Over the last two decades, the pace of technological development has far outpaced the rate at which human society has developed the terms and expressions necessary for truly understanding the ramifications of this new technology and media environment. In turn, this confusion has led to something of a division, between those who might argue that the way humans communicate in the 21st century has not changed, but rather only the tools they use, and those who actually understand just how fundamentally mobile communication technology has altered the way humans think about their environment, communication, and authority. In order to understand the reason for this divide as well as the disruptive and transformative technologies which lie at the heart of it, one must examine not only the ways in which mobile communication technologies facilitate new ways of communicating, but also the ways in which these technologies disrupt the dominant power structure and instigate the kind of knee-jerk defense mechanism which attempts to downplay the importance of these technologies in a futile attempt to lessen their power.
Before exploring the revolutionary uses for mobile communication technologies seen in the 21st century and the ways in which these technologies disrupt the hegemonic control of information and power that was the hallmark of the 20th century, it will be useful briefly examine some of the more obvious social divisions brought about as a result of this new technology. In her essay "Generational and Lifestyle Differences in Mobile Phone Usage," Sun Kyong Lee examines the possibility of differences in rates and breadth of mobile phone usage depending on age or lifestyle (often as a function of age) in order to determine if mobile phones suffer from the same age-related bias inflicted on nearly all new media upon its inception, from the novel to the radio to the internet.
While Lee finds that "generation and lifestyle are statistically significant variables that are related to both the motives and behaviors of mobile phone users," the most crucial aspect of her findings is the fact that "younger generations have a wider variety of motives and use functionally enhanced services of the mobile phone more diversely than the older generations do" (Lee 2006, p. 20). By "functionally enhanced services," she means things like cameras, text messaging, and access to the internet, precisely the technologies which have made mobile communication so disruptive (a detail that will become important during a later discussion of mobile communication's impact of news media). Thus, while there is a noticeable age gap in the use of mobile phones, the true gap lies in different generations' level of comfort with all of the mobile technologies other than the phone, something that becomes abundantly clear when examining the use of text messaging by younger generations.
In the 2011 study "Invisible Whispers: Accounts of SMS Communication in Shared Physical Space," Aksel Tjora studied a particular form of SMS (short message service) communication, namely, when both parties are in the same physical space but are nonetheless using SMS to communicate. The most crucial aspect of the research revealed the way in which SMS communication allows for "communicative layers of transparency," meaning that participants are able to maintain multiple levels of communication with a variety of different people at once, even if all are in the same physical space (Tjora 2011, p. 193). The author discusses a number of different examples, from asking a friend for help avoiding an unwanted sexual advance at a party to covertly communicating during a meeting or lecture (p. 200, 203). Although there are any number of discreet uses for "shared physical space SMS," the unifying factor is the ability of SMS communication to sidestep usual social and cultural rules in order to facilitate the flow of communication and avoid unwanted experiences.
For example, a wish not to appear rude may have previously forced one to endure unwanted sexual advances, but by texting a friend and asking her to subtly intervene, shared physical space SMS communication allows one to find a workaround for this ultimately damaging social protocol which frequently forces individuals to maintain someone else's delusion (p. 200). Thus, "mobile" extends not only to communication device, but to the user itself, because "the use of digital media, in particular the mobile, facilitates and enhances mobility in praxis and virtually" (Staid 2007, p. 143). The silent communication of SMS, when used as another layer of communication within the same physical space, allows the user to engage in a kind of superfluid exchange of information usually precluded by social protocol.
Before moving on to a discussion of the way in which technologies such as these are beginning to overthrow social protocol and control on a much larger level, it is worth briefly mentioning how one of Tjora's examples demonstrates this revolution on a microcosmic scale. In short, being able to communicate silently via SMS in certain settings, such as a lecture, disrupts the traditional power structure by giving the audience or student the ability to critically discuss the words of the lecturer as they unfold, changing the dynamic from the omnipotent lecturer at the front of the room, overseeing his or her rapt audience, to one of critical thought and reflection, where the lecturer must always be aware that his or her words are being discussed and criticized even as he or she speaks them.
Thus, in a way, texting during a lecture disrupts the top-down power structure of the classroom in a very similar way that mobile communication has begun to disrupt the same kind of power structure seen in governments and the news media. When coupled with Lee's research demonstrating that younger generations are far more likely to utilize SMS communication than older ones, it becomes clear that the revolutionary properties of mobile communications technology are growing exponentially, because not only do these technologies give their users unprecedented powers of communication and organization, but precisely those citizens most likely to feel the brunt of outmoded social protocols and controls are simultaneously most likely to take advantage of these new technologies.
Aside from the more small-scale and interpersonal short-circuiting of traditional power dynamics achieved through SMS communication, mobile communication technologies have precipitated revolutions in more far-ranging categories as well, most notably journalism and the organization of public protest and resistance to state power (two areas that are inextricably linked, because the democratization of information ultimately always brings with it the democratization of the state). The effects on journalism have been more widely discussed (especially by journalists) as the gradual decline (in both market share and quality) of newspapers, radio, and television has given way to the internet as the primary source of news and media. However, this is not to say that the traditional journalist is heading towards extinction, but rather that the role of the journalist is changing, with certain functions being crowdsourced to the far more able mass of citizens armed with portable cameras, all with their own internet connection.
This has resulted in a newsroom version of the aforementioned divide between those dismissive of new technologies and those aware of its power, a divide between what Sue Robinson calls "traditionalists" and "convergers" (Robinson 2010, p. 125). Robinson sees the comments section on internet news articles as one of the most obvious sites of this divide, because "As newspapers move toward mixed web-print or total web platforms, journalists struggle with their authoritative role in society in the interactive environment," especially with the advent of internet comments, which force journalists to reconsider who retains ultimate "textual privilege" (p. 126). Far from the digital version of "letters to the editor," internet comments are an immediate, often visceral way for readers to insert their own opinions and reporting into the media relationship, undermining the journalists authority while supplementing the journalists' content. Of course, it is this very fact which is forcing journalists to reconsider their role and demonstrates the bald-faced arrogance of the "traditionalists." In short, the traditionalists ultimately value authority and control over the transmission of useful information, whereas convergers are happy to accept this relatively small loss of authorial control in return for the chance to better communicate the most salient information. In turn, by removing the journalist from an unwarranted pedestal, news organizations are ultimately held to a higher standard, because their readers are able to express disapproval and disgust immediately, and oftentimes, completely unfiltered.
However, new communication technologies do more than allow readers to correct inaccuracies in stories or denigrate poorly written articles. They actually allow consumers to participate in the journalistic process themselves by participating in what Karmen Erjavec and Melita Poler Kovacic call "the genre chain of mobi news," in which professional news and editorial teams dictate the subject matter and produce the ultimate product, with the actual content (often visual) being provided by consumers and citizens via their mobile communication devices (Erjavec & Kovacic 2009, p. 147). Once again, this may not be considered like anything as banal as "reader photos" sent…