Emily Whitesell - Ethnography

The Influence of Texting in Social Interactions and Everyday Life


In today’s society, cell phone use is common. From observation and my own experience, it appears that people use texting more often than voice calling. The goal of my project is to find out why people prefer texting over calling and to observe how social interaction differs between the two mediums. In doing so, I explore how texting changes the way humans view themselves and one another.

To guide my project, I generated the following hypothesis:

Texting affects our understanding of ourselves and our humanity by reducing the amount of time and effort needed for social interaction. The prevalence of texting in today’s society is affected by the way we value time and try to complete tasks as quickly as possible.


I conducted library research on texting to provide a context for my experiment. An online survey of college students discussed in Borae Jin and Namkee Park’s essay “In-Person Contact Begets Calling and Texting: Interpersonal Motives for Cell Phone Use, Face-to-Face Interaction, and Loneliness” found that on average, students send or receive about 13 calls and 82 text messages per day. Similarly, Dave Harley, Sandra Winn, Sarah Pemberton, and Paula Wilcox, researchers at the University of Brighton in the United Kingdom, found that students use texting more than calling. In the essay, “Using Texting to Support Students’ Transition to University, the researchers report that the college students they studied sent an average of 17 texts and 1.6 voice calls per day (Harley et al., 234).

My library research also provided reasons why students prefer texting over calling. Jin and Park conducted a study to measure to what extent interpersonal motives induce people to call or text. The results showed that participants had stronger interpersonal motives for texting than for calling (Jin & Park, 614). Jin and Park suggest that this finding reflects the more “intimate” nature of texting (Jin & Park, 616). The study also found a connection between the amount of face-to-face interaction and the frequency of calling. However, the amount of face-to-face interaction did not influence the frequency of texting. Jin and Park suggest that, because texting is more “informal” and “intimate,” the frequency of texting may be more related to the “quality” rather than “quantity” of face-to-face interaction (616).

The University of Brighton essay offered other reasons for the preference for texting. Messaging allows people time to think out a response. It also acts as an “emotional buffer” when people need to communicate an emotionally sensitive message. The study found that texting is not always favored. Some participants preferred calling because of the emotional connection created by hearing the other person’s voice. In addition, the study found that students were more likely to call people with whom they had stronger relationships but were for some reason not able to contact face-to-face. For example, students preferred to call their family members because they wanted to hear the other person’s voice (Harley et al., 234-235).
The University of Brighton essay also provided ways in which students use texting in their everyday lives. The study found that students send text messages to make plans with friends, stay in touch with family, provide “emotional support,” and “maintain social support networks” (Harley et al., 235).


To test this hypothesis, I first recorded the frequency of my texts and calls during a normal week. This week acted as my “control” for the project. Then I conducted an experiment in which I used calling instead of texting for one week. I wrote a daily blog of my experiences during this week. The blog is located at the following URL:

I also created an online survey to compare my own texting habits with those of others. Forty-eight people responded to my survey, but some of them chose not to answer certain questions. The survey was comprised of the following questions:
1. How many texts do you SEND per day?
2. How many texts do you RECEIVE per day?
3. How many calls do you MAKE per day?
4. How many calls do you RECEIVE per day?
5. How do your texting conversations differ from your phone call conversations?


During the control week, I received an average of 7 texts and sent about 5 texts per day. I made an average of 2 calls and received 3 calls per day.

During the experiment week, I received 3 texts and sent 0 texts total. I made 5 calls and received 3 calls total. Without the ability to text, I had difficulty making plans and contacting people with whom I am not very close. In certain situations, calling was not appropriate, so I had to delay my communication with people. Because I could not communicate with friends and family as easily, I felt disconnected. However, by calling people like my sister, who I usually text, I was able to talk about a lot more than usual.

The results of the online survey showed that the majority of participants send and receive between 0 and 10 texts per day. Overall, for texts both sent and received, the number of responses decreased as the frequency of texting increased. The only exception to this was the number of participants who responded that they sent or received 41-50 texts per day. For both questions, this frequency yielded a higher number of responses than the 31-40 frequency.

The most popular frequency of calls both made and received was between 0 and 5, with 85% and 90% of responses, respectively. The number of responses decreased as the frequency increased.

The responses to the question about the difference between texting conversations and phone call conversations yielded a variety of answers. The responses showed that conversational differences between the two mediums relate to length, time, content, setting, and emotions. Participants noted that texting is used for shorter messages, while calling is used to convey a longer message. Text conversations allow users to respond at their own convenience, but also tend to span a prolonged time period. A call tends to result in a more immediate response. Text messages are informational and more likely to be composed of simple questions or yes/no answers, sometimes dealing with making plans. Calling is more personal because it involves more sharing of ideas. In addition, calling is perceived as more formal than texting. One participant noted that texting can be used in settings in which calling is inappropriate, such as classes or meetings. Texting can also be used to deal with topics that are difficult to discuss in person.

The results of the survey are posted at the following URL: https://survey.vt.edu/survey/viewResults.jsp?surveyId=1300058492444

Analysis of Data

The record of my texting and calling during the control week corresponded with the majority of participants in the online survey. However, during the week of the experiment, the frequency of texts received decreased dramatically. I believe that the reason for this is that texting is a reciprocal exchange. Since I did not send any texts, nobody sent me any texts in return.

My experimental observations indicate that texting is a faster, easier way to make plans with others. Texting can also be used to manage relationships with less close acquaintances. Because it is a discrete way of communicating, texting allows for communication in situations in which talking may not be appropriate. Overall, the responses from the participants in the online survey supported these observations.

My experiment also showed that conversations differ between the two mediums. I found that I was able to discuss more content using voice calling than I was able to using texting. Responses from the online survey provided additional differences, such the informality of text messages as opposed to the more formal nature of calling. Participants also noted differences in content such as how texting tends to focus on exchanging information, while calling tends to center around the sharing of ideas.


My research suggests that the popularity of text messaging is related to the speed and flexibility with which it allows people to communicate. In addition, it allows people to more easily communicate in the context of different types of relationships or settings. Text message conversations tend to be simpler, shorter, and more information-based than phone calls. I believe that the popularity of this fast, flexible, and direct form of communication is related to how people view their relationships in terms of time management.

Works Cited
Emily Whitesell. “Emily’s Text-Free Week.” Tumblr. Tumblr. Web. 16 Mar. 2011.
Harley, Dave, et al. “Using Texting to Support Students’ Transition to University.” Innovations in Education & Teaching International 44.3 (2007): 229-241. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 13 Mar. 2011.
Jin, Borae, and Namkee Park. “In-Person Contact Begets Calling and Texting: Interpersonal Motives for Cell Phone Use, Face-to-Face Interaction, and Loneliness.” CyberPsychology, Behavior & Social Networking 13.6 (2010): 611-618. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. Mar. 2011.