The Human and the Digital   /   Spring 2018   /    Notes And Comments

Just Staying in Touch?

Richard Hughes Gibson

Worries about social media’s vacuity are beside the point.

In 2012, the Pew Research Center announced that the average eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old American smartphone user sent sixty text messages per day, up from the fifty the same demographic cohort dispatched daily in 2009. Briefly impressive, such estimates now seem low for this and other age groups, and the focus on Short Message Service (SMS) texting seems narrow. A case in point: Facebook reported last year that its WhatsApp and Messenger apps field more than sixty billion messages per day. That’s in addition to the half million posts made each minute on Facebook proper. That the vast majority of these messages are concerned with trivialities is hardly surprising. Jeremiads on this score have become an established digital-age genre (appearing on the same Facebook walls and Twitter feeds that they denounce).

But perhaps, as some observers have countered, such worries about social media’s vacuity are beside the point. To use sociologist Vincent Miller’s phrasing, “content is not king” in this domain; “‘keeping in touch’ is.” Miller and others have christened social media the new “phatic” communication, updating the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski’s term for utterances whose function is not to inform but to build social bonds. But is Malinowski’s construct really so in tune with the world of social media?

The concept of phatic communication debuted in “The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages,” an essay appended to C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’s classic semiotic study The Meaning of Meaning (1923). Malinowski used the occasion to champion the ethnographic study of indigenous languages, which he believed had been poorly served by philological methods. Fieldwork among the population of the Trobriand Islands, in the South Pacific, had revealed to Malinowski that indigenes relied on language as a “mode of action” rather than, as philology assumed, an “instrument of reflection.” This claim was not intended as a slight. Ethnography, as Malinowski envisaged it, would do justice to indigenous linguistic practices by moving the problem of meaning out of the text and into the world. The method had obvious purchase in contexts where verbal exchanges helped speakers to achieve readily apparent practical ends. In one of the essay’s bravura passages, Malinowski recounts the stages of a group fishing expedition, explaining how an array of utterances was instrumental to the fishermen’s success.

But Malinowski also perceived that something was afoot in the “free, aimless, social intercourse” floating above daytime chores and swirling around the “village fire” at night. To the untrained ear, this verbiage would seem altogether worthless. It didn’t “inform.” It didn’t “connect people in action.” It certainly didn’t “express thought.” Malinowski’s breakthrough was to set aside not only the words’ referential meanings but also his own focus on how language responds to situations. The sheer fact of speaking, he realized, was what mattered. These frivolous utterances created a situation, a warm atmosphere, whose purpose—whose meaning—was sociability itself. In the flow of words, bonds were formed and solidified. Here was “a new type of linguistic use…in which ties of union are created by a mere exchange of words.” Malinowski named it “phatic communion,” drawing on the Greek work for speech, phatos.

Ever the ethnographer, Malinowski noticed when he turned his gaze back to Europe that “modern, civilized” people traded their own stocks of thoughtless pleasantries when making “enquiries about health, comments on the weather, or some supremely obvious state of things.” “Phatic communion,” he reasoned, was a timeless pursuit. Our anthropologist had hit a “bedrock aspect of man’s nature in society”: the fundamental human desire for the “mere presence of others.” In this universalizing move, Malinowski would seem to have paved the way for his concept’s migration into new media. The passage of words over WhatsApp, on this reading, simply extends the purview of Malinowski’s findings.

Yet there is a hint of resistance, a bit of friction, in Malinowski’s examples. His model expressions (such as “Ah, here you are” and “Nice day today”) imply face-to-face encounters. Most tellingly of all, when imagining a modern counterpart to the village fires of Oceania, Malinowski selects the “European drawing-room.” He never mentions the already not-so-new medium of the telephone (now regarded by some as the first phatic technology) or the nineteenth-century text messaging system, telegraphy. Phatic communion, we might say, keeps the conversation within reach.

Among the first efforts to extend that reach appears in Roman Jakobson’s “Metalanguage as a Linguistic Problem,” which initially aired as the 1956 presidential address to the Linguistics Society of America. The address introduced Jakobson’s famous schematic of the six “factors” of the “speech event” and the six corresponding “functions” of language. Those factors map the conditions of meaningful speech, such as someone speaking, someone listening, and a language common to both. The functions, meanwhile, represent an utterance’s several possible performances, including describing the world inside or outside our heads, issuing commands, and delighting the ear with wordplay. The “phatic function” concentrates on the “contact” factor, which Jakobson defines as “a physical channel and psychological connection between the addresser and the addressee, enabling both of them to enter and stay in communication.”

