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 Malinows- ki’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.

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