Mobile phones – bringing the private into the public

Mobile phones essentially underpin society today – how we communicate, how we work and how we are entertained. I would argue, actually, that they are becoming an extension of the self, rather than merely an accessory or fun technology. As Rosenfield, O’Connor-Petrsuo and Sharon (2014, p. 312) explain, phones allow us to “email, text, find information, use maps, take pictures [and make phone calls]”. They also provide a safety blanket for those moments in limbo, when you are forced to sit next to a stranger on the bus, escape the wrath of a creep in a club, or sit alone at a cafe for those few gut wrenching minutes while your friend finds a park.


Image source. 

This phenomenon can be explained through the rise of tele cocooning. This term, coined by Ichiyo Habuchi, describes communication between people without physicality (Case, 2011). Communication is becoming constant and more mundane – texting isn’t necessarily about a big event or something important – rather, what you ate for lunch, and if you can really be bothered to fake tan? In youth, according to Kobayashi and Boase (2014), instant messaging typically involves rapid exchange of messages between peers. I am certainly guilty of this media behaviour. I have a Facebook group chat with my girlfriends from work, and often open my Facebook app to ‘204 unread messages’. Obviously a majority of these messages are not groundbreaking, they are short snippets of casual conversation, yet I take great comfort knowing that there is a constant contact with 8 of my closest friends buzzing in my back pocket.

The tricky thing about mobile phone use, however, is the opacity of mobile etiquette. Rosenfield and O’Connor-Petrsuo (2014) point out that for a device with such strong societal permeation, it is odd that there is no definitive set of rules for how to politely and appropriately use them. This code of conduct seems to be unspoken and informally enforced. Take, for example, one of my recent train rides home from uni. It was about 5.30 in the afternoon, so the carriage resembled a sardine can with students and professionals wedged in, desperately wanting to get home. I was silent texting and tumblring to pass the time, but two young men to my right did not get the silent memo. Eminimem’s words of wisdom blasted trough the train (they were apparently not aware of headphones), and this was accompanied by very boisterous amateur rapping and loud song analysis. This use of mobile phones is seemingly not okay – but really, says who? Every other passenger in sight was shooting the filthiest scowls they could muster, and tutting in that hushed-but-obvious tone all teachers seem to acquire. You bet I was furiously punching my fingers across my keyboard alerting the group chat to that one!

In fact, I desperately wanted to photograph or video the shenanigans. This, though, I felt may also be pushing the boundaires of  mobile etiquette. Reflecting on this experience got me thinking – how do we navigate the delicate nature of capturing use of mobiles, on our mobiles. 

I took these photos, with my own phone, while again travelling to uni last week. I was fascinated by how engrossed everyone in these non-spaces was by their small screens.

12077357_10154159118463797_123530373_n bLUR 12077485_10154159120528797_161061596_n BLUR 2

According to the Arts Law Centre of Australia (2013, p. 1), it is “generally possible to take photographs in a public place without asking permission” as there are currently no public or privacy rights in Australia. Laws currently in place are focused more on the storage and management of personal information, or the misuse of images of people – like if their image is used for sexual purposes. So me snapping these photos, which I think authentically capture the essence of the mobile phone today, is totally legal. But is it ethical? I did alert the featuring strangers that I had snapped them after the fact, and they were all fine with it, however I still don’t feel totally comfortable sharing photos of strangers – hence the blurred faces. I find it interesting, however, that my conscience tells me I’d feel way more content sharing footage of the Eminem impersonators – perhaps because I felt they were ignoring the implied ethics of media use in a public space.


Image source. 

So what does this tell us? Mobile phones are certainly permeating society – they allow us to be discrete in public, or sometimes they cause us to be shamed in public. Regardless, they seem to be inextricably linked to society as we now know it – public photography and all – and perhaps this is not all bad.

Arts Law Centre of Australia 2013, Street Photographer’s Rights 2013′, Arts Law Centre of Australia, viewed September 11 2015, <;

Case, A 2011, Tele-Cocooning, Cyborg Anthropology, viewed September 10 2015, <;

Kobayashi, T & Boase J 2014, ‘Tele-Cocooning: Mobile Texting and Social Scope∗’, Computer-Mediated Communication, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 681-694

Rosenfield, B, O’Connor-Petrso & Sharon, A 2014, ‘East vs. West: A Comparison of Mobile Phone Use by Chinese and American College Students’ College Student Journal, vol. 48, no. 2, pp. 312-321


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s