Jennifer Romeo - Ethnography

Composing Written Communications on the Smartphone

The smartphone has gained popularity rapidly over the past few years, despite troubling economic times. In a time when most people conserve money whenever and wherever possible, most people are still willing to invest in the growing smartphone market. In analyzing my own smartphone usage as well as smartphone usage by others, the importance of the technology becomes incredibly clear. Those who utilize the technology become completely immersed in it and are unable or unwilling to return to a time before the smartphone played such a large role in everyday life. Overall, smartphone usage today is increasing in popularity, and the technology has a sincere impact on social and professional communications.

On any given day on Virginia Tech’s campus, a casual observer might assume that every student has a smartphone. While many students agree that they are speaking with parents, texting friends, reading e-mails, or playing games, a growing number of users seem to embrace the technology for professional use. Social norms today dictate that we respond to each other faster, and smartphones make this possible. According to Steve Lohr of the New York Times, “For a growing swath of the population, the social expectation is that one is nearly always connected and reachable almost instantly via e-mail” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/10/technology/10phone.html). In fact, while texting appears to continue to be the most popular feature on the smartphone, “the growth is coming from three other areas: web browsing, Apps and social networking” (http://www.businessinsider.com/smartphone-usage-up-60-in-past-year-android-big-winner-2011-2). While smartphone users can take photographs, play music, play games, exchange videos, browse the Internet, and use social networking applications, the focus of my research is on composition on the smartphone.

When it isn’t convenient to carry around a laptop computer, or if composing on the go is a good alternative for writers, the smartphone is an excellent tool. By downloading Apps such as Dropbox or Sugarsync, smartphones users can access data files and edit them from their phones whenever the mood strikes, and Apps such as Evernote provide space to chronicle images, notes, and thoughts that can sync to the user’s computer. Evernote even offers the possibility to translate photographs taken of handwriting into text that can be stored on the phone. Writer David Pierce comments, “While it might not be the fastest writing solution, my smartphone has proven a great way to crank out a couple hundred words when I’m feeling the juices flowing” (http://writetodone.com/2010/02/08/a-writers-greatest-tool-the-smartphone/). Writers are also experiencing a new task: writing for smartphone readers. Composing e-mails (http://www.businesswritingblog.com/business_writing/2010/09/tips-to-help-smartphone-readers.html), designing websites, and publishing e-books are all important to smartphone users.

While writing on a smartphone may seem like a strange task, famous rap artist Drake is known, in part, for composing all of his raps on his Blackberry. When asked about why he chooses to use the Blackberry as his medium, Drake says, "This is the start of something I hope will be legendary" (http://www.usmagazine.com/moviestvmusic/news/drake-i-write-all-my-raps-on-my-blackberry-2010236). The possibilities with this technology are endless, and, most importantly, using smartphone technology to compose means one would never be without a means to jot down thoughts, even if they are away from a computer. Many smartphones have standard QWERTY keyboards. Some can even be plugged into separate keyboards similar in size to those you would find paired with desktop computers. One of the newest developments in smartphone keyboards is the touch screen and Swype (http://swypeinc.com/product.html). Swype is the latest way to input text, and provides an incredibly fast alternative to any other technology previously available on smartphones. With this technology, users simply slide a finger across the keyboard, touching each letter in the word he or she would like to write. The technology uses algorithms to best determine which word a user means to choose, and the technology is incredibly accurate and fast. Swype is what I use on my own smartphone.

Throughout the semester I experimented with composing e-mails, writing blog entries, and creating grocery lists, among other things, only using my smartphone. My response time became much faster, but my composition speed was slower than on a regular computer keyboard. Composition on the smartphone tended to lend itself more towards casual communications, as well, and it was difficult to transition to the smartphone for editing papers for classes or writing important e-mails, for example. Developers maintain, “with a growing number of handsets shipping without a physical keyboard, this software could boost typing productivity and data usage by mobile phone users” (http://news.cnet.com/8301-11386_3-10252728-76.html). While I am very used to writing with a larger keyboard, Swype does offer a unique alternative to the “pecking” method that other smartphone keyboards have utilized in the past.

After experimenting with composing entirely on the smartphone, I found myself wondering how I could operate without my smartphone at all. I allowed my phone to run out of battery so that I could experiment with not using my smartphone. After only one day, I felt like I was missing an important part of myself. My delay in responding to others was socially unacceptable by today’s standards, and I even missed important e-mails because of it. Using only my computer to write everything was an interesting step back. With my smartphone, I could take documents with me on the go to write and edit, I could respond to e-mail immediately, and I could answer text massages without hesitation. Relying on my computer forced me to plan ahead more and slowed my response time, despite the fact that I found the keyboard much easier to use on my computer.

In speaking with other smartphone users, most do not solely rely on one technology versus the other, but experimenting with the smartphone versus the computer, I gained valuable insight. The experimentation proved that by taking the time to adjust to smartphones, one could easily function without a computer at all. In fact, many businesspeople today travel without computers because they are able to use their smartphones to perform most tasks and can access computers, when needed, at most hotels (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/business/21novel.html?_r=1&hpw). Also, by utilizing the correct Apps on a smartphone, users can sync their home and work computers with their phones (http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/use-your-smartphone-for-novel-writing-editing-nanowrimo-tip-22_b17520).

Overall, experimenting with the smartphone led to a number of conclusions. Using the smartphone to compose required patience because it was a challenge at first to adjust to the new style of writing, but over time, the true value of the technology became very apparent. The smartphone influences communication, communication style, productivity, and a number of other areas in both the professional and social worlds. The interface on a smartphone is easy to use and the device is extremely mobile, and the smartphone is influencing social norms and etiquette everyday. In the end, the experimentation proved invaluable.