excerpt. Clo and Liz are eating out and exchanging funny stories together with a friend.
Excerpt 1.
[overlapping speech]
5
>faster speech<
(0.9) silence in tenth of seconds
(.) noticeable silence of maximum 0.3 seconds
.mt smacking of the mouth
@transformed speech, e.g. when quoting someone@
ºspoken silentlyº
the- the production of the word is halted suddenly
((comments))
((Clo is using her phone while talking))
64 Clo: [>Nii nimeonomaa<] (.) ja sit vielä se ku tota noin ni toi
[>Yeah exactly<] (.) and then also that when you know that
65 (0.9) .mt ((Clo stops typing and puts left hand to her face))
66 (0.2) ((Clo continues to gaze at the phone))
67 Clo: öö iskä >oli sillee< [@↑nii joo mä muistan kun Niina
umm dad >was like< [@oh yeah I remember when Niina
68 Liz: [ºmä katon ton
[ºI’ll check th-º ((picks up her phone))
Clo is starting to tell a story that continues the theme of previous stories that night.
While doing this she pauses (line 65, 66) and utilizes filler words (lines 6467) before
actually getting the story going (line 67). Before her turn she was using her phone.
While beginning the telling at line 67, she is still looking at it. Liz is listening, gazing
at Clo, and sees all this taking place. While Clo is struggling while visibly distributing
her attention between two activitiestelling a story and using her phoneshe is also
putting Liz in a difficult position. Clo has already prefaced her story and gained a silent
“permission” from the group to occupy a speaker position for a longer duration than
normal, i.e. until the story is finished. Therefore other participants are normatively re-
stricted to the position of recipient. When regardless of this, Clo still does not put her
full attention to the activity of telling the story, and is faltering in beginning the story,
the next activities, being indexical, connect in their meaning also to this event.
When Liz begins to use her phone at line 68, BI makes Clo unable to automatically
see the type and the goal of Liz’s phone use. In this context it therefore risks being
interpreted as motivated by dissatisfaction with the haphazard way Clo begun her re-
sponsibilities as a storyteller. Considering Goffman’s [26] face-work and the normative
ways we protect the faces of ourselves, as well as other people from straightforward
criticism, it is understandable that Liz chooses to counter this potentially face-threaten-
ing interpretation. She provides an account: “I’ll check the-at line 68. Interestingly,
she does not actually specify the activity she will commence with the phone, but in
providing the account, she nevertheless hints that there is something to be “checked”
and the reason for her staring to use the phone could be in this “checking”, rather than
6
in the faltering conversational performance of Clo. To conclude, as BI hides Liz’s ac-
tivity from Clo, Liz has to produce an account to circumvent this lack. Providing this
account in a sequentially appropriate manner encumbrances a very limited resource in
the context of being a recipient to verbal storytelling: audible speech.
Fig. 1. Respondents identified with the person speaking and rated A and B in random order.
BI -instigating technology (BI-tech) also makes it harder for collocated others to inter-
pret responses, or lack of them, by a BI-tech user. Our study using role playing method
and comic strips found most respondents more irritated when trying to unsuccessfully
get the attention of a phone-using person, while no respondents evaluated the newspa-
per -condition as more irritating (p<0.001). Furthermore, the written responses often
included descriptions on being bothered by not knowing what the phone user was ac-
tually doing [27].
4 Conclusion
Designing socially acceptable technology should be informed by ethnomethodological
study on the device’s effect on social situation. What people do or do not accept is the
way technology enters into the situation as part of the network of social activities. When
engaged in technology use, a crucial aspect of it is that the activity is part of constituting
the shared social reality that then gives meaning also to all the other activities of eve-
ryone else present in the situation. All their decisions to act or not to act are impacted
by their understanding of what the technology use is about and whether they can trust
that other participants see the situation similarly. There should be more work on design
instigating affordances for collocated others to see, hear, or feel the nature of the tech-
nology use taking place in a social setting [28]. Crucially, I call for interdisciplinary
work that benefits from EM/CA methodology to develop and test new prototypes. BI-
tech handicaps participants in social encounters. While people find ways to circumvent
it, the plethora of research reporting dislike of smartphone use in social situation sug-
gests they would prefer to avoid these challenges. Interactional work and designing non
face-threatening actions takes effort, and people do not like to be forced to make effort.
7
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