“Contact,” of course, recalls Malinowski’s picture of close physical proximity. Yet it also—in tandem with that “physical channel”—signals Jakobson’s concern for the messages that electric currents ferried with ever increasing abundance at midcentury. Such messages included those serving primarily to establish, to prolong, or to discontinue communication; to check whether the channel works (“Hello, do you hear me?”); to attract the attention of the interlocutor; or to confirm his continued attention. Whereas Malinowski envisioned face-to-face meetings, Jakobson situated his phatic function in the complex world of telecommunication (“tele” meaning “far off” in Greek). Pleasant scenes of after-dinner chitchat are displaced here by the nervous twittering of speakers who cannot see (much less touch, smell, or taste) what’s happening on the other end of the line. Jakobson’s “phatic function” is necessitated by potential disruptions to the speech event: unreliable technologies and lapses in other people’s attention. In this new context, the phatic function takes on the burden of drawing listeners in and keeping them on the line. Jakobson thus wasn’t simply repeating Malinowski but translating the phatic into a new medium; and, notably for present purposes, that translation wasn’t smooth.

So what about new media? Certainly, the chitchat Malinowski sought to dignify has carried over into, and prospered in, social media. On Messenger, Twitter, and elsewhere, users still exchange formulaic greetings, make inquiries about health, and comment on the weather, along with other “supremely obvious” matters. Scholars endeavoring to define a phatic symbology specific to new media have proposed that its contents include emoticons, emojis, and other paralinguistic indicators such as likes, favorites, and upvotes. Even the most infamous of all posts, the breakfast snapshot, has been submitted for consideration. Once again, scholars are drawing upon Malinowski’s concept to explain how something significant can be going on amid the seeming nonsense that circulates on social media. The meaning lies in the connection, not the content. And some researchers have even echoed Malinowski’s conclusion about human character, arguing, for example, that “phatic posts” testify to humanity’s deep-rooted craving for fellowship.

Linguistically speaking, talk of continuity between past and present absolutely has a point. But as with the move from Malinowski’s paradigm to Jakobson’s, one should take note of the change in the atmosphere. For all of their differences, Malinowski and Jakobson shared an assumption natural to the media of speech: that we can stay in only one conversation at a time. As hardly needs saying, the primarily visual interfaces of social media, by contrast, allow users to toggle among several exchanges, often on different platforms and playing out at different speeds. Thus, we trade short messages on SMS and Messenger while liking Facebook posts, glancing at snaps, and scrolling through a friend’s recent barrage of tweets. This multiplicity, of course, has its benefits, the most important being that, with minimal effort, we can stay in touch with a host of contacts. All it takes is a few phatic clicks.

The problem is that many of us now have time only for those few clicks. Already in 2008, Vincent Miller had highlighted how social media users “compressed” their phatic communication in order to keep pace with their “ever expanding” networks. In invoking compression, Miller wasn’t referring to the abbreviation strategies of txt-speak, though these are obviously germane. His sought to flag the virtual elimination of time-consuming dialogue, in the sense of focused, extended back-and-forth. Users were now trading “deferred,” “asynchronous,” and “non-intrusive” verbal deposits, which aided correspondents in their efforts to keep their respective social networks humming. Miller’s example speaks to the fact that the translation of phatic communication into new media is, as in Jakobson’s formulation, a matter of shifts in both language and attention. Perhaps we can say that Jakobson was writing on the cusp of our current “age of distraction,” his phatic function intervening to rescue conversations from the threat of attention-stealing objects or persons on the other end of the line. Those speakers, simply put, needed to check in, perhaps frequently, because they were always in danger of having their conversation partners check out. In our new modes of “far off” communication, phatic words and symbols are embedded in an attentional economy where it’s now normal for both sides of an exchange to be parceling out attention across several open channels. The flickering of attention is, we might say, now a built-in feature.

So what has been the fate of phatic communication in social media? How you answer this question depends, I submit, on whether you prefer your relationships in a solid or liquid state. Malinowski’s discussion of phatic communion is thick with the former sort, the most conspicuous being his proposed results of phatic exchanges: social bondsties of union. In one of the most famous images of his essay, Malinowski describes “the breaking of silence, the communion of words,” as “the first act to establish links of fellowship,” which will be “consummated only with the breaking of bread.” At Malinowski’s communion table, solid food nourishes solid bonds. Here we come to a tacit assumption of Malinowski’s paradigm: that phatic speech matters, that it is worth the effort, because the bonds it creates are deep and enduring. They can be counted on.

So much of what we do on social media is at odds with that model. Our phatic words and symbols are so much more in sync with the numbers game the late sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman dubbed “liquid modernity,” in which uprooted, mobile moderns amass loose, low-commitment “connections” rather than traditional stable relationships. As Bauman himself observed, social media exemplifies his paradigm for late modern sociality: It promises a continuous supply of reassuring “contact” that can nonetheless be easily broken off if it becomes taxing or takes an unwelcome turn. In a late interview, Bauman characterized the Internet as a “realm and nursery of phatic expressions,” which, moreover, “discourages and impedes, if not downright prohibits, anything loaded with graver meaning.” (He singled out Twitter as the worst offender.) Phatic communication might be said to be the lingua franca of Bauman’s liquid modernity. To recognize all of this is to realize that the digital age has given rise to unprecedented volumes of phatic communication, but often at the cost of the communion Malinowski held up as its objective. Phatic communication now often functions—or is it dysfunctions?—as a prelude merely to more phatic communication. It may never leave the network, never seek—much less, find—firmer ground. Who now has time for anything more?